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The Itch

We all know the feeling of a physical itch, maybe from an insect bite or a wound that is healing, and we're also familiar with the urge to scratch it despite our better knowledge. Although scratching brings temporary relief, it also makes the itch stronger when it returns. Besides these physical itches, we can also get mental itches, preverbal and mostly subconscious reactions to certain things that people say or do to us. And we also 'scratch' these mental itches, looking for temporary relief but in fact making matters worse in the long term.

In Buddhist terminology, these itches are called shenpa, and I was first introduced to the concept by my teacher Mariel Witmond. She quoted Pema Chödrön, an American Tibetan Buddhist nun and celebrated author, in one of her classes, and I've since been watching myself very closely and noticing all kinds of shenpa in my daily life.

In a recording of one of her talks, Chödrön describes Shenpa as the habitual shutting down and closing off in response to specific stimuli. If you dig in your memory a bit, you can probably remember a situation where you witnessed shenpa in others: You or someone else may have said something to them and all of a sudden their eyes became glassy, maybe their posture stiffened and you got a sense of them zoning out. That's shenpa. Personally, I find that when I get such a mental 'itch', I feel a tightening in my stomach, a tensing of muscles and a strong desire not to let anyone see what's going on inside me. Shenpa cuts you off from your environment and narrows your mind so that the only way out seems to be distraction - 'scratching the 'itch'.

Pema Chödrön lists three basic types of scratching that all people practice: Numbing, seeking pleasure, or aggression towards the self or others. · I used to get hooked by any type of criticism from others, no matter whether it was constructive or not. I would shut down immediately. My next step would then be to either think of reasons why my critic shouldn’t be believed or to chastise myself for my apparent stupidity. So my type of scratching was aggression towards self or others.

Chödrön goes on to explain that at the heart of all shenpa lies ego clinging – our attachment to our sense of who we are, to the opinions and beliefs we have made our identity. In my case, I couldn’t differentiate between my work and myself (still can't sometimes), so that any criticism of my work seemed to be an attack on my person.

We can also observe shenpa in our Yoga practice. Try paying attention to the moments when you feel an urge to move quickly through a transition or out of a pose because it’s uncomfortable. That's when shenpa makes you look for temporary relief by exiting the pose and distracting yourself with the next pose. But this means you move into the next pose without having fully finished the previous one, and the next time that uncomfortable pose (for example Side Plank) comes up, you’re likely to already move into it with a sense of dread. In this manner, you are depriving yourself of the benefits of the posture because you have narrowed your mind to only see the discomfort.

So how do we work on opening our minds? How do we acknowledge the itch without scratching it? The first step is noticing it. If you start noticing your shenpa, you've already made a big step towards healing. Because you've most likely formed a habitual response to it, disabling it will be hard. So the first couple of times that you notice shenpa, you might still reach for your phone, get a drink or lash out at others. But as Chödrön says:

"If you want to heal, and if you have enough love and kindness towards yourself to genuinely want to heal, you’ll follow the doctor’s orders and you’ll go through the discomfort.”

So maybe, the next time the itch comes pestering you, you start by focusing on your breath. Inhale. Exhale. Buy yourself time and space between stimulus and response. Clear your mind so that you can make a conscious decision of whether to scratch or not. And if you can resist the urge to scratch, watch the thoughts that come up. An then - Think Again.

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