When There is No Vision – Getting Unstuck

by Wendy on February 23rd, 2010

This is a synopsis of a talk I was invited to give at the Crossroads New Thought Spiritual Center in Carlsbad, California, on January 31, 2010.

Pema Chodren


At a time of personal difficulty a couple of years ago, I found myself quite stuck. As I was searching for answers and some motivation, I happened to find a downloadable lecture by Pema Chodron, entitled, Getting Unstuck. The title struck a resonant chord and so I purchased it and downloaded it on my ipod. I was not familiar with her, but I was immediately taken by her.  Pema is a delightful, witty, humble, smart and personable, Tibetan nun.  She is American, been married, had a family, divorced and then chose a completely different and difficult path.  She has become quite well known helping hundreds of thousand of souls seeking self-mastery. Pema is now director of Gampo Abby in Nova Scotia, Canada and is a Master teacher. I recommend her teachings to all.

I am not a Buddhist. I do, however, like to seek and find truth wherever it may be found. I find Pema’s teachings appeal to my practical nature as she offers very usable tools and solutions for dealing with difficult problems. The basis for my talk is her teaching. My wish is that through passing along some of her vital information, you will be motivated and empowered to apply these helpful tools to your day-to-day challenges. The goal, of course, is to experience greater amounts of happiness and joy.

The heart of Pema’s teachings focuses on Learning to Stay. But first, let’s explore what it means to be stuck. It means different things to different folks. It is common and normal to feel stuck. It can be caused by any number of things but usually centers around feeling a need to numb out, or feeling aggressive thoughts about self and others or giving into cravings, wanting and needing. We can easily identify with these symptoms in some way and we can generally expect them to manifest in the following forms:

Destructive patterns: defensiveness, comparing self with others, avoidance, critical and judgmental thinking of self and others, isolation, self hatred, and fear with paralysis.

Addictions: substance abuse, shopping, sex, food, critical mind, gambling, life becoming unmanageable because of the addiction.

Depression: hatred of life, not feeling worthy, don’t want to play at life anymore, no inspiration, no goals.

These are but a few of the issues that keep one stuck. There are as many reasons as there are people. Many addictions can be horribly destructive while others are more subtle in nature but keep us stuck nonetheless. The goal here is to see yourself clearly without judgement and identify those challenging areas that need work so you can move forward.

I am continually impressed with Pema’s humanity for herself and others. She is immensely kind, patient and always finds humor as she looks at herself with complete honesty and awareness. But, this is part of her teaching, to lighten up, and be very gentle with yourself as you work at overcoming those things which hold you back from happiness and a full life. The goal is to interrupt the momentum of that which keeps you stuck, the shenpa.

Shenpa is the Tibetan word which describes the urge to want to move away from or escape that which makes us feel uncomfortable. It is the feeling of restlessness, unease that keeps us distracted. If one has the skin disease Scabies, and continues to scratch the itchy blotches, it spreads and bleeds. The more you scratch, the more it spreads and bleeds. This desire to scratch the itch is shenpa. Shenpa is that sticky urge that keeps us hooked, when we want to scratch even though it is not in our best interest to do so.

Pema relates the story of her daughter-in-law who was dying of liver poisoning from alcoholism. She describes her physical appearance as awful, puffy and orange in color. Pema was often called to take her to the hospital to have the built up fluid drained from her body. When they allowed her daughter-in-law to leave the hospital, she would return home and hit the bottle once again, even though she had been given only a short time to live. “Why?” Pema asks. “ It is stupid.” But, what keeps us hooked is that we tend to imbue our addictions with some type of comfort for short term symptom relief and we become self-destructive, yet again. We have desperate associations and attachment to the comfort. You have to eventually reach a place where you don’t want to bleed to death from scratching because you are unwilling to heal. There must be a willingness to feel and stay with the pain.

I like the tangible concept of shenpa. It is that tightening you feel when someone says something mean or threatning and you become defensive, or when you begin to feel restless and uncomfortable for whatever the reason and you want to move away from the discomfort. It is so very helpful to have a tangible way to describe those feelings and self destructive urges that make us want to scratch and feel comfortable once more.

Unfortunately, we mindlessly strengthen what we dislike about ourselves through repeating our habitual patterns. We strengthen what we do. Pema calls this our ignorant dance. At times we are so deep into the scratching before we notice that we are bleeding all over the place. When the pain gets so great, when the shit hits the fan, at that time it becomes necessary to move toward the pain and stay with it to heal. This is where real healing can finally take place. While in this mental space you can take joy in the pain because you have reached a point where you don’t need one more scratch. You can experience the shenpa and not act it out. There is greater self-appreciation and no more self-deception. You see yourself and shenpa clearly and can refrain, interrupting the chain reaction.

I find it helpful to ask, “If I follow the urge what will be the result?” It will only get worse. There will come a time when you will identify more with the wisdom of seeing than with the scratching. When there is enough love for self and a desire to heal, one will have a willingness to follow directions: acknowledge and see clearly, without judgement, and refrain, learning to stay.

This means learning to stay present in the pleasant and the unpleasant und uncomfortable, and refrain from acting out the mindless dance for short term relief. This is the essence of Pema’s teaching.  Pema says, “A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.”

She adds an additional element I have found to be extra helpful. This is learning and practicing the ability to be gentle and loving to yourself as you self-correct. I find that I personally respond better when I speak to myself with respect and kindness. Much like how others respond when we treat them with kindness. As I encourage myself and ask the tough questions I now treat myself the way I would lovingly treat others and I give myself the same amount of wiggle room. This concept has propelled me further in my healing journey.

The Dalai Lama was featured at a conference in our country. His presentation was full of wonderful concepts and idealistic philosophies. During the question and answer portion of his presentation, a woman asked his holiness if he was aware that everyone in this Western audience would use what he said against themselves as we in America have a strong need for perfection and struggle with feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. He was baffled and proceeded to ask the other participants if what she said was true. They unanimously validated her claims. He just couldn’t comprehend this idea of self-hatred and poor self-esteem. His culture doesn’t take things into the realm of guilt and shame. He said there aren’t even words for these concepts in his language.  Our Western culture stands to learn much about gentleness and loving kindness toward self from Eastern disciplines.

Then the goal is to see yourself clearly with compassion and without judgement and comparisons, as a child in training. This is the doorway to liberation, taking delight in the seeing, with compassion and humor. Lighten up, most of the issues are not life or death. Learn to play with your responses. You may not always refrain from scratching, but you can delight in the seeing and revel in the miracle of mindfulness and the magic of seeing. Rejoice when you have the capacity to see your habitual patterns and to refrain from scratching, to refrain from short term symptom relief. True healing can take place when you have a firm desire to live from a place of wholeness, not grasping. When your strength and awareness become stronger than the shenpa, knowing you are progressing, working from a place of loving kindness not a straight jacket. Often, we gain a few steps forward and then a step back. This too is the norm.

Remember these four R’s: recognition, refraining, relax into the uncomfortable feeling, resolve to stay present.

This whole process is very humbling. None of us has been given much instruction. We are all up against it. But it gives us such compassion for others, for the human condition, how all people are struggling. There are millions of types of shenpa and a bazillion ways to scratch it! The goal is to reach a place where no one or nothing becomes a threat. We are no longer grasping and afraid of the pain and discomfort.

Where do we go from here? What must one do to move toward greater vision? Ask yourself two questions. First, what brings you a feeling of passion and joy?  Second, if you could do anything and there was nothing standing in your way, what would you do? The answers to these questions should give you a good place to begin as you gradually feel more whole and unstuck with a desire to show up and move forward. The things that bring you a feeling of joy are the things you came here to do in this incarnation.

This process takes time but the self-discovery is well worth it. Take delight in the process. Learn to listen and do your best to eliminate useless thoughts of the past and stay present. Everyone struggles with something and gradual is good. After a while, you can look back and marvel at how far you’ve come. Exposing all of your shenpa is a life long pursuit. Just work on your own, even when you see it in others. You can only change yourself.

Follow the principles of successful intentions and work with focused visualizations daily. There are limitless possibilities. See yourself being what you desire, free from the bondage of your particular brand of shenpa and achieving your dreams.

You don’t have to walk on water to do good in the world. No one is perfect. Let’s look at Oprah. She has put her challenges right out in the open. She has admitted to being a comfort eater. She has gained and lost large amounts of weight in a very public forum. Is she still struggling with her shenpa? Yes. And she openly admits this. Does she still do huge amounts of good in the world? Yes. And she has done much good heavy and thin alike. She keeps increasing in power and influence no matter her size. So you see, challenges often makes us stronger and certainly give us greater compassion for the struggles of others.

In the play, Sunday in the Park with George, Bernadette Peters sings a inspiring song to the struggling artist George Seurat, played by Mandy Patinkin. “When it comes from you, then it will be new. Give us more to see.” These words from the song struck me in a profound way as I struggled with putting myself out in a more public way and finishing my first book. When you put your talent and personality heartily into what you do, you are giving the world something new and wonderful to see.  There are unlimited possibilities. It takes bravery and courage to find a new comfort zone even if initially it feels uncomfortable. May you successfully embody these teachings.

The only difference between try and triumph is a little umph!

Seize the day!

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