My newest completed painting originated out of the photo shoots I conducted for my 2010 series Rebuilding. The image of extracted hook with bloody gauze rag was leftover reference from that time, a powerful symbol I had always wanted to paint but ran out of time before the exhibition was to occur at Last Rites Gallery in February of 2010.
Searching for an idea to paint before embarking on a recent trip to New Mexico, I came across this reference photo and decided the time was finally right to complete the artistic thought. New Mexico feels like a healing place to me; its nickname “the land of enchantment” rings true in the way my mind and emotions feel whenever I visit. Happily, it turned out to be the perfect place to manifest this painting based on an ancient Tibetan teaching related to emotional and spiritual healing (especially having the good fortune of working on it while staying in my dream home!).
One of my favorite writers Pema Chodron has studied this teaching extensively, offering a very clear modern interpretation:
The usual translation of the word shenpa is attachment. If you were to look it up in a Tibetan dictionary, you would find that the definition was attachment. But the word “attachment” absolutely doesn’t get at what it is. Dzigar Kongtrul said not to use that translation because it’s incomplete, and it doesn’t touch the magnitude of shenpa and the effect that it has on us.
If I were translating shenpa it would be very hard to find a word, but I’m going to give you a few. One word might be hooked. How we get hooked.
Here is an everyday example of shenpa. Somebody says a mean word to you and then something in you tightens— that’s the shenpa. Then it starts to spiral into low self-esteem, or blaming them, or anger at them, denigrating yourself. And maybe if you have strong addictions, you just go right for your addiction to cover over the bad feeling that arose when that person said that mean word to you. This is a mean word that gets you, hooks you. Another mean word may not affect you but we’re talking about where it touches that sore place— that’s a shenpa. Someone criticizes you—they criticize your work, they criticize your appearance, they criticize your child— and, shenpa: almost co-arising.
That’s why I think this shenpa is really such a helpful teaching. It’s the tightening, it’s the urge… it’s this drive, too. This drive. It really shows you that you have lots of addictions, that we all have addictions. There’s this background static of slight unease, or maybe fidgetiness, or restlessness, or boredom. And so, we begin to use things to try to get some kind of relief from that unease.
Something like food, or alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or working, or shopping, or whatever we do, which, perhaps in moderation would be very delightful—like eating, enjoying your food. In fact, in moderation there’s this deep appreciation of the taste, of the good fortune to have this in your life. But these things become imbued with an addictive quality because we empower them with the idea that they will bring us comfort. They will remove this unease.
We never get at the root… . The root in this case is that we have to really experience unease. We have to experience the itch. We have to experience the shenpa and then not act it out.
[Chodron, Pema. “The Shenpa Syndrome: Learning To Stay.” Shambhala.org. Shambhala International, Sept. 2002. Web. 1 May 2013.]