October 22, 2016

A Buddhist Teaching to get us Past the Stoplights of Life.

Sarah Norrad on Instagram

I go on long, daily walks, and something will often jump out at me, stick in my mind’s eye and continue to turn over in my soul until I understand its significance.

These walks are a time for me to take a break from my writing schedule and unwind my body and spirit. Each day, I walk somewhere new. I heard a long time ago that it’s good to choose different paths, as it improves neuroplasticity.

Recently I chose to walk into one of the older villages in my town. I grabbed a Kombucha there and found an empty table and chair to rest a moment. As I got up to walk home, I looked ahead and saw a beautiful rainbow. The funny thing was, it wasn’t the rainbow that struck me, but the big red stoplight flashing in front of it.

My immediate reaction was to get hung up on the red light instead of seeing the things around it. I stopped and waited.

I waited and waited, and the light did not turn green. I got frustrated and anxious. I wanted to walk toward the rainbow and needed to get back to work, but this silly light was in my way. The ominous red seemed to alert my nervous system; I had many negative associations with being stopped in my tracks.

Then I realized the red light was flashing, which meant I was allowed to proceed.

So I crossed the street, but the light and the rainbow stuck in my head. I was unsettled by my fear of the stoplight. All afternoon, I tried to figure out why there would be a rainbow with a big bright red light beneath it.

Was this symbolic of my life?

I began to recall a teaching by the renowned Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, called Shenpa. Shenpa is a Tibetan word that translates as “attachment,” but as Pema describes it, it is more like the experience of being hooked—that feeling of particular uneasiness. It is a reaction we have had a thousand times before, where we are hung up on one thing and because of that are unable to move past it.

Pema describes Shenpa as “that sticky feeling.” It often comes from an everyday experience that gets under our skin. Feeling stuck, we experience all the thoughts and feelings that go with it (often self-denegration, doubt, worry and anxiety).

Yup. The light today was my Shenpa, and Shenpa can lead us to limiting behavior—in my case, not being able to head in the direction that I wished to go, where I could plainly see a rainbow waiting.

When we have been “hooked,” the Buddhists recommend we sit and meditate with the thing that is creating our internal spiral.

So, later that evening I sat down.

I rang my meditation bell and breathed. I felt upset about my reaction to the light and my inability to move forward toward the beauty I desire.

In meditation, we try to see things as they are, without such a heady, emotional spinoff. I had to chuckle to myself, because as I continued to sit and follow my breath I understood how this fear at times ruled my life and paralyzed me.

The stoplight was another teacher, reminding me of what I still had to let go of.

When I had looked more closely at the red light and waited out my initial reaction to hault in despair, I realized a flashing light meant to proceed with care, not to completely stop.

As I waded through the old baggage coming up on my meditation cushion, I began to feel lighter. It always bothered me when others gave cautionary warnings to ideas I had, because their warnings would snag me and I would forget about my own greater desires.

My big Shenpa was believing that because there was one reason not to do something, it meant I shouldn’t do it.

Now in my early 30s, I am rewiring this route. Just like the slightly different paths I walk each day, I am changing my patterns of belief. For the flip side of Shenpa is that we can learn to become unhooked.

I now understand that I can focus on the rainbow too—that if I’m going to get sticky with something, I want it to be something that moves me forward.

Despite certain warnings and reactions, there is always a way we can head for the gold.

I am ready to keep reaching for my rainbow, and that red light Shenpa helped me recognize a habit I have long allowed to determine a limited life.

It’s just an illusion, this idea that we can be forever halted. Once we see past it, there is nowhere but forward to go.


Author: Sarah Norrad

Image: Sarah Norrad on Instagram

Editor: Toby Israel


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