Pema Chodron

Itch and Scratch

There's a Buddhist concept called shenpa which is taught by Pema Chodron using the metaphor of an itch and a scratch. When you have an itch, your instinct is to scratch it. But when you scratch, it itches more, and thus begins the vicious cycle. On the other hand, if you've ever resisted the urge to scratch, you've noticed that the itchiness lessens and eventually fades away.

In the case of shenpa, the itch is when a negative feeling or mental state arises, and we indulge ourselves to find relief.

I was thinking about how the itch can be a like a bad habit (chocolate after meals). When we give into it, the addiction is re-enforced. But on a day of particularly high willpower, we might be able to resist the temptation, and the craving goes away.

In yoga philosophy, the itch is like a samskara, a groove in our subtle atmosphere. Like deep tire tracks in a muddy road - sticking to the lines makes for resistance-free driving, forging a new path takes more skillful navigation and heightened attention.

I like this teaching of the itch and scratch in theory. I love metaphors and this one works. However, not scratching an itch is much easier said than done (or resisting the lure of dark organic chocolate-or any other habit that you're trying to break). Willpower is a commodity that runs out and isn't always there for us. (Hence the failure of every diet in history).

How do we sit on our hands to stop ourselves from scratching the itch?

Having recently immersed myself in the art and science of habit-change, I picked up a few tips:

1) Recognize that scratching will only make matters worse - and do you really want a scar? You must be invested in not scratching. You've got to value yourself enough to feel that you're worth more than an inflamed, irritated, red patch.

2) You need to commit to a better alternative - like calamine lotion (or a lovely naturally sweet tea to replace the chocolate)

3) Start meditating and doing other mindfulness practices (like the Buddhists do who came up with this teaching and practice mastering their psychology), so that you can put some space between the itch and the scratch and recognize it for what it is - a default pattern that doesn't serve - or a deeper need that's going unfulfilled - and forge a new path. And discover that the sweetness we seek is not found in 70% dark chocolate (well, maybe temporarily).