A few years back, I was in a relationship that was not going well.
Our relationship was tenuous from the start, but similar lifestyles, shared passion for storybook romance, the desire for love, and my own stick-to-it attitude kept me holding on. We argued a lot, made up a lot, then argued a lot again. Our arguments became bigger and slightly more hurtful, as they often do when a partner knows exactly how low those punches below the belt need to land to really hurt.
One day, I was talking to a friend about our most recent disagreement and how we seemed stuck in this cycle, when my friend turned to me and asked, “So then when will you decide to just step off the ride?” It hit me like a ton of bricks.
I was in a spin cycle.
In that moment, I realized that I was attached to our pattern of behavior, our interaction, and how I felt about myself. It was like a ride—the disconnecting and the making up, the immense sadness of distance relieved by the immense joy of reunion, the intensity of the emotionality and the desire, the make-up-sex and the tears—all of it. Our relationship was a dysfunctional rollercoaster, and I had allowed myself to stay on, and even talked myself into staying on a few times. Until I realized that I had a choice in my thinking and that I wasn’t powerless. And just like that, I stepped off the ride.
“To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” —Pema Chodron
One of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Pema Chodron, talks a lot about shenpa. Shenpa is the Buddhist word for attachment, and although that doesn’t really sum up what’s happening, it’s a good way to start framing it.
According to Chodron, shenpa is like a hook, a stickiness, an obsession that captures even the most detached individual and sends them spinning into whatever behaviors they fall into when heading down a spiral of negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Some folks eat, some drink, some have sex, some put other people down, some put themselves down, etc. So you can think about shenpa as the stickiness that pulls you down into your own dark hole.
Imagine a situation as mundane as driving to work. All is well and you’re running on time; then all of a sudden, the long line of taillights appears down the highway. Immediately, feelings of dread arise: I should have left earlier. I am always late. No wonder my marriage failed.
You log into social media and see something in your feed that “hooks” you, you take a phone call and get some news that shakes you, you spill something on your shirt right before a big meeting, you fall out of Tree pose in yoga class—that’s the shenpa. And when you really tune in, you can feel the moment it takes effect.
It can be a feeling in the belly, sinking in the heart, reminiscence of the past, or fear of the future. It’s the negative self-talk that keeps us doubting ourselves and unsure about our ability to adapt and achieve in a general sense. In yoga class, it’s the noise in the monkey mind telling us that we should look and feel and move differently.
And before we’ve even had time to process the ridiculousness of these thoughts, the stickiness pulls us down. Our minds are brilliant and they love to think, spin, run, and go. This is precisely where our practice comes in, because in our practice we learn to be in the present.
From an energetic sense, this spinning may come from a deficient muladhara (root chakra), where we may feel a sense of lacking or longing for a strong foundation. If we’re missing stability in some dimension of life—work, romance, health, etc.—we can give rise to those obsessive patterns of behavior.
From a psychological perspective, it makes sense that this obsessive spinning may be related to negative state relief, which is our desire to alleviate unpleasant thoughts or cognitions so we don’t have to deal with what’s at the core. Instead we dilute these feelings of disease with a behavior or pattern, which predictably distracts us from our negative feelings.
Regardless of why we spin, once you realize what you’re doing, it’s good to have a few techniques in the arsenal to check in with. So if you catch yourself spinning, here are a few of my favorite ways to step off the ride and into the present.
Take three minutes to come into your physical body (in Tadasana or Suhkasana) and just breathe. The stickiness is a function of the ego-mind, the mind that wants to rationalize, generalize, and overanalyze. Instead of going to Anxietyland or Depresssiontown, counter with a few minutes of steady, grounded presence.
If standing, press your feet into the ground. Press down through all four corners; then lift and spread your toes. Rock your weight from front to back and from right to left, and then settle in. Turn your palms out, lift your chest, and close your eyes. If seated, feel your sitting bones against the ground, lift the belly in, and soften your face. Wherever you are (seated or standing), extend up—from lumbar spine through thoracic and into the highest spine—and lift the crown of your head toward the ceiling. Lift the heart. Take 10 rounds of long, smooth breath in and out through the nose. Let the sama vritti (equal breathing) do its thing and bring everything back to balance.
Go for a walk or spend a little time in nature. Sometimes, the negative thoughts or the stickiness weigh us down and it can be useful to go outside, even for 10 or 15 minutes. A short walk can boost your mood, clear your mind, and get your heart pumping. Plus, grounding sensation of the feet against the earth encourages feelings of safety and connectedness. I often imagine that in every step I take, I leave in my footprint a little of the negative or obsessive thoughts, the stickiness I no longer want to carry.
Look around the room you’re in for 60 seconds. One of the best ways to stop the spin is by coming into the present. Gaze at the ceilings, the walls, the doors, and out the windows. When we are spinning, we are operating in a place that is not the present. We might have been triggered by a situation in the past, or stressed out about something that’s looming in the future. Either way, we are not in the now. So take 60 seconds and remind yourself that you do, indeed, live in the now. Come back. Step off the ride.
Give yourself a good old-fashioned pep talk in a mirror. Sometimes all we need is a little reinforcement and a loving reminder that everything will work out in the end. And if nobody is around to give it to you, you might just need to be strong enough to give it to yourself. So look yourself in the eyes, give yourself a smile, remind yourself to breathe, and tell yourself that everything is going to be OK. Because it will.