Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/17/2009

Pema Chödrön and the Granite World of Halibut Point

                   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. 
                   .  . . .This is a mean word that gets you, hooks you.
                                                                                              —Pema Chödrön **

The Rocky Shore

Practicing “the way” (however one describes or believes in “the way”) has always been a difficult project for me. I’m a Northern European (a mixture of Irish, Scots-Irish, Saxon, and so on, if you must know) without a shred of patience for thinking that doesn’t come from wintry weather and hard rocks and stormy seas buffeting people around unless they hunker down and take charge of things (I’m pretty close, I think, to one of Garrison Keillor’s Norwegian bachelor farmers—are they gay? Except, of course, I am not at all a “take charge” kind of guy). So I am left with my Northern European genetics and socialization not working very well and disdain for any other “Way” that might help me navigate through my life. 

Twenty years ago, living on the North Shore of Massachusetts (north of Boson), I practiced Yoga with a gentle, spiritually evolved (I’m not being sarcastic) creature. If she was of Northern European extraction (don’t you love that word—we were “extracted” from some life-form), she had somehow managed to extract herself from it. My favorite place on the North Shore, however, on the ocean near where I lived—in case you want proof that rockiness is part of my heritage—was Halibut Point at Rockport (yes, that’s the town’s name). A place of such grand and solid granite extrusion next to the ocean that it was for a century until the 1920s a granite quarry and now must be a State Park because it is useless for any kind of development. Much of New England is built on and from this solid rock. 

Then I moved to Texas. All bets were off as far as spiritual evolution away from the granite of my heritage goes. The Lutherans of Texas have to hold onto their stony heritage just as Søren Kierkegaard and the Norwegian Bachelor Farmers did (do). And the Baptists aren’t much fun, either. Nor is anyone else. (How did the lovely, warm, inviting Winspear Opera House end up in Dallas?)  What’s the point? Here’s the point.  

A Shenpa Point

Since I was in second grade (about 55 or so years ago), I have lived, I think, in what Pema Chödrön might call the shenpa (if I understand her correctly—which is, I’m sure, a stretch). She doesn’t have the right example for me—very seldom does someone say anything to me that “causes [me] to feel a fundamental, underlying insecurity of the human experience that is inherent in [an]. . . .illusory world. . . .[because I] want to have ground under [my] feet.” I don’t need anyone else to say such a thing. I do it to myself. 

OK, I’m not getting all Eastern-Religion-ish on you. The example I’d use for my own shenpa is my 55 years of beating up on myself because of the seizures that make me crazy, and for which I have almost only negative language. But I live daily in a space where “…[shenpa] starts to spiral into low self-esteem, or blaming [seizures], or anger at them, denigrating [myself].” You don’t believe me? The friend who first told me about Pema Chödrön pointed out to me that in my writing on Sunday past, I said that when I write because I can’t help it, I “1.hate myself for it, or 2. cry.” I’d have to check it with Pema Chödrön, of course, but it sounds a little like her definition of shenpa to me. 

Last night I walked to the Latino supermarket next door where I do much of my grocery shopping (that’s a non-Norwegian Bachelor Farmer thing to do, don’t you think?). As I was putting on my shoes and jacket to go out, I realized that I was in the middle of period of—of what, I’m never quite sure even though it’s been happening daily for 55 years. I felt somewhat the way I remember a hangover feeling (it’s been twenty-three years, so I’m not sure I remember correctly). My head felt stuffed with (what, cotton?), my eyes felt as if they were bulging from my head, my ability to stand up felt compromised even though I was standing quite normally, and the world surrounding my front door had an ambience of unreality. I didn’t like any of it. 

Outside, the temperature was cool enough to feel like a pleasant, gentle slap in my face as I walked to the market. 

The instant I stepped inside the market, the full force of what I years ago came to know as a seizure took over my mind. The market receded into a place outside of my reach, an unreality that (somehow the experience was—is always—connected) intensified the head-filled-with-cotton sensation. The lights (white florescent) also intensified and seemed to be moving everything in the store—except the noise—farther away from me. Can I ever explain the feeling that light is pulling the world away from me? I was somewhat confused, knowing that I had come to buy a couple of things but not immediately remembering what they were. I wandered a bit, assuming that eventually I would see something that would jar me back into proximity with the real world. That’s what happened. I needed trash bags, milk for my coffee, and ice cream. I found them, paid (speaking Spanish with the clerk who greeted me in Spanish because she’s one of the clerks who knows I like to try to screw my courage to the sticking point and speak in her language). 

On my way the one-quarter block back to my apartment, the shenpa hit full-force with the “spiral into low self-esteem, or blaming [the seizure], or anger at [it], denigrating [my]self.” Why on earth should I denigrate myself? Why should I be angry that, once again as happens nearly every day, the electrical display in my brain became a little annoying, a lot frightening, and somehow proof that I’m weird, bad, or unfit to be part of “normal” human society. 

Renunciation, shenluk, means turning shenpa upside-down, or shaking it up. The interesting thing is that there is no way to really renounce shenpa….In the Buddhist teachings, it’s really not about trying to cast something out but about seeing clearly and fully experiencing the shenpa. 

I know I fully experience the seizure. God, do I know it! I describe it pretty well, don’t you think? But what I am beginning to wonder about is whether or not I can learn to “[see] clearly and fully [experience] the shenpa, to observe it and know it and (oh my Northern European God, NO!) accept it so it simply is, so it does not pull ME down as it spirals down? Does that make sense? Not really to me. But the idea that I could observe both the seizure and my reaction to it and in that way take away its power. . . That may take some more work.

A Norwegian Bachelor Farmer?










** All quotations are from: Chödrön, Pema. “The shenpa syndrome.” (accessed 17 Nov 2009).


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