"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Prajna and Shenpa

I recently read an article by Pema Chodrin titled "How We Get Hooked".  In it she talks about shenpa, that unease and insecurity related to living in an unpredictable world.  We get hooked on shenpa, obsess about it, try to dissect it, control it, or we attempt to alleviate it by distracting ourselves with alcohol, drugs, food, sex.  Chodrin says "it helps to remember that we may experience two billion kinds of itches and seven quadrillion types of scratching, but there is really only one root shenpa - ego clinging.  We experience it as tightening and self absorption."

Being a mother means engaging in a completely selfless act; the ego is virtually ignored.  It doesn't like to be ignored, so it will make itself known through shenpa.  This shenpa comes in two parts,  fear of losing oneself and fear of being a failure as a parent.  It's important to acknowledge when the mind, high on shenpa, indulges in exaggeration, because it is precisely this exaggeration that causes depression and anxiety. 

I've looked at depression though a literary/artistic lens and now I am looking at it through a mindful/psychoanalytic lens.

In meditation, we learn to sit with shenpa, be with it and breathe.  Sometimes this isn't easy, especially if the shenpa is relatively new and intense.  But with time, it will soften enough so that one can deal with it.  When this happens, prajna kicks in.  Chodrin says, "Prajna isn't ego-involved.  It's wisdom found in basic goodness, openness, equanimity - which cuts through self absorption."  I have witnessed this prajna; it is a deeper voice than the haggard ramblings of shenpa, almost like an underground spring.  It is honest and soothing, as if a grandmother were whispering wisdom in your ear.  At one point during this depression when I was feeling especially anxious about socializing and preoccupied by uncomfortable feelings, crediting them with being insurmountable, my prajna-grandmother whispered "you're just out of practice, that's all."  That made a lot of sense to me; I'm home with the kids most of the time and I am definitely out of practice.  "So practice," prajna-grandmother said, and I did.

In meditation we learn that striving will bring on expectation, which is another type of shenpa.  In the article, Chodrin talks about how we think we have a good meditation practice when we are open and thoughts come and go, shift and transform like clouds; we compliment ourselves on remaining unattached and open and feel that we "did it right".  Afterwards, we compare every meditation practice to this one, judging if it is wrong or right and expecting it to be right and comfortable.  This is shenpa, as well, being attached to an outcome.  Prajna says, "it is good enough" no matter what the experience is.  This takes the pressure off. 

When I was a child, I felt as if I moved through shenpas a bit more swiftly and easily than I do now.  Perhaps there was less drama surrounding them.  Perhaps my mind was more malleable back then because it was less jaded.  If someone were to ask me what I want most in this life, for myself, it would be to get back to that mindset.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Creativity Perverse

To continue this discussion on depression, I feel altered, as if someone re-coded the software of my thoughts, or no, gave them a virus that inserts distortion, angst, and fear into perfectly good thinking.  I literally try joyous thoughts on for size; they perch a moment like a sparrow on a pine branch, then they scamper away.  I try and take the Buddhist approach, to be curious.  Why this state of mind?  What is the impetus?  Boredom?  Failure?  Insecurity?  Lack of independence?  I am curled up in the corner of my own mind, as a person would be if a snake slithered into the room.  When people talk to me, the viral software of my thoughts spits and churns and I am distracted.  I unscramble, uncurl from my corner, take a broom, wave it at the snake.  I am myself for a moment.  I choose me.  I say something relevant, not brilliant, but relevant.  I manage.  I cheer myself on. 

You know it's depression when you can't wave the snake out of the house and into the garden.  You wave at it, but it only slithers under the table or the couch.  It's still there.  You make love to your husband, you can follow through with sensation and orgasm, but afterward, you lie in bed and the snake is wrapped around your ankle. 

But what if the snake is a garter snake, my therapist says.  Indeed.  The snake, in reality, is a garter snake, benign and trite to everyone else.  But in my mind, the mind of the oppressed novelist, the snake is a cobra.

Virginia Woolf writes in A Room of One's Own:

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Bronte who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to.

 The gift, in this case, is creativity.  When a creative person is put in a situation hostile to creativity, the creativity becomes perverse.  This perverse creativity is depression.

I chastise myself for this depression.  Now, I tell myself, is not the time to write.  But the mind knows nothing about time, when it is time for this and when it is time for that.  The mind is and the mind will be whatever it wants.  You can't file it away under a label marked "Years devoted to child rearing", or "time devoted to making money".  It wants out, to be free, to think, be inspired and imagine constructively and if it can't do that, it will be destructive.  I remember what my dog Ralphie did to his paws when I was away all day at work; he licked the fur off of them.  He was a high energy dog who needed to run and my being away all day forced him to turn on himself.  I feel the same way now; the energy of my mind previously used to imagine plot and character and scene has turned on me; I spiral in somber moods.  I am fatalistic.  Obsessive.  I hide my internal life, covet it as I would a malicious sin.

This is utterly taboo to write such things.  But I believe it is better to write them than not to write them, for obvious reasons.