“I am a train wreck,” I said to a friend of mine one day. “What the hell?”
“You’re not a train wreck,” she said patiently. But, as I felt she was biased, I didn’t believe her. “What do you do when these things crop up? How have you been handling it?”
“‘Handling it’ seems like kind of a pipe dream,” I countered. “I’m a basket case.”
“No you’re not,” she said calmly (again with the obligatory platitudes). “You seem to have named these feelings. That’s good. You’re observing them.”
“Well then how come it’s not getting better? It’s worse,” I said. I was getting fairly desperate at this point.
“Because you’re just observing them,” she countered.
“Are you saying I’m copping out?”
It seems like somewhere along the way from personal devastation to near-recovery, I had developed a few defense mechanisms to deal with the really deep and ugly stuff. The stuff that we all have that’s lurking around in our depths; its been down there so long, it doesn’t have a name. It’s just a bulky mass in the darkness. And when it moves around, it knocks us off balance.
So what was I supposed to do about it? I was effectively thrown sideways and felt as though I was watching my sanity slip. Whatever I was doing wasn’t working. It was the equivalent of a scared child trembling in bed, transfixed on the closet door, waiting – just waiting – for the monster to come crashing out. I had to get out of bed and fling that door open, but I was just too damn scared of what was actually in there.
Luckily, I was not the first person to feel this way. It turns out that Tibetan Buddhists are experts on this kind of thing, and have many practices that they teach to scared, half-crazed souls such as myself. My friend told me about Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist nun who teaches meditation (among other things), and her recording “Getting Unstuck – Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality.” I was game to try anything, so I went home and downloaded it.
Even after years and years of mediation, I had never done a Buddhist meditation on mindfulness. There are many significant differences from other practices, the biggest (for me) is that you do this practice with your eyes open. You can’t run. You’re there. It’s intentional for many reasons, but for me it meant that I very literally had to stare down what was going on inside my head.
But what made this recording really resonate with me is the teaching on shenpa – or the things that hook us and drag us down or lure us off into fantasy so that we don’t deal with the issues at hand. The things that are so painful, ugly or disconcerting that they start us on the downward spiral towards numbing the pain with defense mechanisms or addictions just to be able to escape from them for a little bit. And I was staring down some big-time shenpa. This was what was pulling me into insanity, making me feel frantic and out of control. The source of the shenpa is irrelevant to this discussion, its the process of working through it that I want to share.
Coincidentally, shenpa is the exact same thing that sneaks up on you in meditation. Sometimes it pokes you, sometimes it takes you by the hand and drags you down some fantasy road or another. And sometimes it mauls you like a Bengal tiger. I fell into this last category. So there I went, armed with Pema’s recording and a frantic mind, I decided to sit through the practice to see if it would make a big difference. Immediately I hated it. This is mostly because the second I sat down and tried to focus on my breath I began hyperventilating – not good. But, as Pema teaches, you must stay. As big and painful and horrible as it is, you must stay with it. You can not name it, rationalize it, escape it or destroy it. And so I stayed. I sat for many hours over the next few weeks and stared at this shenpa until I got to know every crevice of it. Over time it began to soften and melt a little bit, as though my gaze were warming it. Little by little, it faded into the background – not gone, not completely. Just a more manageable piece and something that didn’t have power over me any more.
That was a significant event for me, but also a deeply hurtful shenpa. I have more; so do you. And that’s ok. What is important is that it is very possible to move through it and, as Pema says, face “naked reality.” You need only have enough self love to recognize that you must face these fears head on. Be brave.