There’s a line in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God that I’ve always loved. After revealing some painful family history, Nanny tells her sixteen-year-old granddaughter, “Put me down easy, Janie, Ah’m a cracked plate.” The image conveys damage, resilience, and fragility all rolled into one.
These days, we are all cracked plates. The pandemic dropped everybody on a very hard floor, as did the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign and its unsavory coda on January 6, 2021. Our public reckoning with racism, signified for many by the murder of George Floyd, has been another source of anguish. Add to that fires raging and weather patterns gone haywire. Practically every one of us is a study in hairline fractures and chipped edges. Even the most sanguine among us are at risk of coming unglued.
The pervasiveness of all these troubles has made me think about how hard it is, in general and always, to be patient and kind with each other and with ourselves. I don’t know about you, but if there’s someone or some situation I’m upset with, I do a lot of talking in my head. As the interior monologue drones on, I can’t win (or lose) the argument nor can I ever explain myself enough. The push-pull feels like a noxious wave that keeps falling back on itself without ever reaching shore.
By chance, I recently came across a book that’s helping me think through this problem: Taking the Leap: Freeing Ourselves from Old Habits and Fears (2009) by Pema Chödrön. The Buddhist nun and acclaimed author explains that the Tibetan word “shenpa” can be loosely defined as “what it feels like to get hooked—what it feels like to get stuck.” Put another way, “shenpa is the itch and it’s also the urge to scratch.” That’s exactly how I feel when I can’t clear the bad weather in my soul.
From Chödrön I’ve learned that shenpa happens in a flash and then won’t let go—or rather, we won’t let go of it:
Somebody says a harsh word and something in you tightens: instantly you’re hooked. That tightness quickly spirals into blaming the person or denigrating yourself. The chain reaction of speaking or acting or obsessing happens fast. . . . What was said gets to you—
it triggers you.
In theory, the way out of this unproductive attachment is easy. Chödrön says we should acknowledge to ourselves that we’re hooked, pause, take a few deep breaths, and yank ourselves back into the present moment—all while not saying or doing anything rash. The earlier you can catch yourself, the better off you and everybody around you will be.
In practice, this is tough. The prospect of winning an argument, especially a long-simmering one, is delicious. The chance to revisit an old grievance is a door rarely left unopened. And hitting “send” on an unfriendly message—at times, the Dali Lama himself must have to pry his fingers off the keyboard.
“When we experience our identity as being threatened, our self-absorption gets very strong, and shenpa automatically arises,” Chödrön writes. And that’s not all. If people criticize someone or something you’re attached to (political views, anyone?), watch out: “As soon as the words have registered—boom, it’s there.”
The Buddhist approach, Chödrön writes, is not to repress our inner turmoil or act on it. Instead, step back and calmly look at what’s going on inside you. Try to drop the accompanying storyline that reinforces the pain and upheaval. If you can do that, Buddhists have found, equilibrium will gradually emerge along with compassion for yourself and others. And compassion is part of the inherent wisdom Buddhists believe is accessible to anyone open to it. In Chödrön’s words, “It’s the part of us that knows we can connect and live from our basic goodness, our basic intelligence, openness, and warmth. Over time, this knowledge becomes a stronger force than the shenpa, and we naturally interrupt the chain reaction even before it starts. We naturally become able to prevent an epidemic of aggression before it even begins.”
An epidemic of aggression. We know that’s where we are right now as a nation. And yet Chödrön is saying each of us, in our personal lives, contains our own vaccine against it.
If you’ve read Their Eyes Were Watching God, you probably remember the transcendent ending. Janie, now in early middle age, is back home from an ultimately traumatic adventure in the Florida Everglades. As night falls, she’s alone in her bedroom as terrible recollections of what she recently endured wash over her. She has every reason to beat up on herself and feel persecuted in the bargain, but somehow, she realizes she can make do with her happy memories and live on her own: “Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.”
Janie has interrupted the chain reaction. She may be a cracked plate like her grandmother was—like so many of us are—but she has found, at least for a few moments, that elusive natural wisdom that Chödrön writes about. She is content within herself, a shimmering tribute to the here and now.
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