During a bumpy period a few years ago in New York, I had a small revelation about how to thrive when things aren’t going as expected. It occurred to me that when we’re in school we seldom question the curriculum but instead merely show up for class. After all, semesters end, allowing us to move on and refine our area of study. In the meantime, we might pick up some unexpected knowledge.
Pema Chödrön is a Buddhist nun, author and Shambhala teacher. She lives at Gampo Abbey, on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. A New York rocker friend introduced me to The Wisdom of No Escape, a book Pema wrote on meditation. (It was either that, or a trip to the Russian bathhouse for a whipping with veniki bundles, so I took the book.) My rocker friend thought I could use some new insight.
“You are the sky. Everything else – it’s just the weather.” says Pema. One of her themes is the Tibetan notion of attachment, or shenpa. Shenpa is that moment you get hooked into a habitual cycle of response, like the sweaty shame-spiral that happens when that thing on the canvas is blaringly bad. Or when a trash-talking interloper is allowed to invade the easel space. Shenpa is the emotional go-to when sitting through the dodgier periods of life class. Your shenpa can be changed.
I’ve been living as an artist in New York for ten years. My twin brother, James, first visited me while I was away on tour in the UK. We arranged to intersect before he flew home to Canada. I climbed the six flights of my 1904 walk-up tenement and opened the door to find James cross-legged in the only chair, shocked and awed by a previous tenant’s home improvement effort of duct-taping all the linoleum, and overcome by a space-hogging Baldwin baby grand, bedroom easel, and a quietly rotting ceiling. Then he gifted me with his response: “I get it. You fell in love, just not with a person. And you’re willing to do anything for that love.”
School is in session, and semesters are coming and going with the nonchalance of a Greenwich Village mouse. Our creative expectations are in a steady state of disruption and re-adjustment and even satisfaction. Living a dream is just a matter of switching up the shenpa.
PS: “Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.” (Pema Chodron)
Esoterica: Pema Chödrön was born Deirdre Blomfield-Brown in 1936 in New York City. She attended Miss Porter’s School for Girls, went to Berkeley, taught elementary school, married and had two children before devoting her life to Buddhism. She’s also the same age as my Dad. “We are like children building a sandcastle,” says Pema. “We embellish it with beautiful shells, bits of driftwood, and pieces of coloured glass. The castle is ours, off limits to others. Yet despite all our attachment, we know that the tide will inevitably come in and sweep the sandcastle away. The trick is to enjoy it fully but without clinging, and when the time comes, let it dissolve back into the sea.”
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