The tight tangle of our lives becomes more spacious through the regular practice of meditation. We find that increasingly we can see our thoughts and emotions as they arise. Instead of succumbing to their seduction or going into battle with them, we can more often simply notice them. It may seem as if there is more time and space around them to evaluate the most skillful response to any given situation.
In this increasing spaciousness, we are able to be more gracious hosts to our thoughts and emotions. We are not at their mercy or here to do their bidding. We begin to learn more about them, their histories and motivations. Why does a particular thought keep recurring? Why does dealing this person always bring up this negative emotion? With a greater sense of ease than we ever thought possible, we can focus on these thoughts and emotions and begin to see patterns. We see the loving intention of all these various aspects of our personality. We see the fear behind their misguided strategies. And by giving them our attention we begin to see how some of our beliefs are at odds with each other, causing an inner sense of imbalance and strife.
I am still touched by a conversation I had many weeks ago with a young woman in Colorado whom I called as part of my volunteering for Obama. She was holding down two jobs and had two small children, so she just hadn’t had time to really look at the candidates and make up her mind. So I asked her what her issues were. “Well, I’m against abortion and gay marriage. What does Obama believe?”
“Senator Obama believes in equality for all people,” I told her.
“Oh! I believe in that!”
“Then Obama’s your man.” I went on to tell her that perhaps if she was working two jobs and had small children, she should vote for whoever was going to give her the best tax break and the best health care for her kids. But I was then and still am struck by her very human capacity to hold two opposite ideas in the same brain. That she could support equality for all people but feel okay denying gays the right to marry did not seem like a contradiction in her mind. Probably because she hadn’t had the time to really look at her various beliefs for the same reason she hadn’t had time to choose her candidate.
But for those of us who are meditating regularly over long periods of time, somehow we do have time to notice conflicting beliefs and to see which ones are aligned with the core values that arise out of being in touch with our deep sense of connection. This level of observation and awareness enables us to more easily release old beliefs that don’t serve us, that just got a free ride all these years because we never bothered to examine them.
Often these beliefs were never ours to begin with but were hand-me-downs or borrowed briefly just to try on and we kept them around, and after awhile we forgot where we got them and assumed ownership. But now they are just piles of clutter that get in the way of living fully.
If there are beliefs that we are ready to release, where do we begin to look for them? We don’t need to search them out. They are ever present. We just have to pay attention to those moments when they crop up as statements or judgments that we think or say. Chances are these will be strained moments. Since these beliefs are at odds with our core values, when we hear ourselves voicing them, they sound discordant to our ears. We may feel a sense of discomfort: guilt, embarrassment, confusion, astonishment, or maybe amusement, depending on how vested we are in believing that we are our thoughts.
A wonderful way to deal with whatever comes up is to ask a question. The teacher and author Byron Katie suggests asking, “How do I know this is true?” The inner dialog that follows begins the process of self discovery and potentially to letting go of whatever doesn’t serve us well.
The inner dialog needs to be compassionate, patient and truly curious in order to be useful. Judgment, criticism and ridicule shut the process down, but if they arise, simply switch the dialog’s focus to them. Ask “What am I afraid of in this exploration?” Because all three are rooted in fear.
This kind of inner work can be rich and satisfying. Journaling inner dialogs can be very useful as we are more likely to stay focused on writing than just thinking, and we can read the conversation later from a different vantage point and see things we might not have seen at the time.
In my book, Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living, I suggest the possibility of giving personality to these beliefs, desires and fears in order to engage in dialog exploration. I find this a very useful and enjoyable way to really notice patterns of thoughts that arise — thoughts of self-doubt, thoughts that undermine my intentions, thoughts that keep me from living the fully engaged and grounded life I want to live. I give them names so that when I meet them again – as I certainly will – I can recognize them.
This recognition is something like the Buddha’s experience of being tempted by Mara as he sat under the bodhi tree. By recognizing Mara as the tempter in various forms, trying to seduce him away from his intention, the Buddha was able to reach enlightenment. The key part of his relationship with this tempter was that he always welcomed Mara, saying “I know you.” And in knowing Mara, in all its forms, he was able to be patient, compassionate but unseduced.
In inner dialog exploration, we can come to know these various seductive voices by name, and we can extend them the courtesy of compassion and respect. Inner civility is key! We can ask these tempters questions about what they want and what they fear. What we discover is that they always want the best for us, that their purpose is always loving. But their strategies are misguided because they are operating out of fear.
EXAMPLE: Many of us have a voice we could call “Little Sweetie” – that sweet tooth that draws us continually to the ice cream, pastry and candy shops. Or maybe you have a “Little Salty” – so hard for me to understand since Little Sweetie rules in my panoply of characters. So what would a conversation with Little Sweetie be like? We could say, “What do you want, Little Sweetie?”
And maybe Little Sweetie would say, “I want sugar!” as if that was obvious.
“Why do you want sugar?” we might continue.
“To sweeten up this life. Everything about sugar is pretty, festive and fun. Every time we eat it we are having a party.”
“And you want to party?” we might ask.
“Yes, I love to party!”
“Could we party without the sugar?”
“What kind of party would that be?”
“It could be a party with music and dancing.”
“I’d like that. But what about a cake?”
“It could be a party with lots of interesting conversation.”
“Yes, I’d like that. I like people and connection.”
“If you were sitting in deep conversation with someone and a cake suddenly appeared on the table across the room, would you stop mid-sentence and run across the room?”
“Hmmm, well not mid-sentence. A really good conversation? Like really interesting and rich?”
“Well, then no. I wouldn’t even notice the cake.”
“So when there isn’t a party or deep conversation, you are bored?”
“And sweets are interesting?”
“But you can’t talk to them. You can’t dance with them. You can’t interact with them.”
“No, but they are so easy to find and so forbidden!”
“Yes, they are everywhere. But what’s so good about them being forbidden?”
“It adds spice to life! Sugar and spice! ha ha!”
“So our life needs spicing up? Is it boring, plain, uninteresting?”
“Well, in a word, YES!”
“Okay, what, besides sweets, would make it more interesting for you?”
“More sweet moments!”
“Sweet moments like when?”
“Sweet moments like last night standing on Ring Mountain in the moonlight looking at the twinkling lights of San Francisco across the Bay. That was a very sweet moment.”
“Indeed it was. This is a sweet moment too.”
“Yes, here we are having a dialog, sitting in a comfortable spot with a beautiful view of the mountain lightening in the morning sun.”
“Yes, this is sweet.”
“Any moment can be sweet, don’t you agree? If we are really paying attention?”
“Shall we try it? Shall every time you ask for sweets, I take it as a request for noticing the sweetness of this moment?”
“No harm in trying, but if it doesn’t work, I vote for chocolate.”
So there’s a sample inner dialog. Let’s review what just happened:
– I recognized a chronic tempter in my life: the urge to eat sweets.
– I recognized it as a problem, something that thwarts me in maintaining my health and weight.
– I gave it a name. This name captures something about the tempter’s character and has an endearing quality so that I am more likely to speak to it with love and affection.
– The conversation begins with a simple question: “What do you want?”
– The conversation follows, speaking as honestly and openly as possible from the point of view of this aspect of our personality.
– The questions are created from open curiosity and deep compassion.
At first the questions are more open ended, just trying to discover the root fear, concern, lack, etc. of the aspect.
– When that is discerned – in the example, the aspect Little Sweetie was bored – then the questions can switch to ‘what if’ scenarios in a ‘negotiation’ stage.
– Whatever is negotiated must be something that addresses the deep need, that is in line with core values, not the surface desires of the tempter aspect, whether the ones originally stated or replacement ones.
– In this sample conversation, I didn’t offer to provide a continuous set of exotic locales, more parties or any other surface distraction. What I offered was to be more fully present in every moment so that Little Sweetie could find the sweetness in life, just as it is.
This kind of exercise may or may not appeal to you, but inner dialoging in whatever form suits you can be very valuable in identifying and examining beliefs that cause suffering in your life.