The beginning of a new year is a great time to do a little inner questioning and reflection. In Buddhism, the most useful ongoing question is ‘How do I live in relationship to this situation?’ The most useless is ‘Why me?’ But there are lots of other useful questions to pose, and we’ll be exploring them here today. Do this when you have the time to really enjoy this process without a deadline.
If we stay with our intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be kind to ourselves as we do this inner work, we can ask the questions and attend the answers that well up from within in a way that gives them a spacious, safe place to land.
This is a process that takes all the kindness we can develop within ourselves. These answers have been there all along, have probably tried to make themselves known in a myriad of ways, but may have been met with harshness, a blank stare, a rude retort, a judgment, or a ready excuse.
As we do this process, we want to be aware of the automatic responses that arise, the ones that deflect or pose to protect us. There’s no need to make them wrong. We can let them sit at the table but not be the only voice. We can listen more deeply. The universal wisdom — that we all have access to but don’t hear until we are present and peaceful — is the quietest voice in the room, the one with no sense of urgency, no agenda, no judgment, just an open, earnest, fearless, loving ease. By learning to meditate and quiet down the stringent inner aspects of our endlessly problem-solving selves, we avail ourselves of this wise voice.
As you look over the questions that follow, you might find that some bring up answers and others don’t resonate. That’s fine. They are all portals to the same inner wisdom, so go with whatever calls you. But notice if you are afraid of a question. The one that causes discomfort is also one you want to spend more time with. Be kind, stay present, ask again.
It is valuable to write down your answers, so grab a pen and paper or bring up a Word document before you begin. You’ll be glad later that you gave yourself this gift of exploration, and it’s good to have a written record to revisit.
Please meditate before doing this exercise. If you have not meditated before, here are basic meditation instructions. Again, do this process when you can give it as much time as it takes without any deadline. It won’t work very well if you feel rushed.
Take each question and spend some time with it before moving on to the next. Don’t read ahead as that takes away from the power of the process.
How might I lighten my load? OR What can I take off my plate?
What am I assuming about life that might be in error?
How is this assumption weighing me down?
Is there some external circumstance that I am blaming for my current state of mind?
Where am I struggling?
What am I clinging to that isn’t supporting me, just causing more pain?
What am I trying to prove? And whom am I trying to prove it to?
What am I trying to hide? And whom am I hiding it from?
What am I afraid of?
What is the simplest and clearest expression of my love, my gratitude, my joy?
After you’ve written down your answers, take some time, now or later, to look back over what you have written, and notice the language you use as you answer questions. Wherever you find words like ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘have to’, ‘need to’, that’s a valuable clue to go deeper into the process. These kinds of words come from murky motivations. As always, we are looking to let what we say and do arise from our deep intentions to be present and compassionate with ourselves and others. Discovering our motivations is extremely valuable. Don’t toss them out. Look more deeply. Find the fear.
In this process you will undoubtedly discover something you hadn’t realized. But this is just the beginning. A potent question can take us on a wondrous journey of self-discovery. If one of these questions was particularly meaningful, write it down on a little piece of paper and carry it with you over the coming days, weeks, months. Take it out from time to time and pose the question again. Noodle it! Use the question as a frame to look at life for a while. Question assumptions you hear yourself making in different situations. Ask ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’ This is a great way to clear old unquestioned thoughts that have been cluttering up the brain attic!
In class at Spirit Rock one day many years ago, teacher Mark Coleman posed a question that sent me on a months-long journey. He asked, ‘What is it that’s holding you in bondage?’
If this question speaks to you, feel free to use it. At first it seemed such an odd question. Of course I’m not in bondage! The very idea! But that question stayed with me, and I had a series of incremental aha moments that revealed exactly what was holding me in bondage. Isn’t it strange how even in a life that is free of external imprisonment, we can cage ourselves?
You might find that the answer to one question might create another question in its wake. For example, when I realized that what was holding me in bondage was ‘my habitual nature’, that brought up a question about why I was so habitual. Another weeks-long journey of inquiry and noticing. Then an insight where I recognized an erroneous belief within me: I believed that if I did things in the same way every day then things were under control and nothing would change. But having said that, having brought the belief to light, I could easily see how it was not true. Habits do not ultimately protect me from whatever change I fear. It was a very freeing experience, that exploration. I felt an influx of joy and renewed energy.
Did it solve all the challenges in my life? Of course not. The answers we find create more space, free up more energy to live more in the present and with more compassion. But there is no place to get to, no perfect state. And thinking there is the perfect answer somewhere is a sure path of misery. When we say, aha, I’ve arrived! Nirvana! Then we immediately dig in and determine that it will last. Grasping and clinging: The Buddha’s description of suffering.
One of the wisest things we can do is live with the question, to love the question itself, as Rilke said in his Letters to a Young Poet:
“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
Learning how to live with the unknown within ourselves and in the world is a great gift. And having a question is a way of being actively engaged in that unknown. The answers come, usually with more questions on their tails, but it’s the questions themselves that provide the riches.
Giving ourselves the time we need to quiet down, listen in and ask meaningful questions is a journey alive with richness. By doing so we learn how to live in a way that brings more joy and less suffering to all beings, including ourselves.
Please comment below. I would love to get feedback on how this process was for you.