Monthly Archives: August 2016

Happiness begins with questioning in

questionmarkIn our ongoing exploration of the Ten Perfections of the Heart, we have been looking at Truthfulness, especially how truthful we are with ourselves. It is not that we are outright lying, just that we are not often questioning the statements, beliefs, judgments, etc. that are the running inner commentary of our mental lives. How much does this inner commentary shape the way we relate to this present moment and all that we are dealing with? Do our assumptions persuade us and dissuade us in ways we are not even aware of? Of course! So after quieting the mind down a bit in meditation, it is extremely valuable to start questioning these previously unquestioned long-standing thoughts that have been getting a free ride all this time. If we are basing our intentions, attitudes, words and actions on something we haven’t even looked at lately, then there’s no time like the present to start questioning.

As we take the time to unplug, focus on our breath and develop awareness and compassion, we have the opportunity to begin to see the nature of the thoughts that pass through (again and again). Especially right after meditating, we can allow ourselves just a few more minutes to really notice and question.

Of course, the process is particularly noticeable when on a silent retreat. (But don’t put it off until then!) On retreat there is so much time in silence, and without the opportunity to be expressed, thoughts stand out in our minds. They have more space to move around because the normal thoughts that typically run our daily activities have become unnecessary: We don’t have to pick anything up from the store, make anything for dinner, accomplish anything on our to do list or think of what to say or review what we should have said instead of what we did say, etc. On retreat all we do is respond to the bells by getting up, going to the meditation hall, sitting, walking, dining, listening to dharma talks, maybe going on a little hike or resting in the sun, and doing our one simple daily yogi job — a housekeeping or cooking chore that we have chosen. The remaining thought patterns have a lot of room in our heads to rattle around, so that we actually see them passing through, again and again.

How we come into relationship with these repeating patterns is really the focus of our practice as we go about our day.

Do we combat them? “Oh, shut up!’

Abuse them? “You are so stupid!”

Placate them? “I promise I’ll do better.’

Reinforce them by adding in some emotional component? ‘ Grrr, that really made me angry, and not only that, remember the time…?’

Or, as the Buddha suggested, do we question their veracity? ‘Is that true?’ ‘What proof do I have to back up that belief, assumption, judgment or statement?’

This is a valuable investigation, and one that is lifelong. We develop the powerful habit of self-exploration. This is quite different from self-doubt, which is the habit of undermining our best intentions. Inner investigation is simply making sure that we are being truthful in what we tell ourselves. So many of our thought patterns simply repeat something we heard as children. We have tuned ourselves in to a certain set of beliefs, and we accept anything we hear that resonates with those original assumptions. But where did the assumptions come from? They are often negative judgments about ourselves or the world, and when we simply accept them as true without questioning, we do a disservice to ourselves and those around us. With our child’s limited view we made sense of a confusing world at the time, but now, from our adult perspective, if we take a moment to really look, these assumptions reveal themselves to be erroneous, painful and unnecessary now. Whatever we thought we were protecting doesn’t need this protection any longer. The truth does set us free!

As with all the Paramitas, these perfections of the heart, we can spend a lifetime in this practice and find great value in it. We have insights into the nature of mind and how we are causing ourselves and others to suffer by being oblivious to the patterns of thought and emotion that activate anger, jealousy and ill will of all kinds.

In our meditation practice, we are training ourselves to be present with whatever arises in our experience. This is a worthy endeavor in itself, but when we get into inner investigation, the real fruits of our efforts reveal themselves. When we see that thoughts are not ‘who we are’ but instead just wisps of mental formations passing through our vast compassionate field of experience, or synaptic activity, it makes it a lot easier to look at them without freaking out or freezing up or turning away.

You can see how the matter of identity comes into play with this investigation. We may cling to certain beliefs, opinions and judgments as components of our personality or character. Those of you who have studied the work of Byron Katie will recognize these valuable questions: ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true? Who would I be without this thought?’

As we begin to explore the next Paramita of ‘Resolve’, we are asked to continue with this practice of looking closely at the nature of our thoughts. The Buddha taught that there are four aspects to ‘Resolve’, and the first one is Discernment. And what is involved in discernment? It is really looking at the intention or course we have set for ourselves and noticing all the underpinnings of thoughts and judgments that rise up in our field of experience that may be sabotaging our intentions. Discernment makes us look at the goals themselves to see if they are worthy and sustainable.

So here we are again, paying attention to the nature of thoughts that arise, and questioning them. We just can’t get away from it! And that’s okay, because there is incredible richness in this process. This is where the wondrous insights grow from the fertile field of ongoing dedication to awareness and compassion.

Into the Woods

into-the-woods-72-300wMy husband and I just returned from a camping trip. We’re not the hardy adventurers that some of our friends are, so you won’t be reading about great feats in the wilderness. But we find that just being among the trees renews us. We don’t have to DO anything but sit and breathe it all in and the benefits arise.

First the kinks in my neck and arm (from being so focused on my phone?) disappear. Then appreciation arises for the sights, sounds and smells of nature. Awe arises at the sight of the morning light on the craggy mountain peak, the last evening glow warming the edges of trees, or the first sighting of stars in a deepening clear sky.

It doesn’t take long to settle in and feel peaceful. A chipmunk comes and checks me out as I sit in my camp chair, intending to read my book but never really getting around to it. The sound of the rapids over rocks and around boulders soothes me. I can stay like that and take it all in for quite a while. Then curiosity arises about what’s around the bend upriver or we decide to have a picnic by our favorite mountain lake. And off we go without any striving sense of getting there. Ah, into the woods.

In case you’re not buying this, let recent scientific research have its sway: Here are five ways simply getting into the woods are proving to be beneficial:

  1. It may help prevent cancer. – A Japanese study showed a remarkable increase in the NK (natural killer) cell activity which also lasted for a month after the study group spent a few days in the forest.

    2. Scents of the forest may reduce stress. – Many forest trees contain phytoncides that have been found to decrease levels of the cortisol stress hormone.

    3. It may help with depression – a London study showed that areas with more trees had lower rates of prescriptions for antidepressants.

    4. It improves cognitive skills. – A German study focused on children found that playing in the forest improved learning compared to being in an enclosed space.

    5. Walking in nature can help lower blood pressure, according to a Japanese study.

So don’t take my word for it. And don’t feel you have to get all gung-ho and accomplish anything. You don’t. Just being there and following your natural inclinations is plenty good for you.

Is there someplace in nature you feel especially relaxed and at home? Please comment!