FIRST OF A SERIES ON INQUIRY
Inquiry is an intrinsic part of the Insight Meditation tradition. After a meditation session, we are usually more relaxed and mindful. It can be a fruitful time to do a some self-inquiry. As we develop a regular meditation practice, the mind becomes more spacious, resilient, compassionate and wise, and the inquiry is rich and full of insights, both subtle and profound.
In upcoming posts of my weekly dharma talks we will explore some of the most powerful questions that are the tools for this kind of life-enhancing investigation. But first let’s look at the very different kind of questions we often have rattling around in our thoughts that are more like weapons than tools. We may not even be aware of them, but they cause harm to ourselves and others nonetheless.
I imagine you have at least one habitual question that trips you up and can take you down. If you can identify it congratulations! Noticing is crucial.
Once we notice a thought, or in this case a question, then we may need to remind ourselves to be in skillful relationship with it, so that we are not making an enemy of the question. Instead we can see it as a messenger. In this way even the most abusive question can be dis-empowered. (I always think that everything we tell ourselves is trying to be of service in some way, protecting us, but that many of these messages are rooted in fear that prevent us from living full and meaningful lives.)
- After meditation, notice the patterns of your natural thoughts.
- If a question comes up, notice it’s nature.
- If it is an abusive question — putting you down, for example — investigate it from two angles:
- Is this a question you inherited? A question a parent asked of themselves or of you? A question posed by childhood playmates, a teacher, the culture at large? This is not to place blame but to recognize that it is just a pattern, that it has passed through many and is now passing through you. You can send loving-kindness to the ‘source person’, remembering that they received it from somewhere else and may suffer from it still.
- What is the message in this question? Often it will be a product of the belief that you are an isolated separate being. So you will want to question the veracity of that view. (There are many posts on this blog about identity, no separate self and wise view.)
Or perhaps your question is rooted in the belief that happiness is caused by everything being the way you want it to be. If so, you can explore posts on dukkha. Or maybe your question comes from the fear of things changing. You can find many posts on the nature of impermanence.
That’s how we explore whatever patterns we notice arising in our thoughts. Of course, after meditation is not usually when the most self-destructive questions usually show up. They are much more likely to appear when we are in a stressful situation, when we are struggling with a problem or dealing with disappointments. It is wise to practice mindfulness throughout the day, noticing not just the world around us but the pattern of our thoughts. If you hear yourself posing a question, take the time to explore it or jot it down to explore after your next meditation practice.
If you are unclear what kind of toxic questions I’m talking about, here are some examples:
Things aren’t going well. Maybe multiple difficulties happen around the same time. Who can blame us for wondering ‘why me?’ However, if this question is a persistent pattern of ‘why me?’ then there is a habit of looking through a very narrow lens focused only on how things affect us personally, without concern for how they impact others. So for example, through the family grapevine, we hear that a relative is gravely ill. A wholesome mind will register the sense of shock, worry and sadness this brings up personally. But it will also expand to focus on the people most affected: the ill person and their immediate family. Quite naturally a wholesome mind will reach out to help or send supportive words. But with a narrow-focused lens, on hearing the news, the unwholesome mind will say, ‘Why is this happening to me now? I’m under so much stress already.’
We can see how the habitual ‘why me?’ question is unskillful, but we can also recognize that it is a messenger. It tells us to spend more time cultivating awareness and compassion, bringing ourselves into balance.
‘Who’s to blame in this situation?’
In any relationship — at home, at work, in any group — things happen that weren’t intended, causing problems that need to be handled. How useful is it in that moment to point fingers and assess blame? There may be a time, later on, when all involved look together at how to avoid such problems in the future, but immediately going into blame mode is not useful.
If this is a question you ask, regular meditation and looking at your attack mode from the perspective of the whole community, whether it’s a community of two or fifty. Fault-finding may be a pattern that you have inherited that is worth noticing and reconsidering. Noticing it doesn’t make you wrong. It makes you wise. It’s the first step to letting down your defenses and appreciating being an integral part of a relationship of any kind.
“Why am I so stupid?” “Why am I such an idiot?” “What is wrong with me?”
These are the questions that class members discovered that they say to themselves (or used to say to themselves and now realize they no longer do. (Yay!) This kind of self-abuse needs to be noticed. A classic way of considering whether this is skillful is to ask yourself if you would say that to a friend. If any friend would dump you for saying such things, then why on earth is it okay to say it to yourself?
“Who am I to…”
My aunt once told me that this question is a time-honored tradition of the women in our family. We doubt our qualifications for everything we want to do and our right to do it. So we sabotage ourselves before others might take us down.
If this resonates with you, consider the possibility that we each have a seat at the table of life, by virtue of our having been born. Are you standing on the edges waiting for an invitation? Your birth certificate is your invitation. If you don’t have time to sit at the table because you are rushing around making sure everyone seated has what they need, sit down and discover that it’s not all up to you to provide for everyone else. Have a seat and enjoy the conversation, the collaboration and the co-creation of a vibrant healthy world.
“Who am I?”
This is a standard philosophical question with no judgment about self-worth, but spending a lot of time on it can put us into a tailspin. It works on the assumption of a separate self, an identity that needs to be shored up with labels, as if we are only worthy if we can be defined by our various attributes and preferences. This is a pattern of thought that can really churn up dissatisfaction, judgments about ourselves and others, and ruin relationships.
Asking ourselves ‘who am I?’ can be answered by repeating “I am me. I am me. I am me…’ over and over until something within either gets joyful or loses interest. This little mantra is one of several I did naturally as a small child. It’s like an onion being peeled, layer after layer until nothing remains. Looking back, this would seem a very Zen experience. Experiential and enlightening.
Another short but powerful practice I developed is called The Dance of the Seven Veils.
In Buddhism, the inner investigation of ‘who am I?’ is actually a look at who or what am I not? The Five Aggregates that make up who we believe ourselves to be are a rich Buddhist teaching, an important part of the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
I hope these few examples enable you to recognize your own toxic questions. I am always happy to help with any questions you have about the practice of inquiry, whether your habitual questions are toxic or valuable, or what adjustments of wording would make them more useful. After class one student shared a question that comes up for her: “What am I supposed to learn from this experience?” I suggested asking instead, “What can I learn from this experience?” Do you notice the difference in how you feel when you ask yourself those two questions? For me the first create a sense of some external pressure, as if other people or the universe or God is requiring me to learn something from this experience. When I say the second I feel enlivened, inspired to find the valuable message in a difficult situation. Slight adjustments can make a big difference!
In the next blog we will begin our exploration of the kinds of questions that are useful, even life-changing, so be sure to check back. If you are not already following this blog or getting a weekly email from me, just click on the ‘Follow Stephanie’ at the top right side of this page below my photo so you can receive the posting fresh each week in your email. If you prefer to be added to my mailing list, contact me and you will receive an email, usually on Sunday morning (PST).
Whatever arises in mental thought process is certain to pass away, so wouldn’t it be better to observe the thought as a witness without having any craving or aversion.
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Thanks for following my blog, and now for this comment. What you say is absolutely true during meditation. But other times we can explore the roots of the thoughts that arise. That’s part of the insight tradition. It’s not to make an enemy of the thought, just to question its veracity.
“Who do you think you are?” is my variation on “Who am I to…?” It pops up in my head to effectively quash any number of impulses I may have towards creativity or self-actualization. It appears to be connected to shame, and I know it is connected to being female.
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Yes! That version seems even harsher to me, but it comes from the same place. Excellent noticing that it comes up at particular moments, when you have ‘impulses toward creativity or self-actualization’. That’s probably why meditating before doing something creative is so effective. I remember when I started a regular meditation practice the first effect I noticed was an unleashing of my creativity, like a column opening within me, freeing up my voice. Thanks for this insightful comment.
Stef, I love how you had this insight as a child: “Asking ourselves ‘who am I?’ can be answered by repeating “I am me. I am me. I am me…’ over and over until something within either gets joyful or loses interest. This little mantra is one of several I did naturally as a small child.” – WOW! Wish I could have tapped into that wisdom at a young age – I desperately needed it. Be well, and keep up the great posts!
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Well, I forgot all about it by the advanced age of eight and had to find it all again later, sooooo…. 🙂