As part of the ongoing Unveiling Series, we are doing experiential exercises to get in touch with the metaphoric veils we each have, woven of thoughts and emotions. In a recent post, I offered an audio exercise, using the practice to explore a specific word. Now I suggest applying that exercise to a word or phrase of your own, one that’s ‘up’ for you right now. This is a skillful way to explore veils. And often acknowledging something that’s troubling us, bringing it to the forefront of our awareness allows us to soften around it, resolve it, and even release it.
Set aside time to meditate.
Have something to write with handy.
During your meditation, if a thought comes up, jot down a word that captures the specific topic, situation, or person that will remind you of the thought later. (Because emotions show up in many veils, naming an emotion, while skillful, for the purposes of this exercise is less effective. If it feels important, you can include the emotion with the topic, situation, or person, if you like.)
You might do this several times in the meditation but come immediately back to the practice, back to focusing on the breath or other sensation, back to the felt sense of being alive at this moment.
After meditation, look over what you’ve written, and find the word that feels most ‘up’ for you, most in need of your attention. If the single word doesn’t capture the thought effectively, add another word or two to do so. But no more than three words. This is not an essay, but a catalyst for what is to come.
Now read that word or phrase and notice the felt sense of it in your body.
Notice and then write down any sensations, any areas of sensation, and what that sensation feels like. Describe it as best you can. You can use simple words, physical terms, or metaphoric descriptions, whatever works for you to help you really notice the sensation itself.
Now read that word or phrase again. Then close your eyes and notice any images that come up. Make note of them.
When the images have all been written down, read that word or phrase again, then close your eyes and let the words that tell the story about it unravel in your mind, and jot down what comes up. Pay special attention to snippets of random phrases that arise. They could be expressions, quotes, family sayings, etc. Whatever comes up, jot down, without analysis or editing.
So what are we doing in this exercise? We are bringing our attention to a particular veil. This veil already existed, but we may not have been aware of it. And most likely we never thought of it as a veil woven of our thoughts and emotions that our attention follows. Depending on how densely woven the veil is and how thick it is with challenging emotions, once our attention is caught up in it, we become entangled, distracted from the present moment, and we have a very distorted view of things that causes us and those around us to suffer.
Continuing the exercise:
Looking it over now, see if you can see what kind of veil it is. Is it a subject, a person, or an identity veil? Most veils seem to fall into one of these three broad categories. (Earlier I mentioned that emotions are woven through all veils, so fear, love, etc. don’t have their own veil.)
Now choose a title for this veil so you know it when you come upon it again. If it’s a person, then use their name or their relationship to you. A ‘mother veil’, for example. Maybe it’s a ‘household chores’ veil or a ‘finances’ veil or a ‘future’ veil. An identity veil could be simply a ‘me’ veil, or it could be some aspect of who you believe yourself to be.
Whatever title you choose, let it be simple, just a shorthand way of recognizing the veil if you see it again. And no doubt you will!
Does looking at it as a veil feel different from just having the thoughts and feelings about the subject? For many of us, there is a sense of peacefulness in being able to lay a veil of thought on the table to look at rather than feeling like we are our thoughts, maybe even trapped in them.
Now let’s look at the veil more closely. To do so, it is wise to begin by setting your wise intention to approach it with lovingkindness. You have nothing to hide, nothing to defend, nothing to prove. This is not you. This is just a veil of thoughts and emotions you are exploring.
Remember in exploring a veil to stay with the metaphor. So when describing what you notice to yourself or someone else, notice if you launch into a typical pattern of saying ‘I feel this way’ which just sets off an oft-repeated series of threads that tend to lead toward getting lost in the very veil you are meant to be exploring.
Instead, remember that you are investigating and describing not yourself but the particular veil of thoughts that is laid out before you.
So for example “I notice a thread of thought about ______. This thread is loose and flowing or tight and knotted. The emotions that arise are ______, ______ and ______. The physical sensations are ________. This thread is leading into a memory about _______.
While this may seem odd at first, it is quite freeing. This technique enables you to stay with even very challenging veils of thought without judgment or discomfort.
We can apply a traditional Buddhist question: Are the thoughts and feelings of this veil pleasant, unpleasant, neutral, or some combination?
If you’re not sure, look back over your notes, see what kind of physical reactions you had, if any. Were they pleasant or unpleasant?
Without judging the veil, just being curious and compassionate, can you see any places where your thoughts and emotions get tight and tangled into a knot? This may be easily accessed or you might need to check in with physical sensation again. If you feel tightness, tension, an increased heart rate around certain thoughts within the veil, make note of that.
If this veil is pleasant, you might notice if there is any desire for more of it or a wish that it could be sustained forever. Notice any shifts in ease and pleasantness when those thought threads weave through. Make note of anything you find. (It’s amazing how quickly we can turn something pleasant into something unpleasant just by the way we are in relationship to it!)
If the veil is unpleasant, don’t feel you need to fix it, deny it, or turn away. If there’s any judgment about the veil, make note of it as one of the threads in the veil.
If the veil is a mix of pleasant and unpleasant, notice where it gets more knotted, and see if you can spend time breathing compassion into the tight knots, noticing whatever arises without feeling the need to fix anything. Just bringing innate curiosity. Where did this thread come from? Threads of thought do a lot of time traveling, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself back in some childhood scene if the thread is rooted in something that happened there. Even the most random words said by someone whose opinion we valued or who held power over us will be evident in this exploration. What an opportunity to revisit that memory with a more mature, compassionate, and aware perspective. As needed, remind yourself that this is not you. This is a veil of thoughts that your attention chases.
The veil is just the pattern of thoughts and emotions that anyone could be thinking or feeling at any time. What is unique to you at this moment is you have the opportunity to do this gentle exploration filled with lovingkindness and curiosity. Any fear or loathing is just another thread in the veil to explore.
Now that you have noted a particular veil, you’ll recognize it when it arises again. And like Siddartha Gautama sitting under the Boddhi tree, when distracting thoughts arise you can say “I know you.” Because you have explored the various veils that your attention chases, and like the Buddha, you know them to be illusions, distracting you from savoring being fully alive in this moment, just as it is.