Category Archives: Byron Katie

Inquiry Series: Pause in place and set a kinder pace

Over the past weeks we have been looking at three valuable questions — What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and Is this true? These are particularly helpful when we feel something’s not quite right in our lives. For example, when we:

– have difficulty in a relationship
– get hurt feelings
– feel stuck or frustrated
– can’t appreciate the goodness in life
– get caught up in thoughts of the past or future
– are hard on ourselves and/or our loved ones

Noticing when something’s askew and asking What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and Is this true? allows us to see more clearly what’s going on. We may see where we are misunderstanding the true nature of our experience. This is not a fault-finding expedition, but a compassionate look with some clarifying tools we may never have realized we had readily on hand to help.

Already happy?
It’s good to know about these tools, these valuable questions, even if we are feeling fully present in our experience, not caught up in endless thoughts about the past or future. We can save them for the proverbial rainy day when they will come in handy. Most of us do have at least occasional bouts of troubling emotions and circular thoughts, so these questions can be packed in the emergency kit for just such occasions.

Wise Effort
When we undertake this kind of inquiry, it’s important to do so with wise effort. The answers can’t be mined with a pick ax. Instead they arise in the space we create with our compassionate attention and gentle inquiry. This is only possible when we give ourselves time to quiet down, pause and unplug from our to do list and our devices. A regular meditation practice helps create the spaciousness needed, but the inquiry and the answers come afterwards and at other times during the day if we are open and receptive to them.

This is quite a different experience than the ‘Let’s DO this thing!’ attitude we may take when confronting a big project. There’s no charge of adrenaline and no goal to aim for. There is no urgency in our inner investigation. If you sense an urgency, that’s just a fear-based aspect wanting to get ‘fixed’ and done. But this is not a one-off project. It’s a rich and rewarding habit of a lifetime. Be compassionate toward that urgent aspect, but don’t let it dictate the agenda here.

Clarification on the word ‘story’
Last week in our exploration of the question Is this true? I used the word ‘story’. This usage of that word is easily misunderstood. Calling our long-held patterns of thought ‘stories’ is not to discredit them or throw them out. It is to allow some light in so that we can see more clearly. If we’ve always accepted the story whole-cloth, how interesting to look more closely and see the distinct threads woven together to create the pattern.

When we ask ‘Is this true?’ it is not to get rid of the story. It is to look with compassion and clarity at all the assumptions within the story. Most of our stories have aspects of truth and aspects of misunderstanding or misinformation within them.

The teacher/author Byron Katie has made it her life’s work helping readers and students question Is it true? How do I know it’s true? and Who would I be without my story? That last question helps us to see how tightly we hold onto even the most painful stories. The story might be ‘I’m a total klutz’ or ‘I’m the kind of person who could never do…’ something we very much would like to do. These self-defining belief-stories are hard to challenge. We’ve built a lifetime of ‘proof’ that backs up our story. This kind of inquiry can seem threatening. If I’m not this story I so firmly believe in, then who am I? And yet some deeper wisdom within us encourages us to explore, to question, to open to the possibility that we are quite possibly not a total klutz at all.

This inquiry is a gentle and incremental process, not a tearing up of the book of our lives and writing a whole new version. It’s an invitation to be present with what arises and be willing to look with open eyes and open heart. We hold ourselves in kindness. May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be at peace. May I be happy.

Beyond Meditation: Inquiry & Insight

ahaIf you meditate on a regular basis, you have probably found many rewards. But there are more rewards to be discovered in the minutes following your practice that you may not be aware of if you immediately plunge into your busy day.  If you sit just a little longer or take a walk, get dressed or do some simple household chore, then the mindful momentum you have created will sustain a period of inner exploration that will provide valuable personal insights. Especially if you are going through challenges in your life, this is just the extra gift you need.

You can also do this anytime throughout the day after you deepen into awareness of physical sensation for a few minutes in a mini-meditation.

Here’s how the investigation works:

If you stay seated after meditation, try opening your eyes if they have been closed, because you might be well-trained in not thinking, and you want to open to thoughts now.

If you are walking, tidying up or whatever, do it mindfully, purely as an activity, not with an end-goal. (You may be surprised how much more pleasant and satisfying mindful activity is than the goal-oriented variety!) Now notice thoughts as they arise with open curiosity. In meditation, we note thoughts but let them pass through. In this investigation period, we encourage a thought to reveal itself more fully.

Naturally there will be practical thoughts that involve daily planning, making lists, etc. But there may also be recurring thoughts of, for example, self-doubt, judgment, anger, hopelessness, etc. These might be the very thoughts you want to ignore, they are the ones that are fertile ground for exploration. Not because they are true, but because they aren’t true and yet you have been buying into them!

Before you judge a thought or yourself for having it, allow the spaciousness you have nurtured in your meditation to be present to hold the thought in an open embrace of compassionate questioning. Right after meditation is the best time to do this kind of inner work because you’ve created the spaciousness and kindness you need.

What kind of questions do you ask?  Not all questioning is skillful, but in that post-meditative state often our natural questions are quite insightful. We might say, ‘Whoa, where’d that come from?’ and then, instead of judging it or pushing it away, actually await the answer. Our deeper buddha nature that we have been cultivating may give us some clues. Another naturally arising question is ‘Why do I feel that way?’ Then open to the various images from the past that rise up to support an erroneous belief.

How can a belief be erroneous if past experience supports it? Maybe the experience was in your childhood, adolescence or early adulthood and your understanding of life and the world was limited as was your power to handle situations. So you came up with the best way to think about things that you could at the time.
And remember, we were also under the influence of people vested with greater power — parents, siblings, teachers, the cool kids, etc. Since then we’ve been busy with life and we haven’t bothered to reexamine our thinking. Why would we? Without inner examination, we hold these thoughts to be true. And even more than true, we hold them to be a part of our identity. Without them, who would we be? And that’s another great question.

Byron Katie is a wise teacher known for this kind of inner exploration using skillful questions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Who would I be without this thought, belief, idea?

Notice if a thought activates emotion and/or a physical sensation (tightness or enervation, for example). That’s a thought worth exploring. Stay present with it, priming it with skillful non-judgmental questions. Allow it to unravel, revealing clues in the form of memory images that have a thematic thread. Sometimes the answer to your question can be very straightforward in the form of a statement or another question. Allowing yourself to be receptive rather than directive, you open to the possibility of accessing wisdom.

When a thought makes you uncomfortable you know that it is definitely worth exploring. If it makes you so uncomfortable that you can’t look at it on your own, seek the help of a qualified therapist, preferably one with training in or sympathy with Buddhist psychology.

Be patient in this process. Sometimes your questions are answered later in the day or later in the week. A friend says something, words from a book jump out at you or you overhear a conversation, and you have a little aha! moment.

Notice without over-investing what you notice with great significance. We have wisdom but we also have fanciful imaginations and the desire to elaborate. Keep it simple. Stay open. Don’t project. Don’t get all tangled up in your insight. Let it rest lightly in your awareness.

It can be helpful to name what you are discovering, in order to remember it, but be careful not to claim it. Identify it but don’t calcify that noticing into personal identity. So for example, on observing a mental pattern you might say, ‘Ah, there is fear playing out in this particular way.’ This is useful. It’s not useful to then say ‘Oh, okay, so I’m a scaredy-cat. Gotta add that to my long list of personal foibles and failings.’

Noticing a pattern is useful if we recognize it as one of many possible patterns the mind (any mind) can create. Unnoticed these patterns can gain power and cause us to make mindless, often unskillful choices and decisions. But when noticed, we see through them. We see not just the thought but the fear that underlies the thought. If we are practiced in mindfulness, this will activate compassion. Awareness and compassion dissipate the power of any fear-based unskillful pattern that may have been holding court. We don’t have to go to battle, in fact that would cause more problematic patterns. All we need to do is be present and compassionate.

When we allow ourselves this kind of attentive compassionate exploration time after meditation, our journey of self-discovery has rich rewards, for ourselves and for everyone we come in contact with. Awareness and compassion ripple out into the world in rich and wondrous ways.

We give ourselves time to relax and release tension and notice thoughts and emotions, and voila, we find we are softening in some ways, strengthening in others and enlivening our sense of being awake in the world.

‘What Is holding you in bondage?’ meditative exploration

“What is holding you in bondage?”
That question was posed by the Spirit Rock teacher Mark Coleman back in 2002, and it sent me on quite a journey.
“What holds me in bondage?” I asked myself over and over again in the following weeks. Finally, I had a big aha! It’s my habitual nature, my habitual thinking, that holds me in bondage. My repeated patterns of behavior and thought tread such deep ruts in my life that they create steep walls beyond which I don’t feel I can go, beyond which I can’t even see. I have created my own prison for no other reason than my habitual nature.

But why? Why would I do such a thing to myself? Why would I create a prison for myself when life is so short and there is so much I would like to experience?
In the following weeks I kept noticing my habitual nature, how it contained my experience, how, given the choice, I always chose the way I had always done something, the path I had always taken. I continued to ask myself why I cling to these habitual thoughts and patterns.

And then another aha! In my noticing I realized that I cling to my habitual mode out of fear, out of a yearning for safety. If I just keep doing the same things in the same way, stick with the known and avoid any unknowns, my life will stay as it is and I will be safe.

But this is a total fallacy, that I could possibly keep things staying the same, no matter what I do, no matter how I behave. I have no control over the fact that the nature of things in this universe is change. Everything changes! Impermanence is the only constant. Living in fear of change I had created a rut that I thought was safe. But it wasn’t keeping me safe, it was just keeping me tight in fear and numb to the life around me.

So I stayed with the noticing and set the intention to see beyond my rut, to see other options when they present themselves. I promised myself that when given two paths of equal value (i.e. both ethical and healthy), I would choose the one less traveled by me.

That discovery and realignment of intention has changed my life! And even though at times it has felt scary and challenging, it has also felt immeasurably richer and more alive. It also feels more honest because I am constantly aware that there is no promise of permanence, and that the hypnotic drone of the habitual mode cannot secure that promise, no matter how hard I had wanted that to be true.

Of course there are times when I go a little numb and forget my intention. I wake up and notice the rut rising around me, and see how easy it is to succomb to the hypnotic drone of my habitual nature.

In this class the past weeks we have been studying meditation and creativity. So how does this experience of mine relate to creativity? How does the habitual mode affect creativity? Well of course there are good habits, like getting in to the studio to do the work, even if the creative urge isn’t there. But beyond that, for most of us, habits tend to get in the way.

We begin to believe we are our habits. “I am the type of person who does things this way. I would never do things THAT way, etc.” We let our habits define who we are. We cling to the carefully constructed identity we have created out of this habitual behavior. We may not be able to imagine who we would be without them, which could be very scary indeed.

Since habits are based in fear of change, then we are stuck in finite fear based mode. This tightness cramps our ability to create. We talked a couple of weeks ago about creating from the finite vs. the infinite source. When we are in habitual mode we are most definitely operating out of the finite source, and our experience in the process will be limited, tight and fearful. Breaking free of our rut, we tap into the infinite source. We become fearless, intuitive, inventive, inspired.

Habits are mindless, opposite of mindful. In our practice we simply notice what is, bringing mindfulness to our experience. We notice what is true in this moment. But when we are in our rut, it is hard to notice it. When we do, we don’t have to beat ourselves up about it, but just the noticing opens us to all the possibilities.

At every point in every moment we have infinite choices. There are the obvious choices but if we sit with it we find many variations and maybe even ones we never thought of.

If we are fully present in the moment we have the luxury of pausing before proceeding down a habitual path to appreciate all the possible ways we might go now.

This is not a day dream that gets us stuck at the crossroads, just an awareness that our options are infinite. How does this feel? Maybe a little scary, too open, too many choices, like being spilled out onto a vast plain when we were in that seemingly easy rut.

Being with our own fear, our own discomfort is an important part of the practice of being present. If we can be present for this we can be present for anything. Being fully present allows us to access that infinite source of creative energy. Letting our fears cut us off from it is handing keys to a jailer, when he was fast asleep and we could have skipped out. And not realizing we’ve been paying him to be there.

Habitual mode is automatic pilot. It is the opposite of true engagement in life. It is numbing out and dumbing ourselves down. It is never questioning authority, the authority of past behavior to dictate our present and future.

Of course we of a certain age have found ways that work for us, ways that are hard won and comfortable, thank you very much. We know what we like, what we don’t like, why we go this way and not that. We have learned and don’t want to go back to when we didn’t know what we know. Why should we?

Sometimes it’s useful to question what we know. The teacher Byron Katie has built her whole teachings on questioning. “How do I know this is true?” is a very effective question to pose to oneself every time we make a statement. Because what happens with habitual behavior is we stop questioning, we just keep building on assumptions from the past. If those assumptions are erroneous, and they often are, then we are building this mountain on a trash heap.

No one wants their whole live’s brought into question, so there is bound to be a lot of resistance to this idea. But give it a try next time you choose a direction out of habit. Pause and sense in to the body. Notice what sensations arise, if any. Then consider an alternative (kind, healthy and legal) option and sense in to the body again. Start noticing the body’s response to the directions you choose.

Just noticing that we do have a choice in each moment is huge for some of us. We are in such ruts in our thinking that we feel we have no options. This numbs us out so that we are barely alive. We may be on such automatic pilot that we are in a mobile comatose state.

When something jolts us out of our rut – a crisis of some kind perhaps – we are suddenly challenged to use muscles we haven’t used in too long: the muscles of choice. And it is painful! And it can be dangerous because we are not adept or quickwitted any more. We are stuck, calcified in our habitual mode that suddenly doesn’t support us.

Newsflash: The habitual mode doesn’t support us even now, even when things are going relatively smoothly. Because life isn’t meant to be gotten through, it’s meant to be lived.