Category Archives: habitual patterns

Are you imprisoned by your preferences?

In the past four posts, I’ve written about the mind states of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity: the Brahma-viharas, heavenly abodes, that we cultivate through our practice of mindfulness.

But part of cultivating any mind-state is noticing what obstacles arise, causing disruption. One of these obstacles, easily discernible, is our collection of preferences and our attachment to them. So let’s take a look at preferences. We all have them. I certainly do. Most of my preferences I earned the hard way, by trial and error. Why would I even think to question them? I feel resistance at the very idea. Perhaps you do too. But because we know there is value in those four expansive mind states, let’s just open to the possibility that there is something worth examining here.


Darlene Cohen

Recently I was rereading an essay by Darlene Cohen, a Zen priest at Green Gulch who died in 2011. She compared her experiences of going through two surgeries twenty years apart. In the first, she felt that the period of surgery and recovery was completely separate from her normal life. I can imagine how she wanted to ‘get back to normal.’ But after years of Buddhist practice, when she had the second surgery, she found there was ‘no rent in the fabric’ of her life. Her days were ‘all of a piece’. She wrote, “I see students, I get cut open, I eat Jell-O, I receive visitors, I feel as sick as a barfing dog, I pace the corridors, I ride home with the passenger seat all the way down, and so on, to the experience of golden apricot colors, helplessness, dread, and being borne on a sheet carried by angels.’

(In class I was able to read more extensively from her essay, but because of copyright laws, I can only offer you brief quotes. If you are a woman living in Marin, I encourage you to attend the Thursday morning class so you don’t miss out on the wholeness of experience. There’s a lot that doesn’t make it into the blog post. And I encourage all readers to consider purchasing the book of essays: Buddha’s Daughters, Teachings by Women Who Are Shaping Buddhism in the West. My copy is filled with post-it notes, so as I revisit those pages, I expect to draw inspiration from other Buddhist women in the West. And you might too!)

Darlene Cohen found for herself how her preferences created obstacles. Without making an enemy of the obstacle, we can notice how when we get caught up in preferences, we grasp at and cling to some experiences and push others away. That is the Buddha’s very definition of the cause of suffering.

Attached to our preferences, we become calcified in our little ruts of what is acceptable and what is not. Something as simple as a favorite flavor of ice cream can be an experiment in preferences. Darlene wrote that she dared herself to go beyond chocolate and chose blindly, ending up with a flavor she never would have chosen. But she discovered it was amazingly delicious. I know I certainly don’t stray far from my preferences. But what am I missing? Is it true that my life is dictated by preferences? And aren’t some preferences valuable?

At least some, hopefully many, choices we make in life are rooted in Wise Intention: Doing no harm to ourselves and others. Aren’t these choices preferences? It seems skillful to look to the source of our preference when we come upon it. Is it rooted in fear? Or is it rooted in kindness, compassion, awareness? Is it a habit that allows us to go mindless? These questions and more can help us understand the nature of how we are in relationship to the world around us. And how our world is shaped by our preferences.

I came across this quote the other day that fits in well here:
“What is freedom? It is the moment by moment experience of not being run by one’s own reactive mechanisms.” – Ken McLeod, Freedom and Choice

Preferences could certainly be called ‘reactive mechanisms’. They establish a set of reactions that may cause stress, distress, discomfort and dissatisfaction. Even the positive experiences are a little numb. Darlene mentioned ice cream, so let’s stay with that tasty subject about which most of us have strong preferences, one way or another. I have a preference for chocolate ice cream so that’s what I order, and in repeatedly choosing that over other flavor options, I enter a habituated reaction to the experience of having a chocolate ice cream cone. Is my mind even in the experience, sensing the taste, texture and temperature of what’s in my mouth? Or am just ‘happy’ to have something I craved? Is that truly happiness? There’s often some mixture of regret in having succumbed to temptation and fear of adverse effects. Whatever happiness there is certainly doesn’t last very long. It literally melts away!

We can look at where our preferences come from. Are we really still anti-brussel sprouts or is it just because the one time we tried them the cook didn’t do them justice? It’s worth questioning every preference we come upon, even those that seem benign.

Living in the rut of our preferences, we don’t recognize the freedom we have to reshape our experience. And if we are in relationships, we may be limiting others as well. In Darlene’s essay, she used the example of how her preferences shaped her younger life and the life of her small son. There was no way was she going to attend a ‘stupid Muppets movie’ or go to Disneyland, leaving her son to rely on other parents for those activities. Looking back, she regretted how much she missed by letting her preferences rule her in that way, saying, ‘What kind of twit chooses her aesthetic tastes over spending exuberant time with her child!’

Indeed! We can each look at our own choices and see if we are letting our preferences limit our ability to live fully and openly. Yes, perhaps some unpleasantness may occur if our preference filters are dropped. But in our practice we learn how to be present with unpleasantness, don’t we? We simply notice all that arises in our expansive field of compassionate awareness. If there is a pain, we stay present with the whole of the experience, noting all the small ever-changing sensations within it. We notice how our thoughts lurch into the past and future — ‘Oh no not this again!’ or ‘How long will this go on?’ We notice also whatever pleasant or neutral sensations are also present in this moment, so that we are not stuck in our automatic negativity bias. Imagine how liberating it would be to be able to be open to whatever comes. How much do we live in fear that things won’t be just as we want them to be. How attached are we to the belief that our slightest discomfort is intolerable?

In noting our preferences, we might also see to what degree we allow them to define us. This is especially noticeable if you or someone you know gets upset that a purported loved one doesn’t remember their preferences. ‘How could he not remember that I hate yellow! He doesn’t really love me.’ As if the preferences are the person. If you feel this way, it’s worth examining! Do you really believe that what people love about you is your preferences?

As we practice being fully present with whatever arises, we tap into a powerful freedom. We can be in situations where we have little control and still have equanimity and the resilience to respond skillfully to changing situations.

The past two weeks we have seen how natural disasters can play havoc with our nice ordered life, rooted in preferences. None of the people affected by hurricanes and earthquakes were consulted as to their preferences before finding themselves in those situations. And the more entangled they are in preferences, the more they suffer.

Of course, no one would actively choose disaster, loss of home, loved ones, power, communications, food, water, health care, etc. So doesn’t everyone suffer in these situations?  Everyone experiences pain, but there is a distinction between the pain we experience being alive in this life and the suffering we cause ourselves, compounding the pain many times over. If we are actively practicing being fully present and cultivating skillful ways of being in relationship with all that arises in our experience, then that experience shifts dramatically.

My heart goes out to all who have been affected by these natural disasters. As I watch, helpless to do anything but send metta and money, I am awed by the instantaneous outreach and self-organizing rescue aid that arises at times like these. It reminds me that a person at the mercy of their personal preferences may not be able to respond skillfully to changing circumstances. They are so caught up in a tight knot of reactivity that setting their personal preferences aside to meet the needs of the moment could be a huge challenge. It might be a moment of awakening, of breaking out of that dull deadening rut, but just as likely their reactivity to things not being the way they want them may make them turn away, rushing to find solace in something familiar, perhaps something self-destructive.

In Darlene’s essay she says that “a life lived openly without filters includes pain, heartbreak, Disneyland, and unpleasant occurrences. But you do have a satisfying feeling of being infinitely approachable; the universe gets through to you, whatever scenery it’s hauling.” Infinitely approachable. I love that!

So just as an exercise, perhaps as a little homage to Darlene Cohen and her wise teachings, but also as a gift to yourself, try opening to something beyond your habituated preferences, and see what happens. If you give it a try, please report back. And I will be taking note of and challenging my beloved preferences. Oh dear!


Where Do You Go Mindless?

Have you ever realized when you arrived somewhere that you don’t remember anything about the ride? Have you ever finished a meal and realized you didn’t taste a single bite? Have you ever blurted out something you wish you could take back?

We all have times when we go mindless and function as if we’re on automatic pilot. As we develop mindfulness through the regular practice of meditation, we begin to see where this happens in our lives and why.

You know how when things go into slow motion actions reveal themselves that you totally missed at normal speed? It’s the same with meditation, especially on a silent retreat when you have no where else to be and nothing else to do but meditate and practice being mindful. In that slow motion state, thoughts are still there but they dance in a more spacious field of awareness. We can see the dance steps, how one thought leads to another by process of association.

We become present enough to see how thoughts arise, one dependent on another. And if we can see what thought stream kicks us into mindlessness, we can look more closely to see where we are falling into habituated patterns that don’t serve us and where we might be avoiding something that makes us uncomfortable.

Some people are terrified of the idea of meditating for that very reason. They don’t WANT to be mindful, because it might reveal something they have very forcefully kept stuffed down. Instead of giving themselves quiet time alone, they fill their lives with as much noise and busyness as they possibly can to stifle whatever it is in there that seems so threatening.

But developing awareness awakens compassion. Meditation is not some boot camp with a tough drill sergeant bent on making us suffer. Just the opposite! It’s a homecoming! A liberation! A savoring of this gift of being alive in this moment. The thing we thought was scary or shameful is not lying in wait to harm us. Instead it is waiting for us to soften the tight chains that bind it to us, and through compassionate dialog to release it and allow the process to teach us.

So, tell me, where do you go mindless?

Insight Meditation, how ‘Dharma can heal our wounds’

The short lessons we read from The Pocket Pema Chodron before my dharma talk and discussion, is often in sync with what I had planned to talk about or whatever came up before in our meeting. This week we read #87 ‘Our Predicament is Workable,” that starts with the sentence “The dharma can heal our wounds, our very ancient wounds that come not from original sin but from a misunderstanding so old that we can no longer see it.”

‘…a misunderstanding so old that we can no longer see it.” What does that mean?

We talked about how on a personal level there are many patterns that we operate with in our lives — patterns of thinking and behavior — that we see as our way of being, part of who take ourselves to be. We let these patterns define us even though we don’t know where they come from or how they were woven.

On a collective cultural level, we have been weaving certain traits as well, reacting to events such as climate, landscape, famine, drought, war and other threats to our well being. These culturally inherited or co-created traits also become part of our personal pattern. International travel is useful to help us see beyond what we believe to be ‘human nature’ when it’s really just our own localized set of patterns at work. We can see other nation’s collective patterns more clearly, without needing to judge them or prove one is better than another. Viva la difference! When we see how much variation there is between cultures and between individuals within cultures, we are less inclined to believe that there is one way of seeing the world or any given situation. This frees us from having to defend the particular thought patterns we are most familiar with, nor do we need to disparage them. We can simply begin to see them as a little more free-floating, a little less intrinsic to our very being.

Through mindfulness meditation we make the space to begin seeing these patterns more clearly as they arise and act out as passing thoughts or emotions. We can compassionately look at them, and at the defensiveness, shame or judgment that may arise with them. They are just patterns. As we give our minds the quiet to settle down and become spacious, we may wonder about some of the things we notice.We can perhaps focus our thinking mind, struggle to analyze these patterns and come to some conclusions. But what is this analysis and what are these conclusions but more judgment, blame and assumption? More of the same patterns?

In the space we create through our meditation practice, we can wonder in a more open creative way. For example, we can simply put out the question, “Is this true?” and then allow for our quiet attention to let the ‘answers’ arise in our awareness.

I shared with the sangha an experience I had soon after starting to meditate 30+ years ago. I was questioning an ongoing troublesome pattern I recognized, a place in my life where I tended to go dead. I asked “Why am I like this?” Then I let the question go (probably because I had asked it more in despair than in any expectation of finding an answer!) and I relaxed, resting a little longer before getting up to go about my day.

Because I was relaxed but noticing, three different vivid images of events from my past floated one by one through my awareness. I remember thinking how odd it was that these long forgotten memories would just show up like that, yet here they were. Because they came in a series, I looked for a common thread, and realized that each one offered a memory of getting shut down around this very area of concern, making me turn inward and go dead.

‘Oh!’ The answer was there as clear as if a spotlight and a close up lens had been offered up for purposes of self-exploration and discovery. This is what creating a meditative relaxed open attention to the present moment can offer up, if we are willing to stay present to notice.

A sangha member shared her own exploration of a particular knot of fear-based pattern that troubled her. She could see that the reaction that became her pattern was learned at an early age. Like most of our patterns, she saw how it made sense at the time but now, as an adult with other means and with the power of autonomy, she could respond with more skill to challenging situations.

This is part of the insight process. We notice, we question, we gain insight. And then what? Well, if we just stop there we can either develop a pattern of judging our patterns, or we can stay open and allow awareness to soften the patterns, releasing us from them. But there is something else we can do if we are wanting to continue the process a little further within a meditative self-exploration.

If we have our younger self in mind, we can compassionately reparent the child within. What does this mean? Well, especially if we are parents or have taken care of children, it is fairly easy to see our young self with a great deal of tenderness and compassion. (Whatever harsh views we hold about ourselves, certainly we can allow that as small children, no matter how we behaved, we were worthy of being loved, being held with compassion. Even the person we were in our early twenties, before the finishing touches were put on our brain’s judgment functions scientists have now discovered, can be reparented, forgiven for failures of judgment, etc.)

Whatever it was that we didn’t receive from our parents or guardians — love, kindness or permission to be ourselves — we can give ourselves now. We may find within us the voice of the parent that may have withheld love, been overbearing, forgot to praise or was constantly scolding or abusing us. Whatever our relationship with those who had power over us, we can fairly say they did the best they could at the time, because that’s true for us all. We each of us hold within us a set of patterns that, if we are not able to get conscious, dictate our behavior. If there is no room for forgiveness, then let that be a known knot within us, a knot that we can hold with compassion for now.

We can recognize that the still-active voice within us that replicates the parent’s voice can also be held with tenderness. It is what we have to deal with now — not the actual parent, but the internal parent voice. (So often we feel we need to have a conversation with our elderly parent, or feel we have lost the opportunity after they die, when really it’s this inner parent that is in charge now, and it’s an inner conversation that needs to happen!)

We can hold this inner parent voice with compassion, treat it with respect, listen to its concerns, and work with it in the same way we have worked with other voices or aspects of self, all of which are knotted fear-based patterns of thought-emotion that can be seen now that we are creating an open spaciousness within our minds.

In our meditation practice we have the paired intentions to be fully present and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. With these two intentions we have the very tools we need for skillful inner exploration and insight,

Making Note
When we have insights, it is often useful to make note of them. Caveat: This can turn into a compulsion to write down everything, which turns it into something different and sometimes short circuits the process. But if some words stay with us and make a profound difference in our lives, then writing those words down and keeping them close might be useful.

I have this note to self that I wrote on a retreat pinned to my bulletin board:

I have nothing to fear
I have nothing to hide
I have nothing to prove
I have something to give.

This was a realization I had on a retreat. At the moment I wrote it, it was not a hope of a way to be but my actual experience of being. Up on the board, glanced at on occasion, it refreshes me, strengthens me, puts me back in touch with myself.

Of course what I wrote down is not always true for me. I don’t use it as an ‘affirmation’ but a way to find the truth of the current moment. I can say those words and question. Is that true?

At a recent reading an accurate statement was:

I have nothing to fear, yet I’m afraid.
I have nothing to hide yet I feel the weight of the effort to keep something buried inside me.
I have nothing to prove yet I feel myself striving to be something other than what I am.
I have something to give, yet I withhold it for fear it is not good enough.

That was the truth in the moment I wrote that statement. To work with it at the time I asked questions:

What am I afraid of? (Always a great question whatever the situation!)
What am I hiding?
What am I trying to prove?
What do I have to give?

At any given moment the answers will arise differently, so I will not record them here. This is just a reminder, a suggestion, of how to work with an insight that has captured the crux of a knotty pattern within. We each have areas that are particularly knotty, patterns however created. When we have an insight that shines a light on the knot, that makes more space between the knotted threads, that makes it easier to see the threads from more angles so we can see where the threads come from and how the tangle got so tight, then we have the opportunity to sit with it and allow it to inform us.

Can we take the time to allow the process to unfold? Can we let it arise without forcing it, without jumping too quickly to grab an easy answer and claim it as proof of our enlightenment?

May we be relaxed but alert, open in mind and heart, awakened to the moment, filled with a sense of universal kindness, able to hold whatever arises in an open embrace.

What keeps us from knowing our Buddha Nature?

Central to Buddhism is the understanding that there is no place to get to, that enlightenment is not some distant place, but lives ever present within us. This sense of presence is called our Buddha Nature. It is our inherent loving-kindness, our spacious mind that knows we are each expressions of a whole rather than the separate individuals we habitually believe ourselves to be.

This Buddha Nature may be a treasure we have yet to recognize, hidden in plain sight but camouflaged by our habitual patterns of seeing. But have no doubt! It is there, shining within us, a light of incredible brilliance that, when discovered, illuminates our experience, clarifying our understanding and dissolving the tangle of fear-based roots that has kept us feeling tethered, weighed down and out of kilter.

We have been studying the Third Noble Truth that promises that we can know and even live fully from this Buddha Nature. Our practice is to make ourselves available to this Buddha Nature by being as present in this moment as we can. We relax into the moment, for it is in this ‘here, now and fully-relaxed’ state that the inherent Buddha Nature makes itself known.

It seems simple enough to do this. The instructions are clear. Yet often, sitting after sitting we come away feeling as if we have waded through a bog of mental mud! We begin to doubt if we are capable of finding clear spacious open-heartedness or even a little precious peacefulness where we can momentarily rest our weary minds. We begin to worry that we are the only person in the world who doesn’t actually have Buddha Nature.

This is absolutely normal. There are so many ways our habitual mind sabotages our intention to access our Buddha Nature. We know that habits die hard. I remember when my mother finally quit smoking after her doctor told her she had emphysema. She told me that it wasn’t the addiction that was so difficult; it was her inability to imagine who she would be without a cigarette in her hand. In her mind, smoking made her more sophisticated, intelligent and glamorous. Without that little burning stick in hand, who would she be? After she quit, she was still just as vital, beautiful and exciting as she had ever been. And once the smoke cleared, she could see that that cigarette did not define her and had instead been hindering her from full enjoyment of life. But for so many years she had been too afraid to let go, to find that out; and that fear fostered the self-destructive behavior that killed her.

My mother’s experience illustrates how we cling more tightly than ever to our habits if they are entwined with our self-image. So if, for example, we like to think we are practical and not susceptible to any woo-woo nonsense, then we create a strong resistance even to something that offers us the possibility of a happier life.

This is not to say we should abandon good judgment and fall for every feel-good scheme that gets marketed to us! Quite the opposite! Instead, we need to become aware of our OWN inner wisdom. When we are disconnected from it, if we are honest we can feel that disconnect. During a period many years ago when I was ‘too busy’ to meditate or even to give myself much-needed alone time, I remember saying to a co-worker, “I feel totally separate from myself.”

This was a potentially pivotal moments in my life. Had I heeded the words coming out of my mouth instead of just finding them amusing, I might have saved myself and those I love a lot of subsequent suffering. (Often the wisest words are words we say ourselves, and just as often we don’t listen to them. It really pays to notice what advice we are giving others. It’s often for us as well.)

But I didn’t pay attention to my words of caution. Instead I continued my grueling schedule and ended up getting a serious chronic illness that incapacitated me, forcing me to leave my career, cutting our family income in half. Had I heeded my own words, I might have been able to make a milder and less painful course correction.

I began to meditate again, and since there was little else I could do, I meditated as if I were on what turned out to be a nine month retreat. I had been so out of balance and then so ill that that level of intensity felt necessary. In this way, I came home to my own inner wisdom, my own Buddha Nature, not just in rare moments, but as a steady guiding light in my life. Eventually that inner wisdom diffused in such a way that I understood it was not some separate inner guru replete with personality, but simply a shift of perception, from a sense of separation to a sense of connection.

These habits of mind we all have are deeply rooted in this disorienting belief that we are separate and isolated beings encased in envelopes of skin. I say ‘disorienting’ because at some level we know it is not true, so we have angst and restlessness, as we look all over for the things in the world that will make us feel connected. When everything fails to satisfy this deep longing, we feel steeped in fear that expresses itself in all manner of negative emotions and results in suffering, for ourselves and those around us.

As we meditate, we practice developing the mental muscles of setting clear intention to be present with whatever arises in our experience. We practice relaxing our muscles and letting our bones support our bodies. And we develop a sense of compassion so that we can meet our distracted minds with kindness rather than our habitual harangue. With steady practice we begin to find more spaciousness, and more clarity to notice habitual mental and emotional patterns. With compassionate curious attention, these patterns soften and may even dissolve.

The briefest glimpse into this spaciousness can be sufficient to begin the unraveling of these old fear-based habits. Buddha Nature is timeless, and therefore, once known, once perceived, is always available. Years ago there was a popular activity of staring at a visual puzzle, where an image was hidden within a complex pattern. People would stare and stare at this puzzle. Some would become frustrated and give up. Some would see it quickly. With others it took time, but by relaxing and keeping their vision refreshed, they finally saw it. But everyone who saw it couldn’t later un-see it. The image would always be there. This is also true of Buddha Nature. Once you know it, you can never un-know it. You may ignore it, but you will never again be unable to sense it if you open to it.

Since we are creatures of habit, we can set the intention to develop new healthy mental habits – habits of noticing, habits of being aware of sensation, habits of compassionately observing our mind at work. This is a very effective way to prepare ourselves for whatever shift in consciousness that might arise out of repeatedly making ourselves available.

Allowing for the possibility, making ourselves available – these are good ways of thinking about how this shift of awareness happens. They remind us that this is an opening to what already is, rather than a search for something hidden elsewhere. It’s more like tuning our instrument to play harmoniously. Perhaps we are currently strung too tight and so are playing a sharp instead of a natural. Or perhaps we’re strung too loose, sluggish in our energy, foggy in our thinking, sleepy in our meditation, so we need to focus on refining, clarifying and brightening our concentration. This is not done by hunkering down, gritting our teeth or bracing ourselves, but through opening to the energy that is ever-present. We can draw it into our being, feel its strength and healing power, and let it rise up to express itself through us.

As we open, allowing for the natural shift to a more fluid connected state that is always available, we can see that in this state the old habits of fear that we thought were serving to protect us serve no purpose. Their efforts only exacerbated negative situations, escalated arguments and confrontations, and cut us off from healthy interaction.

The idea of retiring our emotional weaponry sounds nice, but what if we are feeling stuck in fear? What if we are fearful of the ideas presented here? First, let’s remember that none of this is new news but draws from the well of universal wisdom that is at the core of all world religions and spiritual traditions. And, if religion scares us, we can find the same wisdom in the latest scientific findings.

Secondly, it’s valuable to recognize that all of these habits of mind are striving for our survival as best they can. They are trying to protect us from a perceived harm. So it is just another fear-based habit of mind to feel threatened by the habits themselves. It is more useful to see them as misguided allies.

I have occasionally referred to working with the various aspects or voices we discover as we really listen to our thinking mind. I have found in my own experience the value of inquiring into the specific desires and concerns of these aspects, and then compassionately negotiating a way for the aspects needs to be met without undermining my well being.

You may recall the story of my inner aspect ‘Slug’ and his resistance to exercise. He loved bed. Bed was for him a big mommy hug, and he missed his mommy. Well, of course, I missed my mommy too as she had died a few years before this encounter. But I knew my mother wouldn’t want me lollygagging in bed anymore than my own inner wisdom did, so I found a yoga class with a teacher about my mother’s age and who, at the end of class, as we students were lying on the floor in shivasana pose, would come to each of us with a blanket and tuck us in. Well, of course Slug LOVED this yoga class. And that’s how I was able to negotiate getting some much-needed exercise.

But as useful as it can be to work with aspects of self in this inter-personal way, giving them cute nicknames and personalities to encourage compassion in our dealings, there are many other ways to view these complex inter-workings of our mind.

These habits of mind are caught up in a view that is totally relative. Through the lens of these habits steeped in fear, we see things from an embedded perspective, like a journalist embedded in a military operation. We see a very intense, very personal, but very one-sided view of things. And it is so intense — this living a life — that we completely buy into it being the whole truth. But all the while we are stuck in this perspective that is vested in maintaining this singular point of view, as if we have pledged allegiance to it and must defend it, or are employed as its public relations representative.

We are not! We are free agents! We are free to walk about and observe with fresh eyes and see for ourselves what is true and what is not. How much of what we hold to be true have we really questioned or examined?

I was so taken years ago when I heard about a listening project in the Southern US, where trained volunteers visited homes and simply listened to the inhabitants express their views of the world. They were trained to notice when they made statements that seemed rote, as if accepted long ago and not examined since. And they knew how to probe, encouraging deeper self-reflection, so that on their own the interviewees began to see the flaws in their own arguments, and through further exploration, using their own good sense, they found they didn’t buy into the pre-packaged hateful things they had so readily spouted just an hour before. In this way the listening project did not promote another view; it just provided the space for exploration.

And this is what we do. We provide space and a willingness to notice and question our standing operating procedures, our pre-packaged beliefs, our previously unquestioned inheritance of values and ideas. We see where we may be holding two opposing beliefs at the same time and have never stopped to question them. No one else can do this inner work for us. We may be inspired by what others say, but the experience of questioning is an ongoing inside job.

For some this idea might at first feel very threatening. Our inherited beliefs may seem comforting, something to hang onto in a dangerous world. They may seem like the one way we do feel connected to something. And it may be true that at core they do offer that entrance to a sense of connection, but unexamined, accepted as truth without exploration, they are about as powerful as a baby’s security blanket.

Opening to the possibility that these habits of mind — these negative emotions, judgments and discomforting thoughts — are not personal but universal, helps us to feel safe in our exploration. Understanding that most of us look at the world from a particular mindset — not from our deepest and truest nature — helps us to let go of the need to defend our position.

How refreshing and relaxing it is to realize that these habits of mind are not traits that define us, but common patterns that course through us, shaping our thoughts and our behavior. These patterns are like the readily visible patterns in that visual puzzle mentioned earlier, before we see the image that is hidden in plain sight.

Insight meditation is the practice of noticing these patterns of mind, actively observing in a spacious way. If we notice when we are getting caught up in them and pause to breathe more spaciousness into our noticing, and then look with fresh eyes in a more relaxed way, we can begin to see something else emerging.

These relative mindsets we have believed to be our true selves all these many years, do not define us any more than my mother’s cigarette defined her. As we make that distinction and begin to see that we are not these habits of mind, then we can open ourselves more easily to the possibility of allowing them to pass through our current experience without feeling we have to rise up and do battle with them. In time we see that bringing spaciousness into our relationship with them gives us the ability to see them more clearly, to see all the thoughts, emotions and image associations that give us deeper understanding. Eventually, with that shift into seeing from our inherent Buddha Nature perspective, these habits lose their sense of purpose. With their need to protect us gone, they can dissolve quite naturally.

So what keeps us from knowing our Buddha Nature? Believing that our habits of mind –our endless thought stream, and our ocean of emotion — define us. As we let go of our clinging to this sense of separate self we become available for the revelation of the absolute reality of oneness with all that is that patiently waits within us. This is our Buddha Nature.