We have been looking at our various inner aspects, the fear-based thoughts and emotions that form patterns so seemingly solid that most of us have taken them to be who we are. Through meditation we begin to see that we are not our thoughts, our emotions, our bodies, our quirky behaviors, beliefs, accomplishments or failures. Yet all of these are still part of our experience. We have simply shifted our relationship with them, shifted our vantage point to Wise View, as we discussed in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. We see more clearly because we have given ourselves this quiet time to access the calm, loving, timeless inner voice.
By continually accessing, listening to and aligning with that loving font of universal wisdom, we come to a reliable place of insight and understanding about who we are. This alignment requires only our whole-hearted intention to be present and compassionate. To strive to do more than that is not only not required but would undermine our ability to be present and compassionate.
Meditation is called a practice because we repeatedly come back to our set intention each time we find we have gotten lost in past or future thinking. Being present – here, now, relaxed — is the access point to universal wisdom, and being compassionate with ourselves and others creates the spaciousness for the wisdom to arise within us. Developing the ability to guide our attention back to the present moment again and again is all we need to do. At some point it becomes more natural. At first it may feel like dancing on the head of a pin to stay in the present moment, but as our practice continues we feel more stable and more present more of the time.
Once we are able to be present for extended periods, noticing what arises in each moment, we quite naturally become curious and find we can skillfully explore our discoveries. The interest we take in the inner workings of our own way of being in the world and in the world itself, is very different from the greedy mind that wants to acquire knowledge, to shore up a sense of self, to protect against someone calling us ignorant. Accessing inner wisdom stimulates beginner’s mind and activates our innate curiosity. Not knowing is no longer scary but delightful! We are invited to dance with life in all its mystery, and not a one of us was meant to be a wallflower.
If this idea of not being our thoughts and emotions doesn’t make sense, give it time and meditation. It is not something that is easily explained and everyone discovers it differently. Here is one ‘explanation’ that could offer some understanding.
Think of the child who takes a clock apart to see what makes it tick. Once all the pieces are laid upon the table, is it still a clock? Is a clock a bunch of small metal objects in various sizes and shapes, each of which could perhaps be used to make something totally different? No, I think we can agree the parts are not the clock.
In this same way, we can look at our thoughts, our body, our personality, our emotions, our skills, talents, achievements or preferences, and see that as valued as they are, they are not who we are. When we try to answer the question of who we are by holding up any of these and saying, “This is me” we are like the child holding up a small metal gear and saying this is a clock. The child knows this is not true. And we inherently know that we are not our passing thoughts, our behaviors or our physical features.
Meditative self-exploration is not a scheme to create a new self that will be more acceptable. This is extremely important to realize and remember. We often believe that if only we were different, everything would be better. Meditation is not a makeover! It is being present with what is. We are present to notice a recurring pattern of thought or emotion arising out of fear. We may notice a reaction to this discovery in the form of a desire to throw out, deny or remake what we have discovered. But this reaction is just another fear-based aspect trying to make things right. Each time we notice this desire, we simply renew our intention to be present and compassionate. There is nothing we can find here that we can replace with something better. There is no recycling center, dump, prison or graveyard for what we have discovered. What we discover is a facet of the is-ness of being. Doing battle with it only activates aggressive inner aspects that create further disruption. Instead, we stay steady with our deep-rooted awareness, and compassionately explore further.
Self-exploration is not for the faint of heart. Many people are terrified of the idea of really finding out who they are. I know I was! I was quite sure that whatever I would find would be so loathsome I would die of shame. Like many others, I came (in my case returned) to meditation out of desperation. I felt I had no choice because things had become so intolerable and I was in such pain.
However we come to this process, we learn to notice, be available for, and then align with universal wisdom, our Buddha nature. We develop a perspective that allows us to see our discoveries in a way that no longer threatens our existence. When we truly relax into the here and now, we feel supported by the infinite web of life into which we are intrinsically woven. Nothing we can find is alien to this is-ness of life, even patterns of thought, emotion and behavior that are steeped in fear, hoping to stay alive by the unskillful means of dividing, judging, name-calling, and trying to make what we encounter into something ‘other,’ in order to survive. None of us invented this pattern and all of us experience it. But by continually making sufficient quiet space to hear that quiet non-demanding voice of infinite wisdom each of us has access to, we find that we are less and less driven by these fear-based patterns.
The more we notice and come to recognize these aspects or patterns, the less powerful they become. Thus we are more willing to look closer still. Ultimately we find a joy and delight in the exploration. When we come upon something ‘awful’ we say ‘Aha!’ rather than ‘Oh no!’ We no longer feel we have discovered the ugly truth about ourselves, but that we have discovered a heretofore hidden fear-based aspect or pattern. As we have explored in past talks, we know that once it is recognized, we can skillfully dialog with this aspect, resulting in an improved life experience. With each exploratory insight, we find more spaciousness, more aliveness and more sense of connection.
Perhaps this explanation leaves you with many questions, such as:
How do I know when I am ready for self-exploration?
You are ready when you have developed a strong meditation practice that enables you to stay present and compassionate for extended periods of time. Without this alignment with inner wisdom, your inner dialogs will be conversations between two fear-based inner aspects. When fear meets fear any conversation becomes a duel or a battle. There will be a supposed winner and a loser, and that’s a lose-lose situation.
Another question I have heard expressed is ‘Why can’t I just kill off inner aspects I don’t like?’
The ‘killing’ is done by another inner aspect that is then empowered to do more harm. Aligned with infinite inner wisdom, we recognize that love is more powerful than violence because violence is just the expression of shallow-rooted fear. Love is deeply rooted and all-encompassing. There is no aspect or pattern that is not held in this loving web of life.
Also it’s important to remember that aspects can’t be killed off. They will just go underground and morph into something else, so to do battle with them is hopeless. Our reaction to that news might reasonably be, ‘Well then, there’s nothing I can do, I’ll just surrender and continue to let my life be dominated by these fear-based aspects. That’s just the way it is.’ What we are learning here is a skillful and successful way to deal with these aspects so that we will not be victimized by their behavior.
So are all aspects acceptable?
Yes, all are acceptable, just as all children are acceptable, even the bully, the whiner, the pouter, and the sour-puss. All are acceptable but all need love and guidance so that their fears are addressed and they feel safe. Only then will they have no need to cause harm to themselves or others. It isn’t their intention to harm anyone. It is their intention to protect us, but their means are unskillful and cause problems and damage.
What if I don’t have access to this inner wisdom?
The fear that you don’t have access is just an inner aspect trying to protect itself from disappearing. If it only knew how nonthreatening this access is, it would help you find it! But that’s not the nature of fear-based aspects. They are the dragons at the gate of enlightenment, the ones that we must acknowledge with awareness, kindness and patience. Just when we have given up the goal of gaining access, the dragon relaxes its stance and the gates are opened. So sit with the fear that arises within you with kindness and compassion. Anchor into physical sensation, release tension whenever you notice it, and bath yourself with loving kindness. This is what your wise inner voice would do for you, so do it for yourself.
Another question arises out of a concern that all this talk of inner aspects makes it sound like we’re schizophrenic. Why speak of it in this way?
It’s extremely important to understand that this is just a technique for inner exploration. It would be magical thinking to suggest that we actually have inner aspects with cute names! But it is a very effective way for many of us to recognize our patterns of thought, emotion and behavior.
This particular method I came up with on my own, loosely based on something my original non-Buddhist meditation teacher suggested. He was a believer in the value of creating natural easeful mindscapes to rest in during meditation. He taught that if a person or animal came into our natural setting, we would do well to ask it questions, because it would have a message for us. Soon after he said that, I came upon a figure in one of my meditation sits — a woman with close-cropped hair and white Chinese-style pajamas was dancing in a glowing orb of light. She was so joyous I didn’t recognize her as having my features until later. But I asked her questions and she started talking with such deep-rooted wisdom that I took notes. When I shared my notes with the class the students said, ‘Oh it’s like she’s talking directly to me!” and my teacher insisted I publish the collected notes. The result was my book ‘Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.’ It was my wise inner voice, who introduced me to the fear-based cast of characters within me and taught me how to respectfully dialog with them in a way that all needs would be met.
A few years later, when I began to study Buddhism, I heard that this technique of naming inner aspects is done in some Buddhist traditions as well. These kind of techniques work with the natural tendency we humans have to personify, label and categorize. Biologically we are dealing with neurotransmitters, brain waves, hormones, etc. that together form the patterns of thought and emotion that fill our experience of being alive. But most of us are more comfortable with thinking in terms of a cast of characters in a novel or play than brushing up on scientific terms.
When we think about human culture throughout history, how we have told ourselves involved stories, often using iconic figures, such as the panoply of gods in Greek, Hindu, African and Native American mythology, what is this but our way of coming to understand ourselves better? So this inner exploration is much like that. We are getting to know an inner cast of characters, understanding that they are iconic in nature, not actual people living inside our heads. Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Clarissa Pinkola Estes made their life work noticing and working with these symbols, icons and personifications of these patterns and traits. This is rich exploration!
It would also be human nature to take these characters to be real, to get caught up in all their shenanigans, to root for one or the other. So we do this inner exploration only when we are aligned with our ability to see that it is just a play. Then we can have fun with it and learn what we need to know at the same time.
It is my belief that the shift from many gods to one god was brought about by enlightened beings throughout history who discovered for themselves and shared with others the realization that all is one, and joy can be found by aligning with that loving all-inclusive oneness rather than any single fear-based iconic character. But human nature being what it is, this enlightened information was received and celebrated and then over time degenerated into this ‘one’ god against others. Thus religions become dangerous rather than helpful. Meditation has the capacity to help us understand that all of this is just a way of exploring ourselves and the world more skillfully. Yet meditators are not immune to the tendency to be divisive, to declare one school of Buddhism, for example, better than another. If we remember that we are diverse in how we receive information, we can understand why there is a need for so many different ways for the access to universal wisdom to be taught. The key is whether the core wisdom is sustained or whether it is lost or diluted in the fray.
A very important question is how do we recognize our wise inner voice. After all there have been people throughout the ages that have believed themselves to be acting under the instructions of a wise inner voice. How can we know we are not delusional?
When you think about some of the things that have been done in the name of God, for example, that are ruthless and destructive, you can be sure this was not accessing universal inner wisdom. Here are some distinctions:
The wise voice will NEVER say words like should, must, have to, right now, hurry up, the only way, I’m warning you, you better watch out, do what I say, don’t question me, I’m right, you don’t need to understand why, urgent, immediately, don’t! do!
The wise inner voice is very quiet, never loud, urgent, or demanding.
The wise inner voice is very calm, never caffeinated or rushed.
The wise inner voice loves you now and always. If you say ‘What do you need me to know,’ the first thing this voice may tell you is ‘I love you, I have always loved you, I will always love you.’ And nothing else that it will say will ever be in contradiction to that.
The wise inner voice is patient. There is never a sense of urgency to it.
You don’t have to search for your wise inner voice. In fact the search itself may take you off course. Simply be present, here, now and relaxed, and like a pond clearing after a storm, access to inner wisdom will become available to you.
Is self-exploration self-indulgent?
Remember we are not talking about going on a search. We are talking about dealing with what arises in this moment. When something arises, it may be something we hadn’t ever noticed before because we were busy thinking about things in the past and future. All we are doing is looking more closely with curiosity at what is present in our experience, noticing associative thoughts, images, emotions and physical sensations. These are clues that are right here, but only apparent to the mind that is right here as well. We don’t need to pursue an aspect to dialog with it. Whatever aspect would be most valuable to dialog with is present right here and now. It is their disruptive presence that makes the dialog necessary!
By calling this process self-exploration, we bring to mind a search or a quest. Holding this view can be a distraction, a distortion and just another habituated pattern of future thinking, as if life does not really begin until we find the holy grail of who we are. A person on such a quest is not present, but is caught up in addictive or obsessive patterns that give them a myopic or astigmatic view of themselves and the world. This we could call self-indulgent, but why name it in this pejorative way, as if the person is having a great time at our expense? They are not! They are suffering because they are caught in a whirlwind that keeps taking them out of the present moment through unskillfulness.
What’s up with the cutesy names?
Just as this process of defining aspects works with our human tendency to like story and character, the naming of characters works with our tendency to label and organize information we come upon in order to retrieve it when we need it. We run into trouble with this tendency when we take our labels to be reality rather than a useful organizing tool.
It is useful when we come upon a fear-based thought or emotion to personify it. We are organically set up to notice human features and characteristics, so if we attribute features and characteristics to a pattern of behavior, based on what it seems to be concerned about, we will recognize it next time we see it much more easily than if we tried to assign it a dry scientific term that was difficult to remember and not very interesting to us. We are simply working with what we have: our natural tendencies! By creating an easy way to recognize them, we can first and foremost know that their suggestions or demands are not those arising out of love and wisdom but out of fear. At any given moment it’s important to know that so that the choices we make in life are skillful.
But as part of the process of exploration, this naming makes it easy to have a dialog. A ‘cutesy’ name reminds us to approach this aspect with compassion and respect. If we are not able to give it compassion or respect, then we are not aligned with our inner wisdom and need to sit quietly and come into the present, let the inner pond clarify a bit, before we dialog. If that’s not possible, then this isn’t a useful practice at this time as the results will be a dueling dialog between two aspects.
So there’s a good reason for the names. But it is extremely important to be clear that this is just a useful system because otherwise we run the risk of taking it all very literally. There are no little people running around inside our brains! I say this because it seems to be human nature to convert these kinds of systems into literal truth. We are susceptible to believing the cast of characters we create to be real! We may fall a little in love with them, become enchanted with their behavior and forget that this is simply a useful means for exploration. So don’t get attached to the adorable mischievous aspects within you! Instead stay present and attuned with inner wisdom so that you can see them with clarity and compassion.
So these are some of the questions I’ve received. I would be happy to hear any others and respond as best I can.