Category Archives: inner aspects

Open your channel of creativity

When I began a daily practice of meditation in my early thirties, I was frustrated creatively. I had a novel in my head but I would write the same first twenty pages over and over again. My inner critics were bearing down on me with such vigilance that it felt impossible to get a word in edgewise.

After a couple of weeks of incorporating meditation into my life, I woke up one morning with a vivid dream that gave me my novel full blown. All I had to do was sit down and write it. And reader, I did! The inner critics must have been overwhelmed by the flow and were flushed away! Hooray! Six weeks later I had over three hundred pages of my first draft. For two hours every morning in my bedroom while my children were in nursery school I typed out two more drafts on my IBM Selectric that had replaced my dear old Underwood, and within nine months I had a novel. (That remains in ‘the drawer’ to this very day but that’s another story!)

I felt like my meditation practice cleared a wide column in the center of my being, allowing creative expression to rise up without blockage.

Why does meditation open the creative channel?
I can only speak to my own experience in writing and painting. But it makes sense when you think about how through the regular practice of meditation we begin to notice the harsh inner critics that rattle around in our thoughts constantly spouting cruel opinions about us. How likely are we to subject ourselves to such bad feelings by doing something creative? Why not avoid the whole thing? And yet there is this flicker of an eternal flame inside each of us that is ready to radiate, if only it were given even a little oxygen, a little kindness, a little encouragement. The creative impulse takes many different forms, not just in the arts. It’s where we feel truly alive and engaged in the process of creation, whether it’s an equation, a poem or a mural.

Without meditation to reveal what’s going on, we may assume that we are afraid of what other people might think. But it’s the inner critics that keep us from doing creative things. If we spend time with them in a compassionate way, we may begin to see where they come from. We might recognize what person who had a great deal of influence on us when we were young has been internalized and given power to keep us from living a full and meaningful life.

If you have a meditation practice, in the few minutes after you finish and your mind is clearer and kinder, throw out a question like “Why am I so resistant to ____________ (fill in your creative pursuit)?” (If you don’t have a practice, try it anyway after a quiet time with no distractions.)

Relax, look around, maybe yawn and rest — eyes open or shut, it doesn’t matter. Don’t search for answers. Just be open and easy. By asking the question, you are activating your own inner wisdom which has just been waiting to be asked. So notice answers as they arise. They come in many forms: visual or aural memories, some object you never noticed before, a book jumping off the shelf, the impulse to talk to a certain friend or family member.

I just happened to pose a question years ago around a problem I had, asking “Why am I so screwed up about ______?” I did not expect an answer, I was just in that state of quandary, and it may have been commentary, but I did pose it as a question. Then I just happen to lie there doing nothing, those last few precious moments before I make myself get out of bed, and much to my surprise within five minutes three different images came up for me out of the blue. Images of people and places I’d almost forgotten, words said to me that were cruel by people whose opinions mattered to me. At the time. And those three long-forgotten comments had been shaping my relationship to what I was ‘so screwed up about’! Wow! I had not thought about those people, and certainly not those words, in decades, but deep inside they were as fresh and wounding as if they were still being said.

And they were. Because I had internalized them. Those words were the daggers I used to make myself miserable. Exposed to the light of day by a simple question years later, I could see what had happened and how I had given away my power. And I said to myself “Why would I give those people so much power? They were clueless, troubled and unskillful. They didn’t know what they were doing, and even if they did, it had nothing to do with me.”

A big shift happen in my relationship to what I had been pondering. I managed to defang the viper that had sabotaged my ability to enjoy that part of my life! This is the power of insight meditation. It is not an escape from the daily grind, though it can be very pleasant. It empowers us to see clearly and to have compassion, to come into more skillful relationship with all that arises in our experience, even the ones so deeply hidden we hadn’t even known they were there. And it works especially well in relationship to creativity because, let’s face it, there were so many people when we were young — parents, teachers, classmates, the culture at large — telling us we couldn’t do it, that we weren’t doing it right, or asking who did we think we were to even try?

Suggestions for opening your creative channel

  • If your creative impulses get thwarted by inner scoffing and ridicule, up your meditation game. Meditate every morning to open the wide wondrous channel of your own creative expression.
  • Find your creative sangha. I bet you can find courses at a local community college or adult ed program where you will meet like-minded people with whom you can share the joy of creativity. It can feel silly on your own to buy art supplies and set up an easel in your home, but joining a class is empowering, and finding the friendship and encouragement of others who are also trying something new is very comforting. (I have a painting group I continue to meet with even though I haven’t painted in fifteen years. We meet every few months, share our creative efforts (I share my poetry) and enjoy each other’s company. For writing poetry, I belong to an ongoing poetry group where we are challenged but also feel safe in writing and sharing.)
  • Just before beginning writing or painting or whatever creative project you are working on, give yourself a moment of meditation focus, grounding, centering, letting go of the hyper-critical self-doubt and scolding that hampers the free flow of your imagination.
  • When you are not actively creating, stay alert to thought-threads and wisps of dreams that arise that might want to be expressed. Carry, and keep by your bedside, something to jot notes or sketches.
  • Focus on the process, not the product. Creativity is process. The product is a byproduct of that process and focusing on that byproduct is counterproductive. It is infinitely more joyful to activate a creative field of expansive celebratory exploration, rather than keeping your eye on the supposed prize. There is no prize but this very experience right here and now. Focusing on the end result sabotages the end result because it limits the possibilities, disturbs the flow and sets you up for disappointment when what you had imagined and what you have created don’t match, leaving you unhappy, but also blind to what is actually there.
  • Stay attuned to the creative flow and notice when it’s not ‘sparking joy’. Pause, walk away, refresh, renew, and then revisit when you feel ready.
  • Remember that you are in collaboration with some synergistic serendipitous field of energy. Sounds woo woo until you’re in it, and synchronicity provides exactly what you need when you need it. That’s being in the flow, whether you’re working on a creative project or just living.
  • The project is done when it satisfies some sense of wholeness, some intrinsic ‘yes!’ Not because you think it’s what the market wants or your teacher or friends like it, but because it satisfies something in you.

In my experience there are four clearly delineated stages of creativity that suffer when they overlap. I will use writing as my creative example, but it could just as well be used in other kinds of creative endeavors.


  • Stage 1: Open
    You have a thought, a dream, a phrase, an impulse — the stirrings of creativity arising. You might jot down a little something or keep toying with the words in your head, or it may arrive full blown and you can write it out. But if you sit down to write before the stirrings have inspired something, it may take a while to get to the heart of the matter, or you might never get there because the writing process without the stirrings can be laden with complicated self-talk.
  • Stage 2: Write
    When you are ready simply pour the words onto the page. Don’t hold back, don’t overthink, don’t edit. Just breathe life into the experience with the senses and specifics. If something needs researching, just make a note in the margin “RESEARCH:______________” Don’t look anything up right now or your attention will be stolen by the internet gremlins.
  • Stage 3: Edit
    Editing use a very different set of tools than writing. Trying to use them both at the same time stops the flow and gums up the works. Give your piece a little cooling off period before revisiting with an eye to where it comes alive, what contributes and what dulls it down. Then edit with fresh eyes. You might hang the piece somewhere you will see it often, and it will stay alive and reveal what may need to happen.
  • Stage 4: Share 
    Showing your work to others is a completely separate stage. Thinking about sharing it during the other stages will thwart the process. Sharing the work out loud or in print with others is both illuminating for the writer and the listener/reader. But the writer is not obligated to share, and except for reading well and providing a satisfying print environment for the piece, the writer’s work is done. The reader’s creative engagement and what they do with it is their own experience.

So there are a few ideas to use to stir up your inner creative impulse. Enjoy! But remember it all starts with a daily practice of meditation so the channel of creativity can open fully.

Meditation: Chore or Pleasure?

sweeping.jpgDeveloping a meditation practice may feel like another chore to do, like taking out the garbage or cleaning the kitchen. Both require wise intention and skillful effort to do, and afterward there’s a noticeable positive difference in our lives.

But they are also very different, probably in many ways, but here’s at least one: Chores are things that someone else could do for us if we didn’t want to do them and money was no object. But no one can meditate for us. Just as no one can attend a concert for us or eat a meal for us. No one can enjoy a good book for us or go on a life-transforming trip for us. These kinds of things no one could do for us because they are not chores, but experiences that directly provide us with pleasure, nourishment, insight and edification.

Meditation is a pleasure! This might not be immediately apparent because like many pleasures, we develop our deep appreciation of it through practice and exposure. Though some people find meditating easy from the start, for most it is an acquired delight.

It is similar to acquiring a taste for walking in the woods if we’ve never done it and have only watched scary movies and the woods is where the bodies get buried. We may be afraid of what’s behind a tree or around the next curve on the trail. Just so, someone who has never meditated may fear what might be lurking within their minds. But, as with the new hiker in the woods, practice grows awareness and understanding. The new meditator discovers that simply being present with the senses in silence is a safe place to be. They increasingly find comfort in their growing ability to stay present with all the physical sensations, emotions and thoughts that naturally arise in their field of awareness. They develop the skills to greet all that arises with friendliness, to trust their own inner wisdom to help them see more clearly and experience more expansively being fully alive in each moment.

When it comes to chores, a regular meditation practice helps us to discover that even these tasks can be pleasurable. The pleasure isn’t just the satisfaction of a job well done, but in the doing itself, living life just as it is in this moment with appreciation.

In class, students shared some of their experiences with last week’s exercise working with the question: What are your inherent gifts, interests and skills? It made for an interesting discussion. If you did the exercise, what came up for you? Looking over your list, is there anything you noticed during the week? Did any moments from the past jump out as reminders of something that you could add to that list? Did any of the things you wrote down surprise you? Do any two or more of the skills or interest potentially combine in a satisfying way?

These are ongoing questions. If you didn’t do the exercise, you might want to go back to the previous post and give it a try. If you did it but it feels a little scary or troubling, then go back to the first few questions in this series and work with them around what comes up: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and whatever answers come up, look at them with fresh eyes and ask Is this true?

You might notice a harsh inner voice that devalues the gifts you name. There are often more than just one of these expressions of our fears, whose intentions are to keep us ‘safe’. They can be thanked for their intentions, treated with respect and kindness, but not given the run of the place, because operating from fear is unskillful and potentially dangerous.

In meditation we are tuning in to the still quiet voice of infinite loving kindness and wisdom. It has no sense of urgency. It never dictates. It simply offers guidance in the form of options. When a harried inner voice is sending us with a sense of urgency to the refrigerator for a treat, the wise inner voice might be quietly saying ‘Or, you could notice that you’re not hungry but bored and head out to the garden instead.’  But it takes practice to hear that quiet wisdom speaking amidst the cacophony of all those fear-based thought patterns going on in our brain. The more we listen, the more we recognize that wisdom, the more we operate from it, and though the other voices are present, we don’t feel compelled to act on what they say. (Or at least not all the time!) As we anchor into awareness and compassion, we can even ‘interview’ them, discover their needs, and wisely negotiate some skillful solution that would satisfy them without sabotaging our well being.

I remember my discovery of that wise inner voice in my meditation. It felt like dancing on the head of a pin. I fell off so many times, and the moments when I was there were so fleeting. But over time, with consistent practice, that pinhead grew larger and larger until I was able to be there most of the time, and I was very aware if I was no longer there, and knew how to get back in balance.

It may seem impossible at first. All those inner voices screaming and carrying on and laughing their heads off at the very idea that you could find wisdom within yourself. But the Buddha said ‘Be a lamp unto yourself’. He knew that each of us has the capacity to deepen in our experience, to cultivate presence, and to find that core of wisdom within. One of my students shared an insight she had, but she called it a ‘Stephanie moment’. I called her on that. It was not my moment, it was her moment. Her attendance in class has helped her find her own inner wisdom, but it is absolutely hers. She is learning how to be a lamp unto herself.

But it is challenging! It reminds me a bit of my aunt’s experience with macular degeneration. She had adapted to seeing through just one eye, but suddenly that eye also went blind. She freaked out. But she attended a class, and she was encouraged to really look and to notice that there was a pinprick-size window of sight in the lower right side of her vision. She was trained to see through that tiny window. Over time it felt to her as if the tiny window must have grown larger, but it was her capacity to focus there that had strengthened. That’s the same with the practice of meditation: We grow in our capacity to pay attention, to be aware and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. And to recognize the access to infinite wisdom we each have within us.

In the next post we will look at the final question in this series, and I am very excited about sharing it. Stay tuned!



resolveResolve. I like that word. The wordsmith in me likes the sound of it better than ‘intention’ where the ‘tin’ rings a little hollow at times. ‘Resolve’ sounds deeper. It resounds in the body. It feels like a powerful river carving stone. Resolve.

If resolve feels more powerful for you than intention, practice using it when you set a course and see if it empowers you to follow it. If you prefer intention, stick with that. We all find what works best for our own practice. But for now, I will use ‘Resolve’ and we’ll see where it takes us.

Resolve is affiliated with the word ‘resolution’. Is that a powerful word? Or is it one we don’t take that seriously after so many failed New Year’s resolutions? One student in class said she thought of resolution as a problem that has been resolved, another way to use the word. That way of using it helps us to understand a key point about Resolve: Until all our inner voices come to some kind of resolution — have negotiated a sustainable agreement — we can’t effectively move forward on our course. Instead we get stuck in a quagmire of conflicting thoughts.

Sound familiar? We all have a bit of an internal cacophony. It’s not multiple personalities; just a lot of unexamined thought patterns that hold competing and conflicting opinions. Until we become fully aware of them, they hold the invisible reins to our behaviors, often sabotaging our best intentions without us knowing why. We end up frustrated that we don’t seem to get anywhere and feel so ‘weak-willed’. But will is not the problem. Our not taking the time to investigate who’s in charge here is the real challenge we all face.

One way to ‘out’ these conflicting rein-holders is to purposely set the trap of a little resolution or intention: something simple but for some reason difficult to carry out, like ‘clean out the closet’. Then wholeheartedly endeavor to do it. Maybe the closet gets cleaned out. (Yay! Now choose another more challenging resolution.) Or maybe the closet is still full of stuff that falls on you when you open the door. Or you got started but got tired or distracted and all the stuff just ends up in a pile elsewhere. Maybe half the closet gets done. Maybe you never get to the closet because life gets in the way. But during the process of having set this resolution, you come to the real purpose of this exercise: To activate and pay attention to the conflicting thoughts and emotions you have about whatever intention you have set.

Once you notice a thought that conflicts with your intention, this is an opportunity to have a dialog. I suggest journaling or maybe even recording the dialog. Most important in this process is to keep the dialog friendly, curious, respectful and compassionate. It needs to be a dialog between the sabotaging aspect of self and your deepest wisdom. If it’s a dialog between two aspects of self, it will escalate into a shooting match, a tantrum or a shut down. If your deepest wisdom interviews the aspect that’s being troublesome, the exchange will be valuable and potentially transformative. Inner wisdom is not trying to destroy or get rid of any part of ourselves or our experience. Nor is it trying to protect, defend, justify or coddle that aspect. It simply wants to investigate in a loving way what that aspects deepest fear is, what motivates it to sabotage us, and what could make it feel better without sabotaging well being.

Some skillful negotiation can be useful here. I once got my inner aspect I’d nicknamed Slug to go to a yoga class because I found a teacher who during the last period of savasana pose came around to each student and covered her with a blanket and tucked her in. In my interview with Slug I had discovered that he loved to hang out in bed because it reminded him of a big mommy hug and he missed his mommy. My mother had died the year before. So I found a motherly woman who made yoga possible for Slug. And it worked. After a while Slug no longer needed to be tucked in and I joined an aerobic exercise class as well.

So it really does work! But we need to identify the aspect, give it an affectionate but identifiable nickname, and find out what it’s afraid of, what it thinks it’s protecting us from, what it wants and how we could perhaps make use of its energy rather than be ruled by it.

In attempting to live up to a resolution, we may expose the mixed messages we are getting from our inner aspects. I found one the other day. I noticed that I give myself a hard time if I spend money (‘OMG, this month’s credit card bill is huge!’) and I give myself a hard time if I don’t! (‘Why didn’t I give more to that charity?’ ‘Why didn’t I splurge more on my child, grandchild or friend?’) I can’t seem to win in regard to money. So what is the answer for me? Perhaps I could spend more time exploring the First Paramita of ‘Generosity’. And part of that exploration could be an investigation of these two warring factions within me. Hmm, what shall I name them? Stingy and Benny (for beneficent)? After a meditation session, I’ll interview them and see how it goes. That’s my current challenge. Pause for a moment to see if you can notice yours.

Resolve is cultivated through our meditation practice. It arises out of our deepening understanding of the nature of things. As we begin to see more clearly, we can resolve to, for example, practice meditation every day, in a way that acknowledges its true value in our lives and in the way we interact with the world.


For the past five years or so I have been conducting an experiment by setting just two intentions: To be present and to be compassionate with myself and others. I wanted to see how just those two might work out. I’ve found that they do seem to be sufficient. If I find myself in a muddle, I reset the intention to be present, which creates inner spaciousness, calm and clarity. If things don’t clear up, then some compassion helps to remind me to take some needed rest.

If I find myself judging either myself or someone else, my intention of compassion softens the harsh edges and reminds me how we are all in this together, how each of us, including myself is doing the best we can. Compassion also helps me to maintain my health. ‘As a kindness to my heart’ a cardiologist once told me I could lose some weight. That spoke to me in a way none of my inner dictates and rude name-calling had done, because it was attune to my intention to be compassionate. And my intention to be present helps me to really taste what I am eating and enjoy it rather than wolf it down, and to notice when I am satisfied and when I am just eating mindlessly. This has always been a challenging area for me, but I am more present more of the time.

You might try using those two intentions yourself. Resolve to be present. Resolve to be compassionate with yourself and others, especially when you realize you haven’t been present at all, or you see that the other person is just not present but lost in their thoughts. See how setting these two intentions affects your daily life. I would love to hear about your experience.

Inner Aspects are not real! and other things we need to remember

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.

Excuses! Excuses! A Procrastination Exploration

When we are really noticing our thoughts we can see where we shut down, where we find road blocks in our way. Maybe we say we want to do something or go somewhere, but we keep procrastinating. What is the message that sets up the block that keeps us from doing this thing we say we want to do?

Meditation practice creates a spacious mind where such noticing becomes possible. We can set aside time after meditation to ask in and see if there is some concern or issue that feels important to look at right now.

Perhaps there is some lifelong dream that we keep putting off. What is the story that gets spun every time we think of that dream? The story we tell ourselves may be spun in words, images, sensations or emotions. We may show ourselves examples of past failures in the area of the dream. We may be dredge up harsh judgments with rude labels that make us feel disempowered, unable to accomplish what it is we feel drawn to do. The story may not seem to have a direct correlation yet we see that it is automatically triggered by the thought of the dream, so we can explore the connection. We can develop curiosity about how that leap happens.

Energy Levels
We may notice a variation in levels of energy around the idea. At 4 AM if I am awake I am likely to have a whole series of interconnected creative ideas that culminate in grand schemes that seem totally do-able at the time. By 4 PM these ideas seem absolutely impossible to accomplish and leave me feeling weighted down with yet another creative idea I will not fulfill. So I have learned to write my ideas up in level-adjusted versions, starting with the grand scheme and ending with the key component or thrust of the basic idea, the thing I can definitely do. If there are aspects that are not something I can do on my own but it feels like a worthy idea, I make note of who would be the right person or community of people to do it. I sometimes have ideas that are simply not mine to fulfill. Apparently we all do because there’s a site called where you can put up ideas that you will never use in case someone else who doesn’t have the idea but has the ability to run with it might find it.

Now I could just tell myself to go back to sleep at 4 AM, tell myself, ‘You know you’re never going to do any of this, why are you wasting this time?’ I have gone that route but have found that when I shut down the thought process, I am in effect capping the font of creativity that I seem to have more access to at certain times.

Noticing our energy cycles, when we are most alive, awake, cookin’ and when we are more likely to be tired, unable to concentrate or make a decision, is important and skillful awareness so that we can make use of our peak times and be compassionate with our low times. (Since my lowest time is four in the afternoon, it was a challenge when this class was for years at 4 pm. That’s how I got in the habit of reading my dharma talks rather than speaking them. I really couldn’t think on my feet very well at that time of day. Now the class is at 10 AM and I feel much fresher and more able to lead discussions and answer questions. But students are in the habit of listening to my written talk, and they say they feel it’s like being read a story. I realize I am more of a writer than a teacher, so I do read the talk, then we have a discussion. But when I give speeches to larger groups I don’t even rely on notes.)

If we can notice our patterns of energy we can schedule our lives more skillfully. If the dips are very low and disruptive, we might also adjust our eating patterns. But if the levels are not sending us into extremes, we can simply schedule high energy periods for creativity and low ones for rest and relaxation. Understanding our own rhythms and cycles is an important part of self-discovery and the ability to live skillfully. And seeing the levels of energy we can understand why at times we are inspired by a dream and at other times discouraged.

Sometimes we are actually holding other people’s dreams and we feel the responsibility to act upon them. Self-exploration helps us to see the source of our dream. It’s not uncommon even at a late age to still be holding a parent’s expectation or dream for us, feeling guilty if we haven’t fulfilled it. Once we discover that it isn’t even our own dream, it is much easier to let it go.

Sometimes we are hanging on to dreams we once had that have gone stale and no longer have meaning for us. We hold on out of habit. Sometimes we really need to clean out our wardrobe of dreams that just aren’t working for us anymore!

To assess whether a dream is vibrant and alive or stale and in need of discarding, we sense in while holding the dream in our thoughts. Where do we feel it in our body? Is there greed or aversion involved? Is this something we want in order to be seen in a certain way by others? To gain approval? To exist? These dreams are born from a shallow-rooted fear-based place. For example, the desire to be fabulously rich, famous or adored as an object of desire is the fear of disappearing, not being seen. We can ask ourselves what amount of money would be enough to satisfy this need? What amount of recognition would satisfy this hunger? What amount of adoration would make the mirror any kinder? What amount of accomplishment would make us feel we deserved to take up space on the planet?

We can look to past longings in this area and find in many cases that we have fulfilled what we had thought would satisfy us. Yet here we are still hungry! There is an image in Buddhist teachings of the hungry ghost. It has a very small mouth and a huge belly, so it is constantly hungry but unable to satisfy its hunger. We can notice the hungry ghost within us –that fear-based desire that can never be satisfied no matter what we accomplish, no matter how much money we accumulate, no matter how many awards we receive and no matter how much we are loved.

We can see this in ourselves and we can see it in others, how little even major achievements or large bank deposits seems to satisfy the hunger for something that feels beyond naming. We can see how this hunger dulls our other senses, how little joy is possible when this longing is ever present. This is just the nature of a shallow-rooted fear-based dream. It can never be satisfied.

When we recognize this, it is cause for celebration. Celebration? Yes, because we are developing the skill of awareness to notice what is true. But often when we make this discovery, we don’t feel like celebrating. We are too embarrassed to discover we had such a shallow dream.

This is where our intention to be present and compassionate comes in to help us be with even something very ugly and uncomfortable, and to hold ourselves in a loving open embrace. We have made a great discovery and we need to be present to reap the rewards of the discovery, not rush away from it, afraid of what it says about us. The only thing it says about us is that we are human, and if that is new news, it can feel painful, but it is also a sense of communion. We are not alone in this. We are an expression of life in all its manifestations, and these convoluted fear-based thoughts and emotions arise in all of us. This understanding helps us to be courageous in staying present with our discoveries.

So sensing into the body, noticing what arises when we think of a dream we have been telling ourselves, gives us rich vital information, even when it’s painful.

If this dream we have been telling ourselves is born of love and generosity, sharing of our skills, experience and talents, or a desire to know the world in a deeper more meaningful way, we will have quite a different experience with it. We might feel a joyousness of inner sureness, a sense of absolute yes that fills us with a feeling of being in the right place at the right time and empowered to do whatever we need to do.

If we feel blocked, we can recognize the fear-based voice full of reasons why we shouldn’t undertake this dream, why we shouldn’t take a chance and why we would fail if we tried. Once known, the blockage may disappear or we may need to work with it, to negotiate a settlement that assuages the fears expressed. Or the block may be pointing out something that needs to happen before we can actualize our dream.

For example, I had a fear-based aspect that believed I would make myself sick if I did any public speaking. So I joined Toastmasters, an international organization that helps people overcome the fear of public speaking and develop speech and leadership skills. The practice of speaking in a supportive environment has helped me overcome the anxiety. This is an example of working in a very practical way with our blockages, developing the skills and acquiring the needed knowledge or experience to meet the dreams, rather than wasting our time telling ourselves we are not up to the task, if it’s something we truly want to do.

We need to know what are the messages, what are the excuses that keep us from doing what we want to do in this our precious gift of life. So take a few minutes now to quiet down inside. Then see if there is something in your life you want to do that you have put off again and again. It could be a small thing or a big thing.

Whatever it is write down what the dream is. Sometimes it is enough to just make the dream known. We can be so busy in our lives that we don’t even know we are feeling drawn to do something of value for our lives and perhaps the lives of others.

Now stay with this thought of the dream, and notice if anything gets in the way. This will be a reason why it is not possible. Maybe there will be a stream of reasons, but for now let’s stay with the first one that comes up. It may seem like a very practical reason and will be very convincing. After all, it has convinced you over and over again. But this time write it down. If there are other reasons that arise from it, write them all down.

Read over the dream and sense in to the body, noticing how it feels to envision this dream.

What did you notice? If you felt an opening or a sense of greater aliveness, this is an active dream, even if it is edged with a little tension because the fear-based aspect feels threatened at the very mention of this dream.

If there is no felt sense when you think of this dream, perhaps it is no longer true for you. Perhaps you are just used to saying this is something you want to do. Perhaps the dream has shifted in some way and you need to spend more time actively questioning and renaming it. Or perhaps you are already living your life in a way that is meaningful to you and the dream you have named is nothing that would significantly enhance your sense of aliveness.

If the senses feel deadened, then the dream has died. How does it feel when you think the dream has died? Is there regret? Denial? Anger? Relief? Acceptance? Resignation? Explore the reactions for valuable clues. Do they rise up around a lot of thoughts or just this one? If just this one, it may be time to take that dream to the Goodwill! Let it go! Let yourself love this moment and not be dragged constantly into some other potential moment. You are fine just as you are. Your life is just fine as it is. If that doesn’t ring true for you, explore some more.

Notice physical sensation associated with any thought. The thoughts themselves might be challenging to address because fear-based aspects get activated and dominate the conversation, denying the quiet wise inner voice access. Addressing physical sensations that arise with a relaxing breath, some metta (loving kindness) and a willingness to be present and notice the sensation, helps us to be more skillful and less frantic, so that we can access that inner wisdom and have a valuable inner dialog.

Notice image, sound or smell memories that seem to arise out of nowhere. What is the association with the subject at hand? We often answer our own questions through these means but we rarely pay attention to the answers!

If through your noticing you have found that this life dream is very much alive, and yet you continually procrastinate, making excuses why you cannot do it, then a skillfully conducted inner dialog is useful to discover what is holding you back.

So listen to the messages you are receiving in whatever form they come. Listen, notice, respect and honor these messages. These are the skillful means to discovering what is blocking your way. Judging, accusing, denying, paving over, ignoring, pushing aside, killing, sympathizing, glorifying, justifying, feeling victimized, put upon, etc. are the unskillful means that most of us use all the time when we realize that we aren’t doing what we want to be doing.

The first most skillful thing to do is to question. Is this true? The insertion of a question opens a whole world of possibility that we were unaware of previous to paying this close attention. We thought we had it down. We knew the answers. We believed everything we thought because we are often so vested in being right, in knowing ourselves. The suggestion that we don’t know ourselves as well as we thought can feel threatening to the fear-based aspects within that have been ruling the roost. The wise inner voice is fearless in the face of a question. A question is like a wonderful breath of fresh air that makes possible clarity and understanding.

‘Is this true?’ Apply this to every excuse or judgment that arises. If an insistent inner aspect says ‘Yes, yes, of course it’s true, dummy.’ Then we ask, ‘How do I know this is true?’ The inner aspect has not done its homework and is not used to being questioned so doesn’t have a ready answer. You can feel the stumped quality that can stir up shame, anger, embarrassment, and other emotions. But this just helps to clarify that it is indeed a fear-based inner aspect that is voicing this excuse.

This can feel like an uncomfortable place to hang out, but in fact it’s very juicy and fruitful if we can stay with it and access our inner wisdom, our sense of kindness and compassion that isn’t threatened by all this acting out and stomping about going on inside our consciousness.

Throughout the process, we may need to continually re-access the wise inner voice, to remember the qualities we have discussed before that indicate this is deep-rooted inner wisdom and not shallow-rooted fear speaking. Remember the wise inner voice will be calm, patient, loving, kind and have a timeless sense, while the fear-based aspects will be urgent, caffeinated, opinionated, demanding using words like should, must and have to. They will be unkind and resort to name calling. It is pretty easy to tell the difference once you are really paying attention and creating a quiet space for the wise inner voice to be audible.

If you are afraid you don’t have a wise inner voice, relax. That’s just some fear-based aspect terrified of the consequences of your accessing your own inner wisdom. It is there, quietly waiting for your attention. It is an ever-present constant. It isn’t going anywhere! We just aren’t in the habit of listening in. That’s why we practice meditation, to develop the muscle of hearing our inner wisdom and being guided by it, instead of being ruled by a chaotic bunch of fearful inner aspects.

So if this has been a useful exercise for you, if you feel you have found a vein worth exploring, please take time throughout the week to do so.

The Art of Inner Conversation

Over the past weeks we have been exploring the characteristics of the inner aspects or sub-personalities that we have for so long mistaken for who we are. We have looked at how they are based in fear so that their intentions to protect us are tight, finite, constrained, skewed and distorted. We have looked at the greed, aversion and delusion – the three poisons defined by the Buddha as the cause of suffering – and how these aspects of self are expressions of them. And last week we looked at how they combine fear with our natural power and turn it into something toxic and potentially dangerous.

I have mentioned before the energetic quality of these aspects. Their voices have urgency, a caffeinated hyper-drive that is insistent, using the words ‘should,’ ‘must’ and ‘have to’ instead of acknowledging that we have infinite choices and free will in every moment. These voices are very much time-based, thus the urgency, and goal-oriented, wearing blinders to anything but what they fear will or won’t happen.

Meditation gives us the quiet spaciousness and clarity to notice these aspects and to distinguish them from the voice of our inner wisdom with its vaster view of the infinite nature of being. Listening to this voice gives us wiser options, but always as options. It brings our attention to the habituated pattern nature of our behavior and lets us see the beauty and bounty of each moment.

When I first encountered this inner wisdom in my adult life, I was a little concerned with this seemingly ‘don’t worry, be happy’ lackadaisical view. It activated fear-based aspects that were terrified that this vaster view wasn’t looking out for my survival. After all, from the infinite view, I am simply energy transformed into matter in a state of impermanence. What does it matter what happens to me? And that’s absolutely true in the grand scheme of things. Yikes!

Yet I have learned that when I am really listening to inner wisdom, it is looking out for me. Just as it encourages the plant to grow to be its fullest expression, it wants me to be the fullest most natural and joyful expression of life. So if I am about to step off the curb into traffic, it wouldn’t say ‘Oh well, easy come easy go.’ It would say, ‘Pay attention, be here now.’ Being present in this moment is my greatest chance for survival in all situations. The fear-based aspects might scream at me to act quickly in a situation, but I may be so distracted by their yammering that I might do the very thing they are trying to warn me against. Think about a time when you’ve had an accident of some kind. Would being fully present have made a difference? When I tripped and fell last summer on a hike in the mountains, it happened right when I stopped being present, when I switched from focusing on where my foot was placing itself to looking forward to resting and having lunch. And down I went, face to face with hard granite. That’s a hard way to learn a lesson to be present! How many hard lessons do we need before we pay attention to our inner wisdom instead of the urgent voices that take us out of this moment with their greed, aversion and delusion?

Last week we talked about power: How these fear-based aspects can subvert, compress and misuse it, resulting in harmful actions, and how when acknowledged as an expression of our true nature, our Buddha nature, arising from the loving-kindness and compassionate nature of being, our power is a force of creativity, joy, clarity, honesty, and equality.

Since all the students in my class currently happen to be women brought up in a time when power was not something a woman was encouraged to express, to say the least, I feel it is important to bring up the discomfort that was felt in the room when I began to talk about power. The blog version is much shorter, so if you only read that, you probably didn’t feel it the same. That discomfort as I talked was a clue to how much in the shadow power lives in most of our lives. The discomfort was further illuminated in discussion, when one of the sangha members said that she had just been on a kindness retreat and had felt a surge of power within her, something that felt quite counter to what she thought she was there to experience, so she appreciated the timeliness of our talk.

Later in the week I was visiting with a friend, part of the Open Embrace Meditation blog-reading sangha. She had a challenge that called for her to use her innate creative power, but she was locked in an inner battle with the voice that said that to make her needs known would be selfish and that kindness is inherently passive. She said she thought the Buddha taught to always put everyone else’s needs before our own. This is such a deeply entrenched belief that she held it even though she has read and listened to all kinds of wisdom teachings telling her to ‘give from the overflow not from the well.’ How often we carry two conflicting beliefs at the same time. How do we do this? Well, if we can recognize that we have a number of inner aspects operating on different wave lengths with different fear-based concerns, it’s easier to understand how we can hold conflicting beliefs. The aspect that is most fearful and most urgent will dominate and win the arguments, and that’s what was happening in her case.

The Buddha spoke extensively of kindness and generosity. Those of us who were brought up to be not just courteous and considerate but subservient to men and devoted to meeting the needs of parents, children, friends and neighbors, have to be very careful how we hear this kindness teaching. Listen carefully! Hear deeply! The Buddha wasn’t suggesting we be doormats! If the Buddha didn’t talk that much about power, it’s because most of his students had no problem being forthright when it came to asking for what they wanted. While his students were not exclusively male, they were certainly predominantly male, and any teacher creates curriculum appropriate for their students’ needs. This is not to say that men are inherently unkind and self-serving! But culturally men are encouraged to use their power, while women historically have been discouraged from open displays of power. Younger women have a hard time believing the things we of earlier generations were taught in order to subvert our own natural power in order to make men feel strong, smart and powerful. Our mothers didn’t necessarily teach us we were powerless. They just told us our power had to be suppressed for the greater good. We were taught to be ‘the woman behind the man.’ It is much easier to see in retrospect how this was dishonest and disrespectful to both men and women.

Inspired by how the Buddha spoke to the specific needs of his students, I am addressing what I see as the needs expressed by my students and readers. Kindness is not passive! It is active and empowering! And when we have a voice telling us to put up with something that is unacceptable, that is harming us in some way, then it is not a kindness to ourselves to tolerate it. Remember that in all our kindness practice, the Buddha taught to send metta first to ourselves so that we can attune to that powerful force of love that is our Buddha nature. In this way we are giving infinite deeply-rooted kindness, not a finite grumpy fear-based so-you-like-me knock-off brand of kindness.

Being kind to ourselves first – true kindness and compassion, not shallow fear-based giving our greedy aspects everything they desire – is not selfish but wise. How can we serve the world if we are operating on empty? What are we really offering if we are coming from the finite fearful place that says we ‘should’ be kind? When we hear an inner aspect speaking, we need to notice it, get into dialog with it, understand its fears and work with its needs. But we don’t for a moment need to believe it to be right. It is shallow-rooted, tensed, clinging to its fear-based perceptions of the world. It doesn’t serve us, though it thinks it does. Because it is trying so hard to serve what it sees as our needs, we can find a way to be compassionate to these aspects without indulging them.

With this insight into the nature of these inner fear-based aspects and how their voices differ from that of our wise deeply-connected nature, we have many clues to begin to recognize when we are acting from our true nature and when we are following the ill-informed fear-based advice of inner voices that we may have always believed to be who we are.

I hope each of you will take the time, especially after your daily meditation practice when the energy is quieter and more spacious, to really listen in. I hope you will use these clues to notice the difference between your access to inner wisdom and your cast of fear-based characters. These habituated patterns of thought and emotion need noticing. They need harnessing. They need respect and appreciation for their intention, but they need to be herded by a wise shepherd, and that is you when you align with your true loving nature.

As an exercise in noticing, take a few minutes now to sit with your thoughts and emotions. When you find a thought that grabs your attention, write it down. Then look at it and see if your can tell where it is coming from. Is it fear-based? Is it speaking from greed, aversion or delusion? Is it time-based, expressing a sense of urgency? Is there an emotion it is displaying? Does it contain a threat of some kind? Is it full of judgment? Is there a tensing up in the body that you notice happening when it speaks? Breathing into the area in the body that tenses up can make this voice more approachable, calming its fears.

Or perhaps this thought grabbed your attention because it has a very different quality, and you can take this time to listen to that small still voice within, now that the other voices are still or at least less activated.

Perhaps you’ll notice both arising. Write them both down. Perhaps your inner wisdom says something, but then an inner aspect speaks up to slap it down. Your inner wisdom is not threatened by the fear-based heckling. Instead, it’s an opportunity for exploration.

In class the students said they were comfortable with simply sharing what fear-based voice they heard during our few minutes of quiet. They were given the opportunity to share the dialog they had with it, or to have me play the role of their wise inner voice in response to their sharing of what rude thing an inner aspect said to them. It was a very rich sharing.

It’s important to remember that our inner cast of characters may come and go but they are always available for cameos! It is just another fear-based aspect that believes that somehow awakening to being present will wipe the slate clean of all the habituated patterns of a life time. A powerful awakening will do that for a time, but even the Buddha had his cast of characters, his ongoing dealings with Maya, the tempter, in all its form.

But with the practice of awareness we are better able to see these aspects and recognize their true nature, just as the Buddha said, “Ah, Maya, I know you,” we say, “Ah, fearful aspect, I know you.” I have mentioned before that it is useful to give pet names to each aspect that we get to know. This is not to make them more real but to make them more easily recognizable when they crop up again so we don’t have to go through such a lengthy process each time. See an example of an inner dialog.

When we see and acknowledge them, imagine how wondrous it is for a frightened inner aspect to be known, to be acknowledged. Our inner aspects crave for us to awaken and take charge! They are like small children running amok because the babysitter wandered off with her boyfriend and the parents haven’t come home. You can feel their sense of thrill and terror. So we attune ourselves to the deep-rooted loving wisdom that is our true nature, and we come home to mind these inner aspects, to discover their concerns and to respectfully and responsibly negotiate solutions that have integrity.

Moderation is often the result of these inner dialogs. Needs get met but in a sustainable way. The Buddha talked so much about The Middle Way that finds a path between the extremes of austerity and over-indulgence. Finding of the Middle Way is an ongoing inner negotiation between the deeply rooted wise inner voice and the shallow rooted fear-based aspects. This is addressed in any discussion of Wise Effort. The fear-based inner aspect is trying so hard to do the right thing that it comes out all wrong. Why? Because it’s not about goals or how difficult it is or how much we sweat! It’s about sinking in to access the universal wisdom, and that’s a result of being here, now and relaxed, which requires intention but not tension. All the fear-based aspects are tense!! Uptight!! Freaked-out!! Attuned with inner wisdom we feel a compassionate affection for these voices, but we no longer let them lead us.

So, OUT OF KINDNESS, we lead our lives from that deep alignment, that sense of balance, empowerment, aliveness and joy.

Naming Our Poisons

The Buddha taught of the three poisons, the mental states that manifest in unskillful action and cause us and those around us to suffer. They are greed, aversion and delusion. As our minds become clearer through the practice of meditation, we begin to see these three states as they arise within us. We can notice how our actions are rooted in and fed by one or the other of these states.

Right now, for example, I am sitting here feeling greedy for the dharma as I write, hungering to learn more, and the desire to share it in the clearest way possible so that my students may benefit from knowing it. This doesn’t sound like a bad thing, and it isn’t. Especially noticing it as it arises is a good thing. But noticing also brings an awareness of a tinge of energetic urgency, panic and fear that are also present in this hunger. Fear of it not being enough, of me not being enough, of my being an imperfect vessel for this information.

At the same time I am noticing a strong aversion to a phone call I am expecting from someone I have never talked with before but who appears to have anger issues as shown in his email. He is not a direct client of mine but is someone my client has to deal with. Suddenly I am ‘having to deal with’ him too. I don’t want to! I’m afraid! I feel the tension in my body rising up. I have held this tension since yesterday when we made this appointment for him to call me. And to top it off, he is already 47 minutes late in calling, which leaves me in this purgatorial state of dread.

Noticing these states, there may be a tendency to work with them, as in ‘fix’ them. That is just another form of aversion arising. I feel aversion for this state of aversion. How does that help? It really doesn’t.

So instead I breathe. Admittedly the breath started out as a sigh, but that reminded me to breathe! I send myself a little compassion. Compassion releases some of the tightness, infusing a sense of expansiveness that allows me to see more clearly. Already my shoulders have dropped an inch. However, I notice my jaw is tight. The buzz in my body is present.

I look out the window, the green and grey morning is calming. The tree outside my window doesn’t see my challenge and yet lives in this world. I don’t want to be the tree, but I am not unlike the tree. I don’t know what the tree experiences, but I can be pretty sure it is not currently dreading a phone call.

The tree is rooted in the earth. I sense my rootedness in the earth. The tree relies on its roots to weather high winds and powerful storms. I am anticipating some high wind this morning, so I sink into my roots, my connection. Thanks tree! Good advice!

The phone call went very well, by the way. A friendly constructive exchange with full agreement and goals achieved all around. Was that just a fluke? Or did my grounding myself help me to remember the humanness of the caller?

Having had a positive experience when anticipating a negative one is something I try to notice, adding it to my learned experiences. I am surprised that with attention, I actually do find I can reason with myself, saying, “Chances are, based on past experience, this will be fine. I will see how I wasted my time dreading an experience that much more often than not is a positive one.”

Noticing when we are operating out of greed or aversion is easier than noticing when we are operating out of delusion. What is delusion anyway? It’s like walking around in a fog and being constantly surprised when things happen. It can be operating as if we are an object being acted upon rather than the subject of our own lives, able to make decisions.

If we are in a state of delusion, how can we notice it? We can’t! At the moment of delusion the mind is enveloped in a cloud or fog, drifting, lost and unaware. But if we have set our intention to be present, then we can notice when it clears a bit. Just noticing that begins the development of awareness of delusion, and that awareness thins the fog. When the fog is thin, we have more options. We can drift or we can stay present. We can notice when the clarity begins to fade and we can take that as a reminder to reset our intention to be present with compassion, to notice the cloud of delusion as it comes and goes. Delusion has a very different felt sense than aversion or greed, but all three take practice to notice.

How do we work with these Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion? I remember when I first started studying Buddhism at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, there was a good deal of talk about how we are generally more inclined to one or the other of these mental states. People would say things like, “I am a greedy personality.” For me this seemed like just another way to label ourselves. We are often attracted to self-labeling, even if it’s an unattractive label.

Defining who we are seems to give us a place in the world, but it locks us in to a false sense of self. While we each do physically fill a finite place in this earthly life, defining it with limiting labels does not satisfy the deeper longing for a sense of understanding our infinite connection, the true nature of our existence.
We have talked before about the shift from the finite to the infinite view. For purposes of convenience in functioning in the world, we see ourselves as finite, singular and separate. But we discover through meditation, or perhaps through spontaneous insight, the infinite view that is always available to us, wherein we recognize that we are not separate at all, that we are a vibrant expression of life loving itself, like a drop of water flying through the sky knowing that it is a part of the sea-evaporation-cloud-rain-river-sea cycle of being which is a part of an even larger circle of life, and that all is one. With this infinite view, more fully discussed in previous discussions in the Eightfold Path, we are able to live more fully and joyfully in the world, even while being able to maintain our seemingly finite path with its various responsibilities, relationships and choices.

In the past few weeks, when discussing our clinging to the rock with our roots believing it to be our identity instead of releasing into the rich nourishing soil and allowing ourselves to grow to the fullness of our being, what we are talking about is letting go of the finite and releasing into the infinite. That shift from finite to infinite comes with our ability to be present and relaxed, releasing the tension that is our body’s way of holding the past and the future. This present moment fully experienced is the portal to understanding our interconnection, our being a part of and being supported by the infinite web of life.

While it may be tempting to label ourselves, it is more skillful to notice greed, aversion and delusion arising in our experience, and not get tangled up in saying, ‘I am an aversive personality type.’ Observing and judging ourselves to be more inclined to one of these three states may seem like it helps but it runs the risk of blinding us to the arising of the other two poisons, for we are tuning ourselves to notice the one above the others. All of us have all three poisons, even if not in equal measure.

The habit of self-labeling can make us passive, as if we have been indelibly stamped with this tendency and there’s nothing we can do. In truth, there’s nothing we NEED to do except be present and compassionate with all that arises in our experience, but that’s very different from a sense of helplessness that there’s nothing to be done about it, as if we are stuck. We are not stuck, we simply perceive ourselves to be stuck. In fact we are quite free, but we choose to pick out new wallpaper for our prison cell, remaking ourselves, rather than simply be present and watch the bars dissolve. We explored the whole concept of freedom in dharma talks quite a while ago. If that word resonates, perhaps you’ll want to read them. If freedom scares you, then that’s important to notice as well. Question in: “What am I afraid of?”

We can fall a little bit in love with even negative labels for at least they give us a sense of definition to cling to. But clinging to the hard rock of who we believe ourselves to be is the essence of what keeps us from opening to our true nature.

In a talk last year on ‘Holding the World in an Open Embrace’ I presented greed and aversion in the form of photos of two little girls, one holding tight to all her toys representing greed; the other with crossed arms and a pouty face representing aversion.

My sixteen month old granddaughter Lucy for the first time in my presence yesterday crossed her arms and pouted! Ah, aversion! This is the first manifestation in this form, though of course she has shown her preferences and dissatisfactions in a myriad of ways. But to actually see her cross her tiny chubby arms and pout with her little cupid bow mouth was quite something!

Where did she learn this particular manifestation? Lucy is my current teacher. I have been learning what is inherently human. When she wakes she does a natural yogi full body stretch, and she has done this since she was just a few months old. Now I try to remember to do that when I wake too. Where did I lose my natural inclination to do so?

And now seeing her pouting and crossing her arms I have to wonder how she developed this classic aversion pose? She doesn’t watch television, and has no older sibling to imitate. Where does she get this little Shirley Temple imitation? It’s a wonder. And it’s adorable and yes a little frightening. Aversion arises in Lucy and displays itself. We could easily go uh-oh and label her an aversive personality and be afraid, very afraid, of what the future holds with this crossed-armed pouty force to be reckoned with. But all that does is fuel our fear, lock her in a box of our labels, a box she will either stay in or break out of unless she can wear these labels lightly, knowing they do not define her true self.

In the past few weeks we have been discussing the inner aspects, what in psychological terms are also called sub-personalities, especially those we keep most hidden from our awareness that make up the shadow. When we are having a skillful inner conversation with an aspect, we might benefit from noticing whether it seems to be fueled by greed, aversion or delusion. I had mentioned Striver and Underminer, two aspects that have resurfaced in my awareness. Clearly Striver operates more from greed and Underminer from aversion, and both are delusional. (As some people might think I am to name inner aspects!! But it is a valuable exercise for the orderly exploration of a very complex lacy-patterned infrastructure of thoughts, emotions and beliefs that form a part of our experience that most influence, and sometime sabotage, our ability to live with awareness and a love of life.)

As a tool for self-exploration, knowledge of the three poisons of greed, aversion and delusion provide insight and clarity. We can use them as clues to see the fear at the root of the aspect we are exploring. These fears — the fear of separation, of exclusion, of not being acceptable, of disappearing, of being overwhelmed and washed away, of being judged, or of failing — are just a few of the ways we forget our connection to all that is and the universal oneness of being.