Category Archives: inner critic

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!

Inquiry Series: Question #5

tool-collection.jpgIn this inquiry series, we’ve practiced using questions that help us deal skillfully with what arises in our experience: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? Is this true? We then looked at our inner landscape and asked: What am I cultivating here?  To the degree we incorporate these questions into our lives, they continue to be useful tools to find greater peace of mind, strength and equanimity.

Beyond the shared beneficial qualities we cultivate, we each have other gifts as well: The particular skills and interests that activate wholesome energy, aliveness, meaning and purpose.

What are these gifts? There is something inherent in each of us that draws us to different things. We can observe this in very small children. Beyond the fun things most children enjoy, any individual child will be more excited about spending time in one or more activities and less interested in others: Drawing, writing, cooking, doing math, solving puzzles, singing, playing instruments, listening to music, attending performances, taking things apart to see how they work, playacting, taking photos, doing science experiments, inventing things or walking in nature, for example.

But even though the adults around them may notice children’s natural bents, gifts and interests, often the children themselves do not see them or do not understand that all kids aren’t equally as interested in these things. Especially in decades past, the adults around them were likely a little blind to these gifts as well. And so the child grew up feeling a little lost, wondering where they fit in.

I was a shy little girl who had a spiritual bent that manifested in little chants I would make up to feel my connection with the divine. (“I am in God and God is in me” over and over again until I would fall down on the lawn laughing, because what made no sense at all suddenly made all the sense in the world to me.) I also loved to write poems and short stories. And I enjoyed making dollhouses and drawing floor plans. Bringing that little girl to mind now, if I were her parent, I would encourage all of those things, and maybe make sure she had access to materials, classes and kind mentors.

But instead of wishing I’d had different kinds of parents (my parents were wonderful, thank you very much!) I only need to remind myself that as an adult, I can parent myself in whatever way I need. I can provide whatever encouragement and guidance I may have craved growing up. Perhaps you have some dormant, underappreciated or hidden interests or skills that might be brought into the light of your increasing compassionate awareness. No matter what our age or situation, we can actualize all of the gifts we’ve been given in this fleeting experience of being alive in this oh-so impermanent body-mind.

EXERCISE

After meditation or after a few minutes of quieting the mind, ask yourself these questions and write down the answers that arise — as many as come up. Take your time. The first answer may be the best answer, or it may be a toss off answer and there’s a deeper, shyer, truer answer waiting to be heard. All are fine. Bring them on.

Notice any resistance that comes up, either in the exercise or in anticipation of an exercise. You can use our core questions then: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? And, when stories arise about why you can’t pursue a certain interest, look more closely at those stories and question them: Is this true? It may seem true, and it may seem important to hold onto the story, but look at every aspect with a kind but inquiring mind.

Okay, ready? Here we go:

  1. Think of moments during your day, week and life when you were filled with delight, contentment, purpose, enthusiasm — a sense of being in the right place, doing something satisfying. These will probably be very small seeming things but try not to judge them, just note them. List as many as come naturally to you.
  2. Look over your list of moments of delight and think of them as belonging to someone else. Bring your most compassionate, least judgy self to this task. By observing the list as someone else’s we are generally clearer and kinder, more willing to see latent gifts we might deny in ourselves.) Then ask, what interests this person? What does this person love to do? If a clear picture comes to mind, write it down as a little summary.
  3. Acknowledging that this is your list, not someone else’s, notice any emotions arising around this list as you read it. Notice any resistance to anything you have discovered. Notice any stories that come up to explain why, even if true, these interests and skills are for whatever reason not sufficient or not useful. Several people in class felt they probably weren’t doing this exercise ‘right’. A couple thought their moments weren’t sufficiently ‘lofty’. This is not about being lofty! And it is not about defining yourself and presenting yourself to the world. It’s more like the way a cat or dog might circle around to that just right spot of perfect contentment. Trust that whatever comes up is right for you in this moment.
  4. If you are judging yourself, finding fault or feeling resistance, ask ‘What am I afraid of?’ This is not a challenge, not a dare, but a heartfelt compassionate investigation. 
  5. Send metta, infinite loving-kindness to any fearful aspect that speaks up or hides out within you. The inner critic may be powerful and cruel, but it is not your enemy. It is only afraid and unskillful in the ways it tries to protect you.
  6. Looking at the summary you’ve made, do you feel that you are living your deepest most heartfelt interests?
  7. If not, set the intention to give more time to them, incorporate them more fully into your life and whenever you are in such a moment, to not feel rushed but really allow yourself to experience it fully with deep appreciation.
  8. Underline, circle, star or rewrite any core interests that you would like to explore more fully. This is not about ‘becoming’ something new. This is not a makeover. It’s recognizing what is already central to your way of being in this life, yet for whatever reason not actualized fully.
  9. Set the intention to be compassionate with those aspects of self that are fearful, but don’t let them run the show!
  10. Save and revisit this list, try the exercise again another time, and consider rewriting it as a note to yourself to keep close as a reminder.

If you do this exploration multiple times, you may find different answers each time, but a pattern will arise that will hopefully inspire you to honor your natural gifts, interests and skills.

If you discover powerful resistance, that is definitely worth exploring and challenging. I am reminded of the Marianne Williamson quote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” — Marianne Williamson

Like many, I suffered from great doubts about my abilities. I kept my writing very private and never thought to share it with anyone. If I did share them, any compliments were like water off a duck’s back. I have no memory of them. But even the slightest suggestion or critique cut me to the core and the scars were a constant reminder of my lack of talent. It’s amazing I kept writing, but my writing was for me, and it was safe as long as I kept it private. And that’s fine. Writing and all the arts — music, visual arts, drama, crafts — all have the capacity to be cathartic. We each have our way of processing the traumas of our lives. I imagine that working out mathematical equations might be cathartic, too. Can we find our way of skillfully processing and coping with all that arises in our lives? Hint: It will never be a distraction from what we are going through. It will not make an enemy of it that we push away. There’s that old hymn: ‘It’s so high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, so wide you can’t get around it, you’ve gotta go in through the door.’ The door is being fully present and compassionate with ourselves and others, finding that inner wisdom that is within each of us, by whatever name we might call it. But each of us also has one or more very personal ways of savoring life and processing what arises. And that’s what we’re exploring through this exercise.

Allowing ourselves our fullest expression is not a big ask. It is our birthright. It is our place at the table of life. That is such a hard lesson to learn, especially for women raised to always put others’ needs first and to be ‘demure’.

I will leave you with a personal experience: I had been teaching for a number of years and then writing blog posts from my dharma talks. After a year of teaching the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness, my students asked me to compile those posts and publish them in book form. I mentioned this to my teaching mentor and she said there are more than enough books in the world. (There were no comparable books on that subject at the time, and even still none that addresses women’s specific challenges, but that’s beside the point.) After I left our meeting, I felt like a daisy bush being told not to bloom, to stifle myself, because there are already too many daisies in the world.

Please, please, please, whatever kind of plant you are, feel free to bloom fully and radiantly! And don’t waste your time envying the rose or the lilac. You do YOU!

Beyond Meditation: Inquiry & Insight

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

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

Here’s how the investigation works:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creativity & Meditation: Dragons at the Gate

Last week I wrote about an experiential exercise to help us discover our passions, and in this post we will focus on one of our passions: the one that is juiciest, most up for us right now, and/or the one that feels like the biggest challenge, that we are having the most difficulty finding time to do or joy in doing.

We can apply what we have learned from the dharma, and most specifically from the Eightfold Path, to the challenge we face in accessing and expressing this passion.

The Eightfold Path offers guideposts, and in this exercise we will practice going through each of the aspects of the Eightfold Path and shedding some light on our feelings and thoughts around the particular passion or project we have chosen to explore.

With each question, close your eyes and sense in to your body, noticing any sensation that comes up. Then notice the emotional tone of that sensation, if any. Then answer the question. Try not to edit what arises. There is no wrong answer. We are looking for the honest words of our inner aspects. We want to express as accurately as possible the words that keep us from pursuing our passion, so by their very nature they will probably be negative, even hateful. Let them speak! Write them down! Use quotation marks to get the exact wording. No one will read this but you. Let yourself relax and feel expansive enough to be open to whatever arises in this exploration.

We will go through the Eightfold Path in the reverse order of how we learned it. So we will start with Concentration. Since everyone will be more drawn to answer different aspects at different rates, I’m going to let you each work from the sheet of questions at your own pace. Then you can take it home to complete it if there isn’t enough time to do so here.

I recommend meditating before proceeding with this inquiry.

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Eightfold Path to Creativity

Concentration
What distracts me from my focus on my project?
What story do I tell myself about why I should be doing something else? Invite comment from within and as accurately as possible, in quotes, record the voice of this aspect or aspects that keep us from doing what we want to do.

Effort
Am I striving to make this happen, focusing on the goal, the end product, and losing the joy of the process? If so, put in quotes the voice that says why this is necessary, why I have to work so hard at it.

Is my energy low or scattered around this project? Am I daydreaming about it but can’t muster up the energy to do it? Put in quotes the story I tell myself about why this would be better to do another day, week or month. Or any other story of tiredness or depression.

Mindfulness
When I approach this project, is my mind present or is it filled with all the other things I should be doing? Put in quotes the story about why I don’t deserve to be fully present with this experience that is so important to me.

Livelihood
Is there anything about this project that is harmful to others or the environment? Is there some way to make it safe or even beneficial?
Is this a costly project? Are there budget constraints that hamper its pursuit? Quote the voice that says I can’t afford to do this.

Speech
How do I talk to myself around this project? Do I put myself down? Say I’m not qualified? Say I will make a fool of myself? Put in quotes the cruelest words I use on myself around this project.

Action
Do I have doubts as to my ability to do this project? What would I need in order to do so? Is there a way to learn it? Am I willing to learn it? Am I willing to fail in the process of becoming more skilled? Put in quotes the fears of failure.

Intention
What is my intention in this project? Is it clear? Is it compatible with my Wise Intention to be kind to myself and others and to be fully present in the moment? After stating my intention in quotes, put in quotes whatever arises in reaction to the stated intention that perhaps doubts it. Does my ego have an intention here? Let the ego speak as well.

View
How do I see this project in the context of the world? Does it lean toward connection? Does it express loving kindness? Does it expand and/or deepen my awareness and compassion? Does it have the capacity to do the same for others?
Is there any constriction in my view of this project? Any part that feels tight and fearful? Perhaps a fear of success? A fear of how others will see me? Let this aspect speak and be known.

The things that we come up with, these fear-based thoughts and feelings, will now be our primary focus. They are what we call the dragons at the gate that we need to befriend before we can enter the temple.

Befriending dragons? This is not part of our western culture. We slay dragons!

From a Buddhist perspective, slaying dragons is a highly unskillful reaction to fear. Killing them only multiplies them. Violence begets more fear and anger which spawns more violence.

The dragon is not enemy, but is both illusion and teacher. The dragon is Mara, the tempter who taunted Siddhartha Gautama as he sat under the Bodhi tree 2500 years ago. Mara offered up every wondrous lure, every horrendous threat, every rude comment about his unworthiness to be enlightened. Sitting there he always had the option to rise up out of anger and slay Mara. But he knew well that such an action would only fuel Mara’s power to seduce and threaten.

Instead he maintained his sense of staying present for whatever arises, no matter how horrific, and each time Mara came up with yet another taunt, he would simply say, “Ah Mara, I know you.” And this was said with such loving compassion that Mara had no fear fuel to work with, and at the end of that long night Siddhartha found enlightenment.

So we can spend our time at the gate of our passion, sharpening the blade of our sword, strategizing approaches to outwit the dragon, or hiding behind bushes and quaking in our boots. But all of this behavior just fuels the dragon’s ferocity, so that we feel we have even more to fear.

So what is more skillful? Well, let’s take a cue from Buddha, why don’t we? Let’s sit with this dragon and become familiar with its ways. Let’s have a compassionate dialog with it and discover not what it wants but what it needs in order to feel safe in the world. The dragon is exhausted from all this fire-breathing and needs to rest! We have the capacity to offer that rest, that sense of ease and safety.

Before studying Buddhism, in my own meditations I had developed a practice of noticing, identifying and then dialoging with inner aspects that were sabotaging me and causing misery in my life. I brought my most compassionate self to the dialog and always remembered that each aspect was operating out of love and a desire to protect me, but that their means were often very unskillful. I never tried to get rid of an aspect, to beat it down or change it in any way. What I did was discover what it really needed to feel safe, and then I would negotiate a way to provide that without sacrificing my well being, my sense of joy.

Part of the process was to name the aspect when I noticed it forcing its skewed opinion into my life, trying to change my behavior, making me feel insecure, afraid or angry, luring me to eat when not hungry or avoid challenges. I give them affectionate names that make it easier to stay compassionate in the dialog, and compassionate when they rise up in my life. Little Sweetie is the sweet tooth. Slug is the one that hates exercise. Bumpy (for bump on a log) is the one that wants to avoid all excitement. It’s been a while since I’ve had conversations with them, because we negotiated a reasonable settlement, but they are still there, and if I were to do things that made them feel unsafe again, I’m sure they would speak up as if they’d never been gone.

What is a settlement? Well, it turns out Little Sweetie was more interested in savoring the sweetness of every moment than in sugar itself, so I negotiated that when I am drawn to sugar, I will bring myself more fully into the present moment and notice sensation.

Slug didn’t want to get out of bed because bed was like a big mommy hug, and he missed his mommy. This was just a year or two after my mother’s death. Well, I found a yoga teacher about my mother’s age who at the end of class lovingly tucked each of her students in under a blanket for Shavasana. Slug loved going to yoga with dear Mac! And after a couple of years was willing to branch out into more active exercise adventures as well.

So this is the way I found that was very effective in dealing with inner aspects of myself that used unskillful means to meet their needs. When I started out at Spirit Rock and the study of Buddhism, I recognized immediately what they were talking about when they would refer to dragons at the gate. These dragons aren’t always inner aspects, they can be problems in our lives that arise. Instead of being cowed by these problems, it helps to see them as dragons at the gate, something to work with, to find out what needs to happen to befriend them or at least render them benign.

In the course of this exercise, perhaps you have brought forth a voice or two from aspects that stand like dragons at the gate between you and your highest intentions. This may be in the area of creativity, but something else may have come up as well. Now that you have met them you might want to name them and do some loving inner dialog to see what they need. Please remember that their intentions are always for your well being and protection. Treat them with compassion and gratitude for their intentions, but recognize the unskillfulness of their means. Together find what it is they really need and find a creative solution to give it to them.

Next week in the Tuesday class we will be doing a powerful Tibetan Buddhist exercise that goes beyond conversation and negotiation into deeper realms of dealing with our dragons at the gate. Although I will not be able to recreate that here, I will offer a link to a source that does. So stay tuned!