Category Archives: inner exploration

Befriending or battling?

Noticing how we are in relationship with whatever is arising in our current experience is an important part of our insight meditation practice. The most fertile time to do this gentle inner investigation is right after meditating when we have actively cultivated clarity and compassion.

Whatever thoughts come to mind, we can look at them — the people, the problems, the plans, the situations — and notice if we are judging, blaming, avoiding or treating them as an enemy. Are we caught up in a bitter battle or participating in a joyful dance?

Maybe what is arising is a health crisis fraught with worry, pain and self-blame. This was the case for one student in class this week. She was also frustrated that she wasn’t managing to handle it all more graciously. Graciously? Excuse me? We are not white gloved ladies trying to be well-mannered to appease our mothers. How easily we fall into patterns that don’t serve us and how challenging it can be to see them. In our practice we aspire to wise speech which is kind, truthful and timely. That is plenty challenging, but no part of the requirement is to diminish ourselves or to put on a false front for the perceived benefit of others. What is called for is more regular metta practice. With infinite loving-kindness, we hold ourselves in a truly caring way.

If this speaks to you — either as something you crave or fear — feel the full power of your innate maternal or paternal self parenting yourself with love and kindness. Even if this is not the kind of parenting you received as a child, you can do this for yourself now. This is not self-indulgent. We all need to be held in this way. We might wish someone else would provide this to us, but waiting for someone else to provide it is like diverting fresh spring water away to another source, thinking it’s more valuable when offered in a cup from the hands of another. We all have direct access to infinite loving-kindness. Practicing it on ourselves first is the only way to be truly loving to anyone else. Access the infinite, then become a conduit for it.

Another student noticed how much time she needs to spend calming herself down to deal with a whirlwind of responsibilities. Well, first, great gratitude and celebration to have developed the resources to calm herself down. May everyone everywhere have those resources. Whatever skillful things we can do to take care of ourselves in order to manage our lives are to be appreciated. Kudos for having a regular practice and the ability to notice when a little time-out self-care is needed.


Although this student has a uniquely complex array of details to manage in her work, all of us can relate to at least at times having to manage preparations for some upcoming event. We know exactly how heavily it all can sit on our shoulders, and how we can get caught up in living in that future time when the event is fully realized, rather than giving ourselves the gift of fully engaging in this moment. This makes us less able to do what we need to do, and more miserable about doing it.

These kinds of projects often loom large and shadowy. We expend a lot of energy procrastinating and nagging ourselves about our failure to meet the challenge. The compassion and clarity that comes from regular meditation makes simply doing what we need to do much easier. It’s suddenly clear that we just have to break the work down into incremental bits and get to it.

Finding the time to fit a project into an already busy life can be tricky. But assigning it a regular time slot in your day or week can help to formalize the process. If you have ever been on a meditation retreat, then you probably were assigned a yogi job, some small daily chore that contributes to the well-being of everyone. It might be chopping vegetables, sweeping a porch or cleaning a bathroom. It’s always a very specific task, and it’s easy enough to do in a meditative way.

I once was assigned the yogi job of scrubbing the showers in one of the dormitories at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. It was interesting to notice how day by day my attitude and thought processes around my yogi job shifted. The first day was all aversion: Ugh to the claustrophobic tiled space. Ugh to the repetitive scrubbing and bending. Second day I was more accepting of the task at hand, and decided I would be the best shower scrubber ever. Third day I realized that these were

the showers used by the retreat teachers, so I shifted from proving my worth to expressing my gratitude. Fourth day I let go of all of that. I simply sensed into the movement of my arms and body wielding the scrub brush, sponge and spray bottle. Fifth day more of the same but also the awareness of being part of a continuum of shower scrubbing yogis who had all been here and would all be here day after day, retreat after retreat, for hopefully many years to come, scrubbing earnestly, dealing with their own range of thoughts and emotions. There was a sense of community, camaraderie and a relief that it wasn’t all up to me to keep this tile shining. And there was something about that that woke me up to what it is to be alive and to participate fully in life, whatever we are doing. Can we be fully present with the work itself? Can we see our own efforts as part of a pattern of dedication and even devotion? The work we do, and especially the way we do it, can be experienced as life loving itself through us.

Whatever is arising in our current experience can be met in so many different ways. Pause and consider what challenges or struggles you are currently dealing with. How are you relating to the experience? Are you avoiding it? Making an enemy of it? Can you add compassion and clarity into the mix and see what happens? Please let me know how it goes!


Barnacles can’t dance, but we can!

Every time I come home after a retreat I feel as if I’ve been released into a more natural way of being, as if I’m lightly dancing with life. I am able to see more clearly the nature of suffering and how I tend to create it.

barnacleAn image from my childhood comes to mind: The barnacles on the boats in the Marina where my friend and I used to play on sunny San Francisco days. We humans often act like barnacles, attaching ourselves to all manner of things.

We may do this in our relationships. Clinging is corrosive and can destroy natural loving bonds and connections. Think about how you react when someone clings to you. It feels more like a drain, an imposition or a demand that you are unable to fulfill, doesn’t it? The person who is clinging doesn’t realize that they are having the opposite effect of what they are trying so hard to achieve. They can’t see that what they are offering is not love or friendship at all. Love is like a dance of the interplay of energy. How does a barnacle dance? Not very well!

I think you get the idea. Where else in our lives might we be clinging rather than dancing?

We cling to our ideas of who we are. With barnacle-like persistence we fasten ourselves to an identity made up of all kinds of things to varying degrees: political affiliation, personal style, religious belief, culture, profession, physical characteristics, personality traits, possessions, family, ancestry, relationship roles, experiences, preferences, etc. These amalgams of how we see ourselves can get locked in early in life, long before we have the wisdom, experience, judgment, or understanding to question the veracity of these views. But it’s never too late to pause in a moment of mindfulness and question our barnacle grip.

The film critic Mick LaSalle was asked by a reader about his favorite films and actors. Mick replied “…I think self-definition through the announcement of favorites can sometimes shut the door on discovery.” Then he went on to list his favorites. But in that acknowledgement he kept the door open to discovery, didn’t he? And that’s what we all want to do, even while enjoying what we know and love.

In class we discussed how whole generations brand themselves by set ideas of fashion, music, hairstyles, vehicles, etc. Recently I heard the term ‘perennials’ to describe people of any generation who are less interested in age-based divisions and are fully engaged in life, ever new and unfolding. I liked that. I might even get a little attached to it!

So here we are, attached to these ideas about this self we hold ourselves to be. We may promote or berate this self, but we rarely question that it is exactly who we are. If we are not totally thrilled with this self, we want a makeover. We find the most offensive aspect or the one that is most readily changeable — weight, for example — and we focus all our distress, unhappiness and dissatisfaction on the idea that if only we lost some pounds, then we’d be happy. Or perhaps it’s wrinkles that worry us, and we invest in fancy creams, facials or surgery. Or maybe it’s fame or wealth that we believe will finally make us okay. Whatever it is, there is no end to the wanting. Achieving the perfect weight, flawless skin, rave reviews or mountains of money — none of it is ever quite enough. It doesn’t deliver on promised results. If we can check off a goal reached, we just reset the goal. It still leaves us in a state of ‘if only’.

Of course, there’s practical wisdom in maintaining a healthy weight, in taking care of our bodies and creating financial stability. But we are talking about the craving for perfection, the striving for some ideal that will right all the wrongs in our life. We expend a lot of energy chasing those ‘if only’ goals without seeing that none of them address the core challenge we face.

The core challenge is that barnacle behavior, the way we cling to the erroneous idea of self: that we are separate and must create the most appealing or impressive identity in order to navigate life’s dangerous waters.

Our meditation practice gives rise to insights that tell us something quite different. We begin to understand in an embodied way that we are natural expressions of life, interconnected to all life. We understand that all life forms a pattern — a dance, if you will — of ongoing cycles of birth, growth, death and decay that nourishes new life. What we thought was solid and permanent is instead processes, systems and patterns. Perhaps we watch a murmuration of sparrows in the sky at dusk and we realize our true nature is a dance of life, not an isolated fortress we need to defend. We no longer believe that our job is to keep repackaging ourselves to be the most attractive gift under the Christmas tree or the most impressive accumulator of stuff, power and experience

But it’s not just in our meditation practice that insights come. At any time, especially if we are troubled, we can ask skillful questions that help us see more clearly. We listen to what we are telling ourselves, and we ask, ‘Is this true?’ and ‘How do I know this is true? Another useful question is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ Instead of running around in mental circles, telling ourselves a story about a situation, person or belief, we can examine the way we are relating to them. Can we recognize that we are grasping, clinging or pushing away? Through meditation we cultivate awareness and compassion. Then we can skillfully investigate what’s going on in any moment and gain insight. Aha!

Through the regular practice of meditation we don’t necessarily lose all the various elements of identity we believed ourselves to be. We just see them for what they are and we can hold them lightly. We let go. We un-barnacle. And in doing so we reveal the beauty of all life.

We awaken to our passion and purpose, not to claim it as ‘our thing’ or wear it as a badge that defines us, but to participate more fully in each moment, blooming where we are planted with naturally arising kindness, compassion, freedom and the grace of a dancer who’s attuned to the rhythms of life.

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.



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.

Happiness begins with questioning in

questionmarkIn our ongoing exploration of the Ten Perfections of the Heart, we have been looking at Truthfulness, especially how truthful we are with ourselves. It is not that we are outright lying, just that we are not often questioning the statements, beliefs, judgments, etc. that are the running inner commentary of our mental lives. How much does this inner commentary shape the way we relate to this present moment and all that we are dealing with? Do our assumptions persuade us and dissuade us in ways we are not even aware of? Of course! So after quieting the mind down a bit in meditation, it is extremely valuable to start questioning these previously unquestioned long-standing thoughts that have been getting a free ride all this time. If we are basing our intentions, attitudes, words and actions on something we haven’t even looked at lately, then there’s no time like the present to start questioning.

As we take the time to unplug, focus on our breath and develop awareness and compassion, we have the opportunity to begin to see the nature of the thoughts that pass through (again and again). Especially right after meditating, we can allow ourselves just a few more minutes to really notice and question.

Of course, the process is particularly noticeable when on a silent retreat. (But don’t put it off until then!) On retreat there is so much time in silence, and without the opportunity to be expressed, thoughts stand out in our minds. They have more space to move around because the normal thoughts that typically run our daily activities have become unnecessary: We don’t have to pick anything up from the store, make anything for dinner, accomplish anything on our to do list or think of what to say or review what we should have said instead of what we did say, etc. On retreat all we do is respond to the bells by getting up, going to the meditation hall, sitting, walking, dining, listening to dharma talks, maybe going on a little hike or resting in the sun, and doing our one simple daily yogi job — a housekeeping or cooking chore that we have chosen. The remaining thought patterns have a lot of room in our heads to rattle around, so that we actually see them passing through, again and again.

How we come into relationship with these repeating patterns is really the focus of our practice as we go about our day.

Do we combat them? “Oh, shut up!’

Abuse them? “You are so stupid!”

Placate them? “I promise I’ll do better.’

Reinforce them by adding in some emotional component? ‘ Grrr, that really made me angry, and not only that, remember the time…?’

Or, as the Buddha suggested, do we question their veracity? ‘Is that true?’ ‘What proof do I have to back up that belief, assumption, judgment or statement?’

This is a valuable investigation, and one that is lifelong. We develop the powerful habit of self-exploration. This is quite different from self-doubt, which is the habit of undermining our best intentions. Inner investigation is simply making sure that we are being truthful in what we tell ourselves. So many of our thought patterns simply repeat something we heard as children. We have tuned ourselves in to a certain set of beliefs, and we accept anything we hear that resonates with those original assumptions. But where did the assumptions come from? They are often negative judgments about ourselves or the world, and when we simply accept them as true without questioning, we do a disservice to ourselves and those around us. With our child’s limited view we made sense of a confusing world at the time, but now, from our adult perspective, if we take a moment to really look, these assumptions reveal themselves to be erroneous, painful and unnecessary now. Whatever we thought we were protecting doesn’t need this protection any longer. The truth does set us free!

As with all the Paramitas, these perfections of the heart, we can spend a lifetime in this practice and find great value in it. We have insights into the nature of mind and how we are causing ourselves and others to suffer by being oblivious to the patterns of thought and emotion that activate anger, jealousy and ill will of all kinds.

In our meditation practice, we are training ourselves to be present with whatever arises in our experience. This is a worthy endeavor in itself, but when we get into inner investigation, the real fruits of our efforts reveal themselves. When we see that thoughts are not ‘who we are’ but instead just wisps of mental formations passing through our vast compassionate field of experience, or synaptic activity, it makes it a lot easier to look at them without freaking out or freezing up or turning away.

You can see how the matter of identity comes into play with this investigation. We may cling to certain beliefs, opinions and judgments as components of our personality or character. Those of you who have studied the work of Byron Katie will recognize these valuable questions: ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true? Who would I be without this thought?’

As we begin to explore the next Paramita of ‘Resolve’, we are asked to continue with this practice of looking closely at the nature of our thoughts. The Buddha taught that there are four aspects to ‘Resolve’, and the first one is Discernment. And what is involved in discernment? It is really looking at the intention or course we have set for ourselves and noticing all the underpinnings of thoughts and judgments that rise up in our field of experience that may be sabotaging our intentions. Discernment makes us look at the goals themselves to see if they are worthy and sustainable.

So here we are again, paying attention to the nature of thoughts that arise, and questioning them. We just can’t get away from it! And that’s okay, because there is incredible richness in this process. This is where the wondrous insights grow from the fertile field of ongoing dedication to awareness and compassion.

Being Kind to Ourselves Is Not Selfish

“The purpose of studying Buddhism is not to study Buddhism but to study ourselves.” – Shunryu Suzuki, author of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Meditation is the practice of creating time and space to quietly listen in. Sensing in to our breath and other sensations that arise and fall away, as do all phenomena, we open to the possibility of insight. If we pair our intention to be present with the intention to be compassionate with ourselves as we proceed, then we create a safe way to explore ourselves and the world.

We may feel some resistance to this idea of studying ourselves, just as we do to sending loving kindness to ourselves. It is likely we have been raised to focus on the outer world and to ignore and control emotions, thoughts and physical sensations. This is meant to counter self-indulgence and self-devotion. The practice of Buddhist meditation and psychology is not meant to create a narcissistic cult within us. We begin where we are with our practice, and where we are is entrenched in the seemingly permanent situation of being embodied in a particular form, having a particular series of patterns of thoughts and emotions that we believe define us. So this is what we notice. This is what we study. We develop the ability to hold our inner experience in loving awareness.

If we skip this step, whatever focus we have on the outer world will be tight, rooted in the complex patterns of fear and ignorance we harbor. We leap to the defense of this set of patterns because we believe it is who we are, and we desperately do not want to disappear!  In this fortified, calcified state we will offer up with the best intentions what we think the world wants and needs from us. We will not understand why when we are doing the best we can, these efforts are so misunderstood or poorly received. We will then blame ourselves or blame the world, causing the complex patterns to get tighter, denser and more toxic. We may seek oblivion to blind us to these patterns in the form of overindulgence in alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, overeating and other temporary distractions that do blind us, but also bind us even tighter to the patterns we are trying to escape. We’ve all tried at least some unskillful means of escape and have found them to be lacking. This is why so many people come to Buddhist practice after exhausting all other avenues. They come to the wisdom of ‘no escape.’

In our practice we begin where we are: Here, in this body, in this mind. We set our intention to be present and kind. That’s all. When we do this, there is a quite natural unraveling of the knot of patterns that have stymied us in our attempts to satisfy our idea of how we should be in the world. (Expectation stops the process, so notice and release impatience for a faster pace or greater rate of return on time invested. Let go of comparing mind. Just set the intentions again and again.)

Over time – days, weeks, months, lifetimes — we may notice that we are increasingly able to be in the world with a sense of being fully present, feeling, at least at times, true and universal loving kindness, a connected sense of compassion and much more. As this happens, we see that our practice has not been selfish at all. We practice on ourselves first. We are clearing the way for full engagement in the world.

In recent weeks we have been focusing on metta (loving-kindness) practice. Buddhism provides phrases for sending loving-kindness, as we have discussed previously. We begin with sending metta to ourselves, for the reasons I’ve just given. For a helpful mental aid to remind ourselves why we do this, remember that the airlines direct us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before we put it on our children. What use will we be to our children, or anyone, if we have passed out?

If sending metta to ourselves still feels too difficult, here is an additional instruction I just learned at Jack Kornfield’s daylong retreat on Buddhist Psychology:

Send metta to first one then another person in your life for whom you have unqualified affection, for whom you want all the best. Really spend some time with the feelings that sending this metta brings up for you. Notice the physical effects, the emotional tone, the way you hold these thoughts.
Then imagine these two people sending metta to you. You can draw on moments when they have exhibited loving kindness to you or have looked at you with heartfelt caring. Let yourself stay with this experience. Let yourself receive the metta.

You might try that practice and then notice how it feels in your body, how it feels in your emotions, and how it affects your thought processes. Perhaps it feels glorious. Perhaps it feels uncomfortable. Perhaps you can’t feel it or feel shut down by the process. Just notice what is present in your experience without trying to change anything.

Perhaps you can’t imagine two people who care about you. If so, then you might imagine being in the center of a circle of Buddhist monks with a lifetime of practice sending metta and seeing the Buddha nature in all beings. Imagine them all focused on sending metta to you.

Jack told us about his experience of meeting the Dalai Lama, how no matter how many people are waiting in line to meet him, he takes the time to look deeply in your eyes, holding your hand in both of his, until there is a deep connection, acknowledgement and understanding. So imagine the Dalai Lama sending you loving kindness! (He is doing so every day in any case, when he sends lovingkindness out to all beings!)

One of the students in my Thursday class said that ten years ago she was embraced by Amma (Mata Amritanandamayi is known throughout the world as Amma, or Mother, for her selfless love and compassion toward all beings.) and had that same sense of being held until some deep connection and release was felt. We discussed that feeling of total acceptance, so different from our usual sense of striving to be liked, loved, respected or admired. The nature of loving-kindness is universal, all-encompassing.

No matter what you have done, no matter what a mess you have made of your life, you can receive loving kindness. If you have done terrible things, allowing metta into your heart will give you the courage (from coeur, French for heart) to ask forgiveness and to make amends. If it’s useful, imagine metta as warm flowing liquid dissolving the granules of anger and resentment that have been keeping you from allowing yourself to forgive those you blame for past or current conditions, that keep you from forgiving yourself.

Our practice is to notice as much as we can about our present experience and to be as kind as we are able toward ourselves and others. That’s it. We don’t have to turn ourselves inside out. Whatever changes happen arise simply out of our practice. When a shift happens, it is from tight and fearful to open and loving. But we don’t force it. We don’t demand it. We don’t beat ourselves over the head until we are the ‘right’ way.

Our practice is to notice the arising and falling away of phenomena, including our thoughts, emotions and sensations. Our practice is to be kind to ourselves and others to whatever degree we are able. Sending metta activates our ability to feel deeply connected with all beings. From that sense of deep connection, we naturally become more compassionate.

Why do we procrastinate?

Noticing the word ‘should’ when it shows up in our thoughts gives us creative opportunity for exploration. We hear the ‘should’ when we say it and we can pause to play with it. Yes, play!

So, for example, we notice ourselves saying, “I should do (fill in the blank). Ah, ‘should!’” Here we can recognize an opportunity to discover some inner resistance or ambivalence around the thing we feel we ‘should’ do. Noticing the should gives us the chance to sense into that ambivalence and resistance to discover what other thoughts or emotions are present. We might say, ‘Hmm, for some reason I have ambivalence or resistance to doing this thing since I am using the word ‘should’ around it rather than just saying I’m going to do it. What is my ambivalence? What is my resistance?’ This can be a very rich inner dialog, as long as we remember to set the intention to be respectful, curious and compassionate in the process.

Using the ‘shoulds’ we discover as opportunities for self-exploration is more useful and creative than creating another self-scolding ‘should’ level by thinking we shouldn’t use the word ‘should!’

One friend said that she didn’t use the word ‘should’ much. But then, as the conversation continued, she noticed that she was using ‘need to’ and ‘have to’ and other substitute words for should. And then a few shoulds cropped up as well. So we laughed about that! We all use this word or some variation all the time. So it’s not about eradicating the word from our vocabulary, but about noticing it, and then using that noticing to creatively question where we are feeling resistance.

Resistance and ambivalence leads to procrastination. You can look at the areas where you most often procrastinate and find a hornet’s nest of shoulds! Is it a pile of papers on your desk? A phone call you’ve been meaning to make? A party or trip you’ve been meaning to plan? A pile of clutter you’ve been meaning to sort? Whatever it is, it’s clearly a ‘should’ that makes you shudder. Why?

After meditation, give yourself at least an extra ten minutes to perform this exercise if it is of interest to you. Have a journal or piece of paper handy to jot down anything that comes up that you might want to review later.

Pick an area of procrastination that feels pertinent right now, something you’ve been meaning to do but haven’t.
Just think about it in your usual way. You will have a recurring pattern of words that you use around this thing that you’ve been meaning to do. Simply allow it to play out.
Now notice the language you use as you think about it, just being curious and kind. (It’s like trying to get a little closer to observe some very skittish little animals that will run at the first provocation. So notice but don’t engage. Let them just exhibit their natural behavior.)
When you come upon a ‘should’ or similar word, pause to notice how it feels in the body.
Does anything tighten up, get closed off, get shut down?
How does this affect the inner conversation?
Does the conversation shifts energy on the pivot point of these should words?
If so, does it wind down so you just don’t want to think about it anymore? Or does it heat up in the form of anger, frustration, shame or blame?
Notice the emotions that arise.
This is an exploration. We are not trying to control it. There is no ideal outcome. There is just this noticing the habituated patterns in our thinking.
Notice hopefulness or expectation that this exercise will ‘solve the problem.’
Remind yourself to simply be present with the experience of noticing this pattern of inner conversation in order to learn more about it. This is not about trying to change it. When we are too eager to see results, our expectations sabotage the process.
Remind yourself to bring as much compassionate curiosity as possible to this exploration.
When you find yourself judging, be compassionate about that. This is also part of the pattern that you can explore.

We all have habituated inner conversations like this. I have several of them. I lurch a few steps forward on the project, then some chain reaction of inner events causes me to set it aside, sometimes for years. But even when I’ve set it aside, the ‘should’ is still there, running around in my head.
When I pause and see what’s happening, I can choose to explore it, if it’s an appropriate time, or I can simply be present, noticing the thread of thought as it passes through and return to whatever activity I am doing with my whole attention. 

One reason we are reluctant to explore why we procrastinate is the physical discomfort we feel when the subject comes up. Noticing the physical sensations is very helpful. Notice the sensations. Notice the desire to run away from these sensations. Set the intention to simply be present with them. 

These sensations, when noticed, provide a lot of insight. The tension that arises in our body is the way we hold the past and the future. In meditation, in order to maintain a sense of being fully present, we can breathe into the area to release the tension. This also works well when we are feeling stressed in life. BUT when we are doing an inner exploration, these physical sensations of tension are valuable messengers, because they do hold information in the form of memories, hopes and fears.

We may be afraid to open this ‘can of worms’ or ‘Pandora’s Box’ of memories and imaginings. In a post-meditative state we can be present with the fear as well as the images that arise. We are less threatened by them because we have developed the ability to observe threads of thoughts and emotions traveling through our open field of spacious awareness. There may be images of something painful, but if they arise they are here to answer a question only, not to cause more pain. After meditation we are better able to look at them with this fresh viewpoint rather than avert our attention in fear as we might usually do. 

How is this image answering the question posed? How does it tie in to the excuses we make about why we procrastinate in this area? Staying curious, kind, non-judgmental if at all possible, we have access to the answers within us. Through meditation, we are able to see more clearly the tight fear-bound patterns of our thoughts and emotions. After meditation we can take the time to pose a question, then be quiet enough to allow what arises within to inform us.

So, what sits on your to do list year after year because it has a lot of unexcavated ‘should’ qualities in it? Is it something you could simply remove from the list, some leftover or borrowed ‘should’ that has no meaning for you? Or is it something that you want to do, but simply have not explored the resistance and ambivalence you feel around it enough to have clear intention? Perhaps like me you have a voice in there that demands ‘Who are you to..’ do whatever it is you dare to even think about the possibility of doing. 

It really helps to get to know our inner cast of characters so that we can come into a healthier relationship with them instead of letting them shut us down so that we procrastinate endlessly, putting off activities we truly want to do, or loading us down with a sense we should do something that has no meaning for us. Life does not have to be this heavy! Some pain in life is unavoidable, but procrastination is one of the ways we cause ourselves and others additional unnecessary suffering.

So ask some questions, make a list, journal about why you want to do it and why you don’t. Notice if anything on your list come from somewhere else — a leftover desire to fulfill a parent’s goal for you; a fear of being judged, etc. When we can see the source of our inner conversations, we can more easily let them go. If they hang around, at least we recognize them and can compassionately acknowledge them and even negotiate with them. But as long as we recognize them for what they are, they can never have the same power over us they did when we believed our thoughts defined us.

This exercise is something you can do whenever you notice your life getting full of ‘shoulds’ and feel anxiety about not doing enough. It is not meant to solve anything, but it will loosen the stranglehold of tight patterns and bring things to light of awareness. By actively exploring we create an energetic spin that gets things moving. We fully inhabit our one and only personal point of power — this moment, when we wake to it.

[Read more about procrastination.]
[Read more about inner dialoguing.]