Category Archives: inquiry

Inquiry Series: Valuable Question #4

21618.jpgThe first three questions in this series — What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and Is this true? — are useful any time we are feeling we are on the verge of being unskillful in any way. Or we can use them if feel we may have been unskillful and are trying to see how that happened and how we might not repeat that unskillfulness.

The next questions in this series are more for insightful overview of our lives as they are now. This is not a historical reflection, but really looking at the lay of the land, this inner and outer landscape we have created, whether we realized we were creating it or not. We can look both with appreciation for the beauty and with a gardener’s eye to what changes we might need to make in order to live with greater ease, harmony and joy.

Consider that in every moment of our lives we are planting seeds and nurturing them, so it pays to be mindful of what exactly it is we are cultivating. So our fourth valuable question is:

What am I cultivating in my life? After meditating or a going for a quiet walk in nature, we can take a few moments for this inner inquiry. We can notice whether we are cultivating ease, compassion, equanimity and joy. Or are we cultivating fear in all its variations and manifestations?

Cultivate is also a very accurate and satisfying word for what we do in meditation. We cultivate spaciousness. We cultivate ease. We cultivate kindness and compassion. We don’t push anything away. We plant the seeds of wise intention and wise effort and wise concentration, and what we reap is wiser mindfulness, wise, view, wise action, wise speech and wise livelihood — all in direct measure to our skillfulness in cultivation.

When we are working in the garden, we discern between plants we have purposely planted and ones that as seedlings may seem pretty or benign but in no time take over or shoot off seeds that root everywhere. So we make (sometimes difficult) choices. And so it is in our lives. But using the first three valuable questions will help us to make more beneficial choices.

You reap what you sow
I like the word ‘cultivate’ because it reminds me to recognize how responsible I am for the way things are in this moment and the way things will be in the future in my life. At the same time, just as a storm will come in and reek havoc in a garden and then there’s a period of recovery, I can recognize that it is not all up to me, that sometimes causes and conditions are such that I need to learn how to live in skillful relationship to great difficulty, great pain, loss and the ongoing unavoidable truth of the nature of impermanence. Can I be resilient? Can I find beauty in the storm? Can I find pleasure in the small sweet moments amidst the storm?

While I have no control over when the sun will shine or the rain will fall, I do have the ability to adjust my plantings accordingly: ferns and azaleas in the shade, roses in the sunny places. I can assess the soil and the average rainfall and choose accordingly. I can recognize that conditions change. A tree dies and is removed and now this shaded area is sunny, so some adjustments need to be made. So too in life when I come up against the loss of some ability to do something I love, can I find some other activity that will be more suited to current conditions? Or will I feel helpless? Will I wish things were the way they used to be, and wallow in the mud of a garden that hasn’t been lovingly tended?

In my life, there may be events and conditions beyond my control, but by being present and noticing, I can make skillful adjustments to accommodate changing conditions so that the seeds of my wise intentions have the best chance to grow.

Does this make sense to you? Are you cultivating the seeds of your wisest intentions? Or are you just letting your inner garden become an impenetrable jungle. Beautiful in its way, but when difficulties arise, as they will in any life, it’s a more than a bit daunting to try to navigate amidst the tight tangle of vines, the poison oak, and the possibility of slipping into a slimy swamp where who knows what is lurking. Oh my!!

What foolhardy soul would go there? So instead of spending time in the garden you get up to all kinds of distracting, dulling and even dangerous activities to avoid the whole mess. Sound familiar?

Another pitfall is to fall in love with the jungle, believe it is who you are, cling to that identity, as painful as it may be.

Another pitfall is to hate the garden unless it’s perfect, willing everything into orderly rows, just so, losing touch with any understanding of the necessary collaboration of the gardener and nature’s own awesomeness. The true green thumbed gardener is attuned to nature. They are nature, too.

That’s why a regular practice of meditation is so immediately useful. It naturally creates spaciousness in the inner garden. Over time we become more skillful at cultivating compassion, balance, ease and joy. We plant a seed in fertile soil enriched by our practice and trust that with the regular watering of our daily practice and our intention to be mindful in our daily life,something will grow. There is no immediate expectation. Seeds take time to sprout. We’re involved in the process, but is not completely a product of our will. We are tapping into the nature of things. It is the nature of things to grow. It is within our nature to be peaceful, to have more clarity in our minds and more compassion in our hearts.

I sometimes use the phrase ‘cultivating spacious ease’ in my meditation practice. I find it helps me to develop wise balanced effort. If I find myself lost in judgmental thought, I might use the phrase ‘cultivating kindness’ or ‘cultivating compassion’. Notice how different these phrases are from ‘I should be kinder’ or ‘I should be more compassionate’ or ‘What a mean rotten person I am.’  The word ‘should’ is a clue that I’m not being skillful, that I’m looking through a faulty lens of fear at myself and the world.

Thinking of it as cultivating these qualities accepts that I am not necessarily being kind or compassionate right now, but I am cultivating those qualities and with steady attention and patience they may grow within me.

As inner gardeners, we can look at all the areas of our lives and ask:

Am I cultivating health?
What am I cultivating here when I mindlessly eat more than the body needs in this moment? When I over-indulge in things that don’t nourish? When I don’t listen to the body’s need to move, relax, sleep or eat?

What am I cultivating when I let a complex pattern of thoughts and emotions around self-image get in the way of attending the body’s wise messages and taking care of its simple needs?

Am I cultivating healthy relationships?
In each family, friend and workplace relationship we can see patterns at play in the way we interact. We can see how we have cultivated warmth, caring and kindness. And perhaps where we have cultivated relationships that are thornier and difficult.

We may feel we are helpless to change a relationship, but it is worth experimenting to see. I know from my own experience and from reports from students that when we let down our defenses and instead send infinite loving-kindness in our thoughts to even the most difficult people in our lives, the energy shifts. This can be done from a distance. Any time that person comes to mind, just think ‘May you be well.’ This can be done not just with people we know personally but, for example, people in power with whom we disagree. This sending of metta doesn’t condone their decisions. We can still write, phone and march to let our positions be clearly understood. But if our words are venomous and our actions are violent, then what are we really cultivating?

While we wish all beings well, some relationships are potentially toxic for us, and it’s important to notice if when hanging out with someone, we revert to unhealthy habits that don’t support us — overindulging in food or drink, smoking or doing drugs, engaging in malicious gossip, spending beyond our means, etc.

There’s no need to blame the friend. He or she is caught up in painful cycles and is deserving of our compassion. But we don’t follow them into those cycles either. If we feel susceptible to temptation, we compassionately pull back from spending time with that person. Instead we send them infinite loving-kindness from a distance. May you be well. May you be happy.

We don’t proselytize or try to fix anyone. We are each on our own journey here. But we can trust that if we live true to our own wise intentions, we may without realizing it, offer inspiration to others. And that is a greater kindness than giving ourselves away and losing ourselves in the process.

Am I cultivating a healthy work life?
The practice of meditation over time puts us in touch with our deepest wisest self. Our fear-based efforts to be seen in a certain light fall away, and we grow into the fullness of simply being. The result is that we are authentic and accessible. Ambition to be seen as ‘a success’, however we define it, falls away. Our work is a contribution to the world, a valued and necessary activity that stems from our abilities and interests.

Often in work situations, we might find we have patterns of over-exertion and exhaustion. Seeing what we are cultivating with unwise effort — the quality of the work product, the effect on our health, the effect on our relationships in and outside the workplace — really helps us to develop more skillful balanced effort.

Am I cultivating a healthy planet?
Acknowledging our power includes taking responsibility for how our actions impact all life. If we belittle ourselves, we feel our actions don’t matter. But they do. If we get caught up in guilt we become paralyzed and unable to make simple choices to leave only footprints, not poison the communal garden of our planet. So now that it is not only possible but easy, and even fun, to live more responsibly for the benefit of all life, why not do it?

These are just a few examples of areas you might explore with this question. See for yourself if asking ‘What am I cultivating here?’ gives you a valuable way of looking at your life. And whenever you can, practice cultivating spacious ease.

Cultivating spacious ease makes room for wonder in our lives: Both the questioning kind of wonder and the awestruck kind of wonder. We make room for our buddha nature, our own access to universal wisdom, to whisper its truth to us in our most quiet, relaxed and attentive moments of meditation.

Inquiry Series: Pause in place and set a kinder pace

Over the past weeks we have been looking at three valuable questions — What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and Is this true? These are particularly helpful when we feel something’s not quite right in our lives. For example, when we:

– have difficulty in a relationship
– get hurt feelings
– feel stuck or frustrated
– can’t appreciate the goodness in life
– get caught up in thoughts of the past or future
– are hard on ourselves and/or our loved ones

Noticing when something’s askew and asking What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and Is this true? allows us to see more clearly what’s going on. We may see where we are misunderstanding the true nature of our experience. This is not a fault-finding expedition, but a compassionate look with some clarifying tools we may never have realized we had readily on hand to help.

Already happy?
It’s good to know about these tools, these valuable questions, even if we are feeling fully present in our experience, not caught up in endless thoughts about the past or future. We can save them for the proverbial rainy day when they will come in handy. Most of us do have at least occasional bouts of troubling emotions and circular thoughts, so these questions can be packed in the emergency kit for just such occasions.

Wise Effort
When we undertake this kind of inquiry, it’s important to do so with wise effort. The answers can’t be mined with a pick ax. Instead they arise in the space we create with our compassionate attention and gentle inquiry. This is only possible when we give ourselves time to quiet down, pause and unplug from our to do list and our devices. A regular meditation practice helps create the spaciousness needed, but the inquiry and the answers come afterwards and at other times during the day if we are open and receptive to them.

This is quite a different experience than the ‘Let’s DO this thing!’ attitude we may take when confronting a big project. There’s no charge of adrenaline and no goal to aim for. There is no urgency in our inner investigation. If you sense an urgency, that’s just a fear-based aspect wanting to get ‘fixed’ and done. But this is not a one-off project. It’s a rich and rewarding habit of a lifetime. Be compassionate toward that urgent aspect, but don’t let it dictate the agenda here.

Clarification on the word ‘story’
Last week in our exploration of the question Is this true? I used the word ‘story’. This usage of that word is easily misunderstood. Calling our long-held patterns of thought ‘stories’ is not to discredit them or throw them out. It is to allow some light in so that we can see more clearly. If we’ve always accepted the story whole-cloth, how interesting to look more closely and see the distinct threads woven together to create the pattern.

When we ask ‘Is this true?’ it is not to get rid of the story. It is to look with compassion and clarity at all the assumptions within the story. Most of our stories have aspects of truth and aspects of misunderstanding or misinformation within them.

The teacher/author Byron Katie has made it her life’s work helping readers and students question Is it true? How do I know it’s true? and Who would I be without my story? That last question helps us to see how tightly we hold onto even the most painful stories. The story might be ‘I’m a total klutz’ or ‘I’m the kind of person who could never do…’ something we very much would like to do. These self-defining belief-stories are hard to challenge. We’ve built a lifetime of ‘proof’ that backs up our story. This kind of inquiry can seem threatening. If I’m not this story I so firmly believe in, then who am I? And yet some deeper wisdom within us encourages us to explore, to question, to open to the possibility that we are quite possibly not a total klutz at all.

This inquiry is a gentle and incremental process, not a tearing up of the book of our lives and writing a whole new version. It’s an invitation to be present with what arises and be willing to look with open eyes and open heart. We hold ourselves in kindness. May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be at peace. May I be happy.

Inquiry Series: Valuable Question #3: Is what I am telling myself true?

In this series on self-inquiry, we have been posing powerful questions like ‘What is my intention here?’ and ‘What am I afraid of?’ The answers that come up are observable patterns of thought that form the stories we rely on to navigate a complex inner and outer world.

Stories? Yes, the mind weaves stories out of what we experience with our senses, stories still full of the emotions we felt at the time the story was formulated or first encountered. Scientists now say that the most distinctly human trait is the way we organize our experiences into stories that we then tell ourselves, each other and our descendants. Over thousands of years we have co-created a variety of cultures based on the collective stories that guide, enrich, enrage and entertain us. These shared stories greatly influence us as we each create our personal stories to interpret and understand what we are experiencing.

Think of any strong experience you have had recently. You have most likely ‘gone over it in your mind’ a number of times. Each time, maybe without realizing it, you refine and revise how you tell the story of that experience and how it fits in your life. This is the way the mind works. It processes experience. This may be a tale of some wonderful experience, but more often than not the stories we weave are the ones based on difficult challenging experiences, ones full of strong emotion, because they most need our attention to fully process.

I will use a personal example: I recently lost my brother. I have found myself rethinking the whole traumatic experience of the last week of his life when loving dedicated family and friends gathered in our home to give him hospice. At the time I couldn’t help noticing that while on the calendar it was a week for me it felt like ten years. So much emotional content paired with physical exhaustion can alter our experience of time, trying to make room for it all. This sense of time being elastic, of expanding when what we are going through is too much to immediately process, feels odd but is normal. It means we need to give ourselves time and compassion.

A few months later, I attended a writers’ retreat. In that safe dedicated space I was able to process more of my experience through writing poems. (Poetry has always been my most reliable means of inner exploration, but it’s certainly not the only form to be useful in this way.) The retreat teacher, Kim Stafford, encouraged us to go deeper, to tell the hidden story. So often our instinct is to make our story ‘nice’ and inoffensive. We are in such a rush to resolve our feelings, get past the discomfort and get on with our lives. It’s as if we want to just put it all in a blender to make a smoothie so that it will be easier to swallow. But that doesn’t work in the long run, does it? We need to take the time to digest experience. This is not to dwell on things or mull them over incessantly, but to give trauma — where there was so much to process in so little time — the chance to settle into not just a story we can live with, but the most honest account as we understand it in this moment.

Which brings us to this week’s question: ‘Is this true?’, a powerful question we can use in every situation. When we assess incoming information about the world around us, for example, do we just accept what we read or hear? Are the filters we use to process the information prefabricated, so things we hear that resonate with our biases are accepted without question, and things that go against our biases are rejected without question? This is obviously an important use of the question.

But ‘Is this true?’ is also a way to look at the stories we are telling ourselves, the stories we have stirred up with both the skillful ones (What is my intention here? What am I afraid of?) and the toxic ones we examined in the first post of this series, (like Who am I to think I could do this? or Why am I so stupid?)

At first the inner story we uncover might be full of remorse, self-blame or anger at someone else, imagining what we or they could have done differently. Or it might be full of self-righteousness and an unwillingness to look at more aspects of the events upon which the story was based. A gentle but firm ‘Is this true?’ can soften up the calcified shards of painful story we have been clinging to without realizing how much the story has been coloring our perception of the world, perhaps blinding us to a simple truth that could help us see more clearly and compassionately. How does this happen?

messy-files.jpg

The Faulty Filing System
On a daily basis story-making is a handy way for us to file new information to make room for the next experience. For example, we pass a tree and instead of really looking closely, we instantly file it away under ‘tree’, often so quickly we can’t remember seeing a particular tree at all. If we are interested in trees our filing will be a little more refined noting its species, for example, and feeling perhaps a little pleasure in the knowing. But chances are we don’t pause in our thinking mind and our busy day to ponder the tree, to questions our assumptions about it (unless we’re on a meditation retreat where such slowed-down noticing is a naturally-arising valuable experience.)

Back in daily life we might pause only if it’s something we’ve never seen before. We may be curious, often not so much to explore it, but to be able to label it so we can file it away. Perhaps it’s similar to something else we feel we know about, so we say, ‘Oh, it’s a type of _________.’ Then we have preset stories based on culture, family and personal experience, that we rely on to guide us in all matters of internal filing.

Do you see any potential flaws in this system?
Here are a few that I can see:

  1. If we are on autopilot as we process experience, the information is not properly vetted, is it? ‘Garbage in, garbage out.’ How could it be otherwise?
  2. If the system is overloaded it doesn’t always file things correctly.
  3. If the original formative stories were faulty and have never been questioned, then how can we expect this filing system to work at all?

To avoid ‘garbage in garbage out’ we stay as present as we can with our senses in each moment so our experience is processed without building up a backlog. We notice assumptions arising with the rest of what is going on, and we can question their veracity. This is not to undermine ourselves, but to cultivate spaciousness in our awareness so we can see clearly.

To assure things don’t get so overwhelmed that the system misfiles information and takes shortcuts, we take good care of ourselves: Get a good night’s sleep, pace ourselves, meditate regularly, spend time in nature, all with a receptive, responsive, compassionate sense of aliveness that helps us to make wise choices. When we are able to find balance in our lives so that we have sufficient alone time to process our experience, we stay ‘caught up with the inner paperwork’, so to speak. And we discover the joy possible in every moment.

Going through an emotionally stressful time puts this filing system to a real test. If we don’t recognize that we need to give ourselves more time to process and catch up, the system overheats and short-circuits. If we are paying attention, we can sense when we need to pause, spend time alone, take a walk, journal, have a conversation with a trusted friend or seek the guidance of a counselor or therapist.

Now let’s look at the third potential flaw in our filing system: How the original setup of our filing system may be flawed. Uh oh! That can’t be good. But it’s not life-threatening. We just have to be willing to look at what arises in a friendly way.

Think about those toxic questions we have been posing most of our lives. We don’t have to struggle with them. We simply set the intention to stay present, noticing and gently questioning the veracity of the stories we received whole-cloth without question as children and the stories we have constructed over the years to attempt to make sense of the world.

I have had the joy of watching close up the way a child’s brain processes information. as part of the care team for our young granddaughters. Oh my, as bright as they are, how easily they can misunderstand things! For example, when I asked the four year old attending a Lutheran preschool what she was learning about Christmas, she said ‘Well, Grandma, there was this lake of flames.’ Wha’? I’m pretty sure that’s not what they were telling her about the birth of Jesus. That misunderstanding, and the confidence in what we believe with all our heart to be true, is emblematic of the way all our brains received and processed information as children. Then we get busy with our lives and never question our misinformed perceptions again. No wonder we get in trouble!

I hope this little story helps you to be a bit suspicious of the stories you tell yourself and accept as not only true but perhaps sacred in some way. Questioning them might feel like a threat to tear down your whole being. Think of it more like spring cleaning, lightening the load of the useless and often painful clutter of misinformation we all carry around. If not tossing it out, at least holding it more lightly and seeing it more clearly.

We all have a lot of stories. Our purpose is not to replace one story with another one. The question Is this true? allows us to soften the rigid stance that hasnsn’t supported us very well. By exercising the mental muscles of compassionate and clear-sighted inquiry, we become more authentic and fluid. If we can allow for the possibility that a thought we’ve held for a long time is just an unexamined habit of mind, then we’re not bogged down in defending the fortress we hold ourselves to be.

For a little inspiration, it seems appropriate to leave you with a story! This classic Buddhist tale challenges our habit of reacting to life by fabricating stories about things that can’t be known.

A farmer’s horse gets loose from the corral and disappears. The farmer’s neighbor says, ‘What a calamity! Poor you, stuck without a horse to plow your fields.’ He was surprised when the farmer shrugged and said, ‘Maybe yes, maybe no.’

A few days later the horse returns with six wild horses in tow. Wow! Now the neighbor said, ‘That’s fantastic! What great luck!’ The farmer again says ‘Maybe yes, maybe no.’

Then the farmer’s son falls off the horse while trying to tame it, and he breaks his leg. ‘How terrible!’ the neighbor sympathizes. The farmer seems heartless in his unwillingness to claim this as a catastrophe. “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next week the army comes and takes all able-bodied young men, but not the son hobbling around on crutches. The neighbor cannot believe the farmer’s good fortune.

We stop the story here but you can see how it could go on and on in this way. The neighbor is weaving stories based on automatic assumptions, while the farmer is allowing himself to be open to the possibility that the story is at the very least incomplete, even when it seems patently obvious to the neighbor what the truth of each situation is. If you relate more to the neighbor, you are not alone! Most of us run with these stories, reacting to every change of fortune as a disaster or a stroke of luck. But there is a gift in allowing ourselves to pause in our automatic reactions to ask ‘Is this true?’ and to see that the verdict is never in. We all have stories of misfortune that turned into great gifts. So rushing to judgment is always premature. We don’t know! And far from being scary or weak in some way, living in the ‘I don’t know’ mind a most joyful state, opening a world of wonder.

Again and again the Buddha invites us to ‘not take his word for it’ but to explore for ourselves. It’s rich invitation. Take him up on it!

Inquiry series: Valuable question #2

What am I afraid of?

fear-hand-shadow.jpg

Fear rear’s its ugly head again, and again. We find ourselves saying and doing things that make matters worse. Rooted in fear, we feel tense, stressed, depressed or frantic. Fear can cause us to become violent, even if the violence is veiled and turned in on ourselves. When we feel out of control, asking ‘What am I afraid of?’ is an effective way to see the fear that has been causing us to make poor choices and miss out on joy.

At first our inner investigation will bring up a litany of stories about all that the future could manifest, given current causes and conditions. None of us knows what the future holds, but we can see from our own experience how reacting fearfully sets up a pattern of fear. In our practice we look at how we are in relationship to all that arises in our experience. Out of fear we are making enemies of everything. We spark fear in others and they then react in ways that are unskillful, causing more fear in us, and more justification for our fear. Fear creates its own proof! But that doesn’t mean it is the truth in the greater scheme of things. It only means we are powerful and need to be mindful of that.

Powerful? Yes! Beyond our wildest imagining.
Often, especially for women, this is difficult to recognize. We have historically been marginalized, patronized and dis-empowered. Those messages still run through us, no matter how liberated we may feel. I am posting this on a day that women are marching together in solidarity, supporting each other and feeling that unity of being. The true value in this is in seeing through the assumptions we all have inherited from an ever-evolving (and sometimes devolving) culture.

But this power is not dependent on external validation. Just by being alive, we are a powerful presence. For example, every being has the capacity to change the energy in an entire room. Don’t believe me? See if you can remember some gathering — family, business, friends — where everything was going swimmingly or everything was boring until someone walked in and the energy was turned upside down. The new addition, probably without even being aware of it, brought in fear-based antagonism or love-based joie de vivre that changed everything. It wasn’t that the person was in a position of hierarchical power necessarily, but they – and we – are all powerful beyond measure. So we need to take responsibility for the power we bring into the world.

If we are living in fear, we discount our power, and our actions or lack of action may be misinterpreted. I was in a situation this week where I was impressed by the skillfulness of a young woman I sat next to for an hour when I took my granddaughter to gymnastics class. The woman had a toddler to keep quietly entertained and contained while her daughter attended the class, and she managed it so beautifully — anyone would love to have a mother like that! — that I wanted to tell her. But I didn’t. I fell back into a pattern of shyness, discounting my own power. I thought that my words would be awkward and unwelcome somehow. Now I regret not saying something. We all appreciate praise, even if we don’t seem to. Why would I withhold a compliment? Out of fear.

Another fear-based pattern is how we can misinterpret the impact we make as something external that is happening to us, rather than something we are bringing into the situation. For example, the person that walks into a room of people, timid and shy, afraid of what people might think of them. They shrink and hide in such a way that people assume they want to be alone, or maybe that they are judging the group unworthy of their time. So they leave the person alone or, depending on their own level of fear, behave in a way that is a little defensive. This is interpreted by the ‘interloper’ as hostile, confirming their original supposition that they are not worthy of acknowledging. What a difference a fearless person makes in such a situation, able to step up to welcome a person, regardless of what they are projecting. But you can’t always count on finding a fearless person. It’s more skillful to simply be one!

This is a mild example. In the extreme, any person living through a filter of fear can activate fear in others, especially those who are hyper-fearful. It would seem to make sense that the two in a certain way call out to each other, a dangerous kinship of a shared scary world view. The fearful pair up to play out a painful pattern, perpetrator and victim, again and again. This is not to blame the victim for what happens to them, but to acknowledge that fear attracts fear and to encourage us to notice fear, question whether it is performing a useful function or actually causing harm.

Looking at these patterns, we might wonder how do we survive as a species with so much fear-based miscommunication? With the power of love. This is not the acquisitive desire kind of love, but the expansive love for all beings that rises out of gratitude for simply being alive in this moment, and the pleasure of sharing the joy with others who are alive with the sensate wonder of this amazing gift, just as it is.

The fear of taking a chance on ourselves
Where does fear grab you?

  • By the throat? Keeping you from speaking up?
  • By the metaphorical cojones? Keeping you from taking a chance on doing something you long to do — writing, painting, starting a business, etc.?
  • By the heart? Keeping you from expressing your feelings, risking rejection?

These fears feel valid. They each have risks. But how much risk-aversion is smart, and how much is simply crushing you? That’s an important exploration for each of us to take if this resonates.

Through the practice of being fully present to notice thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away in our experience, we can see fear for what it is. That awareness softens the tight grip that fear has held us in for so long. What a relief!

Three Poisons
The Buddha in his own inner investigation was able to identify ‘three poisons’ that cause suffering. As we look at each we can see that they are all rooted in fear.

Desire, fear’s greedy spawn
You may be surprised to see desire as rooted in fear. But think about the nature of desire. It is based in a sense of lack, of not-enough, and the assumption that something we acquire will remove that sense of lack. But desire is a mental pattern that breeds on itself. My granddaughters will never have enough of the current collectible stuffed animals. Ever. They may think there is some amount that will satisfy, but that will happen only when the focus of their desires moves on to the next toy of the moment, and way down the road maybe the next boy or pair of shoes or who knows what of the moment. Oh my. It is so much easier to see desire’s undesired effects in children than it is to see them in our own lives. But desire is there, rooted in fear, causing suffering.

Aversion, fear’s picky offspring
Fault-finding is a pattern that radiates out into the external world, but is seated in our own sense of not being good enough. Those standards we set that the world is not measuring up to? They came from our own not measuring up to the standards set by some powerful person in our childhood, who was caught up in the pattern from their own childhood sense of failing, and on and on. Getting caught up in blame is not useful. No parent or teacher has ever been perfectly skillful…well maybe the young mother at gymnastics class whom I mentioned earlier but I’m sure even she has her moments of unskillfulness at the end of a difficult day.

Delusion, fear’s wayward child
If a person is zoned out or just seems blind to the world around them, it might be reasonable to assume there is something scary that they would rather not look at too deeply. Instead, they float around in a state of foggy avoidance.

Since desire, aversion and delusion are the cause of suffering and are rooted in fear, the question ‘What am I afraid of?’ is a valuable exploration. But it might feel a little scary to pose. It may feel like having a conversation with the proverbial dragon at the gate, the one we’ve been avoiding or trying to sneak by for fear of going up in flames. But if that resonates, then this is just the conversation we need to be having. Because beyond that gate is the life we have been hiding from ourselves with our unquestioning patterns of fear.

This is not a one-off question. We can ask it, let the answer rise up, and then, instead of getting overly caught up in analysis, justification or argument, simply ask it again. And again. If you feel reluctant to go deeper in this way, remember that fear is already causing you pain. There’s a gospel song about how you have to go in through the door. These questions are a door.

Letting fear dictate our lives isn’t even helpful in addressing the surface fears. Instead it paralyzes us, making us unable to do the practical things we need to do: Create an emergency kit, build up a savings account, get a physical, etc.

What causes the paralysis? Under that fear is another fear. If this is not something you are comfortable doing on your own, find a dharma buddy to do it with. If you are terrified of such an investigation, then a therapist could help to guide you through the process.

By exploring the fear, we come to understand that we are causing ourselves and others suffering through reacting out of fear. Deep exploration and an investigation in the dharma shows us that we fear disappearing. So we panic when someone disrespects us and when things around us change, causing us to cling to the world we knew and push away new experience as threatening.

The Antidote to Fear
Just as fear is at the root of the three ways we suffer, the antidote to fear is offered in deep insight into the nature of things:

We are afraid of things changing or not changing. But insight and nature teaches us that impermanence is the way of all things. The seasons change. All beings cycle through life, death, decay and the regeneration of new life in some other form, the way fallen trees fertilize the forest floor.

We are afraid of being isolated, separate. But insight and nature teaches us that life is a complex web of patterns and networks that are not just interconnected but inherently one system of being, active, alive and non-isolatable. We forget that our being is woven into the pattern of life. Each of us can be imagined as a fleeting shining shimmer of a jewel in a complex network, radiating and reflecting all life.

We are afraid of pain and suffering. How can we not be? It is a biological imperative to fear pain so that we avoid what could harm or kill us. But insight and nature teach us that the pain of being born into a body, of illness, of aging, and of dying are intrinsic parts of the great gift of being alive to experience all the ever-present richness of each moment of awareness.
As we develop a practice of regular meditation, we come more fully into the present moment, into the senses. We can begin to look more closely at the nature of pain. We let go of the word pain, and sit with the pure sensation. We begin to see that it is not just one sensation but multiple sensations, like many instruments in an orchestra, each playing its part. We see how these smaller sensations are not in and of themselves painful. We see that they arise and fall away, and another sensation takes its place. We see the nature of impermanence in our close examination.
We see that it is our thoughts, rooted in fear, that compound pain. On top of that pure sensation we put the thought rooted in past experience: ‘Oh no, not this again! I hate when this happens.’ Then it’s not just this sensation, but a whole series of past similar pains that we are dealing with all over again. And if that were not enough we add in thoughts of the future: ‘How long will this pain go on? Will I have to miss that event I want to go to? Is this going to be a thing recurring for the rest of my life? Kill me now!’ And of course, we could toss a little comparing mind in there: ‘Why am I the only one who suffers in this way? Why me?’

By bringing ourselves fully into the present moment, not making things worse by diving into past and future thoughts, we find a fresh fearless way of being with pain. And then the pain disappears, or turns into something else. Because life is impermanent and this too shall pass.

The Buddha said not to take his word for it but to explore for yourself. Gentle compassionate investigation after the regular practice of meditation is how we gain insight. And our insights, the ones that arise out of our own experience, are the ones that spark awakening, self-compassion and a sense of wonder that is fearless.

[Read more posts about fear in this blog.]

Inquiry Series: Valuable Question #1

WiseIntention.jpgThis is the second part in a series on inquiry. The first was a look at toxic questions we habitually ask ourselves. I have added to the previous post a few more that my students noticed coming up for themselves during the week — or in some cases noticed not coming up anymore, because, one might assume, her meditation practice is working!

Now we will begin our exploration of valuable questions we can use to cultivate awareness, compassion, joy and meaning in our lives. In the insight meditation tradition, once we are ‘primed’ by our practice and the spacious compassion it creates within us, the Buddha’s teachings encourage us to do skillful inquiry. We can also do this inquiry any time during the day, especially when we are feeling overwhelmed or experiencing inner turmoil.

(NOTE: The only questions asked during meditation are meant to bring us gently bring our attention back to the moment, not to spark a deep investigation. For example, a teacher might ask ‘Where are you now?’. The question we are exploring in this part can be used both ways.)

The question is What is my intention here? If you are feeling stressed, take a mindful pause, center in, notice the breath, and then ask yourself ‘What is my intention here?’ Why am I saying/doing this or about to say or do something that is clearly unkind and unskillful. This question might save you from saying something you’ll regret!

An honest answer to this question might be ‘My intention here is to punish (insert name) for what he/she said/did.” We want only honest answers, of course, as unpleasant as they may be. An honest answer will probably not be rooted in wisdom because if it were, we wouldn’t be in such turmoil. But instead of giving ourselves a hard time about it, we can, if we have time, use it as an opportunity to investigate. If there is no time, it’s an opportunity to send metta (infinite loving-kindness) to ourselves and the other person(s) before proceeding.

When to pose the question ‘What is my intention here?’

  • When you feel exhausted from doing so much for others, you might ask this question and discover that you have been hoping to get praise, affection, gratitude, admiration, or something else from someone else.
  • When you find you can’t help but say or do something mean, you can ask this question and recognize that you have been caught up in defending your fortress of ‘self’.
  • When you feel threatened by the idea that you might not be right –and being seen as right is more important than actually finding the truth — questioning your intention helps you discover how afraid you are of not being seen, appreciated, respected or loved. Seeing that intention liberates the fear, activates your inner compassion, and allows you to live more joyfully with uncertainty.

When we question our intention in any given moment, we can save ourselves and others a lot of suffering. By cultivating a wise intention or two that supports us in all we do, we feel more at ease in the world. My two intentions for many years have been: first, to be present in this moment and second, to be compassionate with myself and others. I started these years ago as an experiment to see if just those were enough, and so far so good. They seem to cover all the bases. Feel free to try these out if you like, or find something similarly helpful.

Wise Intention is one aspect of the Noble Eightfold Path. By setting wise intentions, we can see more clearly when we are venturing into unskillfulness. Wise intentions are rooted in Wise View. Read more about Wise Intention and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The problem with ‘should’

One of the words that comes up a lot when we explore intention is ‘should’ (or ought to, must, etc.). Watch for this word in your thoughts and speech. It indicates that your intention is coming from an external source. How we are in relationship to other people is only authentic and heartfelt when we are attuned to our own inner wisdom. If we are stuck in a storm of disparate inner messages originally encoded by external sources (family and the culture we live in) about how we should be, then we can’t really relax and connect with others in a deep way.

By listening in we discover a number of inner aspects (behavioral psychologists call these ‘modules’, among other things, and we all have them, so not to worry!) that seem to have conflicting agendas, yet all intent on saving us, however unskillfully. By cultivating spaciousness through meditation, we see them more clearly and we allow each of these aspects to feel heard and respected. It’s important to remember that, although misguided, every aspect of self is working hard to protect us. So we can feel gratitude for their intention, but hold their demands up to closer scrutiny before acting upon them.

Accessing Inner Wisdom
With spacious awareness, we are able to access our own inner wisdom that has a distinctly different quality about it than these other voices. Our wise inner voice is deeply aligned with our wisest intention rooted in wise view. Unlike all other aspects, it is not rooted in fear. You can tell the difference because wisdom has no urgency, is not strident nor bossy, and is consistently peaceful and kind. It never makes demands, only offers wise counsel and only when asked. You could go through your whole life without ever hearing it if you never take the time to pause, quiet the mind and listen in! Clearly periods of mindful inquiry are valuable when seeking the counsel of an aspect of self that has all the time in the world. (If you are religious, you might prefer to name that wise inner voice God or the voice of a spiritual figure you honor. This is totally up to you. But please remember the voice is not God’s if its demanding, strident, impulsive or violent.)

If you have set wise intentions, check to see if you are aligned with them. If you haven’t yet set your wise intentions, asking yourself ‘What is my intention here?’ is still a useful way to explore how you got yourself into this pickle! What inner aspect’s agenda were you following? And what is that aspect’s intention?

Taking time for skillful inquiry can lead to a whole wondrous series of self-discoveries. In the next part of this series we will explore more valuable questions. Meanwhile, please give this a try, and if you feel like it, please share your experiences, questions or comments by clicking on ‘Reply’ in this post.

 

Are you asking yourself toxic questions?

FIRST OF A SERIES ON INQUIRY

toxic-symbol.jpgInquiry is an intrinsic part of the Insight Meditation tradition. After a meditation session, we are usually more relaxed and mindful. It can be a fruitful time to do a some self-inquiry. As we develop a regular meditation practice, the mind becomes more spacious, resilient, compassionate and wise, and the inquiry is rich and full of insights, both subtle and profound.

In upcoming posts of my weekly dharma talks we will explore some of the most powerful questions that are the tools for this kind of life-enhancing investigation. But first let’s look at the very different kind of questions we often have rattling around in our thoughts that are more like weapons than tools. We may not even be aware of them, but they cause harm to ourselves and others nonetheless.

I imagine you have at least one habitual question that trips you up and can take you down. If you can identify it congratulations! Noticing is crucial.

Once we notice a thought, or in this case a question, then we may need to remind ourselves to be in skillful relationship with it, so that we are not making an enemy of the question. Instead we can see it as a messenger. In this way even the most abusive question can be dis-empowered. (I always think that everything we tell ourselves is trying to be of service in some way, protecting us, but that many of these messages are rooted in fear that prevent us from living full and meaningful lives.)

INQUIRY INSTRUCTIONS

  1. After meditation, notice the patterns of your natural thoughts.
  2. If a question comes up, notice it’s nature.
  3. If it is an abusive question — putting you down, for example — investigate it from two angles:
    1. Is this a question you inherited? A question a parent asked of themselves or of  you? A question posed by childhood playmates, a teacher, the culture at large? This is not to place blame but to recognize that it is just a pattern, that it has passed through many and is now passing through you. You can send loving-kindness to the ‘source person’, remembering that they received it from somewhere else and may suffer from it still.
    2. What is the message in this question? Often it will be a product of the belief that you are an isolated separate being. So you will want to question the veracity of that view. (There are many posts on this blog about identity, no separate self and wise view.)
      Or perhaps your question is rooted in the belief that happiness is caused by everything being the way you want it to be. If so, you can explore posts on dukkha. Or maybe your question comes from the fear of things changing. You can find many posts on the nature of impermanence.

That’s how we explore whatever patterns we notice arising in our thoughts. Of course, after meditation is not usually when the most self-destructive questions usually show up. They are much more likely to appear when we are in a stressful situation, when we are struggling with a problem or dealing with disappointments. It is wise to practice mindfulness throughout the day, noticing not just the world around us but the pattern of our thoughts. If you hear yourself posing a question, take the time to explore it or jot it down to explore after your next meditation practice.

If you are unclear what kind of toxic questions I’m talking about, here are some examples:

‘Why me?’
Things aren’t going well. Maybe multiple difficulties happen around the same time. Who can blame us for wondering ‘why me?’ However, if this question is a persistent pattern of ‘why me?’ then there is a habit of looking through a very narrow lens focused only on how things affect us personally, without concern for how they impact others. So for example, through the family grapevine, we hear that a relative is gravely ill. A wholesome mind will register the sense of shock, worry and sadness this brings up personally. But it will also expand to focus on the people most affected: the ill person and their immediate family. Quite naturally a wholesome mind will reach out to help or send supportive words. But with a narrow-focused lens, on hearing the news, the unwholesome mind will say, ‘Why is this happening to me now? I’m under so much stress already.’
We can see how the habitual ‘why me?’ question is unskillful, but we can also recognize that it is a messenger. It tells us to spend more time cultivating awareness and compassion, bringing ourselves into balance.

‘Who’s to blame in this situation?’
In any relationship — at home, at work, in any group — things happen that weren’t intended, causing problems that need to be handled. How useful is it in that moment to point fingers and assess blame? There may be a time, later on, when all involved look together at how to avoid such problems in the future, but immediately going into blame mode is not useful.
If this is a question you ask, regular meditation and looking at your attack mode from the perspective of the whole community, whether it’s a community of two or fifty. Fault-finding may be a pattern that you have inherited that is worth noticing and reconsidering. Noticing it doesn’t make you wrong. It makes you wise. It’s the first step to letting down your defenses and appreciating being an integral part of a relationship of any kind.

“Why am I so stupid?” “Why am I such an idiot?” “What is wrong with me?”
These are the questions that class members discovered that they say to themselves (or used to say to themselves and now realize they no longer do. (Yay!) This kind of self-abuse needs to be noticed. A classic way of considering whether this is skillful is to ask yourself if you would say that to a friend. If any friend would dump you for saying such things, then why on earth is it okay to say it to yourself?

“Who am I to…”
My aunt once told me that this question is a time-honored tradition of the women in our family. We doubt our qualifications for everything we want to do and our right to do it. So we sabotage ourselves before others might take us down.
If this resonates with you, consider the possibility that we each have a seat at the table of life, by virtue of our having been born. Are you standing on the edges waiting for an invitation? Your birth certificate is your invitation. If you don’t have time to sit at the table because you are rushing around making sure everyone seated has what they need, sit down and discover that it’s not all up to you to provide for everyone else. Have a seat and enjoy the conversation, the collaboration and the co-creation of a vibrant healthy world.

“Who am I?”
This is a standard philosophical question with no judgment about self-worth, but spending a lot of time on it can put us into a tailspin. It works on the assumption of a separate self, an identity that needs to be shored up with labels, as if we are only worthy if we can be defined by our various attributes and preferences. This is a pattern of thought that can really churn up dissatisfaction, judgments about ourselves and others, and ruin relationships.
Asking ourselves ‘who am I?’ can be answered by repeating “I am me. I am me. I am me…’ over and over until something within either gets joyful or loses interest. This little mantra is one of several I did naturally as a small child. It’s like an onion being peeled, layer after layer until nothing remains. Looking back, this would seem a very Zen experience. Experiential and enlightening.
Another short but powerful practice I developed is called The Dance of the Seven Veils.
In Buddhism, the inner investigation of ‘who am I?’ is actually a look at who or what am I not? The Five Aggregates that make up who we believe ourselves to be are a rich Buddhist teaching, an important part of the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness.

I hope these few examples enable you to recognize your own toxic questions. I am always happy to help with any questions you have about the practice of inquiry, whether your habitual questions are toxic or valuable, or what adjustments of wording would make them more useful. After class one student shared a question that comes up for her: “What am I supposed to learn from this experience?” I suggested asking instead, “What can I learn from this experience?” Do you notice the difference in how you feel when you ask yourself those two questions? For me the first create a sense of some external pressure, as if other people or the universe or God is requiring me to learn something from this experience. When I say the second I feel enlivened, inspired to find the valuable message in a difficult situation. Slight adjustments can make a big difference!

In the next blog we will begin our exploration of the kinds of questions that are useful, even life-changing, so be sure to check back. If you are not already following this blog or getting a weekly email from me, just click on the ‘Follow Stephanie’ at the top right side of this page below my photo so you can receive the posting fresh each week in your email. If you prefer to be added to my mailing list, contact me and you will receive an email, usually on Sunday morning (PST).

Are you imprisoned by your preferences?

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

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

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Darlene Cohen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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