Category Archives: insight meditation

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?


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.)


  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).

Celebrate the Harvest!

cornucopia.jpgThe old saying ‘you reap what you sow’ means that with every word and action in our lives, we are planting seeds that will grow. Are they seeds of kindness? Seeds of compassion? Seeds of wisdom? If you find that you are striving and you spend a lot of time judging, comparing and scolding yourself, you might ask yourself why you are planting such a thorny and poisonous garden?

But if in your meditation practice you have been making wise effort with wise intention, then pause to look around and enjoy the bounty! See if there is something blooming in your life that wasn’t there before. See if there is something growing within you that you hadn’t appreciated before.

The first blossoms of practice are insights, both ones you hear that resonate and inspire you, and ones you have in your own experience that stay with you and nourish you at the very core of your being. (These happen spontaneously, at any time during your normal day when you have a regular meditation practice. The simplest noticing might bring an insight perfectly tailored by your own inner wisdom to be of value to you.)

In class I passed out small pieces of paper and gave the students some time after meditation to write down what they noticed as the fruits of their practice. Afterwards they shared to whatever degree they wanted. One found that she no longer reacted in an ‘eye for an eye’ way when her feelings had been hurt. She could so clearly see now that the hurtful words of a friend came from a place of pain and fear, and nothing was helped by exacerbating it.

Another student said she noticed a greater sense of ease, an ability to establish boundaries and a growing self-confidence. Another noted a greater sense of balance. One noticed that her to do list wasn’t so aggravating, that the word ‘should’ was fading from her vocabulary. Everyone noticed something. In fact they all wrote for quite a while.

After their sharing, I read what I had written when preparing my dharma talk, and it mirrored exactly what the students had found for themselves: ‘The fruit of the practice is greater ease, a lightening of being, a sense of balance, a sense of clarity and a growing access to inner wisdom that guides you to make wise choices.’

Having just been on a retreat, I noted that I felt lighter, like a butterfly alighting on this flower of life, not plotting to get to the next bigger brighter flower but simply living fully in this moment with great appreciation but not attachment, knowing as a butterfly knows, to just keep doing what I’m doing.

I suggested the students fold their little papers up and put them in their wallets for review in moments of doubt. And I suggest to you that you do the same. Who doesn’t at times have moments of doubt? Who couldn’t use a little encouragement, a little reminder in your own words that the practice is working?

This becomes particularly valuable when we falter in our practice. It is so easy to let the demands of daily life take precedence. Women can be particularly prone to giving our time away. Yet on closer examination, how rare it is in life that we actually are required to give up the exact time of our practice, or our weekly meditation class. Say, for example, we call to make an appointment for a medical checkup, and the first appointment time mentioned conflicts with our practice or class. Do we just take it instead of asking for another time? For some reason, the way we were raised perhaps, we are susceptible to not claiming what is of value to our own well being. What we forget is that our practice is of benefit not just to ourselves but to everyone around us. Sure, on rare occasions there are emergencies, but even then the daily practice can be postponed instead of cancelled.

Notice for yourself if this willingness to give up what is of deep value is a tendency of yours.

Daily practice is like the sun, the rain and the rich soil that makes it possible to grow. We can’t really expect much wisdom to arise if we haven’t planted ourselves in our practice, if we just practice on random occasions and hope for the best. If you want to practice but find it difficult to fit into your schedule, I am happy to work with you. You might be surprised how naturally practice can be incorporated into a busy life.

Once we have a practice in place, the rest takes care of itself. We are actually saving time because we can put away all the invasive tools we are in the habit of using: harsh views about our self worth, doubts about what we are doing, doubts as to whether anything beneficial will come from this, comparing ourselves to others who seem to be wiser or happier.

The blossoms of insight and awareness reveal and release old habits of mind: the words that we torment ourselves with like ‘should’, ‘ought’ and ‘must’, for example. We see them as left over from some past way of seeing. We let them go to whatever degree we are able, gently as if they are dried up leaves that drift away on the breeze.

This is the season of the harvest. If you have been regularly practicing meditation, then pause to appreciate the bounty of your practice.

Moment by moment


Papermill Creek II, watercolor by Will Noble

With the regular practice of meditation there is a subtle but profound shift of mind state into a spacious sense of infinite ease and compassionate awareness. Thoughts and emotions still arise, but we are better able to see them as objects of awareness passing through. When our attention wavers and the mind slips back to buying into thoughts and emotions as the whole of our experience, we become entangled for a period. But then, when we remember ‘Oh yeah, I’m meditating’, the practice allows us to come back to awareness without self-recrimination. We don’t make an enemy of anything. We are grounded in a growing ability to hold all life experience in an open embrace.

If you read my last post, you know that I credit my meditation practice for getting me through a very challenging time as a caregiver for my brother in his last days of life. Now in mourning, I continue my practice. I stay present with what arises in my experience and take care of myself. I haven’t rushed back into life’s demands, but allow myself extra time to simply sit, walk and be. My natural inclination is to indulge myself in treats I think I deserve because I’ve lost someone so precious to me. But no amount of ice cream will change my situation. So instead, to whatever degree I am able, I give myself moments to appreciate life. Just now a little songbird caught my attention and I gave myself over to his funny little hopping about on the deck outside my window. Although we didn’t plan for any summer vacation, not knowing what our schedule would be with the care of my brother, my husband Will and I now we find ourselves taking little day trips and walking with all our senses more alert, noticing and appreciating this gift of life. We trim our to do list down to a manageable size. We live as fully in the moment as we can.

Thanks to the practice of meditation, I am able to notice the new set of post-loss thoughts that are arising. Now that I am not as exhausted as I was, not as caught up in an emotional tsunami, I can see the nature of these new thoughts. Any of you who have lost a family member will most likely recognize some of these avenues of thought that tend to arise.

What might I have done that would have made a difference? In this case, I had a few regrets, but none of my actions affected the final outcome, but it is not at all unusual to believe we could have saved our loved one. I am reminded of a conversation my parents had just a couple months before my mother died. They were talking about the death of my grandfather over forty years before. Dad said that it was because he didn’t give his father a ride home on a cold day when he dropped his car off to be serviced that he had the stroke that caused his death. My mother, married to this man for almost fifty years, could not believe what she was hearing. ‘That’s ridiculous! What a thing to think! You had absolutely nothing to do with it.’ And he seemed to accept with great relief her take on that part of their personal history. Had she not been there, he would have continued to believe that he killed his father.

Believing that at the time of his father’s death that he could have saved him gave Dad some sense of control over a difficult situation. That this ‘control’ was self-condemning may have felt easier to bear at the time than pure grief which demands a surrender to tears and a sense of helplessness that few men of his day felt comfortable with. He then went on to live his busy life without ever revisiting that assumption, and he was still holding that guilt. Fortunately, my mother was around to set him straight. But what if she hadn’t been? Had my father been a meditator, especially in the Insight Meditation tradition, he may have been able to do some skillful inquiry when that line of thinking arose in his awareness. We all have the opportunity to revisit erroneous assumptions as part of our post-meditation practice. Of any thought we can ask, ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’

Who am I without…
The kinds of thoughts that have been coming up for me are also ones that are helped by Buddhist exploration. For example, the quest for identity. Who am I without my brother? From a Buddhist standpoint, this quest is fruitless, based in the erroneous assumption that we are separate, isolated individuals whose identity needs to be shored up and put on display for others to admire or love. The people around us are like mirrors telling us who we are. What happens when yet one more mirror — in this case the final mirror for the earliest part of my life — is gone?

To be honest my brother wasn’t much use as a holder of memories of me as a child. I once asked him ‘What was I like as a little girl?’ and he told me ‘You were a very nice girl.’ Oh, brother!

This is just one small aspect of a greater loss, and seeing it clearly as a craving for identity has helped me to release that thread of thought. This is not making an enemy of the thought. The process is done with great compassion and respect. The forlorn little sister inside me gets heard, and at the same time she gets the parenting from my wiser self that she deserves. Nothing’s being whisked away or swept under the rug — at least as far as I can tell.

If only…
Even if my brother wasn’t the most useful mirror, he certainly was the holder of many shared memories. It seems after every loss, I wonder why I wasn’t asking more questions, why I wasn’t demanding more stories. He was five years older and could fill in some gaps in my own memory. But again, from a Buddhist point of view, getting lost in memory pulls us out of the present moment, the only moment that actually exists. All else is just a tangle of thoughts.

Looking for a label
I also notice a desire to name this experience of loss, to define myself by it. There are words for children who lose their parents and people who lose their spouses – orphan, widow, widower — but why is there no label for this I can attach to myself? Is a word useful? Or painful? A protective shell that would limit me even more than it would shield me? Yet I sense that desire there. By noticing it, I feel freed from its lure. Noticing, not judging, is key.

Now is the time to notice
All these thoughts are fresh. They haven’t laid down a solid track for my mind to follow in a habitual way, but are feelers exploring a new space. What an amazing opportunity I have here to observe and inquire, to hold these thoughts lightly as they sketch themselves in pencil in my mind rather than letting them become indelible tattoos upon my psyche.

No bad days
As the days and weeks pass, I notice that some moments are more challenging than others. I guess grief is like a river that way, with the rapids and the placid lulls. Some moments of grief just arise, seemingly out of nowhere, but others are the result of dealing with what follows a loved one’s death. Yesterday I received my brother’s ashes in the morning and spent several hours in the afternoon helping in the final edit of his memorial video that my other brother has beautifully put together. Noticing and making room for the pain, allowing it to be present, is important. But allowing the moments to pass without exaggerating them is also important. There is a tendency many of us have to label day, a week or even a year ‘bad’ (on January 3rd, no less!). Acknowledging our unhappiness in the moment is skillful. Throwing any larger time period away because of it is unskillful. So I haven’t had bad days, but there have certainly been some very challenging moments that seemed to go on forever. And some very wondrous ones as well. Life is like this.

Shock and awe
The loss of a family member in his seventies, while heartbreaking, is well within the range of statistically normal life experience. It doesn’t make it easy, but it is certainly not shocking. In our family, as in most extended families, there have been more challenging losses because they felt very out of order. A young person dies, for example. That sets up a whole different set of thought patterns. But once we have recovered from the shock itself, we still have this ability, thanks to our practice, to see those patterns, to hold them with compassion, to gently question our own assumptions. In this way we make it possible to be resilient in life. We are not immune to the pain, but we are not keeping the suffering going endlessly by creating ruts of painful thinking for our minds to get stuck in. And we can see how the pain itself carves a larger space in our hearts to hold even more love and a capacity to see beauty everywhere.

My own mortality
Because this death takes place in my own generation, it naturally brings up thoughts of my own mortality. Thanks to the practice over so many years of noting the nature of impermanence, this particular thought strain is not as charged for me as it might be. Or maybe I’m saving it up for later. Who knows? The ‘I don’t know’ mind continues to keep me feeling buoyed by the wondrous mystery that is life. Que sera, sera, sang Doris Day, and my mother, and now me. Whatever will be will be.

Joy there for the noticing
The future’s not ours to see, but we often have a rather dim view of it. Neuroscientist and author Rick Hanson, for whom I guest teach, points out how our brains have a negativity bias built in for our survival. We pay attention first to what threatens our existence, figuring there’s plenty of time to appreciate what’s pleasant. This strong bias can become like an overworked muscle, so that we may focus exclusively on all that is wrong in our lives and not even notice what is positive, uplifting and pleasant in this moment. This can make us pessimistic about the future as well. Since it ultimately ends in death, and likely includes issues of aging and illness, how optimistic can we be?

So it is challenging to be present with our own experience, to notice the wondrous, the sweet, the pleasant experiences — not pursuing them to solve anything but noticing them as they arise.

Whatever you are going through in your life right now, stay present with your experience, may you allow for the sweetness of life to express itself in all its variations, without making an enemy of other emotions. Even when you are being jostled in a crowd, instead of focusing on the noise, the irritation and the hassle, open to the wondrous aliveness of it all. What a precious fleeting gift is life!