Category Archives: questioning

After meditation, gentle investigation

investigationInvestigation as an important part of the Insight Meditation experience. After the practice of meditation, chances are we have cultivated a more spacious compassionate awareness that allows us to look at the nature of mind with less fear, judgment or expectation. In meditation, we practice just being present with physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away. After we meditate, when our thoughts ramble, rather than reminding ourselves to return to the breath or another physical sensation, we can add in some curiosity and follow the thread of that curiosity.

At some point we might notice that we keep having a recurring thought. Instead of simply accepting this thought as true, blocking it out or dismissing it, we allow ourselves to look more closely. I’ll talk a little bit more about the content of the thought shortly, but it is probably pretty mundane and easy to overlook. What makes it worthy of investigating is its repetitive nature. It’s a central player in the pattern of our thinking mind. It might even be driving the inner conversation.

So we do a little friendly interrogation, using simple questions — not to find fault or place blame but to shine a light on what is really going on. No crime has been committed here. There’s no need to rough anybody up.

As examples, I will use two types of repeating thoughts. Yours might be quite different, but the process is the same. One typical thought is a self-judgment or a judgment of a situation, as in ‘I am so dumb’ or ‘This is so lame.’ Another typical thought begins with ‘If only…’ as in, ‘If only I had/didn’t have/didn’t have to (fill in the blank) then I’d be happy.’

So, if you are reading this in a spacious state of mind and with a relaxed body, then I suggest you pause and think about something else (how often does a writer ask you to do that?) Just let yourself think your regular thoughts — what you plan to do today, what you did yesterday, letting your mind wander, even as you continue to pay some attention to overall physical sensations.

In this way you might notice if you start tensing up somewhere in your body. Now see if you can identify what thought or emotion is connected to that tension. What were you thinking about that seems to have caused your jaw or shoulders or some other body part to tense up? Spend as much time exploring this as you need. Even let it go, relax and release, and then return to allowing your mind to wander.

If nothing comes up for you, you might try triggering a thought pattern by completing one of the sentences:

“If only…”

“I am so…”

“_______ always happens to me.”

“He/she/life is always so…”

When a thought causes some tension and feels familiar, you can use it for your exploration, even if you think you might find a better one if you keep looking. This is just to give you the experience of how to do the exploration. You can do it again whenever you want.

The funny thing about the thought is that you might not even recognize it as anything but just the truth. Thus it is hard to spot! It is hidden in plain sight.

Naturally our first inclination is to agree with the thought, to build a stronger case for it with numerous examples that support it. It becomes what feels like a very solid part of our perceived identity. It is our story, and we tell it again and again. Even if it’s very negative, we still may cling to it. It’s not much, but it’s ours.

This well-developed story probably affects everything else we think or feel, the way a small amount of dye can tint a large body of water. Thus we are most likely making ourselves miserable, and quite possibly spreading that misery in all our relationships.

What to do, what to do! Having identified the recurring thought — and congratulations if you have! — we now can greet it with respect and kindness, as we ask “Is this true?”

“Is this true?” Hmm. There is likely to be some discomfort in questioning something we have taken for granted for so long. But at the same time we may begin to see that our tight clinging to it is uncomfortable. Just look at the way it causes tension in the body, and that’s just a part of the discomfort.

“Is this true?” Right off the top of our heads, we say of course it’s true. After all, we’ve bought into it all these years. Why wouldn’t we believe it to be true?

So we kindly and respectfully ask again. “Is this true?”

The investigation continues in this way, focusing more on the question, repeating the question again and again,  so that we are revealing layers of easy assumptions, smart-aleck retorts, grumpy mumbles and all the rest.. To each we say a silent respectful ‘thank you’, and return to our investigation. To respond in any other way is to simply get caught up in the tangle of thought we’re examining. (If this exercise is difficult to do on your own, find someone who is interested in doing it with you, preferably someone who has also just meditated.)

It can be challenging to remain respectful and kind. When we ask the question, we tap into our deepest wisdom, our inherent Buddha nature that we have accessed through our silent practice. In this way we can stay present with the experience. We may notice a rigidity setting in, a defensive posture, or another way that our fear of upsetting the status quo keeps us in its grip. We simply note the fear and give ourselves a little loving kindness and encouragement from our inner wisdom. (However, just a caveat that if this is too powerful and too scary, then find a qualified therapist, grounded in Buddhist psychology, to accompany you on this journey.)

Eventually there may be a slight shift and a different response comes up from someplace a little deeper, a little more heartfelt, a little more true.

We can also shift the questioning by going a little further and asking ‘How do I know it’s true?’ (You might recognize these questions as the core of the work of Byron Katie, a wonderful Buddhist teacher/author.)

This second question really challenges us to look at our assumptions. It makes us see the statement in full context. Where did this idea originally come from anyway? In this state of compassionate awareness and gentle investigation it is possible to see the thread that connects the recurring thought to something or someone in the past. We may even be able to hear in our heads the voice or the exact wording of the person who originally gave us this idea. Or we might recognize the traumatic experience in the past that continues to make us fearful. One member of our group said that she recognized the source, but that the original was even more insidious, that she had modified it to fit her better, but the content was still clearly there.

If we can identify the origin of the thought, then that’s a big leap forward in our understanding. If you can’t, It’s totally fine. Let go of expectation. But be open to the possibility that the origin might just waft up from the subconscious, sparked by something you see, read or hear over the next few days or weeks. And keep noticing that recurring thought, and each time it comes up, question it again in the same way. “Is it true? How do I know it’s true?”

If you do see the connection — immediately or much later — then there’s another opportunity to question with spaciousness, respect and compassion, whether that original source was reliable. Whether it came from a parent, a teacher, a friend, an ex or a schoolyard bully, you can recognize in retrospect that they were not omniscient possessors of all wisdom. They were human with all the foibles of any other human. Chances are, if the statement being examined is painful (as in ‘I’m so dumb’) or circuitously sets us up for pain (as in ‘if only’ statements), then the source of the statement was also in pain.

Sometimes the origin is not some specific person but just seems to be part of the culture. Advertising activates a lot of fear-based ‘if only’ thinking. (I used to be in advertising. Talk about insidious!) There are a lot of people banking on us feeling badly enough about ourselves that we will succumb to their assurances that their product or service will fix us up.

We are often so busy in our lives that we just don’t take the time to make such investigations. We might judge it as self-indulgent navel-gazing. But wait. If we are telling ourselves something that is not true, that is from an unreliable source, and we are making ourselves miserable in the process, then isn’t it worth a few minutes that we otherwise might spend watching a ball game or reading a novel — trying hard to escape from that harsh judgment or nagging thought?

Of course it is. So if you have already developed a daily practice of meditation, you are cultivating awareness and compassion, that likely is improving your mood, providing more balance, and softening the way you interact in relationships. Now, consider making good use of that time right after meditation — while you do some exercise or simple quiet household chores or personal hygiene perhaps? Whenever you happen to notice a harsh thought arising, a put down, a wish for this moment to be different, celebrate that noticing! And investigate!

Beyond Meditation: Inquiry & Insight

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

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

Here’s how the investigation works:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you asking the right question?


[This is the transcript of a speech I gave this week.]

When I was about eight years old we were living in Evanston, Illinois, and I remember one day after playing with my girlfriends, I burst into the kitchen where my mother was cooking dinner, and said, ‘Mommy, mommy, where do babies come from?’

She stopped and turned off the burners, grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil and started drawing little diagrams with stick figures, explaining really fast in that way she had that could make my brain freeze up.

Finally she looked up at me with earnest hopefulness and said, “Understand?” I nodded yes, even though I had no clue what she had just told me. She looked relieved and said, ‘Oh good, sweetheart, I’m glad we had this talk. Now go wash up for dinner.” As I sped out of the kitchen I felt befuddled, but mainly frustrated because I still didn’t have the answer I needed to weigh in on my friends’ argument about whether you can just go a few blocks over to the Northwestern University Hospital to get a baby or if you have to take the El and go all the way into Chicago to get one.

Mothers! Oh well.

We humans are naturally inquisitive creatures. Asking questions is the way we come to understand the world around us, each other and ourselves. The survival of our species and the creation of our cultures, civilizations and technological advances — all of this began with someone somewhere asking how or why or what.

But as you can see from my childhood example, it’s really important to formulate your question in a way that gets the answer you’re looking for. Nowadays we are learning how to formulate better questions for fact-finding missions on the internet because otherwise we end up with pretty wild answers. So we are perfecting our abilities to ‘refine our search’.

When it comes to the more personal questions we use in our lives on a daily basis, we need to be sure they too are effective, not just autopilot things we say, which is often the case. Some questions can be downright destructive, yet we use them all the time.

For example, when something’s gone wrong at work or at home, instead of collaborating and asking ‘How can we resolve this?’ and ‘How can we assure that this doesn’t happen again?’ we are often more likely to reach for our handy pointer finger and take aim at everyone but ourselves, asking ‘Who can I blame for this?’ Unless this is a criminal investigation, that is generally an useless question that can destroy relationships, and is better left in its holster.

Another destructive question is ‘Why me?’ We ask this question when we are feeling vulnerable and victimized. The world is against us, it seems. But asking ‘Why me?’ just digs us deeper in the hole we’re in. It makes us feel even more isolated. It seems as if everyone else is frolicking happily in the meadow of life while we are stuck in a bog. Sure, logically we know that everyone has their burden to bear, but we can’t see that from this ‘Why me?’ perspective. And when we ask ‘Why me?’ we feel kind of mean-spirited for wishing that someone else was experiencing our miserable situation instead of us.

Noticing when we’re using these kinds of destructive questions, and letting go of them as much as possible, makes rooms for questions that really can make a difference in our lives.

I’ve been working with just such a question lately. When I notice that I’m stressed, worried, fearful or angry, I pause and ask myself, ‘What am I cultivating here?’

Just last night I woke up and found myself thinking about giving this speech today. I felt tense and stressed, so I said, ‘What am I cultivating here?’ And I could see that I was feeding and fueling nervousness and worry with stories about how long it’s been since I’ve given a formal speech. Sure, I’m speaking to groups informally on a regular basis, but a prepared timed speech seems so very different. Look how I’m stumbling as I practice. Oh, I’ll never get this right. Oh, I’ll make a fool of myself.

What am I cultivating here? See how that question shifts perspective? It’s not an ‘oh, woe is me’ kind of stance but an acknowledgment that even though perhaps this emotional turmoil may have been sparked by external circumstance, I am the one who is creating it now. This is not to blame myself for my feelings or to make them wrong. It’s just a way of seeing more clearly what’s actually happening.

What am I cultivating here? is a question that reminds me that I have the power to cultivate other qualities as well. I can cultivate compassion for myself, lost as I am in these feelings. I can cultivate ease in my body to release any pent up tension. I can cultivate spaciousness to hold all the emotional content, the stories, that gives me perspective. I recognize my power. I am not pushing anything away, I am making room for it all in a way that frees me to see it more clearly.

What am I cultivating here? is an important question, too, because these emotions impact others, not just ourselves. You know if you’re around an angry person or a nervous person that you feel that energy and are made uncomfortable by it, or maybe you catch it, like a virus. So our ability to see the power we have to impact not just our own lives but the lives of those around us is huge.

Asking ourselves what we are cultivating at any given moment helps us to clarify our intention in life, helps us to contribute in ways that are meaningful and helps us to find how to hold all that arises in our experience.

This is just one of many beneficial questions you might ask yourself.

We humans are naturally inquisitive, and our questions are the way we can either create a path of destruction or illuminate our life and the lives of those around us. So next time you find yourself asking a question, see if it’s the kind that will bring you the answer you seek.

Live the Questions — an experiential exercise

The beginning of a new year is a great time to do a little inner questioning and reflection. In Buddhism, the most useful ongoing question is ‘How do I live in relationship to this situation?’ The most useless is ‘Why me?’ But there are lots of other useful questions to pose, and we’ll be exploring them here today. Do this when you have the time to really enjoy this process without a deadline.

If we stay with our intentions to be present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, and to be kind to ourselves as we do this inner work, we can ask the questions and attend the answers that well up from within in a way that gives them a spacious, safe place to land.

This is a process that takes all the kindness we can develop within ourselves. These answers have been there all along, have probably tried to make themselves known in a myriad of ways, but may have been met with harshness, a blank stare, a rude retort, a judgment, or a ready excuse.

As we do this process, we want to be aware of the automatic responses that arise, the ones that deflect or pose to protect us. There’s no need to make them wrong. We can let them sit at the table but not be the only voice. We can listen more deeply. The universal wisdom — that we all have access to but don’t hear until we are present and peaceful — is the quietest voice in the room, the one with no sense of urgency, no agenda, no judgment, just an open, earnest, fearless, loving ease. By learning to meditate and quiet down the stringent inner aspects of our endlessly problem-solving selves, we avail ourselves of this wise voice.

As you look over the questions that follow, you might find that some bring up answers and others don’t resonate. That’s fine. They are all portals to the same inner wisdom, so go with whatever calls you. But notice if you are afraid of a question. The one that causes discomfort is also one you want to spend more time with. Be kind, stay present, ask again.

It is valuable to write down your answers, so grab a pen and paper or bring up a Word document before you begin. You’ll be glad later that you gave yourself this gift of exploration, and it’s good to have a written record to revisit.

Please meditate before doing this exercise. If you have not meditated before, here are basic meditation instructions. Again, do this process when you can give it as much time as it takes without any deadline. It won’t work very well if you feel rushed.

Take each question and spend some time with it before moving on to the next. Don’t read ahead as that takes away from the power of the process.

The Questions

How might I lighten my load? OR What can I take off my plate?

What am I assuming about life that might be in error?

How is this assumption weighing me down?

Is there some external circumstance that I am blaming for my current state of mind?

Where am I struggling?

What am I clinging to that isn’t supporting me, just causing more pain?

What am I trying to prove? And whom am I trying to prove it to?

What am I trying to hide? And whom am I hiding it from?

What am I afraid of?

What is the simplest and clearest expression of my love, my gratitude, my joy?

After you’ve written down your answers, take some time, now or later, to look back over what you have written, and notice the language you use as you answer questions. Wherever you find words like ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘have to’, ‘need to’, that’s a valuable clue to go deeper into the process. These kinds of words come from murky motivations. As always, we are looking to let what we say and do arise from our deep intentions to be present and compassionate with ourselves and others. Discovering our motivations is extremely valuable. Don’t toss them out. Look more deeply. Find the fear.

In this process you will undoubtedly discover something you hadn’t realized. But this is just the beginning. A potent question can take us on a wondrous journey of self-discovery. If one of these questions was particularly meaningful, write it down on a little piece of paper and carry it with you over the coming days, weeks, months. Take it out from time to time and pose the question again. Noodle it! Use the question as a frame to look at life for a while. Question assumptions you hear yourself making in different situations. Ask ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’ This is a great way to clear old unquestioned thoughts that have been cluttering up the brain attic!

In class at Spirit Rock one day many years ago, teacher Mark Coleman posed a question that sent me on a months-long journey. He asked, ‘What is it that’s holding you in bondage?’

If this question speaks to you, feel free to use it. At first it seemed such an odd question. Of course I’m not in bondage! The very idea! But that question stayed with me, and I had a series of incremental aha moments that revealed exactly what was holding me in bondage. Isn’t it strange how even in a life that is free of external imprisonment, we can cage ourselves?

You might find that the answer to one question might create another question in its wake. For example, when I realized that what was holding me in bondage was ‘my habitual nature’, that brought up a question about why I was so habitual. Another weeks-long journey of inquiry and noticing. Then an insight where I recognized an erroneous belief within me: I believed that if I did things in the same way every day then things were under control and nothing would change. But having said that, having brought the belief to light, I could easily see how it was not true. Habits do not ultimately protect me from whatever change I fear. It was a very freeing experience, that exploration. I felt an influx of joy and renewed energy.

Did it solve all the challenges in my life? Of course not. The answers we find create more space, free up more energy to live more in the present and with more compassion. But there is no place to get to, no perfect state. And thinking there is the perfect answer somewhere is a sure path of misery. When we say, aha, I’ve arrived! Nirvana! Then we immediately dig in and determine that it will last. Grasping and clinging: The Buddha’s description of suffering.

One of the wisest things we can do is live with the question, to love the question itself, as Rilke said in his Letters to a Young Poet:

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”

Learning how to live with the unknown within ourselves and in the world is a great gift. And having a question is a way of being actively engaged in that unknown. The answers come, usually with more questions on their tails, but it’s the questions themselves that provide the riches.

Giving ourselves the time we need to quiet down, listen in and ask meaningful questions is a journey alive with richness. By doing so we learn how to live in a way that brings more joy and less suffering to all beings, including ourselves.

Please comment below. I would love to get feedback on how this process was for you.

Mirror, mirror

‘Okay,’ I thought as I began writing this talk, ‘This will be the big one. This will be the dharma talk where I teach myself to make friends with the mirror, to make friends with the wrinkles that arise and don’t fall away.’

The First Noble Truth identifies that there is suffering in life and the Second Noble Truth identifies the cause of suffering. The original Pali term was tanhā or craving. It was translated to a word in Sanskrit that means thirst. In Tibetan the word that is used is dzinpa which means grasping or fixation. The causes were further clarified as the ‘three poisons’ of greed, aversion and delusion.

You can see that these words together begin to paint a picture of how we create dukkha, the unsatisfactory feeling that underlies so much of our existence.

So, the mirror: What a clever dukkha delivery system this is! Who thought up the idea of hanging this so prominently over my bathroom sink?

Noticing? I’m noticing aversion! I’m noticing fixation on patches of wrinkles. They are larger than life, just as the pimples of my youth were. If I read this ten years from now, assuming I’m still incarnate, I will laugh and say, Honey, you don’t know from wrinkles! But I also know that my older self will have compassion for my concerns, as I have compassion for my younger self, troubled over other mirror revelations.

It really doesn’t matter what we see in the mirror. Even if we saw the most gorgeous creature on the planet, it would still be simply our perception. It would still be relative reality and not some fundamental truth. It would still be a snapshot of a moment in time from one point of view — a lesson in the nature of impermanence.

Okay, okay, fine, I say. But how do I make friends with my wrinkles? I admit it does help to remind myself how much I love the wrinkles on other women’s faces — how the Mexican grandmothers in my adopted second home town of San Miguel de Allende, with deep crevices crinkling the landscape of their faces, are as beautiful to me as the grandchildren so often sitting on their laps.

It does help that when I look at my dry wrinkly hands with the pronounced blue veins I am reminded of my paternal grandmother’s hands. How I loved to push those veins around and watch them return to place, slowly. It is no small thing to be able to provide a grandchild with such ongoing amusement. And my hands remind me too of how much I loved the feel of my mother’s dry strong hand, holding my small one as we scurried around town, keeping me safe. There is absolutely nothing I did not love about these two women’s hands.

When I look upon these women’s faces or remember my mother’s and grandmother’s hands, it’s not just that I see beyond the ‘ugliness’ of the wrinkles to a greater beauty underneath. No, I love the wrinkles themselves, the veins and the dryness, all of it is not just acceptable to me. It is the beauty I behold.

So what is it that’s going on here? Why is another woman’s wrinkled face or hand lovely to behold and mine so abhorrent? Simply this: I am not afraid when I look at their faces and hands. But when I look at the mirror my perception is clouded with fear.

What do I fear? I fear change and all that I have to lose through these changes. I see my wrinkles as time taking its toll. Tick tock, tick tock.

So is this just a fear of death, or a fear of pains associated with aging? Well, it’s certainly that, no denying. But there’s more there. What is it? What is it really? Hmmm. When I look in the mirror, I am afraid of losing love. I am afraid of losing respect, becoming the butt of old people jokes that I have heard all my life. I am afraid of losing the power to attract my mate. I am afraid of being alone.

Is this a rational fear? It doesn’t matter! It is a fear I feel and that is enough to work with. Here is a pivotal moment in the practice. If I were to simply talk myself out of it at this point, pooh-poohing it, nothing would be accomplished. I could comfort myself with how much my husband seems to love me, and as grateful as I am for that, it really doesn’t change a thing.

When I see that word ‘change’ in the last sentence, I recognize it as a clue. I begin to see the fallacy of my attempt to make friends with my wrinkles. I have a goal and an agenda. I plan to change the way I think, come out with a brighter perspective, a new way of seeing, and a new reality. I want to smile at myself in the mirror. I want to be compassionate. I want to be wise. I want to not care. I want this sense of dissatisfaction to go away. I want to accept myself fully just as I am. I want, I want, I want. This is dukkha! I am struggling! I am battling my own thoughts, trying to prove them wrong. I am trying to talk myself out of something, because I believe that looking in the mirror without full acceptance is wrong. Apparently I believe that until I am fine with what I see, I am a flawed being, drowning in the error of my ways.

You see how this dukkha thing works? You see the tar-baby effect going on here? As many reasons as I can think up to debate with my feelings, beliefs and opinions, they just gets me more stuck in suffering.

How did this happen? I approached the challenge with all the best intentions, didn’t I? Maybe. Maybe not. Is trying to bypass suffering the way to end it? Isn’t it just a tradition of making nice-nice with whatever arises, hushing bad thoughts, begging everything and everyone to just get along so I don’t have to deal with difficulty?

This is not the way to end suffering. It is just the way to suppress it. The way to end suffering is to be with it, to notice it as it arises and falls away.

During the time I have been writing this, my feelings towards my wrinkles have fluctuated a great deal, from ‘Woe is me!’ to ‘Who cares?’ These feelings will undoubtedly continue to fluctuate for years to come. Sometimes I will look in the mirror and see ugliness and sometimes I will see a kind of beauty. Many times my thoughts will be elsewhere and I won’t even notice.

My attitude toward writing about wrinkles has fluctuated a great deal as well. Part of the time I think, why am I bothering to write about wrinkles? How ridiculous! How petty! At other times I recognize that any belief, no matter how we judge that belief, is as good as any other to work with and to illustrate the practice. It’s all suffering in one form or another. It’s all useful. Perhaps the fact that I have such judgments about it makes it even more valid a focus. And then there’s the fact of it being ‘in my face’ every day.

The way to end suffering is not to duel with judgment, opinion and beliefs, as if there was a potential victor. It is simply to notice them. This noticing on its own helps to lighten the weight of them. When I accept that I have opinions, when I see them arise in my thoughts, when I feel the associative emotions and the physical sensations, then there is more clarity, more spaciousness making more room for more revelations. What seemed so solid thins into a veil blowing in the wind — transient, impermanent, impersonal.

I could spend my days looking for a better mirror, a way of seeing this situation, that will give me something more pleasant to live with, but ultimately that’s not much help. I could complain to friends, who will jump in to tell me, “Why you look just fine! I hardly notice any wrinkles! What are you talking about?” for this is the wonderful thing we women do for each other, and don’t for a moment think I don’t appreciate that kind of loving comfort.

But really, what I need from myself is to see the nature of relative reality.

What is that? It’s the reality I’ve constructed over the course of my life based on my experiences of interacting with the world around me. It’s what I hold to be true about myself and the world. It is ‘relative’ because it is only true in a narrow context. For example I am old to a person of 20 and young to a person of 80. I am tall to anyone shorter and short to anyone taller. I am fat to anyone thinner and thin to anyone fatter. My belief about my age and weight changes to a degree as well, depending on who I am with!

My relative reality is not completely my own construct. It includes the relative reality of the culture in which I live. This discussion of wrinkles would be totally out of context if I lived in a culture where visible signs of aging are met with respect. My choice of this focus here is so totally relative a reality that it doesn’t even translate! (If this is being read by someone in such a culture, notice the judgments that have been arising around the neuroticism of ‘Westerners!’)

Culturally shared beliefs are worth noticing and questioning, too. Think of all the beliefs that were accepted as fact in our history, even very recent history, that have been held up to the light by wise people and found to be totally untrue. This is an ongoing valuable questioning we do as a community, holding up beliefs to the light of kindness, compassion, justice and common sense. And it is something each of us does, hopefully, within ourselves.

As meditators, we can use the (relatively!) spacious minds we have developed through meditation to notice whatever thoughts and emotions are arising in our experience. We can notice the associative links of these thoughts to beliefs we hold to be true. We can question the beliefs as they reveal themselves, gaining insight. Is this true? How do I know this is true?

This is part of the practice. It is a very spacious, non-goal-oriented, non-aggressive activity. We are not exterminators routing out infestations. We are simply being present for what arises with an awareness of the nature of relative reality, an acceptance that our beliefs do not define us, and can be brought into question.

The fear that arises is also to be noticed — not to be banished but to be explored. Fear is what feeds the beliefs we discover. If we notice the fear, a part of the practice is to notice where we feel that fear in our body. We can sit with that sensation, really feeling it, allowing it its full expression. And then we can ask that sensation, ‘What am I afraid of?’

Questioning In

When we ask a question we need to be prepared to notice everything that arises, all the various ways that we give ourselves vital information. Not just in words but images, memories, often in strings that paint a more complete picture of the source of this particular fear-based belief.

These might be alarming images. We might want to shut them down. But if we are practiced meditators, experienced in being present, we can stay with whatever arises, breathing compassion. These images are not offered for us to revise them or make them better. The practice is to notice them, and to recognize that they are in direct response to the question we have asked, even if time has passed since we asked the question so that we have forgotten that we even asked it!

Sometimes we ask a question and the answer appears neither in words or images but in some other way. A book jumps off the library shelf; a friend calls and says something that answers the question; or perhaps that friend represents a quality that is a part of the answer. The answer my come through dreams as well.

Finding a way to be open and receptive to whatever arises without grasping the answers that come, holding them to be truth or proof, is also part of the practice. Is this true? How do I know this is true? The Buddha was very clear that even revealed wisdom needs to be thoroughly examined, bringing all our faculties to bear.

Quantum physics shows that waves of energy, when observed, become particles. Can we feel this in ourselves? Is it possible that our collective consciousness has shifted us into seemingly separate particles, that at the same time we are naturally part of a great infinite pattern of oscillating energy? Then if we relax into our energetic nature, our connection beyond time and space, then why wouldn’t we have access to infinite wisdom, infinite resources from which to draw answers to our questions?

If you say that makes no sense at all, just try it for yourself some time, dropping your shield temporarily. Think how each atom — that building block of corporal existence — is mostly space with the tiniest speck of dense matter within it. You can let this factual knowledge help you, if needed, so you can feel safe in exploring this sensory perception of spaciousness, rather than always being totally fixated on the dense little dot with which we construct the separate objects of our lives.

Painters are taught to not just look at the central subject, but to be equally aware of the ‘background,’ the ‘negative space.’ What is this space? Is it nothing? Or is it perhaps everything, the is-ness, the energy that is more ‘us’ than the thin edges of the cells that sketch out what we hold to be solid constructs. Have we all our lives been paying exclusive attention to only the particulate aspect of being? Have we accepted as reality the relative reality, instead of the spacious energy — this throbbing wholeness, this infinite wave — that holds all the answers to every question we ever posed, spoken or unspoken?

Now there’s a question!

But back to these darn wrinkles. From a spacious point of view, this transient edge that I hold to be so solid, so real, is less real than I imagined. But it is unlikely I will hold this view for long. I am having a corporal life experience, with all the emotions, thoughts and sensations that go with it. It is a gift and I am truly grateful, even if it doesn’t seem so when I am standing in front of the mirror pulling and pawing to find that younger face, the one that wasn’t satisfactory either! There’s a good chance I may never become close personal friends with the mirror. Perhaps I will even decide to go the route my mother took, removing every damn mirror from the house except a tiny one on the back of the bathroom door to check to make sure there was nothing stuck in her teeth.

It doesn’t matter! Just my noticing this pattern of dissatisfaction, seeing it as a veil of illusion in the great scheme of things, part of what Taoists call the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows of earthly existence, is enough. It is enough for me to wear the veil more lightly, to see through it from time to time, and to stop believing it to be the fabric of my being.

‘What Is holding you in bondage?’ meditative exploration

“What is holding you in bondage?”
That question was posed by the Spirit Rock teacher Mark Coleman back in 2002, and it sent me on quite a journey.
“What holds me in bondage?” I asked myself over and over again in the following weeks. Finally, I had a big aha! It’s my habitual nature, my habitual thinking, that holds me in bondage. My repeated patterns of behavior and thought tread such deep ruts in my life that they create steep walls beyond which I don’t feel I can go, beyond which I can’t even see. I have created my own prison for no other reason than my habitual nature.

But why? Why would I do such a thing to myself? Why would I create a prison for myself when life is so short and there is so much I would like to experience?
In the following weeks I kept noticing my habitual nature, how it contained my experience, how, given the choice, I always chose the way I had always done something, the path I had always taken. I continued to ask myself why I cling to these habitual thoughts and patterns.

And then another aha! In my noticing I realized that I cling to my habitual mode out of fear, out of a yearning for safety. If I just keep doing the same things in the same way, stick with the known and avoid any unknowns, my life will stay as it is and I will be safe.

But this is a total fallacy, that I could possibly keep things staying the same, no matter what I do, no matter how I behave. I have no control over the fact that the nature of things in this universe is change. Everything changes! Impermanence is the only constant. Living in fear of change I had created a rut that I thought was safe. But it wasn’t keeping me safe, it was just keeping me tight in fear and numb to the life around me.

So I stayed with the noticing and set the intention to see beyond my rut, to see other options when they present themselves. I promised myself that when given two paths of equal value (i.e. both ethical and healthy), I would choose the one less traveled by me.

That discovery and realignment of intention has changed my life! And even though at times it has felt scary and challenging, it has also felt immeasurably richer and more alive. It also feels more honest because I am constantly aware that there is no promise of permanence, and that the hypnotic drone of the habitual mode cannot secure that promise, no matter how hard I had wanted that to be true.

Of course there are times when I go a little numb and forget my intention. I wake up and notice the rut rising around me, and see how easy it is to succomb to the hypnotic drone of my habitual nature.

In this class the past weeks we have been studying meditation and creativity. So how does this experience of mine relate to creativity? How does the habitual mode affect creativity? Well of course there are good habits, like getting in to the studio to do the work, even if the creative urge isn’t there. But beyond that, for most of us, habits tend to get in the way.

We begin to believe we are our habits. “I am the type of person who does things this way. I would never do things THAT way, etc.” We let our habits define who we are. We cling to the carefully constructed identity we have created out of this habitual behavior. We may not be able to imagine who we would be without them, which could be very scary indeed.

Since habits are based in fear of change, then we are stuck in finite fear based mode. This tightness cramps our ability to create. We talked a couple of weeks ago about creating from the finite vs. the infinite source. When we are in habitual mode we are most definitely operating out of the finite source, and our experience in the process will be limited, tight and fearful. Breaking free of our rut, we tap into the infinite source. We become fearless, intuitive, inventive, inspired.

Habits are mindless, opposite of mindful. In our practice we simply notice what is, bringing mindfulness to our experience. We notice what is true in this moment. But when we are in our rut, it is hard to notice it. When we do, we don’t have to beat ourselves up about it, but just the noticing opens us to all the possibilities.

At every point in every moment we have infinite choices. There are the obvious choices but if we sit with it we find many variations and maybe even ones we never thought of.

If we are fully present in the moment we have the luxury of pausing before proceeding down a habitual path to appreciate all the possible ways we might go now.

This is not a day dream that gets us stuck at the crossroads, just an awareness that our options are infinite. How does this feel? Maybe a little scary, too open, too many choices, like being spilled out onto a vast plain when we were in that seemingly easy rut.

Being with our own fear, our own discomfort is an important part of the practice of being present. If we can be present for this we can be present for anything. Being fully present allows us to access that infinite source of creative energy. Letting our fears cut us off from it is handing keys to a jailer, when he was fast asleep and we could have skipped out. And not realizing we’ve been paying him to be there.

Habitual mode is automatic pilot. It is the opposite of true engagement in life. It is numbing out and dumbing ourselves down. It is never questioning authority, the authority of past behavior to dictate our present and future.

Of course we of a certain age have found ways that work for us, ways that are hard won and comfortable, thank you very much. We know what we like, what we don’t like, why we go this way and not that. We have learned and don’t want to go back to when we didn’t know what we know. Why should we?

Sometimes it’s useful to question what we know. The teacher Byron Katie has built her whole teachings on questioning. “How do I know this is true?” is a very effective question to pose to oneself every time we make a statement. Because what happens with habitual behavior is we stop questioning, we just keep building on assumptions from the past. If those assumptions are erroneous, and they often are, then we are building this mountain on a trash heap.

No one wants their whole live’s brought into question, so there is bound to be a lot of resistance to this idea. But give it a try next time you choose a direction out of habit. Pause and sense in to the body. Notice what sensations arise, if any. Then consider an alternative (kind, healthy and legal) option and sense in to the body again. Start noticing the body’s response to the directions you choose.

Just noticing that we do have a choice in each moment is huge for some of us. We are in such ruts in our thinking that we feel we have no options. This numbs us out so that we are barely alive. We may be on such automatic pilot that we are in a mobile comatose state.

When something jolts us out of our rut – a crisis of some kind perhaps – we are suddenly challenged to use muscles we haven’t used in too long: the muscles of choice. And it is painful! And it can be dangerous because we are not adept or quickwitted any more. We are stuck, calcified in our habitual mode that suddenly doesn’t support us.

Newsflash: The habitual mode doesn’t support us even now, even when things are going relatively smoothly. Because life isn’t meant to be gotten through, it’s meant to be lived.

Eightfold Path: All Speech, No Action?

As we move from discussing Right Speech to discussing Right Action, let’s pause at the conjunction of the two. Where in our lives are we talking about something but not doing anything about it? Perhaps we have strong opinions about something that we are only to happy to voice, but we don’t act upon them. We don’t use whatever skills we have to bring about the change we see as necessary.

Or perhaps we talk a lot about what we plan to do, putting words to our fantasies, but after a while people realize that they are only that, just fantasies, not plans that we will actually fulfill.

When we are paralyzed, unable to act, yet continually complain about the way things are or fantasize about the way we want them to be, we are ineffectual, inauthentic, and let’s face it, annoying. We cause suffering to ourselves and to those who must listen to our continual harangue. Our expressions of dissatisfaction have become a habit that we may not even be aware of. They become black holes that suck out our energy and leave us feeling powerless. People don’t like to be around us because they don’t want to be sucked into the black hole.

Perhaps our harangue is fueled by what we hear on the radio. Since what the speaker says resonates with some fear-rooted anger within us, we are ready to believe what we hear, and we may repeat it, spreading the fear with a sense of authority that is based on hearsay. The people we draw to us are others who are rooted in fear, who resonate with the despair and anger of our words, and are fueled by it. Then we wonder why we are surrounded with such angry challenging friends.

Without questioning what we hear, without making any effort to confirm it with other sources, we mindlessly spew out this information like gossip to pepper a conversation, instead of exploring how, if this is a real concern, we can be effective agents of change. This is a kind of purgatory of the mind where suffering is endless.

But before we rush out to ‘walk the walk’ of our talk, we need to be sure our planned actions will be skillful. For this we can do a little self-exploration. We bring our full consciousness to our judgments and beliefs. We question them: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Is this statement aligned with my deepest wisdom and my deepest intention? Is it coming from a whole hearted love or is it rooted in divisive fear? If it is indeed aligned and loving, is this concern one I am ready and willing to work to remedy? If so, can I use my creative energy to find skillful means to be useful? For example, is there an existing organization working on this issue where I can volunteer or at the very least send funds? If it is a fantasy for myself, can I put together a detailed step by step plan of action? And if not can I employ the skills of someone trained in doing so to help me?

If I can’t honestly say I will work toward remedying this situation, can I compassionately let go of my habitual commenting on it? Can I open to the possibility of perceived imperfection being an integral part of this life?

The pursuit of perfection is just one more allure of Mara, trying to keep us from awakening. Seduced by the pursuit, we feel we can’t really live until everything is ‘just right.’ We are holding out for a certain level of satisfaction when all aspects of our lives or the world are perfectly aligned with our personal preferences or our greater global vision. But nothing can ever be just right, it can only be as it is. True awakening happens in this moment, seeing the integral nature of existence, seeing through the drama, the violence, the pain, the boredom, and recognizing the infinite beauty that permeates it all – the patterns, the cycles, the seasons.

The answers that arise out of a spacious, calm honest exploration will provide either acceptance of the way things are or a means to be an effective agent for change. Either way, we have skillfully alleviated some suffering in ourselves and those around us.