Category Archives: questioning

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: 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 hasn’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!

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).

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?

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[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.