Category Archives: Rilke

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.

Wise View — Seeing what blinds us to seeing what is

We continue working with the Cooking Pot Analogy, and like all analogies it works to a point, but don’t push it. When we come to Wise View, this is especially true. Yes the pot itself is a means of holding, and we ‘hold views’, so it seems appropriate. But in looking at the Eightfold Path, it’s important to remember that all of the parts are completely interconnected and work to support each other. This is certainly true with Wise View. Without the skillful practices of the others, we could not arrive at a Wise View. So for the purposes of our analogy, imagine this is a cast iron pot that is seasoned by its contents of Wise Mindfulness. Furthermore, remember that the pot, like all matter is not as solid as it seems, simply a pattern of atoms, etc. so don’t get attached!

Just as Wise View depends on mindfulness, intention and effort to be wise, we find it much easier to be fully mindful, exert Wise Effort and set Wise Intention when we practice Wise View.

But what is this Wise View? We all have our own way of looking at things, so where does anyone come off claiming that one particular view is the wise one?

Wise View in this case is not about opinions, but seeks clarity, an undistorted vision of reality ‘as it is.’ It incorporates an understanding of the nature of impermanence, Anicca, (as revealed by nature in the seasons as well as in the mirror — yikes!) and the concept of no separate self, Anatta, (revealed when we do inner exploration as we did with the Five Aggregates); and the understanding of how lack of understanding these two concepts causes suffering, Dukkha.

If you have been in class or following along on this blog over the past year of our exploration of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, this will sound familiar. If not, you might want to read more about Annica, Annata and Dukkha. And if this all seems a little too conceptual and you just want to meditate, don’t worry about it.

Coming to this Wise View is not something that can be transmitted just by talking about it. This is where the regular practice of meditation comes in. The more time we spend being fully present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation, the more clarity we get as to the nature of being. The more time we spend experiencing and observing the natural world, free from the frenzy of obligations and distractions, the more we understand the nature of impermanence and no separate self. The dharma reveals itself in this way.

Metta universal loving-kindness, is also a direct path to understanding, because when we open to the infinite nature of loving-kindness, we come to see the fallacy of the distinctions we thought kept us apart disappear. We might experience a sense of oneness of being, but this too is not some solid state but a sea of constant change, a whirl of ever-changing systems intrinsically combining and falling apart. When we feel ourselves to be separate, then we are tossed about on that sea. When we open to the true nature of experience, then we are alive in the movement itself. We are the sea.

I confess that this is all a lot easier to understand if you ever had the ‘jump-start’ of psychedelics. Many westerners came to the Buddha’s teachings, and other Eastern traditions, through this wondrous glimpse into the wholeness and lightness of being. The problem is that it’s not sustainable. You can’t stay high, and the body-mind cannot take much of that kind of chemical abuse. I never went to India or Southeast Asia like some of my contemporaries, seeking nirvana. I stayed home. But home happened to be the Haight-Ashbury District of San Francisco circa 1966. Turn on. Tune in. Drop out.

Each time I would drop LSD back in 1966, mid-high — no matter how wondrous it was — I would turn to my friend and say, ‘Remind me not to do this again.’ I would never recommend mind-altering drugs to anyone, ever. Especially when there is this dependable, healthy means to a sustainable ‘high’ — meditation.

That said, when it comes to Wise View, that little glimpse does take the ‘Huh?’ factor out of the mix. If you are in the huh? phase, do not despair. Your body thanks you for your wisdom in choosing the slower more natural course. Find spaciousness in the ‘I don’t know’ mind. That is premium Wise View.

Being where we are with what we’re thinking and feeling, noticing it, that is mindfulness at work. Questioning our assumptions, our previously unquestioned beliefs, is equally important. This is an ongoing practice, not just when we are beginning. We ask, ‘Is this true?’ and then ‘How do I know this is true?’ about all the thoughts that come up. This is not self-doubt where we second-guess everything and get entirely stuck, but instead a state of inquiry that allows us to delight in the mysteries of the human mind.

When we looked at the Five Aggregates, those aspects of experience that we tenaciously believe ourselves to be, we practiced this kind of questioning. Through that inquiry we came to understand the concept of no separate self. Maybe it didn’t sink in, maybe it never will, but at least the seed has been planted, the question is there. And as Ranier Maria Rilke is so famously quoted in his letter to a young poet, “try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is,to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you win then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.Read Rilke’s whole letter.

With regular mindfulness practice, especially spending time in complete silence on longer retreats, we can see our view opening and expanding. We might begin to see cracks in the limited view that we’ve held most of our lives, the one we bought into because it is convenient for managing the details of life to see ourselves as separate. When we come upon these cracks, we bring kindness to our exploration and the understanding that our misunderstanding does not reflect poorly on some separate being that is ‘me’, that must be shored up and protected at all costs. Instead we delight — yes delight — in discovery, in opening to the world with an “I don’t know’ mind, with the understanding that everything is not as it seems on the surface. That there is no way to EVER know everything, and it is not required or even desirable to carry the burden of answers.

What happens when we find ourselves able to access this Wise View? The world doesn’t become a blur of whirled cellular activity we get lost in. Not at all. We still operate much as we did, but the underlying shift is there for us to deepen our awe and lighten our suffering.

How is this idea of impermanence the least bit comforting? How can you relax into it? It has to work in tandem with no separate self, the understanding of all life as complex dance of process, not a collection of isolated objects traveling through empty space.

It’s like struggling to swim, giving up, lying on your back and realizing that the ocean supports you. We can float in this awareness of process and intrinsic beingness.

I leave you with one last analogy, a traditional one: Coming to Wise View is like a hen sitting on an egg. All the hen has to do is sit there. There is nothing she can do to hurry the process. The egg is taking care of all the internal growth that is needed, thanks to her being there, sitting.

So just sit! That’s the practice.