Category Archives: self-exploration

Sniff, sniff. What’s cooking?

One of the Buddha’s most handy-dandy teachings is called the Noble Eightfold Path. It’s a practical tool for sorting out what’s going on in our lives and to see exactly where we’re making ourselves unhappy. Like so many of the Buddha’s lists, it’s challenging to remember. So I developed a visual metaphor that my students agree makes it super easy to recall and therefore use when we need it.

I’ve taught the Eightfold Path so many times over the past ten years that I didn’t think there was anything new to add, but this week I thought up one more useful addition to this metaphor. But first, a review:

The Eightfold Path consists of Wise Intention, Wise Effort, Wise View, Wise Mindfulness, Wise Concentration, Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood.

dd2dd-cooking-pot-analogy-w-spoonAs you can see from this simple illustration, ‘intention’ is the flame or spark that gets things going. Of course all will turn out better if our intention is wise.

Then there are the logs. A laid log fire is good metaphor for ”effort’ because it needs to be balanced — not lopsided, not too much kindling, not too little, etc. Even with the best of intentions, if our effort isn’t wise, things don’t go the way we intended, do they? If we’re striving and over-doing, we exhaust ourselves and everyone around us. If we get sluggish and don’t make any effort, nothing gets done. So Wise Effort is important to notice and cultivate.

The pot sitting atop the fire is our perspective on life, our understanding of how things are, our view. If our view is cracked it doesn’t function. Wise View is created out of regular practice and the resulting clarity of insight into the nature of life. We come to understand how impermanence is central and necessary to all life. We come to understand that there is no separate self, no isolated identity that needs to be shored up and shined up to please anyone. Instead we sense into the deeper understanding of dependent co-arising — this is because that was; this is not because that was not — and the patterns of interdependence of all being. And finally we see that suffering is caused by not understanding and embracing impermanence and the oneness of all being.

So that’s the pot. But what are we cooking up inside the pot? Mindfulness! That’s what we cultivate in our meditation practice and throughout our days: awareness and compassion, being truly alive in every moment, awakened to all our senses, able to perceive passing thoughts and emotions that arise in our experience in an open friendly embrace. Now this Mindfulness we’re cooking up is not a stew we can just put on the back burner to simmer. It’s a risotto! It needs to be constantly stirred by the spoon of Concentration (the various concentration practices, like following the breath, done on a regular basis to fine tune our ability to be mindful). Because what happens when we’re not mindful? All kinds of problems, mistakes, accidents, misunderstandings and frustrations, right? Without wise mindfulness, view, effort and intention, we just think life sucks and we’re the suckers who got stuck with it. At least some of the time.

But when the spark of intention is wise and the logs of effort are balanced, the pot is wholesome, seasoned by the mindfulness it contains; and the risotto is well tended, what happens?

Steam rises from the cooking pot in the form of Wise Speech, Wise Action and Wise Livelihood. Our words and deeds are informed by these other aspects and are naturally wiser and kinder than they would be otherwise. So instead of strapping duct tape on our mouth and handcuffing ourselves in order to avoid saying or doing the wrong thing, we focus on cultivating wise intention, effort and view, stirring the risotto of mindfulness with our practice. We pay attention to our language and actions, of course, but followed in this way, it is not the struggle it once was when ‘me and my big mouth’ used to duke it out in the alley.

See how it works? Now here’s the new addition:

Even though the steam that you see arising from the pot comes last in our learning about the Eightfold Path and in our practice, the steam is the first thing we notice in life. Think about it. Something smells delicious coming from the kitchen. Yum, right? The pleasant aroma flavors our whole experience of life. We come alive in our senses and all’s right with the world. Realtors know to bake cookies in a home before an open house, or to put on a pot with some cinnamon sticks in the hot water. They know that our sense of smell activates positive memories and associations that can make a house feel more desirable.

But what about when it doesn’t smell so good? We rush to the kitchen to see what’s wrong, don’t we? We know from experience that either the recipe wasn’t any good, or wasn’t followed, or the temperature’s not right or it’s been on the flame for too long. All kinds of things could have happened to make that stench. But whatever it is, we don’t just sit around and complain of the nasty smell in our own home. We do something about it, right?

So why when we are troubled in life, when we are suffering, we often do just that? We complain about the ‘stench’ in our lives but we just keep keeping on. We don’t go check out what’s causing it. The Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is a wonderful tool for investigation, and especially with this Cooking Pot Analogy, it becomes super easy to see what stinks!

The smell from the kitchen happens pretty far along in the process of cooking, after all the ingredients have been chopped, measured, mixed and heated. Yet it is the FIRST thing we notice, the first thing that tells us if it’s going to be a tasty meal or a disgusting disaster. And in the same way, in this analogy, even though our words and deeds arise like steam from our intention, effort, mindfulness and view, it is those very words and deeds that are the first thing that let’s us know whether things are cooking nicely or whether something needs attending in the kitchen.

Let’s use an example. Maybe I have an unsettled feeling, a little nagging state of discomfort in my mind. What is it? After a little meditation practice, if I can take even just a minute to check in, I notice that discomfort and do a gentle self-inquiry. It might become clear that I’m feeling badly about something I said to someone. Perhaps my words were unkind. Or perhaps it wasn’t my story to tell. Or maybe I was in a hurry and didn’t take the time to be as kind and considerate as I might have been. Just the simple act of noticing lifts me up a bit, because I am able to recognize that ‘something stinks’ and now I know what caused it, and what I can do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. But before I get caught up in telling myself what a rotten person I am, I can use the Eightfold Path Cooking Pot Analogy to help me understand what really happened.

Let’s say that I recognized that my words were unskillful because I was rushing. Rushing is unbalanced effort, isn’t it? And why was I rushing? What was I hoping to accomplish?What was my intention? I might see that I didn’t want people at a meeting to think poorly of me for being three minutes late. My wise intention to be present and compassionate fell by the wayside, and my unskillful intention took over. Unskillful effort followed suit, leading to unskillful speech.

Whoa! That’s a lot of useful information. But let’s not stop there. Why was my intention unskillful? Because my view in that moment became unwise. I forgot that there is no separate self that needs to be polished up to perfection and presented to others. And I wasn’t mindful. I wasn’t stirring the ‘risotto’. I forgot that it needs to be constantly stirred, even while I go about my life, so that I am always present, noticing things with all my senses, no matter what. (Which is a delightful way to live, by the way.)

Try playing with this analogy yourself. If you want to read more about it, or any aspect of the Eightfold Path, use the search field on the right. Eightfold Path and all the aspects of it are discussed extensively in many of the posts.

And if you have questions, comments or experiences that illustrate how useful working with the Eightfold Path can be, please share by clicking on ‘Reply’ at the top of the post.

 

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!

Do You Get an ‘A’ for Effort?

wise-effort-handsAs we look at the aspects of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, at first glance Wise Effort seems the easiest to understand. We see from our own experience and by observing others how over-efforting and under-efforting cause all kinds of problems in life, from the tense host striving to make everything ‘perfect’, causing her guests to feel uneasy; to the couch potato who seems unable to move forward in life; to the ambitious dreamer who seems always in motion but whose wheels are spinning.

Any of these sound familiar? Using the Eightfold Path as a guide for self-exploration, we see that this is not about self-improvement or changing who we are. We are instead looking at patterns in our thoughts, emotions, words and actions that are causing us, and probably those around us, unhappiness. These patterns do not define us. But they may be confining us a bit, and that’s why we want to look more closely.

To investigate, we don’t use our overdeveloped muscle of critical facility, the fault-finder that is often particularly adept at turning inward and causing misery. Instead, with regular meditation, we cultivate mindfulness, compassion and spaciousness where all the tight patterns are able to loosen, soften and quiet down. Only when the cacophony of harsh judgments and strident opinions have been given enough space to settle down, do we have the opportunity to hear the quiet, calm, loving voice of our own inner wisdom, our Buddha nature. This is one of the great gifts of regular meditation practice.

Once we have accessed that inner wisdom in meditation, we can recognize it at other times as well. We can actively seek it out at any time, just by quieting down and listening in. And over time we begin to align more and more with that wiser way of seeing what is actually going on in our experience. We become less reactive and more responsive. When it comes to effort, we are better able to identify the cause of our unskillfulness. We can see what’s really happening with the examples I gave above:

If you relate to the host who wants everything perfect for her guests but instead creates tension, let’s review Wise Intention from the previous blog post. We can see that her intention is not wise. Why? She is fearfully caught up in wanting people to see her in a certain way, in order to admire, respect and love her. She is busy shoring up her separate identity. That is literally off-putting. She puts people off by setting herself apart. She wants to be seen as the kind of person she aspires to be.

A wise intention, such as the intention to be compassionate to herself and all beings, would ensure that she takes care of herself, takes on only as much as she can handle, asks for help or, if she can afford it, hire help, so that she can be fully present to interact with her guests. If this means she doesn’t get a write-up on the society page, so be it! If that was her intention, it was painfully unwise. What people respond to is coming into a space and being greeted by a person who is fully present, fully engaged and not freaking out about whether the space or the food is up to the standards of some magazine editor who probably eats mostly take out in her NYC apartment anyway.

After a dharma talk of setting truest intentions one student came up to me and said that she thinks her truest intention is authenticity, but she wasn’t sure about the wording. That reminded me of an insight I had on a silent retreat that has stayed with me for many years, and has helped me and students I’ve shared it with again and again. I promised my students I would include it here. It is:

I have nothing to hide.
I have nothing to prove.
I have nothing to fear.
I have something to give.

See if this phrase empowers you to live without regard to how people see you. For me, it helped me to stop seeing myself as an object being viewed by others, and allowed me to simply live from the center of my being. This is a challenge women often relate to more than men. Men are generally encouraged to ‘Be your own man.’ But women, traditionally, have been encouraged to put others first and to polish themselves up to be beautiful objects in body and manner in order to attract a mate. Even the princesses among us who promote themselves as the center of the universe are caught up in needing to be objects to be adored, totally dependent on exterior approval. Plenty of men fall into this pattern as well. But rather than demanding that others see us as the center of their worlds, it is possible to live with ease and clarity, making all our efforts grounded in wisdom.

If you related more to the couch potato, your compassionate investigation will not include derogatory terms like ‘couch potato’! That’s not your wise inner voice but one of the many judgmental ones that contributed to the pattern of lethargy you find yourself succumbing to. Set a wise intention — to meditate regularly, to be compassionate, and to attune to the muscles that want to move and the mind that wants a challenge. As a kindness to your heart, eat sensibly and get up and move about. Find the natural strength and fluidity that is within you, waiting to be set free. That is compassion. If you just can’t muster the will to make an effort, ask for help. But choose someone who will help you investigate what’s going on rather than a drill sergeant who makes you feel even more miserable about yourself even as you ‘get into shape.’ Compassion is not giving in to your most fear-based patterns of thinking, but attuning to the vibrant potential for living fully in every moment.

You might be inspired by this story from PBS Newshour called ‘Back on my feet’ : http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/morning-run-can-first-step-homelessness/

If you recognize yourself in the dreamer with the spinning wheels, your compassionate investigation will be to notice the circular patterns, the walls you have set up and the short circuits in your thinking that bounce you back to square one again and again. By living in the future, imagining some perfect life, you are completely missing the offerings of this moment. No matter what your situation, no matter how imperfect, there is in this moment some beauty, some light, something funny, something touching. There is a zen story that speaks to this:

There was once a man who was being chased by a ferocious tiger across a field. At the edge of the field there was a cliff. In order to escape the jaws of the tiger, the man caught hold of a vine and swung himself over the edge of the cliff. Dangling down, he saw, to his dismay, there were more tigers on the ground below him! And, furthermore, two little mice were gnawing on the vine to which he clung. He knew that at any moment he would fall to certain death. That’s when he noticed a wild strawberry growing on the cliff wall. Clutching the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other and put it in his mouth.

He never before realized how sweet a strawberry could taste.

So set the intention to meditate, then listen in to that wise inner voice, the one that helps you set an intention to be present in this moment, compassionate with yourself and all beings. Discover how to live fully in this moment and your life will unfold in its own way, more and more aligned with your truest intention. Let your life surprise you with its gifts!

Wise effort is not how much we accomplish, but the kind of the effort we are making in whatever we do. Often when we are exercising we are caught up in a goal: To get to the end of the course, the trail, the time period allotted; to change the way our body appears so that it will be more attractive or acceptable; to have bragging rights that we are able to run or even won a marathon. There’s nothing at all wrong with winning, but focusing on that isn’t wise effort. We can win with wise effort and go on to enjoy the activity. Winning with unskillful effort leaves us exhausted and without a sense of purpose in our lives.

Wise Effort is meditating on a regular basis, setting up and sustaining a daily practice. Kudos for that! Once we are sitting, we continue to use Wise Effort to stay present and compassionate with ourselves, to adjust our posture as we so that it is both erect and relaxed, and we rely on the bones instead of the muscles to support us, and if we notice any tension, relaxing and releasing it to whatever degree we are able.

Goal-setting in meditation is not wise effort, sabotaging our ability to stay present and compassionate. The goal stays ever distant, always on the horizon. When we shift away from imagining the outcome and instead cultivate in this moment a spacious way to be in relationship with all that is occurring right now, we become available to insight and deepened understanding.

Awakening is both potentially instantaneous and a lifelong rich exploration. It happens each time we become fully present, each time our heart is cracked open a bit more with compassion, each time we recognize that we and all beings are intrinsic to the whole of being. We become more and more familiar with our Buddha nature, that wise inner wisdom that speaks softly, has no agenda and all the time in the world. So it really is up to our Wise Intention and our Wise Effort to practice meditation, become more spacious and available to attune to that inner wisdom. All the fear-based judgments and opinions within our thinking mind have enough room to co-exist and feel heard, even if they don’t get to rule the roust. We understand the protective impulse of their fear-based intentions. Over time we begin to see them for what they are: patterns of thought initially launched by some words or actions of someone long ago, who was unskillful because of all the fear-based patterns they were dealing with. Another opportunity for compassion. Which is not the same as condoning or approval of behavior.

Our Wise Effort is to keep cultivating spaciousness and compassion, for ourselves, for everyone in our lives, even those who push our buttons, and for the contributors from the past whose own unskillfulness set off an unskillful pattern within us. This is our practice. Sometimes it is skillful to put distance between ourselves and someone who pushes our buttons. Although we are developing inner wisdom, there is no reason to force ourselves to confront our demons constantly. In fact, we are actively seeking our community of people who support us in our wise effort, and letting go of actively involving ourselves with people whose fear pushes them to antagonize us. At some time we may be ready to sit with them, but we can give ourselves permission to wait until the time is right. Meanwhile we send them infinite lovingkindness whenever we think of them: May you be well. 

Wise Effort has a quality of effortlessness because the exertion is appropriate for this body, mind, time and place. It is enough to keep us engaged in an optimum way and mindful so that we are not prone to accidents.

What are some examples in your own life of wise or unwise effort? What might be a skillful way address the challenge?

On silent retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, all attendees are given yogi jobs so they have a hand in helping to maintain cleanliness or create meals. Over the years I have worked in the kitchen, vacuumed dormitory hallways, swept porches, cleaned bathrooms and maintained the Council House. But on one retreat I really wanted as little potential interaction with other retreatants as possible, so they gave me the job of scrubbing shower stalls.
Right away I noticed my lack of enthusiasm for such a task, including an aversion to being in a small windowless space.

Since I was in a state of mindfulness from seven or so hours of meditation a day, each day as I took up my sponge, squeegee and scrub brush, I discovered a shift in my attitude toward the work. It started with bare tolerance, trying to be a good sport. Then I noticed some hope of praise for a good job, or at least a lack of criticism for a poorly done job.
Then, because these were the showers the retreat teachers used, I did it as a service in kind, out of gratitude for their teachings.
A few days in I sensed into my body — my arm rotating as I scrubbed, my legs supporting me as I reached or crouched. I felt my mind attend this as a simple meditation, a place to put my consciousness. I felt my breath steadily fueling this engine of activity.
I let go of any concern for the outcome. The shower stalls were scrubbed every day, by me on this retreat, but by other dedicated retreatants throughout the years before and after me.

As a practice of mindfulness. This exercise trained me in Wise Effort more than anything else I have ever done. The first thing I did when I got home after the retreat was to scrub our shower stall! But the lasting effect was a change in how I tend all my necessary tasks. They are yogi jobs I do for a set period each day, and with daily application, I can trust that all will be done.

So coming into the present, noticing all the judgments and opinions that arise in relationship to what we are doing, we develop a skillful relationship with even the most mundane tasks. In this way all we do becomes part of our practice. That’s Wise Effort.

No one has our individual answers. But if we notice that we are out of balance in the area of effort and that this under or over efforting is causing problems, then we can skillfully test out either taking on physical or mental challenges, or we can let up on the whip a bit.

I have written many posts over the years on Wise Effort. Feel free to explore more.

Insight Meditation, how ‘Dharma can heal our wounds’

The short lessons we read from The Pocket Pema Chodron before my dharma talk and discussion, is often in sync with what I had planned to talk about or whatever came up before in our meeting. This week we read #87 ‘Our Predicament is Workable,” that starts with the sentence “The dharma can heal our wounds, our very ancient wounds that come not from original sin but from a misunderstanding so old that we can no longer see it.”

‘…a misunderstanding so old that we can no longer see it.” What does that mean?

We talked about how on a personal level there are many patterns that we operate with in our lives — patterns of thinking and behavior — that we see as our way of being, part of who take ourselves to be. We let these patterns define us even though we don’t know where they come from or how they were woven.

On a collective cultural level, we have been weaving certain traits as well, reacting to events such as climate, landscape, famine, drought, war and other threats to our well being. These culturally inherited or co-created traits also become part of our personal pattern. International travel is useful to help us see beyond what we believe to be ‘human nature’ when it’s really just our own localized set of patterns at work. We can see other nation’s collective patterns more clearly, without needing to judge them or prove one is better than another. Viva la difference! When we see how much variation there is between cultures and between individuals within cultures, we are less inclined to believe that there is one way of seeing the world or any given situation. This frees us from having to defend the particular thought patterns we are most familiar with, nor do we need to disparage them. We can simply begin to see them as a little more free-floating, a little less intrinsic to our very being.

Through mindfulness meditation we make the space to begin seeing these patterns more clearly as they arise and act out as passing thoughts or emotions. We can compassionately look at them, and at the defensiveness, shame or judgment that may arise with them. They are just patterns. As we give our minds the quiet to settle down and become spacious, we may wonder about some of the things we notice.We can perhaps focus our thinking mind, struggle to analyze these patterns and come to some conclusions. But what is this analysis and what are these conclusions but more judgment, blame and assumption? More of the same patterns?

In the space we create through our meditation practice, we can wonder in a more open creative way. For example, we can simply put out the question, “Is this true?” and then allow for our quiet attention to let the ‘answers’ arise in our awareness.

I shared with the sangha an experience I had soon after starting to meditate 30+ years ago. I was questioning an ongoing troublesome pattern I recognized, a place in my life where I tended to go dead. I asked “Why am I like this?” Then I let the question go (probably because I had asked it more in despair than in any expectation of finding an answer!) and I relaxed, resting a little longer before getting up to go about my day.

Because I was relaxed but noticing, three different vivid images of events from my past floated one by one through my awareness. I remember thinking how odd it was that these long forgotten memories would just show up like that, yet here they were. Because they came in a series, I looked for a common thread, and realized that each one offered a memory of getting shut down around this very area of concern, making me turn inward and go dead.

‘Oh!’ The answer was there as clear as if a spotlight and a close up lens had been offered up for purposes of self-exploration and discovery. This is what creating a meditative relaxed open attention to the present moment can offer up, if we are willing to stay present to notice.

A sangha member shared her own exploration of a particular knot of fear-based pattern that troubled her. She could see that the reaction that became her pattern was learned at an early age. Like most of our patterns, she saw how it made sense at the time but now, as an adult with other means and with the power of autonomy, she could respond with more skill to challenging situations.

This is part of the insight process. We notice, we question, we gain insight. And then what? Well, if we just stop there we can either develop a pattern of judging our patterns, or we can stay open and allow awareness to soften the patterns, releasing us from them. But there is something else we can do if we are wanting to continue the process a little further within a meditative self-exploration.

If we have our younger self in mind, we can compassionately reparent the child within. What does this mean? Well, especially if we are parents or have taken care of children, it is fairly easy to see our young self with a great deal of tenderness and compassion. (Whatever harsh views we hold about ourselves, certainly we can allow that as small children, no matter how we behaved, we were worthy of being loved, being held with compassion. Even the person we were in our early twenties, before the finishing touches were put on our brain’s judgment functions scientists have now discovered, can be reparented, forgiven for failures of judgment, etc.)

Whatever it was that we didn’t receive from our parents or guardians — love, kindness or permission to be ourselves — we can give ourselves now. We may find within us the voice of the parent that may have withheld love, been overbearing, forgot to praise or was constantly scolding or abusing us. Whatever our relationship with those who had power over us, we can fairly say they did the best they could at the time, because that’s true for us all. We each of us hold within us a set of patterns that, if we are not able to get conscious, dictate our behavior. If there is no room for forgiveness, then let that be a known knot within us, a knot that we can hold with compassion for now.

We can recognize that the still-active voice within us that replicates the parent’s voice can also be held with tenderness. It is what we have to deal with now — not the actual parent, but the internal parent voice. (So often we feel we need to have a conversation with our elderly parent, or feel we have lost the opportunity after they die, when really it’s this inner parent that is in charge now, and it’s an inner conversation that needs to happen!)

We can hold this inner parent voice with compassion, treat it with respect, listen to its concerns, and work with it in the same way we have worked with other voices or aspects of self, all of which are knotted fear-based patterns of thought-emotion that can be seen now that we are creating an open spaciousness within our minds.

In our meditation practice we have the paired intentions to be fully present and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. With these two intentions we have the very tools we need for skillful inner exploration and insight,

Making Note
When we have insights, it is often useful to make note of them. Caveat: This can turn into a compulsion to write down everything, which turns it into something different and sometimes short circuits the process. But if some words stay with us and make a profound difference in our lives, then writing those words down and keeping them close might be useful.

I have this note to self that I wrote on a retreat pinned to my bulletin board:

I have nothing to fear
I have nothing to hide
I have nothing to prove
I have something to give.

This was a realization I had on a retreat. At the moment I wrote it, it was not a hope of a way to be but my actual experience of being. Up on the board, glanced at on occasion, it refreshes me, strengthens me, puts me back in touch with myself.

Of course what I wrote down is not always true for me. I don’t use it as an ‘affirmation’ but a way to find the truth of the current moment. I can say those words and question. Is that true?

At a recent reading an accurate statement was:

I have nothing to fear, yet I’m afraid.
I have nothing to hide yet I feel the weight of the effort to keep something buried inside me.
I have nothing to prove yet I feel myself striving to be something other than what I am.
I have something to give, yet I withhold it for fear it is not good enough.

That was the truth in the moment I wrote that statement. To work with it at the time I asked questions:

What am I afraid of? (Always a great question whatever the situation!)
What am I hiding?
What am I trying to prove?
What do I have to give?

At any given moment the answers will arise differently, so I will not record them here. This is just a reminder, a suggestion, of how to work with an insight that has captured the crux of a knotty pattern within. We each have areas that are particularly knotty, patterns however created. When we have an insight that shines a light on the knot, that makes more space between the knotted threads, that makes it easier to see the threads from more angles so we can see where the threads come from and how the tangle got so tight, then we have the opportunity to sit with it and allow it to inform us.

Can we take the time to allow the process to unfold? Can we let it arise without forcing it, without jumping too quickly to grab an easy answer and claim it as proof of our enlightenment?

May we be relaxed but alert, open in mind and heart, awakened to the moment, filled with a sense of universal kindness, able to hold whatever arises in an open embrace.

Inner Exploration with Awareness and Compassion

This week in class we did an experiential exercise on compassion. After meditation practice, we sat in the resulting inner peacefulness and each explored our circular thinking around the holidays or anything else that might be causing stress right now. Meditation offers a timelessness, so that we can see in ‘slow-motion’ how the thoughts spiral from statement to associative image representing a past experience perhaps to an associative emotion to an associative sensation, etc. By creating a spacious field of awareness — not pushing anything away but making an effort not to become entangled in them either — we give ourselves truly valuable information — the best gift of the season!

After the exploration reveals something of interest, we focus on holding what has been revealed in compassionate curiosity. Developing compassion and loving-kindness is the most important aspect of any self-exploration. Without it we are like bulls in the proverbial china shop. With spaciousness and compassion we can discover the ways we activate suffering in our lives and are able to hold it gently and see it clearly, from a spacious perspective that understands the universality of whatever we notice. In this way what appears is not threatening, nor is the idea of letting it go. It is simply a natural mental phenomena that arises and falls away. Even the tightest tangles, as uncomfortable as they are and as easily as we get lost in them, are still just natural mental phenomena — in most cases leftover patterns that were created out of perceived need, but that no longer serve us, and in fact now keep tripping us up. This ability to see clearly with compassion is the greatest gift of meditation for self-exploration.

In our class discussion afterwards we explored the patterned reactions to situations, people, etc. in our lives that we noticed arising. This kind of discussion is quite different from sharing the ‘story’ — the details, the ‘he said, she said’ — that we might talk about with friends or family. Here we share the universal experience of our process of exploration and discovery rather than what can amount to gossip and too much distracting personal information. In this way we are all helped to recognize the common patterns we all experience rather than getting caught up in the personal particulars that vary from person to person, that might throw us into the pattern of wanting to offer advice to ‘solve’ a problem. We are practicing the development of a practice that brings about skillful long term insights. Solving a specific problem leads us to believe in the ‘if only’s of any situation. If only I could fix this, then I would be happy. Baloney. We are not about fixing situations. Another situation will arise that seems just as problematic. The skill we are developing is how to be in skillful relationship with all the situations that might arise in life.

No particular situation or person is the cause of our suffering. The cause is the pattern of reacting and the tangled circular thinking that create sticky cobwebs in our minds that are simply universal mental phenomena. It is for the most part fear-based reactivity developed when we were young that is no longer useful, as we now have more skillful compassion-based means to resolve challenging issues and dissolve suffering. It is not who we are, so we can look at it dispassionately, without feeling threatened, accused, or fearful of losing identity.

Here we are approaching the winter holidays that for so many of us add a whole additional layer of stress and expectation to an already busy life. One student noticed that she felt she had to give a ‘command performance.’ This resonated through the group, and perhaps it resonates with some of you as well. It prompted a whole discussion of the ways in which we demand perfection from ourselves. If this does resonate, either around the holidays or simply in life, bring to mind occasions when you have had a really great time at someone else’s home. Was it because the silverware was shiny or the guest soaps and towels perfectly aligned? Of course not. Often the best times are had in homes that feel less formally prepared. Energetically there is less tension, less special effort for us as ‘guests.’ The hosts are genuinely happy to see us, are fully present to enjoy being together, and this makes us feel more welcome than any special preparations.
We can also remember that we are always, even if we are completely unaware of it, modeling behavior for others. If we demand perfection of ourselves, are we not saying that this is the standard by which we will judge them? So letting go of this ‘command performance’ demand on ourselves releases it from others as well. Now that’s a real gift!

How do we become skillful during such periods without losing the joyful social nature of the season? This is something each of us can discover through noticing what aspects bring joy, what aspects bring anxiety, and where do we over-effort to little effect. It’s skillful to make notes about what worked and what didn’t, a message to ourselves ten months into the future. And it’s skillful to keep the conversation open and in flux about what traditions are working for our ever-changing families and other groups we may celebrate with. Tradition is heart-warming but may become oppressive, the way a cozy room can, at another time, seem suffocating. Notice what’s true for you and inquire what’s true for your loved ones!

Our meditation practice creates the space to quiet down and notice what is happening in our minds and in our lives. Once we see clearly, with infinite compassion, we are empowered to shift, enlighten and illuminate every season of our lives.

Buddha’s River Analogy cont’d: Poetry & an Exercise

In our exploration of the Buddha’s river analogy to talk about the Middle Way, we are looking and questioning what’s true for us, what is our experience of the shores, the boat and the river itself. Because we are so often lost on one shore or the other, it’s useful to see how we keep ending up over-indulging or adopting strict systems of self-denial.

Here are two poems to illustrate the two different shores. First, one about wanting run amok:


No End to Wanting
If truth be known, you want to be idolized,
to be set apart from the flock of ordinary beings
to be seen as separate and special.
You want a whole room of your mansion
for your many awards in specially lit glass cases
and the soundtrack of Rocky playing upon entrance.
You want your ghost-written biography
to fill a whole table at Borders with a
giant cardboard cutout of you and
a line round the block waiting since dawn
for you to sign your autograph and for them
tell you how much they love you.
You want to have a huge yacht with a crew
spiffy-clad in white shirts and shorts
lined up to greet you in exotic ports of call.
You want a small sleek jet done to your
taste by the world’s leading decorator
who answers your endless 2 am calls
happy to implement your latest desire
for say a chaise lounge in the loggia of
your villa on the shores of Lake Como
or your beachhouse in Bali, or perhaps
the estate in Provence or the penthouse in Paris —
each one of them staffed and stocked 24/7
in case you feel like a change of venue.
You want an entourage of sleek beauties or
hunks lounging at poolside, pouring you drinks,
laughing at your jokes, every steamy glance
 telling you how much they long to touch you,
to say they have touched you,
to be enhanced by your magical powers.
You want every celebrity in the world to be thrilled
at an invitation to drop in at a moment’s notice
because whatever else they had planned for a
Saturday night pales in comparison to the chance
to dine at your table and bask in your reflected glow.
You want your name to be a household word
said with a shiver of awe and a shared hint of desire.
You want your face to be as familiar as the one
people see in the mirror every morning
when they take stock and wish they were you.
You want people diving into your dumpster
to have even the most disgusting indigestible
parts of you to put on display
or be sold for thousands of dollars on eBay.
You want to walk down the street
and be mobbed by paparazzi who push you
back so they can get a better shot of you
because you are the most valuable prize
of their pathetic little lives and you know it.
You want to stroll into a showroom of
luxury cars and drive out with whatever
suits your fancy the way you used to
go out for an ice cream cone on a Sunday
afternoon when life was simple
and the sun on your back and the taste
of the ice cream and the laughter of a friend
was enough to make you happy.
When happiness was enough.
– Stephanie Noble


And to illustrate the other shore:

The Desert of Just Desserts
This scorched sand, this unrelenting sun:
No more than I deserve. 
Thick oozing lava pools and
a stack of buckets with instructions:
‘Fill and carry, don’t stop, don’t drop, don’t drink. Toxic.’
All around me others are loading up buckets, whispering,
‘This time I’ll do it, this time I’ll get it right.’
‘Please don’t let me fail again, please don’t let me fail.’
They don’t look up, so I drop my gaze, and set to the task at hand:
To carry these buckets across the vast arid sands,
to ignore those along the way whose
writhing bodies speak in tongues,
to set my sights, to keep my eyes on the horizon,
on the oasis shimmering golden in this hellish heat.

Oh, to be worthy of the illusive prize
to be worthy to set my lips upon the chalice
that holds that righteous sip
of sweet
pure
water.

– Stephanie Noble
To finish with our poetry sharing, here’s one by Mary Oliver. It is perhaps her most beloved poem for the way it gives us permission to see the truth about this ‘desert of just desserts.’ It is titled Wild Geese. Because I don’t have permission to publish Mary Oliver’s poem, here is a Youtube video of the poet reading three poems, including Wild Geese, which she reads because she says,‘Sometimes people get mad when I don’t.’ Watch it now or later, but come back to this post because we’ll be doing a valuable self-exploration exercise.


It’s important to recognize the quality of the river itself: Notice how it flows naturally, how it is connected in a great cycle of watery wholeness and life itself. Perhaps the image of a river feels claustrophobic. Imagine a wider river! Perhaps it seems boring. Imagine a livelier river, gurgling joyously! This is your experience of river. Let the river be an expression of freedom and life. Let the shores be less interesting than the river itself, so that your do not turn being on the river into another form of self-denial. And of course you don’t have to use the river analogy at all! It’s just an analogy and we have used many others that might better serve you. But it is one of the ways the Buddha made his teachings real to students, and so we have been exploring it thoroughly.

We did an exercise last week where we defined for ourselves what was luring us off the river of the Middle Way and onto the shore of over-indulgence or self-denial. I hope you had a chance to play with this, and that some lures came up.

Our exercise today is finding a lure on each shore that relates to one on other. These two lures are connected in some way. I will use a personal but pretty universal example to illustrate how this exercise works. Okay, so there is a hot fudge sundae sitting on the shore. No, wait, let me be more specific. There is a hot fudge BROWNIE sundae sitting on the shore. On the opposite shore there is a sign saying, ‘You’re a pig.’ Those two definitely have a relationship. I feel that if I eat the sundae, then I am a pig. And if I see that sign, I resonate with it and am reminded of the sundae I either ate or long to eat.

So now, find your two related lures. First, choose the thing that is sticky, that gets you caught up in craving, that makes you go mindless and sparks a lot of circular thinking and despair of ever being ‘good enough.’ The lure on the over-indulgence shore is not the occasional innocent treat. This is a mine field for you. It doesn’t have to be food, of course. It could be a craving for praise, fame, wealth, beauty, sex, security, or excitement.

If you have a lure on the over-indulgence shore that is ripe for exploring, there will definitely be some related lure on the opposite shore. It will chime in with some snide comment and draw your attention. The self-denial shore is full of rudeness, rules and regulations that don’t arise out of a sense of natural virtue and good will that comes from our feeling connected to all beings. Instead it is a set of whips and chains to use on ourselves and sometimes others when we project our issues on them. This shore is full of harsh judgments that don’t just deny us pleasure. They deny us our very right to be who we are.


Once you have found your two related lures, sit with the indulgence lure.
So I sit with the sundae. What does it offer me? What does it promise? A few minutes of pleasure, sweet taste, cool and creamy with hot and gooey, yum! A reward to myself. A sense of happiness. Oblivion, release.

Exploring further, what is the fear that drives the urge? What is the lure’s underlying fear-based message?

(Maybe you are saying, ‘Hey, why does there have to be fear? Why can’t it just be a hot fudge sundae. Well for some it would be, but I’ve got that ‘You’re a pig’ sign on the other shore, and a feeling that I would eat every hot fudge sundae if given the chance. So there is a fear message there. And if you’ve found lures that are equally or even more seductive, there is most definitely a fear-based message there. What is it?) 
The message I hear is, ‘Life is short. What if I get to the end of my life and feel I missed out on enjoying indulgent simple pleasures?” So I fear the regret that I didn’t live fully and embrace all that life has to offer.

We then check the statements that have come up for veracity. We ask, ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’ for each of the statements we have made.

When that exploration feels done for now, we turn to the related lure on the other shore, in my case the sign saying “You’re a pig!”

Explore what this lure offers. In my case I’m noticing guilt, self-loathing and shame. I’m also noticing a call to exercise discipline and will power. I’m hearing a promise of a reward of good health and a slender figure to provide me with a protective shield of ‘attractiveness’ that may make me more acceptable.

Now we ask ‘What is the fear that drives this urge?’ When put into words sometimes the fear sounds outrageous, but that’s okay. Outrageous as it is, it feels real enough, so write it down. You aren’t sharing this with anyone. It’s your own exploration just for you.
For me what comes up are fears that I will eat all the hot fudge sundaes in the world given half the chance, that I will become grossly obese instead of what I hope is seen as ‘pleasantly plump,’ that people will be repulsed by me, that I will be whispered about behind my back.

Again, we check some of these things for veracity, asking, ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’ for each of the statements we have made. This could be a long or short conversation. This is your exercise, your exploration, your experience. Give it as much time as you need.

Having fully explored both these lures on the banks of the river, can we find the Middle Way between the two? Yes, the Middle Way begins with awareness, so our exercise in shining a light on what lures us onto the shores of over-indulgence or self-denial helps us to stay present. When we are present fully with our experience, we are on the river. 

We’ve talked about the river as being awareness and compassion. Compassion is vital in this exercise and in life. Without discounting, negating or denying any of the feelings we have brought up, we notice them, acknowledge them, and then question them. Compassion allows us to return to the river. Without it we judge ourselves, our situation or the people we feel caused the situation, and thereby get stuck deeper and deeper in the muck and mire, the dark humid tangle of vines that choke us, or the quicksand of our thoughts and emotions.

So from our boat on the river we look at the two shores, thus reminding ourselves that this is the vantage point we choose, again and again, by setting the intention to be present and compassionate. Retraining our vantage point is part of the practice of meditation. With Wise Effort we are able to find this Wise View, this vantage point. We return again and again to the breath, whether we see it as simply the breath or as the river that runs through the center of our being.

If you are new to the practice, perhaps ‘the river’  is as illusive as the oasis or the golden mountain that looms deep inland on each shore, the horizon that never gets any closer. You may say,‘What river? I want the river! Where the heck is this river? Is it over that mountain? Maybe I better strive harder. Maybe I’m not worthy of the river.’

Don’t worry, the river is within you. The river is as close as the rising and falling of your breath. Only your ability to notice it is illusive, and it is that ability that we develop through meditation practice. So create for yourself a regular practice — begin with five minutes and work up to 30 or 40; or, if you prefer, do two 20 minute meditations a day. Set the intention to stay present with whatever you experience. And set the intention to be compassionate with yourself when your mind wanders, as it will, as it was designed to do. Just this will be enough. Let go of all else as you sit. Anchor in sensation, whether focused on the breath, on sound, or on an openness to all sensation; or choose a simple word or phrase that brings you present like ‘here, now, relaxed’ or ‘om.’ For more information on getting started in meditation, see the Meditation Basics page.

Inner Aspects are not real! and other things we need to remember

We have been looking at our various inner aspects, the fear-based thoughts and emotions that form patterns so seemingly solid that most of us have taken them to be who we are. Through meditation we begin to see that we are not our thoughts, our emotions, our bodies, our quirky behaviors, beliefs, accomplishments or failures. Yet all of these are still part of our experience. We have simply shifted our relationship with them, shifted our vantage point to Wise View, as we discussed in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. We see more clearly because we have given ourselves this quiet time to access the calm, loving, timeless inner voice.

By continually accessing, listening to and aligning with that loving font of universal wisdom, we come to a reliable place of insight and understanding about who we are. This alignment requires only our whole-hearted intention to be present and compassionate. To strive to do more than that is not only not required but would undermine our ability to be present and compassionate.

Meditation is called a practice because we repeatedly come back to our set intention each time we find we have gotten lost in past or future thinking. Being present – here, now, relaxed — is the access point to universal wisdom, and being compassionate with ourselves and others creates the spaciousness for the wisdom to arise within us. Developing the ability to guide our attention back to the present moment again and again is all we need to do. At some point it becomes more natural. At first it may feel like dancing on the head of a pin to stay in the present moment, but as our practice continues we feel more stable and more present more of the time.

Once we are able to be present for extended periods, noticing what arises in each moment, we quite naturally become curious and find we can skillfully explore our discoveries. The interest we take in the inner workings of our own way of being in the world and in the world itself, is very different from the greedy mind that wants to acquire knowledge, to shore up a sense of self, to protect against someone calling us ignorant. Accessing inner wisdom stimulates beginner’s mind and activates our innate curiosity. Not knowing is no longer scary but delightful! We are invited to dance with life in all its mystery, and not a one of us was meant to be a wallflower.

If this idea of not being our thoughts and emotions doesn’t make sense, give it time and meditation. It is not something that is easily explained and everyone discovers it differently. Here is one ‘explanation’ that could offer some understanding.

Think of the child who takes a clock apart to see what makes it tick. Once all the pieces are laid upon the table, is it still a clock? Is a clock a bunch of small metal objects in various sizes and shapes, each of which could perhaps be used to make something totally different? No, I think we can agree the parts are not the clock.

In this same way, we can look at our thoughts, our body, our personality, our emotions, our skills, talents, achievements or preferences, and see that as valued as they are, they are not who we are. When we try to answer the question of who we are by holding up any of these and saying, “This is me” we are like the child holding up a small metal gear and saying this is a clock. The child knows this is not true. And we inherently know that we are not our passing thoughts, our behaviors or our physical features.

Meditative self-exploration is not a scheme to create a new self that will be more acceptable. This is extremely important to realize and remember. We often believe that if only we were different, everything would be better. Meditation is not a makeover! It is being present with what is. We are present to notice a recurring pattern of thought or emotion arising out of fear. We may notice a reaction to this discovery in the form of a desire to throw out, deny or remake what we have discovered. But this reaction is just another fear-based aspect trying to make things right. Each time we notice this desire, we simply renew our intention to be present and compassionate. There is nothing we can find here that we can replace with something better. There is no recycling center, dump, prison or graveyard for what we have discovered. What we discover is a facet of the is-ness of being. Doing battle with it only activates aggressive inner aspects that create further disruption. Instead, we stay steady with our deep-rooted awareness, and compassionately explore further.

Self-exploration is not for the faint of heart. Many people are terrified of the idea of really finding out who they are. I know I was! I was quite sure that whatever I would find would be so loathsome I would die of shame. Like many others, I came (in my case returned) to meditation out of desperation. I felt I had no choice because things had become so intolerable and I was in such pain.

However we come to this process, we learn to notice, be available for, and then align with universal wisdom, our Buddha nature. We develop a perspective that allows us to see our discoveries in a way that no longer threatens our existence. When we truly relax into the here and now, we feel supported by the infinite web of life into which we are intrinsically woven. Nothing we can find is alien to this is-ness of life, even patterns of thought, emotion and behavior that are steeped in fear, hoping to stay alive by the unskillful means of dividing, judging, name-calling, and trying to make what we encounter into something ‘other,’ in order to survive. None of us invented this pattern and all of us experience it. But by continually making sufficient quiet space to hear that quiet non-demanding voice of infinite wisdom each of us has access to, we find that we are less and less driven by these fear-based patterns.

The more we notice and come to recognize these aspects or patterns, the less powerful they become. Thus we are more willing to look closer still. Ultimately we find a joy and delight in the exploration. When we come upon something ‘awful’ we say ‘Aha!’ rather than ‘Oh no!’ We no longer feel we have discovered the ugly truth about ourselves, but that we have discovered a heretofore hidden fear-based aspect or pattern. As we have explored in past talks, we know that once it is recognized, we can skillfully dialog with this aspect, resulting in an improved life experience. With each exploratory insight, we find more spaciousness, more aliveness and more sense of connection.

Perhaps this explanation leaves you with many questions, such as:

How do I know when I am ready for self-exploration?
You are ready when you have developed a strong meditation practice that enables you to stay present and compassionate for extended periods of time. Without this alignment with inner wisdom, your inner dialogs will be conversations between two fear-based inner aspects. When fear meets fear any conversation becomes a duel or a battle. There will be a supposed winner and a loser, and that’s a lose-lose situation.

Another question I have heard expressed is ‘Why can’t I just kill off inner aspects I don’t like?’
The ‘killing’ is done by another inner aspect that is then empowered to do more harm. Aligned with infinite inner wisdom, we recognize that love is more powerful than violence because violence is just the expression of shallow-rooted fear. Love is deeply rooted and all-encompassing. There is no aspect or pattern that is not held in this loving web of life.

Also it’s important to remember that aspects can’t be killed off. They will just go underground and morph into something else, so to do battle with them is hopeless. Our reaction to that news might reasonably be, ‘Well then, there’s nothing I can do, I’ll just surrender and continue to let my life be dominated by these fear-based aspects. That’s just the way it is.’ What we are learning here is a skillful and successful way to deal with these aspects so that we will not be victimized by their behavior.

So are all aspects acceptable?
Yes, all are acceptable, just as all children are acceptable, even the bully, the whiner, the pouter, and the sour-puss. All are acceptable but all need love and guidance so that their fears are addressed and they feel safe. Only then will they have no need to cause harm to themselves or others. It isn’t their intention to harm anyone. It is their intention to protect us, but their means are unskillful and cause problems and damage.

What if I don’t have access to this inner wisdom?
The fear that you don’t have access is just an inner aspect trying to protect itself from disappearing. If it only knew how nonthreatening this access is, it would help you find it! But that’s not the nature of fear-based aspects. They are the dragons at the gate of enlightenment, the ones that we must acknowledge with awareness, kindness and patience. Just when we have given up the goal of gaining access, the dragon relaxes its stance and the gates are opened. So sit with the fear that arises within you with kindness and compassion. Anchor into physical sensation, release tension whenever you notice it, and bath yourself with loving kindness. This is what your wise inner voice would do for you, so do it for yourself.

Another question arises out of a concern that all this talk of inner aspects makes it sound like we’re schizophrenic. Why speak of it in this way?

It’s extremely important to understand that this is just a technique for inner exploration. It would be magical thinking to suggest that we actually have inner aspects with cute names! But it is a very effective way for many of us to recognize our patterns of thought, emotion and behavior.

This particular method I came up with on my own, loosely based on something my original non-Buddhist meditation teacher suggested. He was a believer in the value of creating natural easeful mindscapes to rest in during meditation. He taught that if a person or animal came into our natural setting, we would do well to ask it questions, because it would have a message for us. Soon after he said that, I came upon a figure in one of my meditation sits — a woman with close-cropped hair and white Chinese-style pajamas was dancing in a glowing orb of light. She was so joyous I didn’t recognize her as having my features until later. But I asked her questions and she started talking with such deep-rooted wisdom that I took notes. When I shared my notes with the class the students said, ‘Oh it’s like she’s talking directly to me!” and my teacher insisted I publish the collected notes. The result was my book ‘Tapping the Wisdom Within, A Guide to Joyous Living.’ It was my wise inner voice, who introduced me to the fear-based cast of characters within me and taught me how to respectfully dialog with them in a way that all needs would be met.

A few years later, when I began to study Buddhism, I heard that this technique of naming inner aspects is done in some Buddhist traditions as well. These kind of techniques work with the natural tendency we humans have to personify, label and categorize. Biologically we are dealing with neurotransmitters, brain waves, hormones, etc. that together form the patterns of thought and emotion that fill our experience of being alive. But most of us are more comfortable with thinking in terms of a cast of characters in a novel or play than brushing up on scientific terms.

When we think about human culture throughout history, how we have told ourselves involved stories, often using iconic figures, such as the panoply of gods in Greek, Hindu, African and Native American mythology, what is this but our way of coming to understand ourselves better? So this inner exploration is much like that. We are getting to know an inner cast of characters, understanding that they are iconic in nature, not actual people living inside our heads. Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and Clarissa Pinkola Estes made their life work noticing and working with these symbols, icons and personifications of these patterns and traits. This is rich exploration!

It would also be human nature to take these characters to be real, to get caught up in all their shenanigans, to root for one or the other. So we do this inner exploration only when we are aligned with our ability to see that it is just a play. Then we can have fun with it and learn what we need to know at the same time.

It is my belief that the shift from many gods to one god was brought about by enlightened beings throughout history who discovered for themselves and shared with others the realization that all is one, and joy can be found by aligning with that loving all-inclusive oneness rather than any single fear-based iconic character. But human nature being what it is, this enlightened information was received and celebrated and then over time degenerated into this ‘one’ god against others. Thus religions become dangerous rather than helpful. Meditation has the capacity to help us understand that all of this is just a way of exploring ourselves and the world more skillfully. Yet meditators are not immune to the tendency to be divisive, to declare one school of Buddhism, for example, better than another. If we remember that we are diverse in how we receive information, we can understand why there is a need for so many different ways for the access to universal wisdom to be taught. The key is whether the core wisdom is sustained or whether it is lost or diluted in the fray.

A very important question is how do we recognize our wise inner voice. After all there have been people throughout the ages that have believed themselves to be acting under the instructions of a wise inner voice. How can we know we are not delusional?

When you think about some of the things that have been done in the name of God, for example, that are ruthless and destructive, you can be sure this was not accessing universal inner wisdom. Here are some distinctions:

The wise voice will NEVER say words like should, must, have to, right now, hurry up, the only way, I’m warning you, you better watch out, do what I say, don’t question me, I’m right, you don’t need to understand why, urgent, immediately, don’t! do!

The wise inner voice is very quiet, never loud, urgent, or demanding.

The wise inner voice is very calm, never caffeinated or rushed.

The wise inner voice loves you now and always. If you say ‘What do you need me to know,’ the first thing this voice may tell you is ‘I love you, I have always loved you, I will always love you.’ And nothing else that it will say will ever be in contradiction to that.

The wise inner voice is patient. There is never a sense of urgency to it.

You don’t have to search for your wise inner voice. In fact the search itself may take you off course. Simply be present, here, now and relaxed, and like a pond clearing after a storm, access to inner wisdom will become available to you.

Is self-exploration self-indulgent?
Remember we are not talking about going on a search. We are talking about dealing with what arises in this moment. When something arises, it may be something we hadn’t ever noticed before because we were busy thinking about things in the past and future. All we are doing is looking more closely with curiosity at what is present in our experience, noticing associative thoughts, images, emotions and physical sensations. These are clues that are right here, but only apparent to the mind that is right here as well. We don’t need to pursue an aspect to dialog with it. Whatever aspect would be most valuable to dialog with is present right here and now. It is their disruptive presence that makes the dialog necessary!

By calling this process self-exploration, we bring to mind a search or a quest. Holding this view can be a distraction, a distortion and just another habituated pattern of future thinking, as if life does not really begin until we find the holy grail of who we are. A person on such a quest is not present, but is caught up in addictive or obsessive patterns that give them a myopic or astigmatic view of themselves and the world. This we could call self-indulgent, but why name it in this pejorative way, as if the person is having a great time at our expense? They are not! They are suffering because they are caught in a whirlwind that keeps taking them out of the present moment through unskillfulness.

What’s up with the cutesy names?
Just as this process of defining aspects works with our human tendency to like story and character, the naming of characters works with our tendency to label and organize information we come upon in order to retrieve it when we need it. We run into trouble with this tendency when we take our labels to be reality rather than a useful organizing tool.

It is useful when we come upon a fear-based thought or emotion to personify it. We are organically set up to notice human features and characteristics, so if we attribute features and characteristics to a pattern of behavior, based on what it seems to be concerned about, we will recognize it next time we see it much more easily than if we tried to assign it a dry scientific term that was difficult to remember and not very interesting to us. We are simply working with what we have: our natural tendencies! By creating an easy way to recognize them, we can first and foremost know that their suggestions or demands are not those arising out of love and wisdom but out of fear. At any given moment it’s important to know that so that the choices we make in life are skillful.

But as part of the process of exploration, this naming makes it easy to have a dialog. A ‘cutesy’ name reminds us to approach this aspect with compassion and respect. If we are not able to give it compassion or respect, then we are not aligned with our inner wisdom and need to sit quietly and come into the present, let the inner pond clarify a bit, before we dialog. If that’s not possible, then this isn’t a useful practice at this time as the results will be a dueling dialog between two aspects.

So there’s a good reason for the names. But it is extremely important to be clear that this is just a useful system because otherwise we run the risk of taking it all very literally. There are no little people running around inside our brains! I say this because it seems to be human nature to convert these kinds of systems into literal truth. We are susceptible to believing the cast of characters we create to be real! We may fall a little in love with them, become enchanted with their behavior and forget that this is simply a useful means for exploration. So don’t get attached to the adorable mischievous aspects within you! Instead stay present and attuned with inner wisdom so that you can see them with clarity and compassion.

So these are some of the questions I’ve received. I would be happy to hear any others and respond as best I can.