Category Archives: self-image

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!

Barnacles can’t dance, but we can!

Every time I come home after a retreat I feel as if I’ve been released into a more natural way of being, as if I’m lightly dancing with life. I am able to see more clearly the nature of suffering and how I tend to create it.

barnacleAn image from my childhood comes to mind: The barnacles on the boats in the Marina where my friend and I used to play on sunny San Francisco days. We humans often act like barnacles, attaching ourselves to all manner of things.

We may do this in our relationships. Clinging is corrosive and can destroy natural loving bonds and connections. Think about how you react when someone clings to you. It feels more like a drain, an imposition or a demand that you are unable to fulfill, doesn’t it? The person who is clinging doesn’t realize that they are having the opposite effect of what they are trying so hard to achieve. They can’t see that what they are offering is not love or friendship at all. Love is like a dance of the interplay of energy. How does a barnacle dance? Not very well!

I think you get the idea. Where else in our lives might we be clinging rather than dancing?

We cling to our ideas of who we are. With barnacle-like persistence we fasten ourselves to an identity made up of all kinds of things to varying degrees: political affiliation, personal style, religious belief, culture, profession, physical characteristics, personality traits, possessions, family, ancestry, relationship roles, experiences, preferences, etc. These amalgams of how we see ourselves can get locked in early in life, long before we have the wisdom, experience, judgment, or understanding to question the veracity of these views. But it’s never too late to pause in a moment of mindfulness and question our barnacle grip.

The film critic Mick LaSalle was asked by a reader about his favorite films and actors. Mick replied “…I think self-definition through the announcement of favorites can sometimes shut the door on discovery.” Then he went on to list his favorites. But in that acknowledgement he kept the door open to discovery, didn’t he? And that’s what we all want to do, even while enjoying what we know and love.

In class we discussed how whole generations brand themselves by set ideas of fashion, music, hairstyles, vehicles, etc. Recently I heard the term ‘perennials’ to describe people of any generation who are less interested in age-based divisions and are fully engaged in life, ever new and unfolding. I liked that. I might even get a little attached to it!

So here we are, attached to these ideas about this self we hold ourselves to be. We may promote or berate this self, but we rarely question that it is exactly who we are. If we are not totally thrilled with this self, we want a makeover. We find the most offensive aspect or the one that is most readily changeable — weight, for example — and we focus all our distress, unhappiness and dissatisfaction on the idea that if only we lost some pounds, then we’d be happy. Or perhaps it’s wrinkles that worry us, and we invest in fancy creams, facials or surgery. Or maybe it’s fame or wealth that we believe will finally make us okay. Whatever it is, there is no end to the wanting. Achieving the perfect weight, flawless skin, rave reviews or mountains of money — none of it is ever quite enough. It doesn’t deliver on promised results. If we can check off a goal reached, we just reset the goal. It still leaves us in a state of ‘if only’.

Of course, there’s practical wisdom in maintaining a healthy weight, in taking care of our bodies and creating financial stability. But we are talking about the craving for perfection, the striving for some ideal that will right all the wrongs in our life. We expend a lot of energy chasing those ‘if only’ goals without seeing that none of them address the core challenge we face.

The core challenge is that barnacle behavior, the way we cling to the erroneous idea of self: that we are separate and must create the most appealing or impressive identity in order to navigate life’s dangerous waters.

Our meditation practice gives rise to insights that tell us something quite different. We begin to understand in an embodied way that we are natural expressions of life, interconnected to all life. We understand that all life forms a pattern — a dance, if you will — of ongoing cycles of birth, growth, death and decay that nourishes new life. What we thought was solid and permanent is instead processes, systems and patterns. Perhaps we watch a murmuration of sparrows in the sky at dusk and we realize our true nature is a dance of life, not an isolated fortress we need to defend. We no longer believe that our job is to keep repackaging ourselves to be the most attractive gift under the Christmas tree or the most impressive accumulator of stuff, power and experience

But it’s not just in our meditation practice that insights come. At any time, especially if we are troubled, we can ask skillful questions that help us see more clearly. We listen to what we are telling ourselves, and we ask, ‘Is this true?’ and ‘How do I know this is true? Another useful question is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ Instead of running around in mental circles, telling ourselves a story about a situation, person or belief, we can examine the way we are relating to them. Can we recognize that we are grasping, clinging or pushing away? Through meditation we cultivate awareness and compassion. Then we can skillfully investigate what’s going on in any moment and gain insight. Aha!

Through the regular practice of meditation we don’t necessarily lose all the various elements of identity we believed ourselves to be. We just see them for what they are and we can hold them lightly. We let go. We un-barnacle. And in doing so we reveal the beauty of all life.

We awaken to our passion and purpose, not to claim it as ‘our thing’ or wear it as a badge that defines us, but to participate more fully in each moment, blooming where we are planted with naturally arising kindness, compassion, freedom and the grace of a dancer who’s attuned to the rhythms of life.

Goody-Goody!

Last week we talked about the value of doing self-exploration and inquiry when we find ourselves in a state of feeling threatened. Fear and contraction are the experiences through which the compressed hard rock of our false identity was formed. Practicing being in the present moment, which is what meditation is, develops the ability to begin to see this process of false identity creation in action, as if we have slowed down a video of complex activity and can actually see a step by step demonstration.

If we take the time to inquire within, to be patient with the process, and to release our vested interest in the outcome, then we will be able to release our tight hold on this lie we believe ourselves to be.

We live in a culture that discourages being present with what is actually arising in our experience in the moment. Instead we are encouraged to plaster over anything unpleasant with a veneer more suitable, more comfortable for everyone.

In some ways it’s better than it used to be. I’ll never forget my mother’s response when I would tell her how I felt. She would simply tell me I shouldn’t feel that way. This was not a stance unique to her and I don’t blame her for it, though it was frustrating for me. It was the way she had been raised. It was the way most everyone she knew felt one should deal with emotions. But it wasn’t the response I needed, and it was a real conversation stopper, leaving me feeling stuck with the added feeling of being judged for how I felt.

Since then there has been a collective growing awareness that emotions matter, that feelings matter, and even though we may feel we are being overloaded with too much information from other people’s stories, how much better it is for us to see that we all suffer from the same emotional states rather than to think that we are freaks of nature who suffer alone.

But there is still within us this desire to name our experience ‘a problem’ and then rush to come up with a quick fix. Society tells us, ‘Yes, meditate, do what you need to do, but come out of it upbeat and cheerful please!’ We get caught up in spiritual striving. We struggle for release from what torments us. And as long as we are running, searching and seeking solutions to the problem of us in this state then we are doomed to keep chasing our tails. Our inability to come up with a solution causes more feelings of unworthiness and failure.

We are often told to focus instead on the good bits within our identity, to see how really nice and generous and loving we are. In fact, all the positive things we have been told about ourselves can be just as problematic as the negative, especially since we are likely to cling to them all the more tightly!

This false identity may seem less like a hard rock and more like a golden nugget of goodness that will sustain us, but our relationship to it is exactly the same as to any negative view we may have of ourselves. We are naming and claiming something we perceive to be solid about ourselves, creating something we must in turn defend.

For most of us we recognize that we feel we do have something to defend and at the same time we may bristle at being told we are defensive.

As self-explorers we find ourselves often more reluctant to venture into the areas where we feel good about ourselves. If we feel good about ourselves then we figure that part is resolved, right? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! But we are not on a fix-it mission. We are on an awareness and loving-kindness mission, shedding both light and compassion wherever we go in order to loosen the tightness we hold in our bodies and in our minds. We can notice how our believing ourselves to be nice or smart or good also causes a tightening of our grasp on our perceived identity.

We do ourselves such a disservice when we embrace these labels for ourselves. Positive or negative, they are all limiting. We find we are packaging ourselves like a product instead of allowing ourselves to be the rich and wondrous process that we are, intricately woven in the infinite web of life.

As meditators we run the risk of contracting around a new identity of being wise, calm, present and compassionate. It’s very easy to simply add developing skills to the list of accomplishments that make up our sense of who we are.

Often non-meditators who know that the practice might have value for them but who can’t bring themselves to do it may be inhibited because they have met meditators who seem to be caught up in this false sense of identity. Whether it is the meditator who has fallen a little in love with this idea of themselves or the non-meditator who is projecting this on them, the effect on the non-meditator is the same. They believe that to be a meditator is to be holier than thou, full of oneself and a goodie-goodie – not someone they want to invite to their next party!

Beginning meditators may expect more advanced meditators and certainly someone who teaches meditation to be the perfection of all positive qualities, and so are aghast when it is revealed they are human and flawed. They may take on the practice and the study of Buddhism as a way to be good: A good Buddhist, a good person. If I’m on the Eightfold Path then I am good, end of story. But this approach to meditation leaves us high and dry, only noticing what we want to see, not acknowledging all of what is occurring in any moment.

So creating a gold plated rock of false identity is just as self-destructive as a negative one. Perhaps the person with the positive self-view can accomplish more in life, take more risks, look on the bright side, make lemonade out of lemons – all of the things that we praise in our culture, BUT there’s a high price on the upkeep of a gold-plated or diamond -encrusted rock. The security costs are immense and the isolation can be painful. If we must always be this paragon of perfection, we are cut off from acknowledging much of our human experience.

While virtue is its own reward, being a paragon of virtue, a poster child for virtue, which is what we become when we contract around that false identity, is hazardous. The culture we live in holds these paragons up as if they were gods, has a feeding frenzy of delight when they act out the suppressed shadow side created by that solid rock of virtue. It seems every other week the news is so full of the fall of these paragons that anything that might be of value to know is side-lined, in order to ‘give the people what they want’ and fuel the feeding frenzy.

Why do people love to see paragons of virtue fall off their pedestals? So much of it has to do with this hard rock of false identity that we protect and nurture within ourselves and project onto the people we see in the news. Something inside us yearns for balance. We feel a little righteous come-uppance for those who hold themselves too high and conversely we feel warmed by rags-to-riches stories. High brought low, low bought high.

Through awareness practice we begin to see that two extremes do not create balance, as we explored when we studied the Buddha’s Middle Way. We learn to develop a sense of connection, compassion and spaciousness that makes rooms for all beings and all the emotions we experience, even the uncomfortable ones brought up by the news we hear. We are human with human thoughts and emotions. Our ability to accept that fact gives us the opportunity to see more clearly how our emotions affect us. If we pretend to be devoid of anything negative, we are disempowered because only when we are fully present with all of what arises in our experience are we able to see connections, causes and conditions, and make wise decisions. Being present with all of it is the way to keep it in the light so we can see more clearly. We are not donning an outfit called ‘meditator’ that makes us wise and honorable. No one, not even ourselves, will benefit by it.

We can be virtuous without having to cling to a prefabricated identity. We can be smart, strong or independent without having to label ourselves or let others label us. Releasing our attachment to a particular identity allows us to fully inhabit this rich gift of life. Why limit ourselves to pre-packaged frozen dinner identities when we can live a farmers’ market life, discovering new things about ourselves and life in every season, and we can create a fresh meal, a fresh life experience in every moment? Then whatever we make of our lives will be truly nourishing.

The Buddha’s Second Noble Truth says that it is our grasping and clinging that causes our suffering. Our grasping and clinging has created that hard rock of negative and positive beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. But through the practice we begin to notice that the rock we have compressed through our grasping and clinging is only a small part of our experience. We can notice the rich soil of life that is there to support us.

Think of the earth. Think how receptive it is. We can feel whatever arises, we can be present with every experience, and the supportive earth will receive it all without judgment like rain water. We think there are parts of who we are that would poison the earth, but these toxic emotions are only poisonous when compressed and turned on ourselves and others. Of themselves, they are simply human emotion and can be noticed, questioned and released in a natural way, and the earth will receive them like rain water.

All of life – the earth, the sun, the rain – nourishes our well being and speaks to our deep interconnection. We can rest in the infinite web of life into which we are intrinsically woven. We can celebrate the sweetness of being alive with all its joys and sorrows, and savor every moment of this amazing gift in all its variety.