Category Archives: wise inner voice

Meditation: Chore or Pleasure?

sweeping.jpgDeveloping a meditation practice may feel like another chore to do, like taking out the garbage or cleaning the kitchen. Both require wise intention and skillful effort to do, and afterward there’s a noticeable positive difference in our lives.

But they are also very different, probably in many ways, but here’s at least one: Chores are things that someone else could do for us if we didn’t want to do them and money was no object. But no one can meditate for us. Just as no one can attend a concert for us or eat a meal for us. No one can enjoy a good book for us or go on a life-transforming trip for us. These kinds of things no one could do for us because they are not chores, but experiences that directly provide us with pleasure, nourishment, insight and edification.

Meditation is a pleasure! This might not be immediately apparent because like many pleasures, we develop our deep appreciation of it through practice and exposure. Though some people find meditating easy from the start, for most it is an acquired delight.

It is similar to acquiring a taste for walking in the woods if we’ve never done it and have only watched scary movies and the woods is where the bodies get buried. We may be afraid of what’s behind a tree or around the next curve on the trail. Just so, someone who has never meditated may fear what might be lurking within their minds. But, as with the new hiker in the woods, practice grows awareness and understanding. The new meditator discovers that simply being present with the senses in silence is a safe place to be. They increasingly find comfort in their growing ability to stay present with all the physical sensations, emotions and thoughts that naturally arise in their field of awareness. They develop the skills to greet all that arises with friendliness, to trust their own inner wisdom to help them see more clearly and experience more expansively being fully alive in each moment.

When it comes to chores, a regular meditation practice helps us to discover that even these tasks can be pleasurable. The pleasure isn’t just the satisfaction of a job well done, but in the doing itself, living life just as it is in this moment with appreciation.

In class, students shared some of their experiences with last week’s exercise working with the question: What are your inherent gifts, interests and skills? It made for an interesting discussion. If you did the exercise, what came up for you? Looking over your list, is there anything you noticed during the week? Did any moments from the past jump out as reminders of something that you could add to that list? Did any of the things you wrote down surprise you? Do any two or more of the skills or interest potentially combine in a satisfying way?

These are ongoing questions. If you didn’t do the exercise, you might want to go back to the previous post and give it a try. If you did it but it feels a little scary or troubling, then go back to the first few questions in this series and work with them around what comes up: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and whatever answers come up, look at them with fresh eyes and ask Is this true?

You might notice a harsh inner voice that devalues the gifts you name. There are often more than just one of these expressions of our fears, whose intentions are to keep us ‘safe’. They can be thanked for their intentions, treated with respect and kindness, but not given the run of the place, because operating from fear is unskillful and potentially dangerous.

In meditation we are tuning in to the still quiet voice of infinite loving kindness and wisdom. It has no sense of urgency. It never dictates. It simply offers guidance in the form of options. When a harried inner voice is sending us with a sense of urgency to the refrigerator for a treat, the wise inner voice might be quietly saying ‘Or, you could notice that you’re not hungry but bored and head out to the garden instead.’  But it takes practice to hear that quiet wisdom speaking amidst the cacophony of all those fear-based thought patterns going on in our brain. The more we listen, the more we recognize that wisdom, the more we operate from it, and though the other voices are present, we don’t feel compelled to act on what they say. (Or at least not all the time!) As we anchor into awareness and compassion, we can even ‘interview’ them, discover their needs, and wisely negotiate some skillful solution that would satisfy them without sabotaging our well being.

I remember my discovery of that wise inner voice in my meditation. It felt like dancing on the head of a pin. I fell off so many times, and the moments when I was there were so fleeting. But over time, with consistent practice, that pinhead grew larger and larger until I was able to be there most of the time, and I was very aware if I was no longer there, and knew how to get back in balance.

It may seem impossible at first. All those inner voices screaming and carrying on and laughing their heads off at the very idea that you could find wisdom within yourself. But the Buddha said ‘Be a lamp unto yourself’. He knew that each of us has the capacity to deepen in our experience, to cultivate presence, and to find that core of wisdom within. One of my students shared an insight she had, but she called it a ‘Stephanie moment’. I called her on that. It was not my moment, it was her moment. Her attendance in class has helped her find her own inner wisdom, but it is absolutely hers. She is learning how to be a lamp unto herself.

But it is challenging! It reminds me a bit of my aunt’s experience with macular degeneration. She had adapted to seeing through just one eye, but suddenly that eye also went blind. She freaked out. But she attended a class, and she was encouraged to really look and to notice that there was a pinprick-size window of sight in the lower right side of her vision. She was trained to see through that tiny window. Over time it felt to her as if the tiny window must have grown larger, but it was her capacity to focus there that had strengthened. That’s the same with the practice of meditation: We grow in our capacity to pay attention, to be aware and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. And to recognize the access to infinite wisdom we each have within us.

In the next post we will look at the final question in this series, and I am very excited about sharing it. Stay tuned!

Resolve

 

resolveResolve. I like that word. The wordsmith in me likes the sound of it better than ‘intention’ where the ‘tin’ rings a little hollow at times. ‘Resolve’ sounds deeper. It resounds in the body. It feels like a powerful river carving stone. Resolve.

If resolve feels more powerful for you than intention, practice using it when you set a course and see if it empowers you to follow it. If you prefer intention, stick with that. We all find what works best for our own practice. But for now, I will use ‘Resolve’ and we’ll see where it takes us.

Resolve is affiliated with the word ‘resolution’. Is that a powerful word? Or is it one we don’t take that seriously after so many failed New Year’s resolutions? One student in class said she thought of resolution as a problem that has been resolved, another way to use the word. That way of using it helps us to understand a key point about Resolve: Until all our inner voices come to some kind of resolution — have negotiated a sustainable agreement — we can’t effectively move forward on our course. Instead we get stuck in a quagmire of conflicting thoughts.

Sound familiar? We all have a bit of an internal cacophony. It’s not multiple personalities; just a lot of unexamined thought patterns that hold competing and conflicting opinions. Until we become fully aware of them, they hold the invisible reins to our behaviors, often sabotaging our best intentions without us knowing why. We end up frustrated that we don’t seem to get anywhere and feel so ‘weak-willed’. But will is not the problem. Our not taking the time to investigate who’s in charge here is the real challenge we all face.

One way to ‘out’ these conflicting rein-holders is to purposely set the trap of a little resolution or intention: something simple but for some reason difficult to carry out, like ‘clean out the closet’. Then wholeheartedly endeavor to do it. Maybe the closet gets cleaned out. (Yay! Now choose another more challenging resolution.) Or maybe the closet is still full of stuff that falls on you when you open the door. Or you got started but got tired or distracted and all the stuff just ends up in a pile elsewhere. Maybe half the closet gets done. Maybe you never get to the closet because life gets in the way. But during the process of having set this resolution, you come to the real purpose of this exercise: To activate and pay attention to the conflicting thoughts and emotions you have about whatever intention you have set.

Once you notice a thought that conflicts with your intention, this is an opportunity to have a dialog. I suggest journaling or maybe even recording the dialog. Most important in this process is to keep the dialog friendly, curious, respectful and compassionate. It needs to be a dialog between the sabotaging aspect of self and your deepest wisdom. If it’s a dialog between two aspects of self, it will escalate into a shooting match, a tantrum or a shut down. If your deepest wisdom interviews the aspect that’s being troublesome, the exchange will be valuable and potentially transformative. Inner wisdom is not trying to destroy or get rid of any part of ourselves or our experience. Nor is it trying to protect, defend, justify or coddle that aspect. It simply wants to investigate in a loving way what that aspects deepest fear is, what motivates it to sabotage us, and what could make it feel better without sabotaging well being.

Some skillful negotiation can be useful here. I once got my inner aspect I’d nicknamed Slug to go to a yoga class because I found a teacher who during the last period of savasana pose came around to each student and covered her with a blanket and tucked her in. In my interview with Slug I had discovered that he loved to hang out in bed because it reminded him of a big mommy hug and he missed his mommy. My mother had died the year before. So I found a motherly woman who made yoga possible for Slug. And it worked. After a while Slug no longer needed to be tucked in and I joined an aerobic exercise class as well.

So it really does work! But we need to identify the aspect, give it an affectionate but identifiable nickname, and find out what it’s afraid of, what it thinks it’s protecting us from, what it wants and how we could perhaps make use of its energy rather than be ruled by it.

In attempting to live up to a resolution, we may expose the mixed messages we are getting from our inner aspects. I found one the other day. I noticed that I give myself a hard time if I spend money (‘OMG, this month’s credit card bill is huge!’) and I give myself a hard time if I don’t! (‘Why didn’t I give more to that charity?’ ‘Why didn’t I splurge more on my child, grandchild or friend?’) I can’t seem to win in regard to money. So what is the answer for me? Perhaps I could spend more time exploring the First Paramita of ‘Generosity’. And part of that exploration could be an investigation of these two warring factions within me. Hmm, what shall I name them? Stingy and Benny (for beneficent)? After a meditation session, I’ll interview them and see how it goes. That’s my current challenge. Pause for a moment to see if you can notice yours.

Resolve is cultivated through our meditation practice. It arises out of our deepening understanding of the nature of things. As we begin to see more clearly, we can resolve to, for example, practice meditation every day, in a way that acknowledges its true value in our lives and in the way we interact with the world.

JUST TWO INTENTIONS

For the past five years or so I have been conducting an experiment by setting just two intentions: To be present and to be compassionate with myself and others. I wanted to see how just those two might work out. I’ve found that they do seem to be sufficient. If I find myself in a muddle, I reset the intention to be present, which creates inner spaciousness, calm and clarity. If things don’t clear up, then some compassion helps to remind me to take some needed rest.

If I find myself judging either myself or someone else, my intention of compassion softens the harsh edges and reminds me how we are all in this together, how each of us, including myself is doing the best we can. Compassion also helps me to maintain my health. ‘As a kindness to my heart’ a cardiologist once told me I could lose some weight. That spoke to me in a way none of my inner dictates and rude name-calling had done, because it was attune to my intention to be compassionate. And my intention to be present helps me to really taste what I am eating and enjoy it rather than wolf it down, and to notice when I am satisfied and when I am just eating mindlessly. This has always been a challenging area for me, but I am more present more of the time.

You might try using those two intentions yourself. Resolve to be present. Resolve to be compassionate with yourself and others, especially when you realize you haven’t been present at all, or you see that the other person is just not present but lost in their thoughts. See how setting these two intentions affects your daily life. I would love to hear about your experience.

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.

The Art of Inner Conversation

Over the past weeks we have been exploring the characteristics of the inner aspects or sub-personalities that we have for so long mistaken for who we are. We have looked at how they are based in fear so that their intentions to protect us are tight, finite, constrained, skewed and distorted. We have looked at the greed, aversion and delusion – the three poisons defined by the Buddha as the cause of suffering – and how these aspects of self are expressions of them. And last week we looked at how they combine fear with our natural power and turn it into something toxic and potentially dangerous.

I have mentioned before the energetic quality of these aspects. Their voices have urgency, a caffeinated hyper-drive that is insistent, using the words ‘should,’ ‘must’ and ‘have to’ instead of acknowledging that we have infinite choices and free will in every moment. These voices are very much time-based, thus the urgency, and goal-oriented, wearing blinders to anything but what they fear will or won’t happen.

Meditation gives us the quiet spaciousness and clarity to notice these aspects and to distinguish them from the voice of our inner wisdom with its vaster view of the infinite nature of being. Listening to this voice gives us wiser options, but always as options. It brings our attention to the habituated pattern nature of our behavior and lets us see the beauty and bounty of each moment.

When I first encountered this inner wisdom in my adult life, I was a little concerned with this seemingly ‘don’t worry, be happy’ lackadaisical view. It activated fear-based aspects that were terrified that this vaster view wasn’t looking out for my survival. After all, from the infinite view, I am simply energy transformed into matter in a state of impermanence. What does it matter what happens to me? And that’s absolutely true in the grand scheme of things. Yikes!

Yet I have learned that when I am really listening to inner wisdom, it is looking out for me. Just as it encourages the plant to grow to be its fullest expression, it wants me to be the fullest most natural and joyful expression of life. So if I am about to step off the curb into traffic, it wouldn’t say ‘Oh well, easy come easy go.’ It would say, ‘Pay attention, be here now.’ Being present in this moment is my greatest chance for survival in all situations. The fear-based aspects might scream at me to act quickly in a situation, but I may be so distracted by their yammering that I might do the very thing they are trying to warn me against. Think about a time when you’ve had an accident of some kind. Would being fully present have made a difference? When I tripped and fell last summer on a hike in the mountains, it happened right when I stopped being present, when I switched from focusing on where my foot was placing itself to looking forward to resting and having lunch. And down I went, face to face with hard granite. That’s a hard way to learn a lesson to be present! How many hard lessons do we need before we pay attention to our inner wisdom instead of the urgent voices that take us out of this moment with their greed, aversion and delusion?

Last week we talked about power: How these fear-based aspects can subvert, compress and misuse it, resulting in harmful actions, and how when acknowledged as an expression of our true nature, our Buddha nature, arising from the loving-kindness and compassionate nature of being, our power is a force of creativity, joy, clarity, honesty, and equality.

Since all the students in my class currently happen to be women brought up in a time when power was not something a woman was encouraged to express, to say the least, I feel it is important to bring up the discomfort that was felt in the room when I began to talk about power. The blog version is much shorter, so if you only read that, you probably didn’t feel it the same. That discomfort as I talked was a clue to how much in the shadow power lives in most of our lives. The discomfort was further illuminated in discussion, when one of the sangha members said that she had just been on a kindness retreat and had felt a surge of power within her, something that felt quite counter to what she thought she was there to experience, so she appreciated the timeliness of our talk.

Later in the week I was visiting with a friend, part of the Open Embrace Meditation blog-reading sangha. She had a challenge that called for her to use her innate creative power, but she was locked in an inner battle with the voice that said that to make her needs known would be selfish and that kindness is inherently passive. She said she thought the Buddha taught to always put everyone else’s needs before our own. This is such a deeply entrenched belief that she held it even though she has read and listened to all kinds of wisdom teachings telling her to ‘give from the overflow not from the well.’ How often we carry two conflicting beliefs at the same time. How do we do this? Well, if we can recognize that we have a number of inner aspects operating on different wave lengths with different fear-based concerns, it’s easier to understand how we can hold conflicting beliefs. The aspect that is most fearful and most urgent will dominate and win the arguments, and that’s what was happening in her case.

The Buddha spoke extensively of kindness and generosity. Those of us who were brought up to be not just courteous and considerate but subservient to men and devoted to meeting the needs of parents, children, friends and neighbors, have to be very careful how we hear this kindness teaching. Listen carefully! Hear deeply! The Buddha wasn’t suggesting we be doormats! If the Buddha didn’t talk that much about power, it’s because most of his students had no problem being forthright when it came to asking for what they wanted. While his students were not exclusively male, they were certainly predominantly male, and any teacher creates curriculum appropriate for their students’ needs. This is not to say that men are inherently unkind and self-serving! But culturally men are encouraged to use their power, while women historically have been discouraged from open displays of power. Younger women have a hard time believing the things we of earlier generations were taught in order to subvert our own natural power in order to make men feel strong, smart and powerful. Our mothers didn’t necessarily teach us we were powerless. They just told us our power had to be suppressed for the greater good. We were taught to be ‘the woman behind the man.’ It is much easier to see in retrospect how this was dishonest and disrespectful to both men and women.

Inspired by how the Buddha spoke to the specific needs of his students, I am addressing what I see as the needs expressed by my students and readers. Kindness is not passive! It is active and empowering! And when we have a voice telling us to put up with something that is unacceptable, that is harming us in some way, then it is not a kindness to ourselves to tolerate it. Remember that in all our kindness practice, the Buddha taught to send metta first to ourselves so that we can attune to that powerful force of love that is our Buddha nature. In this way we are giving infinite deeply-rooted kindness, not a finite grumpy fear-based so-you-like-me knock-off brand of kindness.

Being kind to ourselves first – true kindness and compassion, not shallow fear-based giving our greedy aspects everything they desire – is not selfish but wise. How can we serve the world if we are operating on empty? What are we really offering if we are coming from the finite fearful place that says we ‘should’ be kind? When we hear an inner aspect speaking, we need to notice it, get into dialog with it, understand its fears and work with its needs. But we don’t for a moment need to believe it to be right. It is shallow-rooted, tensed, clinging to its fear-based perceptions of the world. It doesn’t serve us, though it thinks it does. Because it is trying so hard to serve what it sees as our needs, we can find a way to be compassionate to these aspects without indulging them.

With this insight into the nature of these inner fear-based aspects and how their voices differ from that of our wise deeply-connected nature, we have many clues to begin to recognize when we are acting from our true nature and when we are following the ill-informed fear-based advice of inner voices that we may have always believed to be who we are.

I hope each of you will take the time, especially after your daily meditation practice when the energy is quieter and more spacious, to really listen in. I hope you will use these clues to notice the difference between your access to inner wisdom and your cast of fear-based characters. These habituated patterns of thought and emotion need noticing. They need harnessing. They need respect and appreciation for their intention, but they need to be herded by a wise shepherd, and that is you when you align with your true loving nature.

As an exercise in noticing, take a few minutes now to sit with your thoughts and emotions. When you find a thought that grabs your attention, write it down. Then look at it and see if your can tell where it is coming from. Is it fear-based? Is it speaking from greed, aversion or delusion? Is it time-based, expressing a sense of urgency? Is there an emotion it is displaying? Does it contain a threat of some kind? Is it full of judgment? Is there a tensing up in the body that you notice happening when it speaks? Breathing into the area in the body that tenses up can make this voice more approachable, calming its fears.

Or perhaps this thought grabbed your attention because it has a very different quality, and you can take this time to listen to that small still voice within, now that the other voices are still or at least less activated.

Perhaps you’ll notice both arising. Write them both down. Perhaps your inner wisdom says something, but then an inner aspect speaks up to slap it down. Your inner wisdom is not threatened by the fear-based heckling. Instead, it’s an opportunity for exploration.

In class the students said they were comfortable with simply sharing what fear-based voice they heard during our few minutes of quiet. They were given the opportunity to share the dialog they had with it, or to have me play the role of their wise inner voice in response to their sharing of what rude thing an inner aspect said to them. It was a very rich sharing.

It’s important to remember that our inner cast of characters may come and go but they are always available for cameos! It is just another fear-based aspect that believes that somehow awakening to being present will wipe the slate clean of all the habituated patterns of a life time. A powerful awakening will do that for a time, but even the Buddha had his cast of characters, his ongoing dealings with Maya, the tempter, in all its form.

But with the practice of awareness we are better able to see these aspects and recognize their true nature, just as the Buddha said, “Ah, Maya, I know you,” we say, “Ah, fearful aspect, I know you.” I have mentioned before that it is useful to give pet names to each aspect that we get to know. This is not to make them more real but to make them more easily recognizable when they crop up again so we don’t have to go through such a lengthy process each time. See an example of an inner dialog.

When we see and acknowledge them, imagine how wondrous it is for a frightened inner aspect to be known, to be acknowledged. Our inner aspects crave for us to awaken and take charge! They are like small children running amok because the babysitter wandered off with her boyfriend and the parents haven’t come home. You can feel their sense of thrill and terror. So we attune ourselves to the deep-rooted loving wisdom that is our true nature, and we come home to mind these inner aspects, to discover their concerns and to respectfully and responsibly negotiate solutions that have integrity.

Moderation is often the result of these inner dialogs. Needs get met but in a sustainable way. The Buddha talked so much about The Middle Way that finds a path between the extremes of austerity and over-indulgence. Finding of the Middle Way is an ongoing inner negotiation between the deeply rooted wise inner voice and the shallow rooted fear-based aspects. This is addressed in any discussion of Wise Effort. The fear-based inner aspect is trying so hard to do the right thing that it comes out all wrong. Why? Because it’s not about goals or how difficult it is or how much we sweat! It’s about sinking in to access the universal wisdom, and that’s a result of being here, now and relaxed, which requires intention but not tension. All the fear-based aspects are tense!! Uptight!! Freaked-out!! Attuned with inner wisdom we feel a compassionate affection for these voices, but we no longer let them lead us.

So, OUT OF KINDNESS, we lead our lives from that deep alignment, that sense of balance, empowerment, aliveness and joy.

Asking in = Wising Up, How to Discover our Buddha Nature

Last week we talked about difficult emotions and how we often suppress them, turning ourselves into jailers. I read my article Emotions as Honored Guests that gives us a way to cope with uncomfortable emotions, reminding us that we are in charge but we need to be good hosts.

The key to all of this is noticing. That’s the basis of insight meditation, this learning to become aware of our emotions, as well as the nature of our thoughts and of our physical sensations.

A strong emotion is rich with clues that we don’t want to waste. Experiencing a strong emotion, we are encouraged to pause and take a meditative moment to notice all that is going on. For example: Where in our body do we feel that strong emotion? What associative images or memories come to mind? We can look to see what triggered the strong emotion. Perhaps it was an odor, sight or sound that on its own seems neutral, but fueled by our associative memory, becomes powerful and disturbing. This is not a time to turn away and tell ourselves ‘Don’t be silly!’ or any other dismissive phrase.

As I suggested in the article, and as the poet Rumi suggested so long ago, we can be the welcoming host of any emotion that arrives at our door. But our main goal is to find out what the emotion has to tell us. So we are kind, caring and compassionate but we are also inquisitive.

The other day here at our house we had a visit from a Sherpa mountain guide! And I’ll tell you, we were welcoming but also intensely curious about Pasan, his life in Nepal, why he came here and how he’s finding it, etc. What an exciting surprise to have a visitor from a whole other world come in the form of a plumber! As we talked we were following the other plumber who was training Pasan on his new job and educating us about how to flush our tankless water heater. We didn’t expect such a memorable experience from a plumbing appointment, just as we don’t expect anything of real value to come from a run-in with a strong emotion. We think of it as one of life’s things to be gotten through.

Now usually I don’t ask personal questions of people who come to our house as part of their jobs, but Pasan offered up the first information, giving us the clue that he was quite willing to talk. That’s true with our strong emotions as well. In fact they are ‘talking’ already. But we need to listen, and to then ask questions that give us answers we can use. But many times the emotion stirs up other emotions of embarrassment or shame that try to shut that emotion up before it has a chance to tell us anything of value.

So how do you have a fruitful conversation with a strong emotion? The most important thing is to speak from your wisest inner self, your Buddha nature, and not from some other needy, demanding aspect that is perfectly happy to get into a shouting match, judging and condemning.

That’s why inquiry is best done after meditation to assure that we have given ourselves a chance to find that calm, loving voice within. Now if this sends you into a panic because you feel you haven’t found that voice, then let’s explore how to discern that wise inner voice from the rest of our cast of inner characters.

Our wise inner voice has certain distinctive qualities that you can notice if you are really paying attention. First, it is patient. It never makes demands, never uses the words ‘should’ or ‘must.’ It comes from a sense of timelessness, so there is no urgency. Its ease is somewhat disarming, putting all those things we thought were so important into perspective. It is the voice of life itself, aware of its intrinsic connection to all that is. From this vantage point we relax because we are aware we are life, not separate from it. There is nothing we could do or say that would expel us from the is-ness of being. But there is plenty we can do that can make us unaware of our connection, and through that lack of awareness we can do things that are incredibly unskillful, causing pain to ourselves, to those we come in contact with, and the earth itself.

But this wise inner voice, this Buddha nature, has no agenda except to remind us of our connection. So if we ask it, ‘What do you want me to know?’ it will first and foremost say, “I love you, I have always loved you, I will always love you.” Well, that’s a lot to know! Suddenly we don’t feel so needy. How much of what we fear and what we try to accomplish is in response to a feeling of being unloved and unlovable? How often are we simply trying to prove that we are deserving of a love that it turns out is already ours, without our having to do a thing?

Does this mean the wise inner voice is saying “Don’t bother!” about everything we are doing in our lives? Not necessarily. It depends on our intention. If we are trying to gain love and respect, then yes, don’t bother. If we are tapping into our innate capacity to love life in all its myriad expressions, then our inner wisdom heartily concurs.

Another question that is useful to ask is, ‘Why do I feel this way? Why do I feel so tense? Why do I feel threatened? Why do I feel so bad about myself?’ These kinds of questions may bring answers from fear-based aspects, but with patience and careful listening, we will also hear that quiet still voice within answering our question either in words or images. Once in my 20’s I asked a ‘why’ question about an area of my life that felt especially dysfunctional, just out of despair, not knowing anything about this wise inner voice and not about to have a conversation with God as we hadn’t been on speaking terms in quite a while. And although no words arose, within the next few minutes as I sat there three powerful image memories rose up, and I sat and waited until I understood what those combined three memories were telling me. And they gave me a powerful answer to my question that I had assumed was unanswerable. The answer that came up changed my life and empowered me in a way that I could never have imagined. That was my first experience with understanding the power we have to inquire within and receive transformative answers.

This inner wisdom, this Buddha Nature, is not an aspect of us, the way all the other voices that create our thoughts and emotions are. We could instead think of ourselves as an aspect of it, as the temporal earthly life-experiencing sensors of this infinite wise loving energy. This is such a wonderful way to think of our interaction with life. Feeling this to be our role in life, we can easily access ‘Beginner’s Mind.’ Every sensation, every experience whether we judge it good or bad is still in this sense a gift of earthly life. When we come from that sense of wonder, that sense of oneness and connection, we are truly expressions of life loving itself. Whatever we do for each other from that place will be truly generous and kind.

If you have never noticed this inner wisdom, you might find inquiry to be your gateway as I did. You can also simply practice relaxing and being present, anchoring into all the senses that give us the opportunity to experience this gift of life.

Sometimes we only listen to wisdom that comes from outside ourselves because we don’t trust anything that comes from within. We may have very low self-esteem, and/or we may have been taught that to think that the answers come from within is turning ourselves into a god; that God is to be honored and set apart from our lowly selves and this mundane life. (Of course, if God created us doesn’t that make us and all of life sacred? Isn’t the profanity the unwillingness to recognize the sacredness of all God’s creation, even the tight and twisted terrified places that most need awareness of God’s infinite love? When we see ourselves as connected to God, as expressions of God, we are seeing God in all that is, not setting ourselves above. The personification of God as something apart from ourselves is a so pervasive that I have long since given up using the term, even though as you see, I can easily describe my understanding of God. I am not at odds with God. God and I are good. And Buddhist meditation and concepts are not at odds with God either. Believers from all faiths find that meditation and the study of Buddhist concepts enhance their understanding of their religion and deepens their faith.)

But whether we call this inner wisdom God or we call it the infinite energy of life loving itself, our resistance to trusting it comes from thinking that we could be the source of true wisdom. We still separate ourselves out, we still see ourselves as this amalgam of these whiny voices, our thoughts and emotions. But even if we hold that to be who we are, we can still access this inner wisdom. This inner access is like a well, but the well is not the source if the water, is it? The well is an access point to the water that travels under the ground. Through meditation and self-exploration we are bringing our attention to the existence of this well, this inner access to universal wisdom. Eventually we may see that the well is also a part of the infinite beingness of life, not separate, neither less nor more sacred.

When we deny the existence of inner access to wisdom, we are more receptive to it when offered up through outer sources: counselors, teachers, leaders, books, movies, magazines. So notice when something you see, hear or read resonates with its authenticity, clarity, compassion and feeling of calm. That’s your inner wisdom saying ‘Yes!’

If when you are watching or reading something, it’s activating the emotional inner aspects that are saying things like, “Yeah! The bastard deserved it!” or some such emotionally charged response, then by your viewing and reading habits you are giving your rowdier inner aspects confirmation that their world view is justified. The Buddha taught the importance of inclining the mind toward what is wholesome, so if you are activating anger, shame, revenge, etc. by your choice of entertainment, you are choosing to align with the rowdy aspects within, the ones that feed on fear and promote unskillful choices. But even in this setting, the wise inner voice is not the one that’s saying, “This is terrible! This is bad for me! I’ve got to get out of here!” That’s just another fear-based aspect.

When you sit quietly, listening in, noticing the various vociferous emotions spouting this thought and that, pay close attention to the quality of the voice. Is it urgent, demanding or caffeinated? Is it cynical, judgmental or hateful? Then it’s an aspect with a fear-based agenda that you will want to have a respectful inquiring conversation with. But if it is quiet, calm, loving, and offers love and when asked sincerely gives valuable guidance, without any sense of urgency, then you know that this is your deepest connected access. Whenever possible keep listening, keep asking in. You have found your teacher and your guiding light. Practice aligning with that wisdom, letting go of any sense of duality.

When you align with this inner wisdom you can then be the welcoming host to whatever guest emotion arrives at your door. Otherwise it is just a shouting match between two urgent aspects that both need to be heard and neither want to listen. Our inner wisdom is a great listener because it is the love of life itself.

So how does such a conversation with an inner aspect begin?
First we recognize an emotion that has come up. Naming it helps us to recognize it more quickly the next time it arises, and giving it a pet name not only locks it into our awareness but reminds us to be kind and respectful.

Once we have given it a name, we can greet this emotion as we would any guest who arrives at our door. Our emotions are so rarely acknowledged that this alone can meet needs.

What do we do next with any guest? We ask them to come in and sit down. This indicates that we want them to feel comfortable, and also that we have time for them. When it comes to a visiting emotion, our willingness to be present and to spend whatever amount of time is required needs to be clearly indicated. We physically sit down if we are not already seated. We turn off our cell phones and other distractions. We give this conversation whatever time is needed. This is another reason it is good to have these conversations following meditation where we have already set up a quiet zone for ourselves.

Then we can ask questions of our guest.
These questions need to be compassionate not accusatory. And the questions are better if they go deep to the achy source rather than encourage the emotion to get caught up in story. When I say story, I am talking about the experiential examples that such a voice will use to justify their existence. ‘I’m angry because she said this about that, or he did this and he’s evil, etc.’ This is all story and is just masking the core of this voice’s true concerns. Without being disrespectful, we can cut to the chase. Each time we are offered story, we can go deeper, we can take charge and the aspect will be grateful to surrender their suffering up.

‘What are you afraid of?’ is one of the most powerful questions we can ask. At the core of every negative emotion is fear. And the intention of every negative emotion is self-protection. We can see that their means of protecting us are unskillful and even unnecessary. Often they are trying to protect us from another part of ourselves that seems hell-bent on putting us in danger. For example we may have an aspect of self that seek external approval so doggedly that another aspect of self arises to undermine its efforts.

This has happened to me many times in my life, so I can see the pattern of it and when it arises I at some point recognize it and can go deeper into conversation. One of my patterns goes something like this: I am enjoying the process of some creative effort, then the aspect I’ve named Striver gets worried that I will be judged on the product of my creative effort, so that aspect takes charge to make sure that everything is perfect. Striver takes most of the fun out of the project and I begin to feel stressed. Even if there is no deadline for the project, Striver will create one. Then just when the product of Striver’s efforts is about to go out into the world, another aspect begins to make itself heard, one I’ve named Underminer. It too is terrified of public judgment, but it doesn’t trust perfection to be a solution, as it is judged just even more harshly than imperfection, so Underminer chooses instead to sabotage the whole enterprise. ‘A completed novel? Toss it in the drawer! Don’t put it out there in the world to be judged! Are you crazy?’

I don’t know why I was surprised recently to see that Striver and Underminer can still be activated if I’m not paying attention. In fact it was only upon rereading a section of my book Tapping the Wisdom Within in order to clarify the process of self-inquiry for this dharma talk that I came upon them and recognized how the past few weeks I have been increasingly stressed about producing an audio CD of my poems to have available at the poetry reading this Tuesday. Striver is frantically trying to produce perfection, when this is my first ever attempt to create a recording, and Underminer at the last minute jumped in and said, ‘Why bother? Just tell people you can’t do it.’

But my feelers have been tuned to tales of self-sabotage lately as it has come up in books and in conversations with family and friends. At every turn I get the message not to succumb to a life-long pattern of giving up at this critical stage, and also not to be so terrified that the product may not be perfect.

Also during this period I recognized how valuable an encouraging word from someone can be. I received several words of encouragement from friends and family that came at a moment where I was ready to abandon all hope that the project would get done. Those few words resonated with my own inner wisdom, ignored of late in the flurry of over-zealous activity, and also helped me get in touch with the negative aspects that were sabotaging me.

So since they are so present and available to hold up as examples of inner negative fear-based aspects, let’s use Striver and Underminer as the basis of our discussion. They are saying they are afraid of my being judged by others and found wanting. They have two different ways of dealing with that fear, both unskillful. So what do I do? I acknowledge their fear. I thank them for bringing that fear to my attention. I send metta to them and to myself. I rekindle my sense of connection with all that is. I remind myself that being human it is quite natural that these emotions will arise within me, that fear of disapproval is fear of separation, but that I can never truly be separate from the oneness of life. And in fact, awareness and acceptance of the existence of these emotions carves out more compassion within me for myself and for others, who also act out their fear of separation through unskillful means.

I also remind myself of that little note of insight I pinned on my bulletin board: I have nothing to prove, I have nothing to hide, I have nothing to fear, I have something to give. Certainly the CD of me reading my poetry is something I have to give, something that has been requested even. All the negative judgments about ‘Who am I to..’ do something are acknowledged but not fed. Instead I attune to my interconnection. Let me be a conduit for life loving itself, not a tight shut down place in the flow of energy.

If there is a way to meet the guest emotion’s needs without succumbing to their fears, then we do what we can. I have talked before about the deal I made with my inner aspect named Slug who doesn’t want to exercise but just wants to stay in bed because he misses his mommy and bed is a big mommy hug. I found a yoga teacher that tucks her students under blankets at the end of class for the final resting pose. Slug was in heaven and I was able to become more and more active.

When the inner conversation seems to be at an end, it’s important to remember to say thank you to the guest emotion, to make sure it knows that its concerns have been heard and will be incorporated into the greater awareness. It needs to know that we, the welcoming, patient and compassionate host, are in charge of our households and our lives, aligned with our Buddha nature, our access to universal inner wisdom.

One final caveat: In aligning with infinite inner wisdom, there will be a fear-based aspect that gets very attached to this idea of being wise and will cling to that image of self. This aspect can be more challenging to recognize than the rowdier ones, but it is just as destructive. What helps is to continually relax, stay anchored in the senses and send metta (loving kindness) even to this needy aspect that so longs for approval. When we find it, we may feel shame, sending it down to dungeon. But that’s not necessary. Simply recognizing its hunger for love and approval reminds us to be compassionate. Refining our ability to distinguish between the infinite wisdom that flows throughout all and the finite ‘see how wise I am?’ hungering for the respect of others, is just another part of the practice of inquiry and deepening awareness.