Tag Archives: insight meditation

Moment by moment

Papermill-creek-2

Papermill Creek II, watercolor by Will Noble

With the regular practice of meditation there is a subtle but profound shift of mind state into a spacious sense of infinite ease and compassionate awareness. Thoughts and emotions still arise, but we are better able to see them as objects of awareness passing through. When our attention wavers and the mind slips back to buying into thoughts and emotions as the whole of our experience, we become entangled for a period. But then, when we remember ‘Oh yeah, I’m meditating’, the practice allows us to come back to awareness without self-recrimination. We don’t make an enemy of anything. We are grounded in a growing ability to hold all life experience in an open embrace.

If you read my last post, you know that I credit my meditation practice for getting me through a very challenging time as a caregiver for my brother in his last days of life. Now in mourning, I continue my practice. I stay present with what arises in my experience and take care of myself. I haven’t rushed back into life’s demands, but allow myself extra time to simply sit, walk and be. My natural inclination is to indulge myself in treats I think I deserve because I’ve lost someone so precious to me. But no amount of ice cream will change my situation. So instead, to whatever degree I am able, I give myself moments to appreciate life. Just now a little songbird caught my attention and I gave myself over to his funny little hopping about on the deck outside my window. Although we didn’t plan for any summer vacation, not knowing what our schedule would be with the care of my brother, my husband Will and I now we find ourselves taking little day trips and walking with all our senses more alert, noticing and appreciating this gift of life. We trim our to do list down to a manageable size. We live as fully in the moment as we can.

Thanks to the practice of meditation, I am able to notice the new set of post-loss thoughts that are arising. Now that I am not as exhausted as I was, not as caught up in an emotional tsunami, I can see the nature of these new thoughts. Any of you who have lost a family member will most likely recognize some of these avenues of thought that tend to arise.

Self-Blame
What might I have done that would have made a difference? In this case, I had a few regrets, but none of my actions affected the final outcome, but it is not at all unusual to believe we could have saved our loved one. I am reminded of a conversation my parents had just a couple months before my mother died. They were talking about the death of my grandfather over forty years before. Dad said that it was because he didn’t give his father a ride home on a cold day when he dropped his car off to be serviced that he had the stroke that caused his death. My mother, married to this man for almost fifty years, could not believe what she was hearing. ‘That’s ridiculous! What a thing to think! You had absolutely nothing to do with it.’ And he seemed to accept with great relief her take on that part of their personal history. Had she not been there, he would have continued to believe that he killed his father.

Believing that at the time of his father’s death that he could have saved him gave Dad some sense of control over a difficult situation. That this ‘control’ was self-condemning may have felt easier to bear at the time than pure grief which demands a surrender to tears and a sense of helplessness that few men of his day felt comfortable with. He then went on to live his busy life without ever revisiting that assumption, and he was still holding that guilt. Fortunately, my mother was around to set him straight. But what if she hadn’t been? Had my father been a meditator, especially in the Insight Meditation tradition, he may have been able to do some skillful inquiry when that line of thinking arose in his awareness. We all have the opportunity to revisit erroneous assumptions as part of our post-meditation practice. Of any thought we can ask, ‘Is this true? How do I know this is true?’

Who am I without…
The kinds of thoughts that have been coming up for me are also ones that are helped by Buddhist exploration. For example, the quest for identity. Who am I without my brother? From a Buddhist standpoint, this quest is fruitless, based in the erroneous assumption that we are separate, isolated individuals whose identity needs to be shored up and put on display for others to admire or love. The people around us are like mirrors telling us who we are. What happens when yet one more mirror — in this case the final mirror for the earliest part of my life — is gone?

To be honest my brother wasn’t much use as a holder of memories of me as a child. I once asked him ‘What was I like as a little girl?’ and he told me ‘You were a very nice girl.’ Oh, brother!

This is just one small aspect of a greater loss, and seeing it clearly as a craving for identity has helped me to release that thread of thought. This is not making an enemy of the thought. The process is done with great compassion and respect. The forlorn little sister inside me gets heard, and at the same time she gets the parenting from my wiser self that she deserves. Nothing’s being whisked away or swept under the rug — at least as far as I can tell.

If only…
Even if my brother wasn’t the most useful mirror, he certainly was the holder of many shared memories. It seems after every loss, I wonder why I wasn’t asking more questions, why I wasn’t demanding more stories. He was five years older and could fill in some gaps in my own memory. But again, from a Buddhist point of view, getting lost in memory pulls us out of the present moment, the only moment that actually exists. All else is just a tangle of thoughts.

Looking for a label
I also notice a desire to name this experience of loss, to define myself by it. There are words for children who lose their parents and people who lose their spouses – orphan, widow, widower — but why is there no label for this I can attach to myself? Is a word useful? Or painful? A protective shell that would limit me even more than it would shield me? Yet I sense that desire there. By noticing it, I feel freed from its lure. Noticing, not judging, is key.

Now is the time to notice
All these thoughts are fresh. They haven’t laid down a solid track for my mind to follow in a habitual way, but are feelers exploring a new space. What an amazing opportunity I have here to observe and inquire, to hold these thoughts lightly as they sketch themselves in pencil in my mind rather than letting them become indelible tattoos upon my psyche.

No bad days
As the days and weeks pass, I notice that some moments are more challenging than others. I guess grief is like a river that way, with the rapids and the placid lulls. Some moments of grief just arise, seemingly out of nowhere, but others are the result of dealing with what follows a loved one’s death. Yesterday I received my brother’s ashes in the morning and spent several hours in the afternoon helping in the final edit of his memorial video that my other brother has beautifully put together. Noticing and making room for the pain, allowing it to be present, is important. But allowing the moments to pass without exaggerating them is also important. There is a tendency many of us have to label day, a week or even a year ‘bad’ (on January 3rd, no less!). Acknowledging our unhappiness in the moment is skillful. Throwing any larger time period away because of it is unskillful. So I haven’t had bad days, but there have certainly been some very challenging moments that seemed to go on forever. And some very wondrous ones as well. Life is like this.

Shock and awe
The loss of a family member in his seventies, while heartbreaking, is well within the range of statistically normal life experience. It doesn’t make it easy, but it is certainly not shocking. In our family, as in most extended families, there have been more challenging losses because they felt very out of order. A young person dies, for example. That sets up a whole different set of thought patterns. But once we have recovered from the shock itself, we still have this ability, thanks to our practice, to see those patterns, to hold them with compassion, to gently question our own assumptions. In this way we make it possible to be resilient in life. We are not immune to the pain, but we are not keeping the suffering going endlessly by creating ruts of painful thinking for our minds to get stuck in. And we can see how the pain itself carves a larger space in our hearts to hold even more love and a capacity to see beauty everywhere.

My own mortality
Because this death takes place in my own generation, it naturally brings up thoughts of my own mortality. Thanks to the practice over so many years of noting the nature of impermanence, this particular thought strain is not as charged for me as it might be. Or maybe I’m saving it up for later. Who knows? The ‘I don’t know’ mind continues to keep me feeling buoyed by the wondrous mystery that is life. Que sera, sera, sang Doris Day, and my mother, and now me. Whatever will be will be.

Joy there for the noticing
The future’s not ours to see, but we often have a rather dim view of it. Neuroscientist and author Rick Hanson, for whom I guest teach, points out how our brains have a negativity bias built in for our survival. We pay attention first to what threatens our existence, figuring there’s plenty of time to appreciate what’s pleasant. This strong bias can become like an overworked muscle, so that we may focus exclusively on all that is wrong in our lives and not even notice what is positive, uplifting and pleasant in this moment. This can make us pessimistic about the future as well. Since it ultimately ends in death, and likely includes issues of aging and illness, how optimistic can we be?

So it is challenging to be present with our own experience, to notice the wondrous, the sweet, the pleasant experiences — not pursuing them to solve anything but noticing them as they arise.

Whatever you are going through in your life right now, stay present with your experience, may you allow for the sweetness of life to express itself in all its variations, without making an enemy of other emotions. Even when you are being jostled in a crowd, instead of focusing on the noise, the irritation and the hassle, open to the wondrous aliveness of it all. What a precious fleeting gift is life!

The Faulty Filter of Fear

 

fear-final-500

As I was meditating the other morning, I noticed fear arising. This is not unusual. Fear appears in many guises — worry, planning, anxiety, hurt feelings, self-doubt, anger, etc. Fear is felt in the body as tension. Fear is a presence I usually recognize when it shows up, but this time I saw the fear in a very different way. That new way of seeing fear has helped me. Maybe it will help you, too.

An important part of our practice, especially when things aren’t going well, is to do a little self-inquiry. A key question we ask ourselves is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ I could see that I was relating to my experience with fear. But how am I in relationship with fear itself? In that moment I could see that the fear is not part of the fabric of my being, but is, instead, a lens or a filter through which I am looking at experience. The fear is not me, not even an aspect of me, though almost every aspect of who I perceive myself to be looks at the world through the distorting faulty filter of fear.

If fear is simply a filter or a lens, suddenly it is neutral and more manageable. It is neither friend nor foe. It is not the boss of me. I don’t have to go into battle with it. It is simply an increasingly transparent filter that when in place distorts my view of things. Just noticing this gives me tremendous power! Whenever I become aware of fear arising, I can recognize it as the filter it is, and I have options: I can continue in my habituated way to look through the filter, or I can open my senses in this moment to see a world teeming with beauty and life ever unfolding in cycles of energy and matter. I can feel how this body, this transient gift, is intrinsically interconnected to all beings. And in that moment, that filter of fear reveals itself to be myopic and unreliable.

‘Now wait a minute’, you may be thinking, ‘fear is important and useful. Where would we be without fear? Would we have even survived as a species?’

These are interesting questions. So let’s look at fear more closely.

Let’s look at a situation where some innate sense in our body perceives a danger. Perhaps hair stands up on the back of the neck, or some other physical sensation that lets us know we might want to steer clear. Not walking into a situation that might put us at risk is a biological imperative. It’s instinctive. Point taken.

But I wonder when we live so steeped in fear all the time, if we really pick up on the instinctive cues. Fortunately I have not had the opportunity to see for myself. But I do follow my neighborhood online community and there was an interesting discussion about a ‘colorful character’ in town who wears different costumes on our main street, including one of a Buddhist monk! Another outfit is a kilt. Those are the only two I’ve seen. Anyway, the online conversation ranged from concern for the fellow to concern for public safety. But only one person in the group had actually had a conversation with the man. He found him to be a very sweet, not altogether ‘there’ person, who was clearly not a threat to anyone. Yet his very calm presence in his various guises really rattled up a lot of fear in a number of people. The filter of fear is full of faulty assumptions.

There are those hopefully rare times when an adrenaline rush sparked by fear gives us extra strength and speed to, for example, get out of the way of a moving vehicle. Okay, life saved! Good job! But upon closer inspection, we might ask how did we get in that position? Could we have been more mindful? More in touch with all our senses so that we could see that car coming? Maybe if we weren’t distracted by our phone, our planning mind, etc. But, yes, let’s acknowledge that adrenaline is useful in very small doses on such occasions. It’s when adrenaline is pouring through the body constantly keeping us on high alert that it can cause all kinds of problems in our bodies and minds.

Everyone in class this week recognized the existence of fear in an ongoing way. some immediately, some after an autopilot declaration of ‘I’m not afraid of anything.’ After a few minutes of looking more closely, they could see that it was fear itself that was making that bold statement.

It may help to consider whether fear itself is disruptive, or if it is our blindness to it that causes us trouble. For example, I am afraid right now, anxious about whether the medical treatments for my brother will work. If I don’t acknowledge how this fear is impacting me, how my whole torso is tense as a direct result of my concern, then I won’t treat myself tenderly. I won’t make room for all that is arising. And as a result I will be, I guarantee it, unskillful in some way: anxious mindless eating, prickly in relationships, exhausted and grumpy, or some other of many possible totally useless and sometimes destructive ‘coping’ mechanisms. And making an enemy of fear causes even more upset that may play out badly.

Just now from the other room I heard my brother on the phone telling his friend he didn’t know why Stephanie wasn’t able to find those other pills in his bag. Opportunity to notice my reaction: Okay, yup, there it is: Hurt, fury, ‘after all I’ve done for you’ yada yada, worry about being seen as a lousy caregiver by whoever he was talking to. word spreads, elder abuse – oh my! Okay now a little revenge, plotting to give my brother the cold shoulder for his lack of appreciation, (even as I know I won’t do that, because after all he’s operating out of fear too, and he’s in a fight for his life). All this mental storm in a matter of thirty seconds! Wow. Fear in the house!

Acknowledging the fear, I allow myself the time, space and compassion needed to be skillful in my life, taking care of the needs of others more ably and lovingly because I continue to be present and compassionate with myself. If this sounds self-centered, remember the oxygen mask directions on an airplane. Put your own mask on first before helping someone else. Especially for many women, this is a necessary reminder. How much of our willingness to give ourselves away, to always put others first even to the detriment of our own health, has to do with fear? ALL of it, in one way or another.

So we recognize fear. We feel it in the tension in the body. We don’t try to talk ourselves out of it, because that is just an inner battle between — let’s nickname them — ‘logical mind’ and ‘scaredy cat’. There’s no kindness or respect there. It’s more skillful to simply listen, using the infinite inner wisdom that rises up when we take the time to listen in. Every little aspect of self except that infinite inner wisdom is terrified of something. And it’s useful to see the nature of that fear. There’s the fear of making a fool of ourselves, so that aspect keeps us from speaking. There’s the fear of getting hurt in love, so that aspect keeps us from exposing our vulnerability. With awareness and compassion, we can recognize the specific fear-based message of any fear we identify. It can also be helpful to investigate where that message came from. But all of this is done in a loving and respectful way. Not to change or get rid of anything.

Fear sets in when we let unexamined assumptions motivate us. Past experience perhaps has taught us to be cautious in certain situations or with certain people. People who were major influencers in our lives handed down their own fear-based views, and we accepted them without question, too. So here we are, full of fear. But it’s just a lens distorting reality. And we have our tools of skillful questions: Is this true? How do I know this is true? Is the man wearing a kilt one day and a monk’s robe the next a threat? 

For some fears, we don’t need to go on an inner journey. We just have to recognize what we are surrounding ourselves with in our daily lives. If the news is churning out endless images, headlines and opinions that are contrived to activate a fear-based addiction, is it any surprise we feel overwhelmed with fear?

When we don’t take the time to question the veracity of our beliefs and assumptions, then fear holds the reins of our lives, causing us to behave in ways that are destructive to ourselves, those around us and, since we’re all a part of the same living system, ultimately all life on down through generations.

‘Now wait a minute’, you may say again, ‘where would we be without fear? It’s a great motivator to do the right thing. Without the fear of negative consequences, wouldn’t we all just run around doing all kinds of damage?’  I don’t know the answer to that. Certainly people are motivated by fear to do the right thing: Fear of going to hell. Fear of a spanking. Fear of losing our job. Fear of getting a ticket. Fear of getting fat. Fear of being seen as less than admirable. Fear is a powerful motivator, no doubt about it. But the results of acting out of fear quite naturally fail.

Let’s take the example of the fear of getting a ticket. That’s a pretty common fear, one that all drivers tend to have. But we could drive with mindfulness and compassion, aware of the fact that we are driving a potential weapon of death, maintaining safe speeds, watching for pedestrians and other vehicles, sharing the road with kindness and consideration, and we would be skillful drivers. The fear of getting a ticket could make us think that as long as there isn’t a police car in the vicinity we could pretty much run rampant and ‘get away with it’. What are we getting away with? While not all laws are perfect, the majority of laws were made up to keep us safe. The laws are based in common sense, and if we use common sense, awareness and compassion, we don’t have to be afraid of getting a ticket.

For me now, the direction of this exploration takes a fearful turn. Because of the advent of videos capturing incidents of police violence against unarmed black men, there is a heightened awareness and what feels like a very reasonable fear. Because the majority of the men in my family are black, my chest tightens with fear when I think about it. When it comes to this particular fear, I am currently unable to talk myself down from the ledge. But I will keep looking at it, and that’s all any of us can do: Just keep practicing, and keep exploring. I have noticed that I am less fearful when I am able to actively do something, so that might be something to also explore.

Our practice is to notice what is arising. Noticing fear is not always comfortable. But finding a way to be present with fear, without pushing it away or making it the enemy, really does help us to come into more skillful relationship with all that arises in our experience.

See for yourself if you are looking at your experience or the world through a faulty filter. And please let me know what you discover!

Noting sensations and emotions: It’s not all bad!

five sensesLast week I shared the experience of receiving difficult news, and the challenges of meditating with ‘the elephant in the room’ — that one big overbearing excruciating thought/emotion.

Over the course of the week, I continued to pay attention to physical sensation, and what a series of shifts there were to notice! Before the ‘elephant’ sensation set in, back when we were waiting to hear the diagnosis after my brother’s many scan, tests and biopsies — dreading bad news but also wanting answers — my whole body had been wracked with tension. Of course I did what I could to relax and release it, but the body just kept saying ‘Really?’

Then when I wrote last week’s post right after receiving the news we had dreaded. (Thank you to friends who wrote with concern and I’m sorry to have been so opaque about what is going on, but this is the internet after all, and I was concerned for my brother’s privacy. This week I realize we’re in for the long haul here, since he was diagnosed with metastasized cancer, and though it won’t be the subject of every post — I promise! — it is now very much a presence in my life, and it would be counter to the practice to pretend to ignore it. I also realized that only very close friends and family know who my brother is, so his privacy is not really an issue here.)

Okay, so we get this tidal wave of challenging news, and I notice that the tension that was wracking my whole body dissipated. I was no longer anxious because I wasn’t waiting on pins and needles with worry and not knowing. Instead I was brokenhearted, and felt the heaviness in the heart area that accompanies the strong emotions of loss, grief, sorrow. The elephant wasn’t just ‘in the room’. It was sitting on my chest!

Now because my difficult news still has, after extensive treatments, the potential to turn into good news eventually, the heaviness in my chest lifted more quickly than it might have had the news been of a permanent loss. I say this for anyone who has lost a loved one, either by death or separation. In that case the heaviness may lift and return many times. Or there may be other physical sensations that might be noticed. The main thing is that we practice noticing, staying in touch with physical sensation, because it is such a valuable messenger at a time we may be feeling quite lost. If we feel exhausted, for example, we need to take care of ourselves and not keep pushing. If we keep pushing, what happens? We find we are behaving unskillfully, and feelings are hurt all around.

For all of us dealing with ANY challenges in life of whatever magnitude, it’s tempting to embrace pleasant sensations and push through or ignore unpleasant ones. But in our practice of being present, we do ourselves a disservice by trying to escape our experience. There are no short cuts through the landscape of emotions. When we try to cut through the rough grass to get to some other part of our trail that looks easier, we get scratched, we get ticks, we get poison oak or ivy, and oftentimes we get lost. This, whatever it is in this moment, is the experience we need to attend.

But what if the pain is intolerable?
Sometimes a particular sensation, thought or emotion feels unbearable. But if we cultivate spaciousness, we might begin to notice that there is more than just this one unpleasant experience going on in this moment.

A physical example of this might be a strong pain in the right knee. Instead of getting caught up in a story about the pain, we expand our awareness to notice that maybe the other knee doesn’t hurt, or if it does, that the thigh or the shoulder or the foot is either neutral or is maybe even having a pleasant sensation. We are not running away from what is. We are expanding to include all of what is happening in this current moment, not just the difficult thing.

This is the same with current conditions. We notice unpleasant conditions, but being fully present with it allows us to also notice whatever pleasant or neutral things are occurring as well. Have you ever seen a child surrounded by toys, friends and loving parents, pouting or crying because of one little thing that isn’t to his or her liking? Have you ever seen news footage of a person in a desolate refugee camp commenting on some little thing in their experience that brings them joy? In both cases we can see that we all have choices in what we notice. This is not a Pollyanna prescription. No one’s saying ‘Look on the bright side’. We’re saying, in every moment, cultivate awareness and compassion, and look at ALL sides, or see beyond ‘sides’ and into the vast realm of being alive and awake in this moment. What a gift!

Activating all the senses and enjoying pleasant ones is a way of bringing balance into our current experience. Maybe that’s why there’s often engaging art in hospitals. It doesn’t take us away from the experience but it does offer balance. Yes, this is difficult but life itself is not inherently a horrible experience. Many hospitals also offer comfortable outdoor seating, so that sunshine and plants will bring us solace. This is not avoidance. This is balance.

So notice in any given moment all the sensations — sights, sounds, textures, temperature, energy level, tension, ease, pressure, twinges, aches, etc. — and see if you can simply stay present with the symphony of experience without getting caught up in wanting it to be different than it is.

This is not about fixing anything about ourselves or anything else. We are practicing a skill that has never been encouraged before, so it’s new and challenging. Any self-judgment simply creates more to notice, and more compassion and spaciousness for us to cultivate.

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!