For Inquiring Minds & Hearts
Do you have questions about your meditation practice? Or about bringing the Dharma (Teaching) to your ethical and other real-life issues? Everyone who is serious about spiritual practice does sometimes. Many people, however, ignore their questions because asking in a group is daunting. This is a great pity! Your practice and understanding are far too important to take a back seat to hesitation. You deserve as much support as possible. This is why IMCC has initiated “For Inquiring Minds & Hearts.” Facilitated by IMCC teacher Susan Stone, “For Inquiring Minds & Hearts” gives you a way to ask your questions one on one and receive responses individually. Here’s how it works:
- Click on the link at the bottom of this screen and state your question concisely and clearly in one or two sentences. Composing your question can itself be a meaningful exercise. It can focus your thinking and enable you to identify clearly where you are stuck.
- In the second box, using not more than 100 words, provide pertinent background information explaining why you are asking. The background information is important because a helpful response depends on the context from which the question is asked.
Here is an example of a question and background information:
Question—How do I deal with my critical mind?
Background information—I am often caught in anger (righteous indignation) over things that others do or don't do. I've tried to be mindful and pull out of critical thinking, but it arises again sooner or later. It's hard to keep friends because of this. I try not to express anger or irritation, but I guess it shows. Then I'm mad at myself for not being able to change my attitude, and this makes everything worse. I've been practicing for four years now but it's not working. It feels like a hopeless cycle.
- Add your name and email address, then submit.
You may submit more than one question, but only one at a time, please. Your question will be treated confidentially. Susan will respond to you individually by email.
Inquiring Minds & Hearts—the online column
To enable others to benefit, some of the questions and responses will be posted in the online FIM&H column. If your question is selected for posting, we request your permission in the form below to use your first name. If you don't give permission, the posting will appear anonymously.
To ask your question, click here.
For Inquiring Minds & Hearts:
Your questions, our answers
Q: April 3, 2018
Just wanted to thank you for the helpful discussion on the KM groups. I found the group, I believe was represented by Barb on engaged Buddhism very interesting. Are there opportunities to practice "engaged Buddhism" at IMCC? Obviously, we need to be working diligently on our own progress. I often wonder how best to be active outside our personal practice to help heal this increasingly fractured world.
Thank you for your question. Many of us are asking the same thing—how best to engage in social action. While IMCC has periodically sponsored social-action activities, the teachers and board are now in the process of developing a more comprehensive approach and will in time be letting the community know. Meanwhile—and always—it’s important to follow your heart, to explore possibilities for social action in areas you feel called to. Connect with organizations and individuals and discuss opportunities and your ideas, even if you’ve never done it before. Taking the step.
On another note, you mention that you are thinking about becoming active outside of your personal practice. I understand what you mean, but it’s important to recognize that making a distinction between personal practice and other activities, which is commonly done, isn’t aligned with the way things actually are. It can lead to the misperception that social action, being community-oriented, is unselfish, while practice is passive and self-centered. We’re hearing of good deal of this view in the larger Dharma community these days. More broadly, the distinction implies there are separate realms in life and that personal practice is one of them. A deeper understanding about the nature of practice, however, is that all of life on the relative plane is the stuff of practice. Sitting in meditation, working for social justice, experiencing difficult emotions, relaxing on a family vacation, being addicted to social media—nothing is left out. This is why we say practice bridges separation. It is true in obvious as well as subtle ways. This is something you may want to reflect on.
Q: March 28, 2018
What can be gleaned from exploring strong desires? What is there to do with desire besides simply observing the ebbs and flows of its waxing and waning?
I don't feel strong desire very often. In my experience, this has related most often to strong attractions in relationships and sex. But there are other spheres of life that I strongly desire something, usually some kind of opportunity or life experience. Simply being with that desire and watching it come and go is useful of course. But it seems like something else, something perhaps deeper, can be discovered about myself in investigating desires for inanimate (and animate!) ideas or things. Any guidance or further reflection would be much appreciated, Susan!
Thank you for your question. Yes, it is important to investigate your desire for life experience. And to realize what an immense privilege it is when so many on the planet don’t have it. Engaging in the process with discernment and lovingkindness, is an incubator for self-knowledge—a dance, for the inquiry is ongoing. We are always dancing with the consequences of our choices, the foreseen and the unforeseeable, and in the process self-knowledge deepens.
None of this diminishes the significance of bare mindfulness practice, observing the arising and passing of desire and of everything else—breath, physical health, material circumstances, loved ones. It is a training in the truth of impermanence. Even the sense of self and the self-knowledge that we have gained are grasped as simply part of the flow of impermanence. Far from being the depressing prospect it may sound like, this insight is liberating, and it carries with it a raft of other insights. Among them is the recognition that awakening can happen in just about any circumstances, regardless of the choices we have made.
Q: Feb. 26, 2018
I would like to know if the experience of Being One With Everything, Feeling No-Self and Experiencing the Ultimate Truth of Meditation is considered to be the same thing? What suggestions can you provide for experiencing these states via a systematic approach such as Jhana or other means?
I used to practice meditation just as a form of stress reduction...but now know the practice can be so much more. I know that I cannot intellectualize or imagine myself into such an experience. I understand that being there is ineffable. My experiences of altered states of consciousness seem to be a combination of imagination and longing for my practice to grow. I imagine what Being One With Everything will feel like, but am wondering, if & how, the wanting of this state and preconceived notion of it, can get in the way of my practice.A:
Your questions point to the great existential dilemma that, in one form or another, people have been wrestling with for eons. Your effort to imagine being one with everything is beautifully sincere, but it’s not helpful because it is based on an “I” (yourself) the experiencer, a being who is trying to become one with an elusive Everything. This is duality. You are striving to obtain something you think you don’t have, while, in fact, it is simply the non-personal fabric of ultimate reality. It is ever-present, and you are an expression of it. There’s nothing to get.
It’s easy to say this but impossible to grasp, because, as I think you realize, the dilemma is resolved by a shift in consciousness, not by intellect. While we can’t force such a shift, there are practices that help us move out of our own way.
-Inquiring—asking “what is it?” An inquiry into the nature of existence rather than a quest for scientific information, this practice involves questioning everything in your daily experience, including your identity and psychological makeup. When you let the question saturate you, it eventually transforms into an urgent force within. The “answer” happens when the intellect gives up in frustration. This is an example of a classic Zen approach (called a “koan”); details and endless examples are provided in Rinzai Zen literature. There is no space here to mention other approaches—and there are many. Each invites the mind to notice what underlies daily experience; each should be undertaken as a long-term practice.
-Relaxing. This sounds contradictory to the above practice, but efforting introduces a sense of self who is making an effort, and it is a stumbling block. Everyone needs to find their way to a balance between focused practice and relaxing.
-Reading. To deepen your understanding, reading is important. I suggest Rodney Smith’s Stepping Out of Self-Deception. Adyashanti has also written incisively about this.
-Living your daily life with as much mindfulness, veracity, and lovingkindness as you can.
These are very brief comments on a deep issue. They are necessarily incomplete. After you’ve worked with them a bit, you’re welcome to come back to me with questions, and I’ll do my best to respond. I send you blessings for the journey.
Q: Feb 20, 2018
Do you have thoughts on how to navigate the demands of the creative ego in a skillful way?
I make my living as an artist and am sometimes uncomfortable with the ego that comes with that. Meditation seems to have made my awareness of this worse. I went to a retreat last summer where I shared a room. I brought my own blanket because I often get cold and because honestly I like to sleep under pretty blankets. But after we made our beds, the others with the plain blankets we were given, I suddenly felt ashamed and embarrassed at my need to be so particular and therefore different. It felt vain and shallow. No one else cared.A: Thank you for your question. You aren’t alone. Other creative people who are sincere practitioners of the Dharma (teachings) have struggled with the feeling that their aesthetic sense is intrinsically at odds with the spiritual path. The teaching of letting go of “me” and “mine,” when not deeply understood, can incline us in this direction. However, as an artist, you must intuitively know that creativity is not an egoic frivolity. It is inborn, the impersonal source of your appreciation of pretty blankets as well as of your best works of art.
We can’t will away innate tendencies, nor need we try to. Far from being an obstacle to liberation, creativity is a doorway, part of your path to it. The Buddha taught that gladdening the mind and heart is important to spiritual progress. Doubts about expressing your aesthetic sense will keep you locked in a small, tight place. They will prevent you from being comfortable in your own skin and from engaging wholeheartedly in that which enriches life.
Greeting our innate tendencies with kindness, we are called on to refine and use them appropriately and ethically for the wellbeing of ourselves and others. It’s a lifelong challenge that all practitioners face in one way or another. I hope you will grow past your doubts about creativity and let yourself enjoy the challenge.
I assume you’re using your creativity ethically. Your challenge is to use it appropriately as well. Please be mindful and consider whether each expression is suitable to the circumstances at hand and whether it’s aligned with the “good” as you know it to be. Notice, too, when personal motives creep in, and ask yourself if you should express in this way or not. Maybe it’s “yes,” and maybe “no.” Only you can discern. And be kind to yourself up if you slip up. So, those are the guidelines. Implementing them isn’t easy, but it’s a challenge that will lead you on.
Q: From Lynn, Feb. 13, 2018
Can you speak about what is happening during , and the purpose of seated meditation? My understanding is that the experience is about dropping into deeper layers of ourselves, so that we can experience more awareness in our life. I understand it at times, then the understanding slips away. Thoughts? [I’ve been] practicing meditation for 20 years.
A: Dear Lynn,
Your question goes right to the heart of our practice. Yes, meditation is about dropping into deeper layers of ourselves in order to experience less suffering and greater awareness in our lives. But that can be understood simply as a self-improvement project. It is more. Ultimately, meditation takes us beyond our personal narrative to direct experience of the impersonal nature of existence. It enables us to find our deepest home and, in so doing, transforms us (usually a long, slow process) so that, with confidence, kindheartedness, and courage, we participate in daily life for the benefit of ourselves and others.
These observations sound abstract. Because we cannot think our way into them, the mind resists, as yours is. I invite you to remember what you have understood and trust it. Don’t worry that it keeps slipping away and, I assume, chaotic thinking besets you again. This is normal. Just keep meditating. Try to maintain a daily practice, attend retreats, and most of all appreciate the strength and sincerity of intention that has kept you meditating for 20 years. In this way, you become fertile ground in which increasing clarity blooms.
(Bows to Joan Sutherland Roshi for her inspiration)***
Q: Feb. 4, '18
I try to take some quiet time each day to practice shifting my focus from intrusive (usually critical) thoughts to my body, my breath, the moment. I see the stories my mind is telling me, I acknowledge that they're stories, that minds just generate thoughts - it's what they do. But there has been no let-up in disturbing negative thoughts, or just constant chatter "up there." Sometimes I think things are worse, now that I not only see my mind producing unhelpful thoughts, but knowing that's what's happening, and seeing no letting up of the monkey mind. I am actually tired, mentally tired, of hearing it all and seeing it all go on and on. It's like the only thing that's changed is my seeing it happen, which makes me more tired. Can you offer any advice? Thank you!
After being introduced to mindfulness about 4 years ago, I have taken meditation classes, MBSR, MBCT, and the way I look at the world and my place in it has changed dramatically - for the good (I think).
A: Thank you for your question. I’m very glad mindfulness practice has promoted a positive shift in your perspective on the world and your place in it. That’s important.
Your comment that the flow of negative thoughts is disturbing raises a question. Is the disturbance due to fact that the flow of negativity doesn’t seem to end, or is there a content issue? I ask because you know that minds have a negativity bias. You know they love to chatter and scan for potential threats, and you’ve practiced mindfulness and have dropped out of negative stories and into presence. Mindfulness gradually defuses a great deal of our negativity, but apparently this isn’t happening for you. So I wonder if something else is going on. Are the negative thoughts perhaps pointing to unresolved issues that need to be dealt with? If so, professional counseling or other skillful means might be called for.
Whether counseling is appropriate or not—and only you can know—there is another step to take. Mindfulness is a bird with two wings. The first is simply noticing. You are doing this with close attention. The second is being proactive: bringing kindness into the process. Before shifting your focus away from negative thoughts, as you are doing, embrace them. Despite the fact that naturally you don’t like them, greet your negative thoughts with kindness and compassion. Talk to them kindly. “Hello, negative thought [you can give each a nickname and use an endearment like ‘sweetheart/friend’]. I hear you. I know you’re trying to protect me, but I’m not going to go down this route now.” Then, after you’ve embraced them with kindness, turn your attention to something wholesome. Right now, you’re resisting the negativity. Resistance is painful and adds more negativity to your life. By greeting them kindly, you drop resistance and bring sweetness to your raw places and into your life in general.
One further observation: Being tired of negative mental goings-on may be a sign that you’re becoming disenchanted with the mind and its never-ending yakking, whether positive or negative. We need to befriend the mind and bring lovingkindness to it, as discussed above, but we also can begin to realize that the mind, whether used wisely or unwisely, can’t ultimately fulfill the heart’s deep yearning. What can? I invite you to ponder this.
Q:From Nancy, Jan.31 '18
What advice do you have on bringing spiritual inquiry into meditation?
I am attempting to add this to my practice. I have several questions meaningful to me. After a few minutes of focusing on breathing, I pose the question, then try and simply rest in body awareness. If my mind starts wander, I ask "who or what is experiencing thought?" Periodically, my mind repeats the question or asks a different one. I try not to control or manipulate this. After years of simply quieting the mind, it feels odd to start using the mind to open to that which is beyond the mind. Thoughts or guidance?
A: Dear Nancy,
Yes, by all means bring spiritual inquiry to meditation. To establish your intent, start the meditation with your question. Keep it simple. “Who is experiencing thought?” or just “Who is it?” You say you have a few questions. I assume they’re existential questions like this one. Please realize that the answer to one such question is a key to the answer to all. The answer can’t be supplied by the intellect. It will arise of its own accord from the deeper levels of awareness that occur in meditation. Flitting from one question to another only dissipates your energy. It’s a game the mind plays to distract you. I suggest you select one question and stick with it, asking it once or twice at the beginning of a meditation session, then dropping it and moving into the relative quietness of mindfulness meditation. When the mind wanders, follow the guidelines for mindfulness practice: Notice and gently unhook from the thoughts or whatever has grabbed your attention and re-relax into the body or breath. Repeatedly asking your question or others serves no useful purpose—it’s just the thinking mind wanting to keep itself busy.
Why stop with meditation? Why not bring spiritual inquiry into the rest of your life? Ask your question at intervals during the day; then go about your usual activities, mindfully and kindly. Again, stick with one question, at least for a significant length of time. Give it a chance to germinate. Build up energy around it.
Let me know how it goes.
Q: From Lisa. January 23, 2018
As my practice deepens, I consistently hear that the root cause of undesirable behaviors is loneliness: chronic loneliness. Now what? :)
Slowing down, examining my life, developing intention and meditation has saved my life. I'm still struggling to rebuild it though. I can see the pain I was running from and am slower to jump into new communities, events, and relationships head first. What is a buddhist approach to this next chapter? As I listen to myself, I hear how much I am tired of being brave and doing everything alone. I suppose even that feeling needs compassion and acceptance of my current single state.
A: Dear Lisa,
Thank you for your question. Loneliness—whether we're partnered or not, we all can experience it. It’s an expression of the Buddha’s first noble truth, namely, there’s suffering in life. You ask what’s a Buddhist approach to the next chapter in your life. You’re right in understanding what it’s not: It’s not jumping headfirst into activity. But it also isn’t just standing by the side of the stream. I suggest that you listen deeply to what calls to you in the flow of things, then jump in and engage with open-hearted deliberation and trust. IMCC might be a good place to try this out.
On another level, I invite you explore what underlies your loneliness. The root cause of undesirable behaviors—the real root cause, according to the Buddha—is what he called “ignorance” but what we might more usefully understand as being out of touch with True Nature. There is a difference between loneliness, in which there is a painful sense of separation, and Aloneness, which contains a profound sense of belonging. Can you discover this for yourself?