Category Archives: Inquiry

Protecting Myself

What does it mean to protect myself? Most people probably do feel strongly that it’s important to protect myself. How does this relate to vulnerability, which we also yearn for?

As I look at it, there is so much stored in our memory that comes from past painful situations. As tiny babies, our nervous system was often overwhelmed by what would seem to an adult to be small things. As we have gone through life, there have been moments of almost overwhelming stress, anxiety, and pain. Sometimes these episodes have eroded the health of the body and nervous system.

What’s left over from these episodes is a deep guardedness to make sure we never go through that kind of experience again. This guardedness is on a deep neurological level. It feels like it resides firmly in the bones, muscles, nerves. When it is triggered by something that reminds the body/nervous system of a past traumatic event, it instantly comes into play faster than we can consciously react.

One difficulty with this build-up of traumatic reaction patterns, in my observation, is that it continually expands. If I was once afraid of a supervisor speaking angrily, I may now be afraid of supervisors in general. It seems to be part of how the nervous system functions that it tries to continually cast a wider net to watch out for danger. It also seems to reinforce itself, digging in deeper. The next time a supervisor speaks critically, the traumatic patterns says, “See! I knew there was danger here,” and the pattern becomes even stronger.

Eventually, as we have more years of experience, the fear of so many things can make our lives very limited. It can become difficult to be flexible with friends and family. Our options become limited and we can find ourselves living an unsatisfactory life in some or many ways. But there is nothing we can do about it because these fear patterns feel like they are saving our life.

Is there a way to work with past fears that is not restrictive and increasingly debilitating?

Naturally, it is helpful to start to become aware of the reaction patterns – how they manifest in the body, what seems to trigger them, what the thoughts and emotions and feelings are that are wrapped up in the reaction. I’m not sure what it takes to start becoming interested in this. If someone else suggests it to me when I’m in a triggered state, I’m likely to resent it. I don’t want to see what’s going on. I want to protect myself. Which seems to mean I want to react, to do what I think I need to do to protect myself. Maybe I feel like I need to get back at my supervisor. Maybe I feel like I need to quit my job. Maybe I feel like I have to move out of town. Whatever it is, all of the energy seems to want to go into the reaction.

Unfortunately, my habitual reactions may also become sources of anxiety. When I get even with a supervisor, I get fired. When I quit my job, I can’t pay my bills. When I move, I have to start all over again.

So it leaves me not really knowing any more what to do. Instead of doing something, I may start listening more closely to these reactions. Why? Because on some level, knowing myself, knowing what is going on inside, becomes more important than defending myself in the same not-very-functional ways.

So I begin to have a new relationship with myself. I want to know what’s going on inside. I’m interested in seeing things freshly.

Along with this may come the possibility of relating to the outside world – the supervisors, the unreliable friends, the dangerous people – of relating to them in a new way too. Out of this, when a supervisor speaks angrily, something new and different might happen, unpredictably. The new interaction might not be pleasant. Or it might be! But it is new. It doesn’t add to the old pattern. And it comes from simply being interested, open to something new.

In this way one’s life may shift dramatically from protecting oneself from the “known” dangers of the past to being interested in what is going on inside and among the people and situations of my life. Along with this, even in a challenging situation, there might be the realization that we are all in this together.


Where Does Peace Come From?

The reflection below was in response to a discussion on finding peace in the middle of non-peace. Some people referred to practices that they have used that they hope will bring more peace. The inquiry below examines and questions how this really works in us.

When I consider this careful, here’s what seems to happen for me. So something triggers me and I’m angry and defensive. That means my teeth are grinding, my stomach is tight, my back hurts, and I want to lash out at someone. My mind is going over options for doing that.

In this state practicing “peace” is impossible, really. I guess that means that the idea comes up of getting back to a state in which the body is relaxed and the world feels spacious. But at that point it’s an idea that is in complete conflict with what is actually going on.

If someone suggested I try to do that, I’d probably glare at them!!!

What IS real for me is that tight, painful, angry, hurtful state that is manifesting itself. No space at all. Just tight, gnashing teeth and guts. Something keeps me from acting out on the impulses, though. Something, somewhere out of my sight knows that the impulse that wants to act out leads to trouble. So there is the pain of this state, the emotional pain and the physical pain of it but it doesn’t go anywhere. It stays right here, burning, hurting.

Of course many times it doesn’t stay right here and I say something angry to someone.

But when it does stay right here, it is noticeable that there is a tremendous urge to get away from the pain and tightness. One channel for getting away is yelling at someone or hitting them. Another might be to channel that energy into punishing myself. And another big channel is to try to do some practice to become more peaceful in the future. A huge urge for someone to give me something to do that will get me out of this pain, even if it is lifetimes later!

So for me, no practices to become better for the future. Just not running away from the states of no-space, no-compassion, no-peace. Just not moving away from how this all manifests in the body, the thoughts, the feelings. No idea of how this will all come out in the near or distant future. Just burning right here with what has manifested in this body/mind, as it does through almost every other human being, with, for once, someone not moving away from it into a discharge of pain, which causes more pain, or a plan for getting away from the current pain.

In not running away, in burning right here in this place of no-space and no-peace, the sound of a bird might suddenly come through. Or the smile of a person. Or an insight into the suffering of the person I’m angry at. It becomes clear if such a moment happens that this tight, painful, suffering, burning state is not all there is. It is happening in vast space, whether that space is felt or not.

Beyond Teachings

L.: [I was disappointed that] the group [dialogue] for the most part did not focus on Buddhist teachings, which I have found in my life to be very useful.

Jay: I understand what you’re saying and it’s something I’ve considered carefully.

I feel that what we are trying to do in the group gets at the core of Buddhist work. When someone brings something up, it is sort of like finding the teaching that goes with their situation. I don’t really think of it as a teaching but since that’s the term you used, we can say that as an approximation.

For example in talking about severe chronic pain, we could say “We are all heirs to pain. It is inevitable. It can’t be avoided.” That may be of some help. However, to me it goes much deeper into dharma to open up the whole situation together as we did in dialogue. Each person bringing a situation to the group is coming to it from a different place so it is important, I find, to give the person a chance to unfold what is happening for them and for me to listen and open to it carefully.

Out of that listening we may shed light on assumed patterns that are not helpful. On Saturday we discovered two such patterns – the assumption that a state of painlessness in the midst of pain is a goal that should be achieved, and that a state of flow is a goal that should be achieved. It is clear to me from my experience that both of these states are temporary states that are powerful and healing when they happen but it is not their nature to be permanent.

This deep listening without a personal agenda, hearing other people’s experience as not separate from mine, and with willingness to let deeply guarded patterns come into awareness is, to me, the direct functioning of Buddha Mind, of Presence. Teachings point to this kind of functioning and can be wonderfully helpful but to me the important thing is this functioning itself.

I realize this is not the usual approach at many centers. I’ve been to a number and usually the focus is on teachings. This can be wonderful but I’ve also noticed that where this happens, people are sometimes reluctant to open up to what is more personal together. It is “safer” to stick with teachings, which usually feel inspiring.

The work of actually opening together may seem less “safe” until one really opens to opening! Then it feels like the work that very much needs to be done and I am grateful that it can be done with others.

Sometimes some people say, “You’re just getting bogged down in psychology or therapy.” To me this work of being vulnerably and intimately open sheds light on the psychological and the emotional, as well as the neurological, the physical, and the great vastness of being. All of this is visible and functioning – one seemless energy – in agendaless Presence. But there seems to be a great deal of resistance in us to allowing this to function. So we have to learn together and experiment together with entering directly into our life/Life.

It is certainly more challenging to enter into this kind of work/being together.

We could have stayed with reminding A. that life is pain but I feel that stopping there would have missed a beautiful opportunity to enter more deeply together into the healing power of Presence.

I hope this makes some sense.

I very much respect what you have told me and would love to have more chance to understand each other. I don’t expect you to see things exactly the same way I do and I may not see things exactly the same way you do, but I do feel that we are all in this together and can deepen through learning to communicate together and inquire together and listen together, wherever that may lead.

L.: I feel that the traditional teachings are about applying the ‘Four Noble Truths’ and the ‘Eightfold Path’ – it is a process of watching the mind not just while meditating but then in daily life and how we interact with ourselves, each other and situations.  Over and over again we do this and for me little by little some progress is made—this is the work.  The Sangha is important because being in study and dialogue in a safe environment we can help each other and hopefully we can find good teachers who can shed even more light on the teachings.  It is in ongoing and at times an extremely difficult journey, but I feel I have no choice, this is what I am called to do.  When Nisargardatta (a great Indian sage) was asked by a devotee, “what is the difference between you and me, he responded, “everything is happening, I let it, you don’t. I think this is at the core of Buddhist practice—we ultimately cannot control what happens to us, only how we respond to it.  To me that is liberation!

Personally I think that there is no right or wrong way to approach spiritual practice, we are so fortunate here in the US to be able to choose from so many different spiritual traditions and how wonderful that we can choose what we feel is a good fit for us.  I am happy that you have found something that works for you, and I am always open to listening to other people’s process, and feel fortunate to have found one that fits for me.
Jay: Thanks for taking the time to express your view. I believe I understand what you’re saying.


I like the response by Nisagardatta. In my experience working with myself and other people, the issue is that there is much in us that does not want to let things happen. This goes much deeper than the conscious mind or the mind that intends to practice teachings.

So to me a big part of this work together is to find our way into uncovering these deep assumptions and deep “not-lettings” and to begin to let light shine on them. This works best, I feel, in working together. When one works alone, it is much more difficult for assumptions to be seen. We take our assumptions for granted! They are held blindly.

This is why a question like “Who is it that is letting everything happen?” can be very powerful if taken to heart. It begins to turn the attention to “me,” the doer, the practicer, experiencer. These are, in my experience, deep blind spots – deep sets of assumptions.

The teachings for me are wonderful pointers. They describe how we can live when deep patterns of separation and enclosure are not functioning. But for me it always comes down to the work of allowing the energy, the interest, to touch more and more deeply into my being and to allow those things that I don’t want to see to come to light!

In my experience, when something has come to light thoroughly, it no longer causes problems. Then it doesn’t take effort, practice or teachings to avoid it.

I’m grateful to all the people that participate together in this work of looking into ourselves, through silent sitting and through dialogue. They help me see the things I sometimes don’t want to see 🙂

What Happens When I Distract Myself

C. [In response to someone commenting that distracting herself from something left her feeling worse.] When I am suffering and want to turn my attention to something to distract me from it, I feel worse, and when I welcome and embrace the suffering, I can relax and be with it.

Jay: When I notice not wanting to face something, I can feel how strong of a habit that is. And if the energy doesn’t go immediately into the habit, it’s noticeable that I don’t really know what it is that I don’t want to face! I’ve never faced it so I don’t know what I’m turning away from! How amazing.

Usually the “what I’m turning away from” is not a thing at all. It’s not necessarily that I’m turning away from ongoing pain (though sometimes that’s there). “It” is not some separate thing at all. It’s simply life unfolding in a certain way that needed me to get out of its way.

C: Your description feels familiar and true for my experience also. The willingness to just be with what is as it arises allows the pain that does come to move through and prevents the suffering that is inherent in constricting against it. It’s my goal to become a habitual allower… getting more skillful at it over time. 🙂

J: Well, that sounds like a nice goal.

Sometimes I have the feeling that there must be some sort of discipline or practice needed to face things, but looking at it honestly that’s not really what happens for me. Life sort of just smacks me with “Hey, here’s something that needs attention!”

Then there is a switch from running away to attending. That happens on its own, sometimes DESPITE everything that I want to do 🙂

That’s somehow a great relief for me to see that interest/intelligence/affection dawns on its own. It’s one less burden for this “me,” of having to perfect myself.

All that’s needed is sensitivity. Listening. Without fear of what will be sensed or heard. Yeah, that takes a lot of energy but the energy comes because that’s what Life is. In a moment when that energy of listening/being is moving, it’s not effort, is it?

I remember Toni Packer remarking that effort is resistance. I can get that. So when it feels like this huge existential effort to be aware, I can question with interest where the resistance is coming in. What at this moment is difficult about being here in touch? Because usually there IS something making it difficult. I’m afraid of something, for example. And it’s wonderful to discover that fear and let it open up and reveal itself. And suddenly I WANT to experience what’s happening and the resistance is gone and wow, things are just opening up. No effort! No separation! Just the vastness of life bubbling away.


Dialogue Reports – Dec. 9

I wanted to share some of what came up in our recent meeting. I’ve often meant to do this and usually don’t remember anything afterwards!

(If you were there, I may not accurately represent what you were saying but am using what I remember to touch on some universal issues.)

1. Thinking. One person was frustrated with the amount of needless thinking that she finds herself doing. She wanted to know how meditation can help her change that.

We looked at this more closely. For most of us, processing things through thinking often goes on without being noticed. It’s just automatic. Then there is a moment when it is suddenly clear that I’ve been wasting a lot of energy going over and over things.

This moment of noticing is critical. When this happens, isn’t there already attention functioning? Often when this “dawning” happens, we start thinking, “How can I do this more often?” or “What’s wrong with me that I let myself drift off like that?” But this is the beginning of more thinking, isn’t it?

Maybe those thoughts may not lead to more thinking. Maybe they lead to wondering what’s going on and then watching right here in this moment that is now visible because of the attention.

So we can look at where I am right now that I’m not going around and around in thinking. We can feel into it.

Sometimes people say, from that place, that they don’t know what to do. They feel kind of lost because the sense of control or direction is gone. They may feel disoriented. So is it possible to stay with all or any of that despite how it feels? The only alternative to being in this moment is to go back into the daydreaming.

Each person can find out what happens, what comes up, what shifts, if one stays with this moment. No need to make a plan to be a better meditator. That takes us away from the direct experience of what is happening here. We’re not used to living in that direct experience, so naturally it may feel disorienting. Maybe it’s ok to not be oriented!

2. Dissatisfaction. Another person reported being relatively happy and successful in her work and personal life but having an underlying feeling of a sort of existential dissatisfaction. The feeling has not been resolved by the occasional meditation or quiet time that she takes.

My first response to this was that that is probably how it is for almost all of us. There is a residue of dissatisfaction that builds up from how we live, from the accumulation of unfinished business, from deep questions – some going back to our early childhood – that have never been addressed or resolved. In Buddhism people are advised to come in touch with this dissatisfaction and to let it fuel the need for resolution.

I think this is very, very helpful. Coming in touch with a deep unhappy feeling may not sound like a helpful thing to do. And maybe for some people with chronic depression it isn’t a good way to go. But for most of us this dissatisfaction is there but it is deeply buried and untouched. My feeling is that behind this feeling there is a great deal that needs to come out into the light, to be touched by life and to begin to heal.

We also discussed that when one really begins to stay in touch with that which needs to be healed in us, we may find that daily sitting doesn’t really touch it. Daily or weekly quiet time helps clear out the upper level residue of our ordinary life but may not go further.

We discussed the critical value of devoting a special time and place to be able to allow the deeper issues to be able to come to the surface. Specifically, for me, this means an extended number of days (6-7) in a place with little talking, little social interaction, and little work responsibility. I should probably add no social media, phone, or internet either. This happens best in the presence of others who are doing the same work and with whom there can be occasional meeting.

This is how we design retreat. It is nothing special other than a specific situation that fosters deeper healing and in-touchness.

I think I’ll stop here so this doesn’t go on too long! There was much more that came up in the dialogue but it’s too much to try to write about.

What Needs Attention?

I have a friend who, when I asked him why he goes to so many retreats, replied “Because there is always something that needs attention and because of nothing at all.”

This struck me as a wonderful and true answer. There IS always something in us that needs attention, isn’t there? In fact it often feels like there is an overwhelming amount of “stuff” that needs attention.

How do we give attention to these things? It seems that our usual first attempt is to verbalize what’s going on. That’s a natural first step, although it has some limitations as well. What I “think” about what’s going on is often not very accurate. Sometimes the very act of identifying a “problem” actually reinforces it. Certainly, being able to verbalize an issue clearly is helpful but I’m just reporting what I’ve observed in myself. I need to take the verbalization with a grain of salt and I need to let go of it at some point.

A second step is to look for some help or insights outside of myself. This is also helpful, including reading books, talking with others, and getting professional guidance. I’ve found some really wonderful help this way.

Ultimately, there is another step that is different in that the first two involve what I know and what other people know. This “new” step involves moving beyond the limited realm of what is known and into the open space of being with the wholeness of what is happening inside and outside, beyond trying to know what is happening. In other words to really be with what is going on requires, in my experience, a letting go of that activity of the brain that tries to put new, fresh input into my existing knowledge. The key is that that activity of the brain lets up so that the brain can experience more fully and deeply what is right here. Knowing may happen or not happen but the brain can learn to relax away from the compulsive attempt to know so that the brain can operate in a new, direct sensing way.

In my experience deep healing of what needs attention comes most directly out of this unknowing, relaxed deep and still sensitivity.

This deep listening can operate in us even when we come together as a group for dialogue. In fact coming together – if we don’t wander to far away into trying to figure things out – can amplify this process of stillness and listening penetrating into the hidden areas that need attention. By habit we don’t usually talk and listening together in this way but we can learn to by coming together, if we give this process enough chance with each other.

So part of this shared healing process is making the effort to come together from time to time and learning – sometimes awkwardly – how to talk and listen together in a way that begins to penetrate into those areas that need attention. This is the purpose of our group activities in and out of retreat.

What about the “because of nothing at all?” This is a beautiful way of saying that healing, opening, growing together is a natural expression of life that just happens and takes care of itself if we give it a chance. We don’t have to struggle to do it. And while this healing and listening is happening for us in a group or alone, it is an expression of the wholeness of the world all around us at this very moment. Just as the sun sometimes pokes out from behind clouds, the heart sometimes open in joy or in pain, for its own sake. Not for some future goal. We can say that wholeness in a moment is exactly what heals and it happens for its own sake.

What is the Problem?

If you are like me, you spend a lot of time considering the problems in your life and trying to creatively work with them. Sometimes the problems seem impossible to deal with. Sometimes they respond to some new approach.  Sometimes they come back in different forms. I’m sure this sounds familiar to most people.

Let’s consider for a moment what a problem even is. Maybe I’ve recently interacted with someone in a way that has been painful for both of us. There may be a sense that my interaction was not “skillful,” that I could have done better. And I may wonder about it, think about what happened. Maybe ideas pop up of what I could have said or done that would have worked better. This seems like a natural process.

At some point in this process I may feel like I’m done thinking about it. I don’t need to continue to drum up the memories and mentally review them. This is an interesting point. It feels to me like at this point there are still some questions that hang in the air, some feelings that still sit in the body. At this point it feels helpful to give these “silent” questions some attention and space. To feel into how the body is doing with all that has happened. To come in touch with who it is – right here – that has gone through all of this. This “who it is” contains not only the memories of the current experience but all of “Jay” – the whole organism with its laid-down memory traces in the nerves, muscles, guts, bones and the vast space in which this organism exists.

Perhaps in this space the current problem – the one that for the moment the mind is most worried about – may come up again. In other words the memory gets pushed up into conscious awareness, along with the anxiety surrounding it. As I consider this and write about it, the question arises What is the problem? Or maybe we can say Is there a problem, Is what’s happening right now a problem?

The memory has been broadcast into the conscious mind. There is a sense of urgency to change something that seems to have led to pain. But that’s not all there is right here. There is a spacious awareness of the environment, the sense of the body and mind as a whole phenomenon – ever dynamic, subtle, sensitive. There may be the sense of other people nearby. What happens to the energy if one goes into the “problem” – the memory, the strategizing? Can the energy stay with the wholeness? I find that it is possible, even though it may seem impossible. It is possible to stay with wholeness and yet have some insights about the “problem situation” arise, with maybe a little conscious help or maybe no conscious involvement at all.

When this happens, the problem doesn’t become overwhelming. It seems to disappear – perhaps to reemerge from time to time.

When this doesn’t happen – when all of the energy becomes narrowly focused on fixing something, it really feels like I’ve lost touch with what the problem is and the context in which this “problem” exists. I’ve lost touch with myself. I’ve lost touch with what other people are. I’ve lost touch of the humanness and of the aliveness of the situation and of life. And the actions that come out of this kind of problem solving, for me, may lack humanness. They may not address the wholeness of the situation.

In such narrow moments things may suddenly open up, along with the realization that I don’t really know what the “problem” is or even if there is a problem. And I enter into this not knowing, this wondering. This os forgetting of the problem and awakening to the precious wholeness in which all of life – with its beauty and its challenges – takes place.