I might think that I have a many different problems. For example, I might think that I am experiencing fatigue, that I don’t have enough money, and that my children aren’t behaving the way I think they should.
In fact, I’d estimate that that 99% of my thoughts are simply a list of all the problems I think I have.
I could go on seemingly endlessly delineating my problems. And even if I work to resolve my problems – and even if I have reasonably good tools for doing so – I am destined to lose in the long run.
Because the number of problems that I can delineate is seemingly endless.
What I see in my own experience is that the essence of all problems – however I might delineate them – is the same. So whether I think the problem is about health or I think the problem is about relationship or I think the problem is about money or whatever the case may be, the essence is the same.
This really simplifies things. Which is good for someone like me because I need things to be really, really simple if I am going to stand a chance of having success.
So what I’m left with is this: my only problem is my indulgence of my conditioned avoidance of some of my feelings.
Put another way, the only way that I ever “know” that I have a problem is because I “feel” that there is a problem. But the feeling itself does not have the meaning that I ascribe to it. The meaning is not inherent in the feeling. That meaning is layered on top by my conditioning.
And if I indulge that conditioning by seeking to avoid the feeling (because I believe the feeling is bad), I never resolve the problem. That is because the indulgence (avoidance) IS the problem. There is no problem apart from that avoidance.
Strictly-speaking, the avoidance is not a problem either. So a clearer way to put it is to say that the avoidance is what allows the illusion of a problem to continue. The instant the avoidance disappears, the problem is revealed to be non-existent.
Consider this imperfect analogy. I can look at the sky and see shapes in the clouds. I might say, “Oh look, there’s a dragon!” And you might look and agree, “Yes, I see a dragon too!”
But is there a dragon? No, there is no dragon. It was only imagined.
My avoidance is what gives the shape to my experience. Thus, through my avoidance I can say, “I feel the problem, therefore I know it exists.”
But the moment the avoidance is dropped, the problem is revealed to be absent. It is not that the problem went away. There never was a problem.
Avoidance is an action. If I don’t do the action, there is no avoidance. Meaning, avoidance is not some external force or object that I am subject to. It is something that I do. And if I can do it, I can NOT do it.
In my life I have learned a lot. And the overwhelming majority of what I’ve been taught was all about action. It was all about how to do things. I learned how to do, do, do.
But unfortunately, doing is only half the picture. And if I only know how to do, no matter how much I learn to do, I will suffer.
Consider this imperfect analogy. Imagine for a moment that I’ve just invented a space ship for traveling through outer space. I’ve developed a propulsion system that can move the ship a million miles and hour so I can travel very fast through space.
The ship is top of the line. It has defense systems that will fend off asteroids and all kinds of things successfully. It is luxurious inside with all you could want.
I’ve scheduled a trip on this ship to Jupiter. Do you want to go for the trip?
Well, there’s one thing you should know. Despite all its perfection, there is one major flaw. It has no brakes.
It can go, but it can’t stop.
That’s what doing without inhibition is. We can do, but can we inhibit the doing? Can we stop?
I have learned how to avoid. The avoidance is second-nature. It happens unconsciously. I’ve practiced it so much that it happens automatically. I have an over-developed doing capacity and an underdeveloped inhibition capacity.
For me, the tool for developing the skill of inhibition is what I call inquiry.
Inquiry for me means observing the process by which I am doing at subtler and subtler levels, effectively reverse-engineering it.
Inquiry (as I am using the term) is not an intellectual exercise. It is not a thinking process. It is not designed to arrive at an answer. It is not intended to deliver a step-by-step technique or a narrative.
Inquiry means simply seeing. It does not mean judging or fixing. Because the judging and fixing are based on a conditioned idea of what is good and what is bad.
But in true inquiry I have to admit that I don’t know. The difficulties arise when I lie to myself and say that I do know. Then I am bullshitting myself, and I am avoiding all the while calling it inquiry.
In practical terms, what this means is that inquiry involves going into the feelings/sensations that I’ve habitually avoided. That means that when I’m truly inquiring, it is highly likely that I’ll encounter reactions that could be voiced in ways such as “This is terrible! Get me out of here! I’m dying! I’m breaking!”
So on the one hand it is the easiest thing because it involves doing nothing – absolutely nothing. And on the other hand, it can be very challenging because my doing habit is dramatically stronger than my inhibition habit. So the doing reflex kicks in many times, and I have to remain watchful so I can slowly but surely learn how to reverse-engineer and inhibit all that compulsive doing.
At the most superficial level, there are lots of thoughts and delusional fantasies about how bad this is. When I am feeling something that I am in the habit of avoiding, all those thoughts and fantasies are the distraction that keep the habit of doing strong.
So in my experience, that is one of the hardest parts of inquiry. When the feeling is strong and attention is still on the heavy stream of thoughts and negative fantasies, the temptation to keep indulging the avoidance in full force is strong.
It is like trying to paddle upstream against a heavy current.
Fortunately, paddling upstream is not the only way. Using the same metaphor, I can have more success if I get out of the canoe and walk along the bank of the river.
Getting grounded rather than struggling at a superficial level is important for me if I am to have success in inquiry. Otherwise I’ll tire myself out and then collapse.
For me, the easiest and most direct way to achieve that is by allowing the body to become very restfully still. That means I turn my attention to the physical sensations and look for the “low hanging fruit” of the tensions that I can readily voluntarily release.
This helps to simply side-step the thoughts and fantasies.
I don’t aim for 100% perfection in this. I don’t need to become perfectly still. I don’t need to become perfectly relaxed. The actual benefit as I experience it is simply in directing attention to what is subtler and subtler. The more I gently attend to releasing tension, the more I become aware of subtler aspects of experience.
Eventually, all experience of objects – even subtle objects such as thoughts, sensations, etc. – becomes so subtle that I cannot say that it is even happening. It is like dreaming of imagining of a memory of a ghost of someone who never was. It seems almost as though it might be, but it is not.
At this point, there is simply what always is. And I am that. I am this which is prior to and during and after all experience. This is obvious once all the phenomena have settled down enough because I can clearly observe that I remain as I always am, and yet nothing is happening. No objects are here.
Now, that state of what I might call pure stillness or non-objective reality or pure potential or awareness or by any other name is quite blissful (according to me, at least). But if I have to maintain that state by keeping all objective phenomena at bay, that becomes rather strenuous and unpleasant.
In my experience, the good news is that maintaining that state is not necessary. After all, the revelation is that that pure non-objective reality is always here. It is what is before, during, and after every thought, sensation, and so forth.
Objective experience seems to overshadow non-objective reality, but a closer look reveals that non-objective reality is never overshadowed. It is too close, too intimate, to be overshadowed. It is what is always here. It is what is continuous where as objective reality is winking in and out non-continuously. Thoughts appear and thoughts disappear. Sensations arise and sensations subside. But non-objective reality is continuous.
In my experience, this inquiry results in feeling better. I am not saying that I feel the way that I think I should feel. That would be feeling well. Rather, I am saying that inquiry helps me to feel better. That is, I feel more clearly, more skillfully.
I used to feel as part of what I call constellations. As I use the term, a constellation refers to a group of fundamentally unrelated phenomena that give rise to a non-existent entity that produces suffering.
The elements of a constellation may be thoughts, images, and sensations, for example. A particular configuration of a particular thought, image, and sensation gives rise to the delusional sense that something is harming me, something is oppressing me.
In the context of an unquestioned constellation being triggered, I will react predictably, producing my own suffering all in the name of trying to defeat my suffering. But because I am fighting a non-existent foe, I am only hurting myself.
Inquiry helps me to dissolve constellations. By noticing what is prior to all experience and resting as that, I start to see more clearly. I start to see what is rather than what I have wrongly imagined.
That means I start to see that the elements of the constellation are fundamentally unrelated. The thought, sensation, and image don’t have any essential relatedness. They were only glued together by delusion.
This is like the story of the snake in the rope. A man is staying in a hut overnight. In the growing darkness he looks to the corner of the room and sees a snake coiled and ready to strike. He stays awake all night in fear, watching the snake. At dawn as the light grows, he sees that it was a rope all along.
If I see a snake in the rope, I am experiencing a constellation. An image (snake), thought (snake), and sensation (fear-contraction) form the constellation and I in delusion I see a snake where there is none.
So it is with most if not all of my objective experience. If I perceive that I don’t have enough money, what is really happening? I have a thought (not enough money), a sensation (fear-contraction), and maybe some images (crying children, living under a bridge with tattered clothes, etc.)
Whatever the problem is – whether it is health, relationship, finance, or anything else – in my explorations, all of them turn out to be constellations. All of them are snakes in the rope.
When I inquire, I see this clearly. Then I start to feel better in that I am perceiving what is rather than fighting a war within myself. And I also typically eventually start to feel well – though that may or may not happen right away and I can’t count on that short term reward. So I find it best not to give much concern to whether I like how I am feeling or not. Instead, my judgments about the quality of my experience can be more opportunity for inquiry.