The ‘Oasis’ of Self-Inquiry

Whose stories are you telling? And why?

Self-inquiry is so much more important now than I ever could have imagined. I take it so dead-seriously these days that I catch myself off guard.

I used to hear the term ‘journaling’ and scoff a little bit. Mostly because I didn’t have the time to do it (or so I told myself), but also because I was a bit jealous of these people who did have time and did take it so seriously.

Earlier in my life, I latched onto the idea and image of journaling steadfastly – I wanted so to be a writer, and how else would I get there then diligently writing the accounts of one’s own life, every day without fail? Duty bound to the written word, and eventually left with a large stack of journals and pen scratches as evidence. Credentials.

Yet inevitably, those old journals of mine from middle school and high school didn’t quite stick as a habit. I became bored with them and barely ever wrote in them regularly. But I was living in the outside world then – I was scribing my daily traverses, but of course it was boring: I was not turning my attention as inward as I should have.

The inward motion makes a difference; it moves mountains and carves universes. It is fluid and ever-changing. Reflecting on the outward side of things, without the inward motion, only reinforces tropes and boxes of cultural and personal constructs that are already evident.

Once I was in college and testing the waters of asking myself deeper questions through writing, journaling – or as I have come to call it, ‘personal essaying’ – finally found its proper niche in my life.

Writing in self-inquiry has taken its place as the rightful oasis it always was and could be. It is NOT the “palace of intellect” or “shrine to craft” like I assumed it was in my youth. No… it is much more modest than that, as it humbles yet enriches me every time I do it. To dip my pen in and drink deep of the waters I find, thirst quenched in surprise and awe, as I hadn’t realized I was parched in the first place.

In this way, self-inquiry is really, really important. And I want to stress that to all people I know and all people I don’t.

As you write, or think, or meditate, or talk your way through hard, tough questions, take care to not repeat the stories you’ve been told previously. Don’t regurgitate. Don’t just reflect back what the world wants and what culture has told you is important. Take the world and bend it through your most important lens – that of your heart.

Whose stories are you telling? And why? 

In a way, I think this sums up my budding interest in Buddhism, and how I feel about it a nutshell.

To me, it is applying self-inquiry to your life to root out those voices that are telling your story for you. That are whispering in your ear the script of what’s already been written; thoughts already outlined and feelings already validated.

Self-inquiry is a path, a road, to understanding and recognizing the true You that exists regardless. The true You that has always been there, the shining kernel at the center of your outward persona and self-constructs.

I want myself and my loved ones to ask these questions of themselves and look deeper, to know that luminous self underneath all the horrible muck that we tell ourselves. The muck that society / family / culture / friends / gender roles / media / and even their own inner critic (the most formidable voice among these) spews at them every day and in every moment. To see and recognize each of these voices and see how they influence our lives and our decisions. To see how these voices are not them. They are not You.

Whose stories are you telling? And why?

“Tell them stories” has always been one of my favorite  “this is the meaning of life” quips from a fiction book series that I’ve ever read, from the third book in the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy by Phillip Pullman. This quote jumped out at me when I read it.  It was one of those truth-y moments that lies with you for the rest of your life.

Stories are a mainstay in our culture and they define us as humans; a unique attribute of our consciousness. And we have the power to harness and tell the stories that we want to tell.

So in a way, Buddhism to me is a vehicle of self-inquiry from which we gather and amass tools and skills to hear and tell the stories of our true self – to hear and tell the stories of the heart.

An oasis that lies within.

In Search of the Forest and the Trees

My professional background is interior architecture. I’ve worked in the professional design community for almost 10 years now. Surprisingly, part of me loathes it… but an equal portion is enthralled. An oscillating love/hate relationship. But the design instinct is ingrained and natural and I will never get rid of it.

Design and architecture in general is quite fascinating to me, but you will never catch me ever owning an Eames lounge chair or an overpriced Noguchi coffee table – the inherent materialism in the design industry is quite off-putting to me. But this profession pulls me into it given a natural balance of over-arching vision, and the methodology of how to convey such a lofty intent in the physical, built environment.

I have been trained to seek the Why behind the What; To see the ‘Vision’ through the individual pieces of methodology; To see the Forest for the Trees.

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I think a lot of us focus on either the Trees or the Forest, but never both. I like to think I focus on the Forest, but really I am just obsessed with trying to see the trees. ALL of the trees and possibilities of trees that have ever existed.

I think that many of us, when we think of the term ‘Forest’ we are actually conjuring a pre-ordained paradigm that we believe to be the ‘Forest,’ when in reality it is a cultural assumption that we have taken on as our own. We have been told by others that have come before us what the ‘Forest’ really is, and what it consists of, and we take their word for it. We take on these systems of belief as our own.

Therein, I think a lot of us think we are seeing the Forest in its awe-inspiring grandeur, but in actuality we are only seeing a projection of our own Tree.

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But maybe all we can ever hope to see is our own singular Tree? Our own singular observable universe.

Maybe the other trees that exist in this multi-verse of a Forest cannot actually be observed, but only felt? Only theorized?

It is hard to fathom or imagine the breadth and scope of all the other trees out there that might live in this Forest with us. Side by side, interconnected in a symbiotic dance of an un-seeable ecosystem that we can’t really perceive – only postulate.

In my work-life, and in my spiritual-life, I am drawn to the trees – ALL of the trees in their myriad of possibilities. I have a drive and curiosity to know each of them intimately so that I might know more of this Forest beyond. To trace the seeds of all the Trees amongst the many.

And while these other Trees and seeds might exist just out of sight, perhaps they are within reach of the heart.

What is “Enlightenment?”

What does it mean to be enlightened? My husband and I were arguing about it the other day.

Okay – after writing that down and looking at that statement again, I laughed to myself out loud. What an absolute JOY to be arguing about enlightenment! Of all the trivial things we could be discussing, we have a heated argument about the credentials of transcendence.

Back to the subject at hand: What is enlightenment? What does it mean to have this label or state of being?

Is it the long, painstaking acquisition of some mysterious body of knowledge?

Is it the emptying of yourself to transcend this ordinary life?

Is it necessary to spend years “in the wilderness” or temples in order to achieve it?

Is it necessary to swear off your family, friends, life possessions and trivial pursuits in order to claim it?

I don’t feel that detachment from reality or the act of “acquisition” is the real answer.

As my honorary grandfather Mel (over at Melting-Pot Dharma) might perhaps say, it is recognizing the Buddha within. It is seeing the connection, rather than the detachment, of the world around you.

Some of us need the temples and wilderness to know this, and others do not. But in recognizing the divine that is already there, and working to keep it top of mind, THAT is enlightenment in my opinion.

I was discussing this with my husband, who (I think) holds in the back of his mind that “enlightened” ones of high regard will have physically worked and put time into developing this title. But do they? Where do we get this assumption? And why do we demand these qualifications to this kind of title? Is it because we have such high expectations of this level of “achievement?”

I think my husband might think this, in part, because he has spent years studying Shaolin Kung Fu. He has put in his time. Almost 13 years of time.

To him, the discipline and practice is what makes you the master, the teacher – and in a lot of ways, we see other “enlightened” ones as teachers, or expect them to be. Masters of some kind. In Kung Fu, if you put in the time, effort, and dedication you are rewarded with opportunity to teach others and to be an example to others. This comes with – and is expected of – the titles and degrees.

So it goes with our modern society. We like to see teachers, self-proclaimed “experts” and masters as having the necessary credentials in order to lay claim to the designation (i.e. licenses, graduate school, years in the wilderness, years in the temples, etc.).

But when applied to spirituality, and awakened-ness, I think this is slightly a flawed assumption.

Credentials are conditional, and the state of so-called enlightenment is not conditional. It is like an unconditional love. It exists without any presumption or prerequisite.

It exists because life exists.

Recognizing it does not take work and time in the human sense; it only takes desire and openness to see beyond the material and spiritual borders we ourselves have drawn. Whether that takes years or minutes should not affect your “enlightened-ness.”

You do not need credentials to know divinity; to know God.

But I do agree with my husband that in order to teach this “knowledge” you need to find your proper credentials, the ones that speak to you. You need time to sift this out. Find your footing. Relax into the role if that is what you are after. Build trust with the world on your viewpoint.

But to be an “enlightened” person doesn’t mean you are going to teach, and it certainly doesn’t mean you claim to be an expert or a master. You just are, and are eternally becoming.

To me, to be awakened is to realize the interconnected-ness of all. That separation is an illusion. That there is a divinity within us that we don’t have to strive for or work to achieve – only to yield. Because it’s already there in its imperfect perfectness.

After discussing this with my husband, and tearing up a bit (as I usually do when talking about interconnected-ness), we both ended the discussion with a thoughtful “Hmm.” The best way to end a discussion…a little open-ended.

Do you really need to empty yourself to transcend this fleshy existence? Enter into the void that is above and beyond humanity?

I don’t believe there is some magical transcendence of reality, or the emptying of the Self. I don’t think there is some divine void above humanity.

It is within humanity.

Love it with all your heart.

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In the end, isn’t Enlightenment just another label, another set of constructs that we set upon a preconceived notion of our most ideal selves?

What is your ideal state of being? Mine is love;  infinite love, and I try to always keep it at the forefront.

Husband, thank you for discussing these themes with me. I love you to the cosmos and back ❤

Reknew

Ribbons dusted,
Rise anew
Portents, portals,
Nails that grew.

Searching, intuit
Thoughts and stares
Running fingers,
Stinging glares.

Walk the footsteps,
One by one
See the grains of
Salt & Sun.

I see in you
The ocean blue
Let’s dive into
The One we knew.

Us vs. Them

In small moments when my daughter wants to sit with me, on my lap, and is not content unless her hand is touching my neck, collarbone, hands or heart – this is when I fully realize and remember why we’re here. What we’re meant to do. What we’ve been looking for.

Connecting with others, ourselves, and the world.

Things can be beautiful and fun in this life – but in these moments of beauty and exhilaration and lighthearted fun, isn’t there also a moment of connectedness? A sharing of yourself with others or the world? These amazing moments do not happen alone.

We are not alone, and we were not ever meant to be alone. Because we can’t be. We are connected already. We are one.

Our souls are ever searching, our subconscious on the alert, for any person, situation or community that we can feel this ultimate unity and the togetherness we crave. We may even sacrifice logic, reason and moral values in order to achieve this. It is a powerful subconscious drive within us. Propelling us to fantastic feats and also the lowest of degradations.

We need to recognize our link to each other and the world. We need to celebrate it!

In these tumultuous days, every time I see or feel an “Us vs. Them” story or directive, I know in my heart that at the core it is a lie. A pure, blatant lie that our conscious world has co-created with us. A lie meant to serve the Ego, the “veil” that separates us from the Cosmic God we yearn for, and that we may never recognize unless we tear the lies out. Tear out the lie of ‘Them.’

It is never “Us vs. Them.”
It is always “Us vs. Us.”

“Je suis Tu”

Is the only way we know our world through relationships? Is this how we “know” anything?

In light of the Paris attacks, I am reeling. Not just because of my mushy love of the French language and culture, not just in reaction to the use of blatant violence, and not over the seething hatred that caused it and is now being amplified throughout the nations. No; I am reeling because of the gaping hole it has exposed in our relationships with the greater world.

An attack on western ideals from an “other” that is vehemently against them leads to an outpouring of sentiment, anger, fear and grief from all the western world, especially the United States. But these same events in Middle Eastern countries does no such thing. No outpouring of grief or anger. No flag profile pics on Facebook. Why not? We’re all human, right?

I know the horribly simple answer to that question could be that those countries are always war-stricken. They are always fraught with violence, so it is not new news. Our mortal hearts cannot bear to be burdened constantly, 24/7, with the atrocities that are committed worldwide on a daily basis. It is just too much for our hearts to handle, so we have to push some of it away. We have to ignore it in order to live our lives.

But I think this is only a partial answer.

When we heard that people were indiscriminately mowed down by gunmen at a concert, walking down a sidewalk, or eating out at a café, we were able to envision ourselves in their shoes.

That was OUR concert.
That was OUR favorite café.
That was OUR stadium game.

It hit home to us how real this threat was when we could imagine ourselves in these instances we know every day and see them interrupted so maliciously. So viciously.
So personally.

But what about Beirut? The war torn communities of Syria? Iraq? Boko Haram? Myanmar? These places are remote and perceived as foreign. We in the ensconced west cannot mentally picture ourselves in the daily life or culture of these places. We cannot relate to the experiences and daily routines there, so we are hard-pressed to find a way to personally empathize with those places and their people. We cannot imagine ourselves in their shoes without great effort, and without a great tearing down of cultural walls. We just don’t have the tools for intimate knowingness of these places unless we take the effort or visit there.

“It’s always violent there.”
“There is always unrest there.”
“There is nothing I could personally do about those places, so why waste time worrying about it?”

An easy wave of the hand to push these places out of mind. These are people of different religions and ethnicities that we cannot easily fathom relating to. Outside of our bubble of known experience.

But they are human. Just like us.
They were shaped by their society and environment. Just like us.
They were born to mothers and fathers who wanted the best for their children. Just like us.
They were kids once, too, with hopes and dreams and the want to play. Just like us.

How can we build empathy for foreign places when their daily way of life and culture is so different?
Perhaps just by recognizing the cultural barriers in place, so that we can then try to take them down. It occurs to me that only by noticing the mental and imaginative walls we build can we acknowledge them and start to dismantle them. By mentally ignoring them away we only reinforce them.

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The French language has two different words for having knowledge, or to know something: ‘Je connais’ is used when we are familiar with a person and place and have created a relationship with them.

“I know my Mother.”

‘Je sais’ is used in expressing factual knowledge or something you have learned, as the things you learn in school.

“I know how to tie my shoe.”

I feel that it is time for us to create the English equivalent for ‘Je connais’ when referring to knowledge of the world around us. For us to be able to say we don’t just know about the world, we have a knowingness of it. We are familiar with it. We have a relational interaction of the world.

A relatable, empathetic knowingness. How do we achieve this? I’m not sure. I just hope and pray and act in love as much as possible. Maybe it will make a dent.

Je suis Paris? I am not just trying to relate to one city, one culture. I want to strive to relate to all possibilities. All people.

Je suis Tu. I am you.

Defined vs. Undefined

I always try to take everything in with a grain of salt. I don’t like defining anything or jumping to conclusions, especially moral conclusions, and in that way I feel that I am somewhat of a rare bird among the populace. What I’ve inferred in my life is that we, as humans, feel most comforted and in control of our lives when our world is defined – when we have a grasp on the controls, how they work, and the process that we need to follow.

In this way, becoming an adult is extremely difficult. We are no longer children being told what is expected of us, or the right path to walk. Being an adult is learning to interface and make choices and decisions every day that impacts this “defined human experience” that we have been laying, brick by brick, over the centuries. Building upon what we know from our past, putting each step in front of the other, layering in our understanding from that of our forefathers and foremothers.

Making these decisions everyday is tiring and draining. No wonder we cling to belief systems or social constructs to provide us with a welcome relief of not having to question every little step we make!

I am one of many that indeed loves a defined process (especially at work!) and loves knowing that I need to do X to achieve Y. Or that in doing Y, you will also achieve Z, and so on. Like a workbook.

But life does not give you the equations; we do not receive any workbook, apart of the ones we give our selves. We only figure things out as we go, in our experiences and by building off the experiences of those who came before us.

But what if we are building off of experiences and stories of our past that are not true? That are fruitless? Clinging to constructs that are not sustainable or beneficial to our well-being?

What if we are processing our lives, day in and day out, in automaton-mode, making decisions and placing our steps in front of us because that is what we have been told to do – like when we were children – because that is what our mothers and fathers did?

In this way, I see that much of humanity finds solace and happiness and peace in defining their world. In creating a box of rules of which they operate out of conveniently and pleasantly, and then finding family and friends whose personalities and ideals also fit the box. They continue on with their lives in enjoyment and happiness because things are “figured out” and “in place.” They feel safe and happy because their values and morals are justified and supported, and therein their choices in life are also justified and supported.

But I do not think life is that cut and dry. Black and white. Light and dark.

I think it hurts us to build the boxes in the first place.

I feel like I am a minority in a majority that does not like to define things these days. That enjoys the grey between the lines and the possibilities that lie there. That is always skeptical, but passionately curious nonetheless. I figured this out for myself a few years back, and in this idea of “undefined” I found my own convenient and “pleasant” truth:  That in defining things, and assigning them this or that, we put up walls. We start building the box around us and inviting only this person or that person into our box by default, until there is no way out. We box ourselves in; and in doing so, if someone were to question our box and why we were in there, we would shiver with indignation. “How dare you insult my box! My box keeps me safe. It helps me to define the world. Of course I need it!”

I want to strive everyday not to put worldview or religious boxes over my head. I do not want to have  everything defined and neat and orderly.

If we keep putting boxes over our heads, when we run into other boxes we will not know how to relate to anything outside of our own box. We won’t know how to live a limitless life because living within the defined boundaries is all we’ve ever known.

If we stay in our boxes, we will perceive everything outside our boxes as a threat to our safety and destruction of our self-concept. Thoughts or people or ideas that differ from our defined constructs will be treated as a threat to our safe and happy life.

Can we live without the boxes? Can we reach beyond the constructs of our understanding to realize that we built the boxes in the first place, and that we can also remove them?

Is “definition” in itself really just an illusion?