Many years ago I had the opportunity to go into a long retreat. As I sat in my cabin all day with nothing to distract me from my mind, I found it too painful not to practice. That’s the beauty of retreat. Where can one go? Because of the intensity of the situation, I was determined to engage my sanity. What that meant to me at the time was to sit up straight and follow my instructions with fervor. But these instructions alone sustained me for only so long. I sought something deeper—a way to enjoy all the experiences I encountered without bias. This positive sense of dissatisfaction pushed me further and I began to ask myself some deeper questions, the first one being: When am I practicing and when am I not? What exactly does it mean to practice? I had to be sure.

We can receive guidance on how to sit in the lotus position and watch our breath, contemplate, visualize, or recite mantras. True, these techniques can support practice, help us focus our mind, or connect us with our innate wisdom. But we probably all know that it is possible to engage in these activities without practicing at all. For this reason, it would be a mistake to view these instructions as the practice itself.

We can receive teachings on the nature of suffering, compassion, or emptiness, but when we sit down to practice, no one can show us how to integrate these teachings. What we end up doing with the wild and unruly character of our thoughts and emotions still remains a question for us. How we bring the practice to life is something personal, and it can’t be taught.

Sometimes we receive a direct transmission from a teacher or have an encounter that has an awakening affect on us. We often get excited about these small awakenings. But how we use these short passing experiences to liberate the mind from confusion presents yet another koan—an open question—for the practitioner.

It dawned on me early on that practice has something to do with how we digest the rich energy of experience: terror, bliss, excitement, pain, boredom—my days were full of such experiences. At the end of each day I wondered if there was anything else left to experience. It turned out there was.

I started to watch how I responded to what I perceived as a lot of mayhem. At times my mind would drift into fantasies, and I believed them. Other times I found myself rejecting or pushing against my experience in a way that felt painful and aggressive.

I was sitting up straight, following the instructions I had received, eager to move ahead. But was this alone the practice? What about the tug-of-war I was having with my experience? In the Buddhadharma I had never received instructions encouraging the practitioner to go with the momentum of thoughts and emotions. We never hear “Go ahead, get pissed off or excited, lose yourself in fantasy, give up your sense of presence.” Nor do we receive instructions that say “Just disengage yourself from experience, retreat into your ego, fight with your emotions, judge yourself!” Clearly, these two approaches were not the practice.

In fact, I noticed that these two approaches reflected my habitual attempt to escape the rich energy of experience. When this happened, I found myself creating a puny and painful world full of preferences, wants and not-wants.

As I observed the situation, my question—“what does it mean to practice?”—got more specific. I wondered what would happen if I stopped trying to escape my thoughts and emotions by attempting to manage them, put a lid on them, reject them, embellish them, or affirm them. I wanted to know what pain, pleasure, depression, or beauty might be like before I messed with them. What would it be to have a full experience of these things?

Photograph by Douglas Adesko

Now this question brought me to the essential—the core. There is no how-to for this one. It is not even a question we can ask with the intellect. It is a question we have to be.

If we attempt to explain the experience of “being the question,” we can only talk around it. Because “being” is an experience, and the moment we try to describe it we shut down around an idea. But perhaps we could attempt to describe it by saying that being the question has something to do with our ability to tolerate or bear witness to the full expressions of experience, rather than closing down around them and then reacting to them through our preferences.

We might call this approach to experience “the practice of open questioning.”

When we ask an open question we have not yet found an answer. And this leaves the mind free, unobstructed, and ready for adventure. And yet there is nothing ignorant or vague about this openness, because questioning actively engages the movement and fluidity of life.

The tradition of open questioning has been around at least as long as the Buddha. When the Buddha gave up trying to find answers and sat with a wide-open mind under the Bodhi tree, he attained enlightenment. And don’t think he didn’t have a name for his discovery—he called it the Middle Way of being. The term “Middle” points to the ignorance-free zone between static conclusions and stupidity, grasping and rejecting, believing and doubting. It is the vast and deep alternative to the tug-of-war we have with our world.

The depth and precision with which the Buddha communicated his discovery—an experience that surpasses words—goes far beyond genius. But this doesn’t mean we don’t still have to figure it out for ourselves. No one can ever explain to us how to have an experience. If they could, we would all be enlightened by now. Our task as practitioners is to bring the teachings to life in a personal way. No one can tell us how to do it. This is the practitioner’s koan—the open question.


Excerpted from The Power of an Open Question


When we sit down to practice, it takes but a moment to spin out into thought—to get lost in fantasy. Suddenly we can’t remember the date of our last tetanus shot. We start to go over our schedule. When can we see the nurse? But in the meantime, what if we step on a nail? What if we get lockjaw?

We take these thoughts so seriously. We get all worked up, feeling that it’s all so important, and then, suddenly, someone coughs and the sound penetrates our fantasy bubble and it pops… Where are we?

Oh, right. We’re on a group retreat in a room full of people. Our eyes were open but we didn’t see a thing. Our ears were open but we didn’t hear or feel the world around us because we basically had checked out. The practice instructions didn’t enter our minds, because all the while we were tending to important imaginary matters, driven on by the momentum of our thoughts.

Exaggerations embed themselves in our individual thoughts and—emotions as well as our national ones. We have seen how the stability or instability of our national economy, for instance, depends largely upon our individual and collective hopes and fears. Hopes and fears morph into speculations, fantasies, dreams, and nightmares—all of which show up on the path to the “American dream.” While they may shape our economy, they certainly don’t lead us into a direct relationship with reality.

Exaggeration disengages us from the present to one degree or another, which means we lose our connection to the world around us. In the case of the economy, when the prosperity bubble pops, it forces us back to life’s basics: food and rent. We start to ask some basic questions: “How can I simplify my life? How can I adapt to the changes I see around me? Maybe I should start a garden, maybe get some chickens to farm some eggs.”

In the case of meditation practice, when our fantasy bubble pops, we return to the basics of our breath, our bodies, our connection to other beings and the world around us, the wisdom of our tradition. All these things bring us back to the present moment. When we start to practice meditation, we may be astounded by how often our mind is off musing and how rarely we are awake to the basic realities of life. But soon the practice quiets our mind, and we begin to understand the difference between staying present and spinning out into fantasy. Meditation practice provides us with a context to question whether or not we even have a choice between relaxing with the rich energy of our experience or distracting ourselves with busyness.

Excerpted from The Power of an Open Question by Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel, © 2010. Published by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

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