I wasn't planning to ask him a question. It was the end of day one of a two day meditation retreat with Anam Thubten and people started lining up to ask him their personal questions. "If you want to ask him a practice question, now is the time," urged the woman next to me. She had been part of the community for years. I clearly looked hesitant. "Don't be shy, this is your chance." Ok Universe. I hear you. I said to myself. It's always like that. I'm stubborn, and the Universe keeps nudging me along until it's blatantly apparent and then I give up on digging in my heels and walk.
The truth is that I did have a burning question. It had been burning my heart for weeks and during morning reflections and meditations.
When it was my turn we both greeted each other and I asked my fated question. Which really, I don't actually remember because what came next out of his mouth was like a sonic boom in my mind. He looked deep into my eyes, as if to pierce the very center of my soul. I felt myself start to shake. Feel scared even. And a rush of tears started moving up my body to my eyes.
"Live as if you were already dead," he told me.
Here comes the tears. I bit my lip trying to keep my composure, not wanting to totally loose it in front of people in cue behind me. I wanted to be strong. What I didn't realize was that he was inviting me into a whole new level of strength and freedom I'd never touched.
"Be like a samurai." The invitation was clear. To be absolutely fearless. Courageous beyond imagination. So care free, so free from the chains of fear, so deeply immersed in embodying non-attachment. I was dumbfounded. And as I sat there nodding knowing this was the Universe's response to the love letters I've been sending back through my heart over the last several months, we smiled at each other and only one word came out of my mouth "Yes...yes." What would it be like if I lived my life as if I was already dead? I asked myself. And something inside me moved.
Questions are the single most powerful tool in my practice. They are responsible for Earth shattering shifts. New ways of seeing. Unearthing truth I never knew was there. Clear seeing. Insight. Epiphanies. Rapture. It all comes from questions for me.
If you were able to live inside my brain, you'd see that I'm usually playing with questions when I feel stuck. When I notice something interesting about my psyche or my life. Questions are at the center of my experimentation. And while they seem simple, the essential transformation that is possible, that is ripe for us, the clarity of what the next step in our journey is, all quivering in the background behind the questions we are afraid to ask.
Some of my favorite practice questions I've collected along the way from different teachers and discovered myself through experimentation are:
Is that true?
Is this helpful?
What is missing?
What am I feeling?
What do I need right now?
And one of my new favorites questions shared during retreat, what is the state of my mind...right...now?
These questions are deceptively simple on the surface. Certainly, if you ask yourself the question "is this true" in a moment of frustration, it will help you reinforce the story you already know right? You'll learn nothing new. Maybe. Perhaps something else is possible too. If you actually ask the question with a curiosity, an openness, a receptivity to absolutely accept any and all responses that come back, I bet your experience with the magic little question, "is this true" is quite different. Even...profound.
When we are brave enough to ask ourself a question, in a heated moment of emotion, to question everything we know to be true, to question the story we have, to fill in the gaps we are convinced we already know, we meet ourselves and reality...for the first time.
In asking the question, we disrupt the already raging process. The building of fear. The rampaging of anger. The spinning of worry. And in moments of normality, we bring ourselves out of what Tara Brach calls, "the trance" of our minds, and into the reality of our existence. Right. Now.
What did I do with the powerful questions that came from Anam Thubten's invitation? They're now at the center of my practice. In my morning meditations I sit open with the question "What would my life be like if I lived as if I was already dead?" and see what comes back. Or doesn't. I ask the question "what would I do right now if I lived as if I was already dead?" occasionally during my day. I find myself in moments where fear is creeping around the corner asking myself "what if I were a samurai?" I'm certain that a lifetime of practice could be born from these questions alone. They're big. And they strike right at the center of the one energy haunting me most in my practice these days...fear.
For this week's Joy Tip Wednesday, I want to invite us to experience the power of questions. Here's how:
- Choose a question that challenges you. Stretches your mind a little. Keep it simple. Maybe it's a question a teacher has shared. A friend asked you recently. Was sparked from a book you're reading or a song you love to hear. Or maybe you choose from one of my favorite questions. Don't think too much about it. Choose a question that strikes a chord inside of you and go with it.
- Create a practice of regularly asking the question. Maybe it's a question you create space for each morning. At the end of each day. During your lunch break. Or the go-to question when you are feeling a certain way or experiencing a particular situation.
- Open the doors of your heart to the question. Create a cozy energetic space for this powerful question. Invite it in like it is a royal guest you've been waiting your whole life for. Be open to receive anything and everything that comes back. Having this intention creates fruitful ground for insight.
- Listen. Don't think and analyze. Just listen. I can't emphasize this enough as an analytical thinker myself. Listen intuitively to whatever comes back. Don't question it. If you ask a question and a pink pony is the answer that comes back...just go with it. I don't care how whacky, otherwise unrelated, or uninteresting whatever you hear comes back. Just trust it. Watch it. Soak it in. Like you are listening to a child tell an elaborate story. Listen and trust. Listen and trust. Listen...trust.
- Set a time to check in. Maybe you want to try this experiment for one week. For one day. For one month. Stick with one question, and check in to notice what's happened. Approach this check in much like the question process. Keep yourself open and listen rather than jumping into analysis and problem solving.
- Rinse, lather, repeat :) Keep going. Keep playing with questions if you find this practice helpful. I bet you'll be surprised at what you discover!
- Above all...HAVE FUN. Add some whimsy to the process so it's not an opportunity to judge yourself, or find out what's wrong. Or even to fix something or problem solve. Just allow it to be a process of wonder, learning, exploring the deepest depths of who you are.
The more I learn about myself, the more I realize how little I absolutely know. I don't see that as a problem. I see it as the whole point of inquiry. Acknowledging this helps me to stay open to the process. To seeing clearly. When I stay open, when I see clearly, I get clarity, I see the next step in my journey, and most of all I suffer less.
Asking the questions we are scared of exercises the muscles of courage inside our heart.
The more we exercise the muscles of courage in our heart, the more we have the bravery to be none other than our most authentic self. So brave heart, carry on into the lands of inquiry. Play with questions. Sit in wonder and listen. And be prepared to be dazzled by the depth of your wisdom. Pink ponies and all.