I have a new favorite question.
A wise man (namely, Thanissaro Bhikkhu) once said: “As the Buddha has pointed out, the attitude of ‘appropriate attention’ – the ability to focus on the right questions – is one of the most important skills to develop in the course of the practice. This skill is much more fruitful than an attitude that tries to come to the practice armed with all the right answers in advance.”
He’s also fond of reminding us that mindfulness is not synonymous with awareness, as we so often hear. When the Buddha taught the skill of mindfulness, he was referencing our faculty of memory; what are we “holding in mind?” So one of the things I hold in mind is the intention to examine what questions I’m asking … and what assumptions I might not be aware I’m making.
Our assumptions can show up in how we phrase our questions (known as “wording bias“), and even the way we ask questions carries significant meaning. Consider this common question we ask ourselves:
“Why do I keep overthinking about THAT thing?”
Depending on our attitude, this could be an open inquiry (“say, what processes are unfolding here?”) or an aggressive interrogation (“why does this keep happening? Just stop!”).
During a stressful time recently, I remembered – and held in mind! – a technique that I’ve found helpful again and again over my years of practice:
When life gets complicated, make the practice simpler.
When I saw how I was getting keyed up and feeling overwhelmed, I recalled two things. First, to stop getting carried away by the mind, it’s helpful to direct attention to bodily experience. And second, I needed to make my meditation practice (on and off the cushion) very, very, basic. What was the simplest question I could ask?
Maintaining my focus on the body, I asked, “where is there stress right now?” I took a moment to notice which part of the body appeared to feel the most anxious, or tense, or clenched. When I found that spot, I simply held my attention there, using my breathing as an anchor and a vantage point from which to observe that felt process.
Notice which questions I didn’t ask.
I didn’t ask WHY there was stress, or WHO caused it, or HOW it got there. I also didn’t ask where “my” stress was, or where “I” was feeling it. I avoided any phrasing that involved any kind of selfing, ownership, or blame. I didn’t even question how I should “fix” anything. It was completely about the experience in and of itself. (There’s certainly room for fixing and “selfing” in our practice, but this was about keeping it as basic as possible.)
I found that my experiences of stress, tension, and clenching often changed just by doing this. Why? Because these aren’t things that happen TO us; they’re activities we DO. Stressing, tensing, clenching … these are actions. They don’t happen on their own. Someone has to be DOING the stressing, tensing, and clenching. When I shifted my attention to inquiring into the result of these activities, I momentarily stopped doing them.
Once I interrupted the stress cycle, the experience changed, usually in the form of a subtle feeling of re-balancing.
The trick there is not to try to create the feeling of re-balancing (or anything else, for that matter), because that ironically adds stress and pressure to the situation. Simply set a new condition in place by asking the question, and see what the effects are. Observe what happens in the moment, and observe what happens over time.
I’ve found that doing this more often has a cumulative effect. The more I ask this question, the less I engage in the stress cycle in the first place. I’ve even started to notice how I react to difficult things more calmly, without even trying (or maybe because I’m not trying 😄).
So I’ve gotten into the habit of asking my new favorite question pretty regularly: “where is there stress right now?” What’s the worst that could happen … I can’t find any?