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Lions Roar : July 2010
. . . . . . . . THIS QUESTION, PERHAPS THE MOST important one, is actually a Zen koan, in that it can't be answered by the thinking mind. The only answer comes from entering directly into the im- mediate, physical experience of the present moment. Right now, ask yourself, "What is this?" Even if you don't feel any distress, this question can apply to whatever the present moment holds. Become aware of your physical posture. Feel the overall quality of physical sensations in the body. Feel the tension in the face, chest, and stomach. Include awareness of the environment-the temperature, the quality of light, the surrounding sounds. Feel the body breathing in and out as you take in this felt sense of the moment. Feel the energy in the body as you focus on the "what- ness" (rather than the "whyness") of your experience. Only by doing this will you answer the question What is this? Admittedly, it is difficult to maintain awareness in the present moment when distress is present, because to truly experience the present as it is means we have to refrain from our most habitual defenses, such as justifying, trying to get control, going numb, seeking diversions, and so on. The sole purpose of these strate- gies is to protect us from feeling the pain we don't want to feel. But until we can refrain from these defenses, and feel the physical experience directly, we will stay stuck in the storyline of "me;' unaware of what life really is in the moment. For example, if we feel anxiety, it's natural to want to avoid feeling it. We may get busy to occupy ourselves, or try harder, or try to figure it out. But if we can ask ourselves What is this? the only important and real answer comes from the actual physical experience of anxiety in the present moment. Remember, we're not asking what it's about, which is analyzing-the opposite of being physically present. We're simply asking what it actually is. Asking the question-koan What is this? is the essence of awak- ening the quality of curiosity, in that the only "answer" comes from being open to actually experiencing the truth of each mo- ment. Curiosity means that we're willing to explore unknown territory-the places the ego doesn't want to go. Curiosity allows us to take a step at our edge, toward our deepest fears. Being truly curious means we're willing to say "Yes" to our experience, even the hard parts, instead of indulging the "No" of our ha- bitual resistance. Saying "Yes" doesn't mean we like our experience, or that we necessarily feel accepting. It doesn't even mean we override the "No." Saying "Yes" simply means that we pay attention-metic- 54 SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2010 at Is This? ulous attention-to the "No:' It means we're no longer resisting the people, things, and fears we don't like; instead we're learning to open to them, to invite them in, to welcome them with curios- ity, in order to experience what's actually going on. Yet, sometimes, when the mind is reeling in the panic of self- doubt and confusion, it is particularly difficult to come back to the heart that seeks to awaken. In these moments, how can we find the willingness to stay present with our own fears-the fears that will always limit our ability to love? When everything seems dark and unworkable, when we've even lost touch with the desire to move toward the light, the one thing we can do is take a deep breath into the center of the chest, on the in-breath, and on the out-breath extend to ourselves the same warmth and compas- sion we would to a friend or child in distress. Breathing into the heart, physically connecting with the center of our being, is a way to extend loving-kindness to ourselves even when there appears to be no loving-kindness in sight. While remembering that our distress is also our path, and breathing the distressful sensations into the center of the chest- we can learn to stay with the actual sensations of distress. It's important to understand that being able to ask What is this?- and truly reside with what we find there-takes a great deal of patience and courage. Maybe we can only do it a little. But we persevere-even if it's just three breaths at a time. Ultimately, it's awareness that heals. It's awareness that allows us to reconnect with the heart, the heart that is the essence of our being. Recently I was told I had to have a medical procedure to de- termine whether or not I had prostate cancer. Combined with the fear around the thought of having prostate cancer were the memories of painful experiences of prior similar medical proce- dures, leading to a feeling of dread and morbidity. Over the years I've become free of many of my fears and attachments, but each of us has our own particular edge-that place beyond which fear tells us not to go-so even though I had extensive experience practicing with illness and pain, there was no doubt that this particular set of circumstances put me at my personal edge. It was helpful to answer the first question- What is going on right now?- because I could see that there was actually no physi- cal discomfort other than the discomfort triggered by believing in my fear- based thoughts. It was also helpful to ask myself, "Can I see this situation as my path?" -pointing to the opportunity to work with my own particular attachments and fears. As well,