A friend recently asked me what I was planning to write about next. I said that I didn’t know, except that my intention was to not plan it; instead, I wanted to give my writing a chance to unfold; to emerge from within. Fundamentally, the essence of this creative process is identical to the orientation towards inner knowing which is cultivated in the practice of meditation. It has three interrelated aspects: 1) the intention to receive experience in lieu of any effort to manage or control it; 2) the commitment to allocate time, space, and energy to writing; and 3) an attitude of trust towards whatever would emerge as a consequence of #1 and #2.
I knew that my ability to write clearly, like my ability to discern clearly, often depends upon how well I am able to clear the clutter or confusion in my mind at any given moment. If I could appropriately settle myself to write, much as I try to do when engaging a process of self-inquiry, I trusted that what I was looking for would appear.
Ironically, having articulated and written that one thought, I recognized that a new piece of writing had, in fact, just begun. Beginning with the question of “What do I want to write next? ”, my first discovery was that the answer to this question was best revealed to me through the process of engaging in the act of writing. In this way, the activity of writing became an embodied act of inquiry unto itself.
Second, as I have written elsewhere , posing an inquiry question is a powerful act. The question serves as a kind of intentional matrix of meaning which serves to support growth and facilitate the emergence of new experience. Because I have struggled with a feeling of inner tyranny, this inquiry was an appropriate ‘practice’ for me.
As I immersed myself in the process of writing, a set of contemplative reflections started to crystallize in my mind as fractals of a lifetime of interrelated thoughts about the nature of inner freedom. I saw quite clearly that my quest for inner freedom has been one of the central repeating themes of my life. I also saw clearly the pattern of psychological obstacles I have encountered in my lifelong pursuit of this freedom. The metaphor of “fractals” seemed perfect, implying as it does that the questions we face and the choices we make are self-similar in the different levels of our lives, our behavior, and our psyches.
Freedom fromhas mostly been something I have struggled with in relation to the constant demands of my professional striving and what I have termed the “tyranny of the to do list.” Freedom tohas mostly lived for me as a quest for the highly valued experience of spacious awareness familiar to me from meditation practice. In either case, the pursuit of freedom needs to begin by exploring the ways that we don’t feel free. In the words of the familiar Zen saying, “the obstacle is the path.” Obstacles are not what stands in our way; they are the way itself.
A basic layer of the core of the issue for me has to do with how I typically manage the Doing of life, including functions such as defining goals, planning and prioritizing tasks, and similar. “Planning Mind” is a useful shorthand for these various executive functions. I am highly organized by nature, most at home within a framework of schedules and To Do lists. I am oriented toward working hard at everything I do. This allows me to be productive but, alas, this personal m.o. is not conducive to receptively allowing anything!
In writing an essay, for example, the good student in me readily goes to work generating outlines and bullet points. While this kind of structure is not optimal in regard to freedom of self-expression, I can also recognize that my analytical mind often comes up with a lot of creative ideas, so I try to avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Where does this leave me? With the challenge to find a balance between being proactive and directed, on the one hand, and receptive and allowing on the other.
There are several interrelated layers of psychological issues.. The way we relate to Time is central. To be too much in a hurry, beset with deadlines, too pressured or impatient for results, is a hindrance to contemplative writing. The Buddha used the simile of the lute to illustrate the concept of right effort: strings which are tuned either too tight or too loose interfere with the quality of the music that the instrument can make. In regard to time, the most useful self-guidance is to Slow Down. This takes a lot of practice, but is a very worthy contemplative aspiration.
In order to deepen my inquiry about the tyranny of time in my life, I recently devoted four days to a meditation “staycation” (self-retreat) in order to explore how scheduling lives in my experience. In order to deepen my experience of the non-doing which is meditation, I deliberately decided in advance not to predetermine my schedule of practice: not to choose in advance of the actual moment what practice I would do in that period of practice (sitting meditation, walking meditation, yoga, etc.) I thought of this as an extension of the idea of open-focus awareness practice: Instead of a pre-determined schedule of practice, I would simply investigate how “free choice” actually unfolded from moment to moment and over the days of the retreat. Many of the ideas about subjective experience of freedom explored in this essay became clearer to me during those days of retreat practice.
Gradually The Pursuit of Freedom became my contemplative focus in this essay. It was apparent to me that the crux of the issue is the structure of our inner tyrannies: that which makes us hold on so tightly to what we are doing/feel that we need to do. We all have basic needs for safety, love, and belonging; the need to be in control, to solve problems, and to stay safe. Other things being equal, we become organized around the pursuit of whatever we think will make us happy: pleasure, success, power, money, status, relationships, and so on. The tyranny of striving rests on deeply embedded aspects of character which make us vulnerable to states of inner angst. For example, we may feel anxious about whether we will be able to get what we need; or, we may feel driven to try to get more of whatever it is, driven by the fear that we won’t be able to get enough.
There are endless variations. As a starting point, it is helpful for people to see clearly what it is that they are trying to be, do, or have. In some form or another, most of us are caught up in trying to be in control of something we are not in control of. Often, we are consciously or unconsciously trying to “fix it” (or fix ourselves).
When this predicament reveals itself, a common next reaction is: “So how do I stop doing that?” as if it were something that we needed to do. Just as we cannot “fall ourselves to sleep at night”, what is wanted and needed in regard to many of our problems is, instead, the absence of our customary doing. When possible, we can make a different choice. But, in general, what we need to “do” is simply to see more clearly what we are holding tightly to or trying to control, and, as best we are able, relax into the predicament.
Easy to say but hard to do. (Actually, not something which can be done at all!)
Regardless of what our particular pursuit may be, the essence of inner tyranny is that we get stuck in defining the meaning of our lives in terms of completions which live in the future. This is a true predicament, in that you simply can’t get there from here. Seeking stands in the way of finding.
You can Be happy, but you can’t get happy.
Those who have followed my work or who know me personally will recognize that what I have written here is fundamentally what I have learned as I have inquired deeply into “workaholism” [i]. Writing this issue of INQUIRING DEEPLY NEWSLETTER has been a marvelous vehicle for the process of that self-exploration/ inquiry. What is conceptualized on these pages has articulated and validated some insights which have been in the process of unfolding in me for some time.
The overarching ongoing theme is, I think, my quest for internal freedom through a shift from Doing to Being. There is a beautiful challenge in holding this intention without making it into a pursuit of some future attainment. In the most rewarding of such moments, the experience of freedom lives in me both as an appreciation of the perfection of What Is as well as an opening into an unlimited sense of possibility.
[i] For example, see Schuman (2006) Driven To Distraction: Observations on Obsessionality. in Cooper, P. (ed) Into the Mountain Stream: Psychoanalysis and Buddhist Experience. Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland
[i]Schuman (2020). Inquiring deeply about equanimity. Unpublished manuscript.
[ii] “Reflections on Pace of Life. Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, December 2021
[iii] For example, see Schuman (2006) Driven to Distraction: Observations on Obsessionality. in Cooper, P. (ed) Into The Mountain Stream: Psychoanalysis and Buddhist Experience. Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland.