A retreatant participates in an Inquiry. An Inquiry does not include theories, abstract ideas, speculations or views of about the future. She or he sits besides myself in the front of the Dharma hall. A participant can speak about or ask about any significant issue of concern and interest that she or he wishes. An Inquiry might last for five minutes or 25 minutes and sometimes longer.. The Inquiry offers mindful/meditative listening for all of us. An Inquiry can generate an insight or understanding for questioner, listeners and teacher. The participant or myself can say ‘thank you’ to bring the Inquiry to a close at any time. An inquiry might close with understanding or possibly for further reflection.
Here is an example of an Inquiry. This Inquiry took place on the retreat in the Thai Monastery in Sarnath, India in February 2020. A few spots of editing help make clear when reading. Different initials used for person.
MA: I do not have any special request. I am curious to go deeper and into the ego.
CT: That is important. May I ask which features or aspects of the ego come together? Are there any areas which are important for you? Or shall we explore in a more general way?
MA: I am curious about the relationship of insights and thoughts. Sometimes I’m confused a little bit when I have insights or thoughts. I am wondering if it is ego. Sometimes, I’m wondering if liberation is the absence of ego. Is it an empty mind?
CT: Shall we go back insights and thoughts first. There is some uncertainty whether the ego is involved in all of that. Would that be right?
CT: Picture in six days of our being here together. Are there any moments which stand out for you? Is there an insight? Is the insight clear? After that insight has come, some thoughts about it arise. Do you have any moments or experience in this time of something standing out for you? Would you like to speak about it or leave the insight where it is. It is entirely up to you.
MA: |Your question is: During the six days do you have insights or thoughts?
CT: Yes. Does anything stand out which you have witnessed or observed?
MA: I’ve had many moments of deep insight. Just before the last meditation I was sometimes thinking it was too much. I sometimes feel I want more rest.
CT: There is the rhythm of the days. There is mindfulness. There are the meditations. Something become clear to you. Then there is some thought about that. Does the voice inside of you say: “I need some rest in my mind about the thoughts about the insight?”
MA: I am not sure that I’m making the difference between the insights and the thoughts. This might be the point. Sometimes the insights come from the deep within. And the thoughts come out of the mind. The ego might be among the thoughts.
CT: Something deep comes through to you. The thought seemed to be in your head, so to speak. The deep can feel genuinely authentic and real from your current understanding. Could the mind communicate an insight with just thoughts and the absence of the deeply felt insights? When the insights come from the deep for some people, there is a certain sensation. The mind could be quietly thinking about something. Can such a mind create an insight?
MA: I don’t know (smiling).
CT: You need to be open to the different directions of insight. In the days here, and in the exchange we are having right now, is there any sense in your thought world what would tell you, “I am having some thoughts about and this is insightful” or “ I am having thoughts about. I am having thoughts about. I am having thoughts about. But there is no insight. What would communicate to you that thought can reveal an insight and can be a great support? What would contribute to being clear about an insight rather than just thoughts and thoughts and thoughts?
MA: I feel that when there are judgements about my insights, I start thinking and feeling uncomfortable feelings.
CT: I get the picture. Feeling element support the stream of thoughts. Can the meeting of feelings and thoughts contribute to clarity about what is happening?
MA: When the thoughts keep going on, it is easier because these are comfortable thoughts. I continue them because there is a good feeling about them. Or they are uncomfortable thoughts but I keep nourishing them, even though I want them to stop.
CT: The clarity of what you just described is an insight showing you can see clearly. There are certain feelings which trigger the thoughts and so thoughts continue. There is a clarity about that. Is there enough power in the clarity to let the thoughts, under the influence of the pleasant or unpleasant feeling, end that sequence of thinking?
MA: There is a theoretical answer and a practical answer.
CT: Practical answer please.
MA: (a giggle) Usually I tell myself that my thoughts don’t exist. With my thoughts I am trying to come back to be here and now. ‘Thoughts are vanishing. They are nothing. These thoughts have no importance.’ These are the thoughts.
CT: Here is an analogy. We have a thorn in the hand like a rose with its thorns. The thorn is sharp. It sticks in your hand, so we take another thorn to get that thorn out. There is a feeling coupled with thinking. We wish this thinking to come to an end. These thoughts are not very helpful. What thought would give support to the thought to put an end to the thinking? What would you apply?
MA: Wow. You are doing a great job. It is thoughts about judgement. There is still the nourishing of them. Did I answer the question?
CT: 50% (smiling). What will tell that your thought is helpful, true and clear, even if the thoughts continue? What would tell you the thought is ego thinking? What would tell you the difference?
MA: Ego is when I try to put myself up or put myself down.
CT: Lovely. There is an extension of thinking. Exactly as you said, the thoughts have some investment, a habit of needing to build oneself up or put oneself down. That is putting more wood on the fire of the ego. As you said earlier, ego is being judgemental. What is going to resolve the reactive thought? What is going to change ego thinking to a bare description, which has not got the I, me and my in it? What would make the difference for you?
MA: When I make some distance from ego thinking and I can feel and see what is going on.
CT: The feeling here is always important. If you take a distance from the ego, does it feel like you are cutting yourself off from it?
CT: What allows a distance from a sequence of pleasant or unpleasant feelings and thinking? What shows a reactivity producing I, me and my? I am completely with you. One takes some distance. We find some space around such thinking. What will tell you that you are making some space around the feelings/thoughts of ego? What show you are not withdrawing and cutting yourself off from the sequence?
MA: When I feel the energy is more in the deep and on the earth. I can feel the difference when I am in the head.
CT: You have made an insightful and fine point. Sometimes it is knowing clear thinking and knowing agitated thinking through building up oneself and putting oneself down. We can move away from the head as you point out. We can be deeper down in the body. It is not cutting off but giving yourself the opportunity to experience more deeply. This keeps the energy and the being grounded. When your inner world is quiet, there is no stream of thinking, pleasant or unpleasant. You find space. There is clarity without reaction of the old habit. What is your experience when you are not caught in a sequence of thinking or reactions?
MA: Could you say again?
CT: Your stream of thoughts is quiet. There is no concern for you about such sequences. What would you say of your experience in these times? This quiet experience is really present for you.
MA: I feel completely connected to the outer world. I feel vibrations.
CT: When we are out of the world of thinking, and there are many worlds, then we expand out into a sense of connectedness, as you said. We experience inter-connectedness and cellular life more deeply. Does that inter-connectedness sit , walk and stand with you?
MA: Yes. That is really good to experience.
CT: Your appreciations are genuinely healthy. It is a statement of the fact. The appreciation is not being used to build up-self-importance. There is a quiet joy. Even when you were speaking, the smiles and the humour were emerging out of you as you shared your experience. This is precious. Your connectedness is open and spacious in the way you described. It is knowing a bigger world, we might say. What else is to be acknowledged and seen? What other insights might come from that expansion? So there is more appreciation for such an experience. There are lots of opportunity for insight.
MA: I would say that there is that absence of ego when I am not separated from inter-connectedness. There is something about the ego but I don’t how to describe it.
CT: Ego is very difficult to describe. Ego is not always so much in the words or descriptions but seen in the feeling tone. There is a curiosity which comes out of you.
MA: It is about being here and now. It is not about trying to reach something. It is not about not having an ego. It is the feeling of being inter-connected.
CT: This is an important insight. The self wants to get to somewhere. This is ego activity. A break from this reveals the web of life, the inter-connectedness. This shows a presence with more depth. Ah, does this Expanse also include the ego?
CT: Ego is also an event which is taking place. Metaphorically, the ego is like the clouds covering up the sun. The ego is just a compound, a friction. It does not really have the power to block the intimacy with the Expanse. It seems sometimes we are very much identified with the ego. That is all we can feel, think and see. Then, of course, the clouds pass by. In your days here, is your general sense exploring the Expanse which is truly inclusive? These are all difficult questions. Why is it important to include the ego in the Immensity of thing, the inter-connectedness of things and the web of life?
MA: Because we are not Buddhas (smiling).
CT: Go on.
MA: That is how we are. Liberation is knowing who we are and how we are.
CT: Can I refer to the Buddha since you brought up the Buddha?
CT: The Buddha expressed exactly the same as you just expressed. You probably do not know this. At the time of the Buddha, the traditional view was that one had to exhaust all the ego, yes all of it, and only then could one be liberated. This was the common view then. The Buddha changed that whole conception. He said the human being can genuinely know the Expanse, the inter-connectedness and freedom and still experience obstructions, hindrances and the ego. One works on the ego. The ego does not have the power to deny the other, namely liberation. That is the teaching of the Buddha. This shows Buddha mind, Buddha consciousness. Sometimes, the ego is hardly in play and sometimes constructed but does not have the power to block out liberation. As you said, it is to be included. A Buddha insight.
MA: May I add something?
CT: Please do. Anything you wish.
MA: I will try to answer your question. Why we should not suppress the ego? The reason is that it would be an ego trying to suppress the ego.
CT: Five star. There is the Expanse. There are different languages. The Immense. The Profound. The Inter-connectedness. Many ways to refer to the Untrapped and Unconstructed. It would be the ego trying to get rid of the ego. Exactly as you said.
MA: (smiling). That is what I tell myself. When I see what is happening to the ego, I say to myself, “It is OK. Just see that is what is happening.” If I wanted something else, it would be ego centred.
CT: I agree. It really can happen like that. There can be the seeing of the ego. There can be reactivity against it. There is a loop. The ego reacts upon itself. This keeps the continuity of it. To see the ego clearly and with enough understanding and experience of the Expanse. There is the opportunity to see clearly without feeding the ego. One really knows that this ego is a small wave in the Great Ocean. If you forget the Expanse, then it is easy to get lost in the ego. Sometimes, there is the seeing that this is ego – a memory, an old habit, with clinging involved in ‘I’ and ‘my’. Ego is putting myself up and putting myself down. One sees this. That is all it is. The ego is empty. The sense of ego fading and dissolving starts to reveal the Ocean. Ah, this is a wise response not reactivity. Enough said?
MA: Thank you.
CT: Thank you. Thank you. Let’s all of us have a quiet minute together, please.