Tuesday Inquiry: What is here if there is no problem to solve?

Alas, last week’s inquiry did not record. However, I will share some of my reflections about it here. We began with an experiment, an exercise from the book Shift Into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness, by Loch Kelly, a teacher in the tradition of Adyashanti. I’ve not finished the book, but I wanted to explore some of the exercises he suggests.

Here is the exercise we tried on Tuesday. It is called “Glimpse 1: No Problem.” Here is how Kelly introduces it:

This exercise is a direct pointer for shifting out of ego-identification and into awake awareness as your ground of Being. Most people feel a sense of underlying dissatisfaction that leads to craving and aversion, which is created by ego-identification. From ego-identification, we then try to solve the problem of mistaken identity by changing things in our personality or our environment. This creation of a problem-solver identity is what binds us and blinds us to the freedom that’s already there…In this practice you’ll discover that you can shift out of your mistaken identity in a moment. The goal is not to escape the normal issues and choices in your daily life, but to shift out of the mistaken problem-solver identity. When you make that shift and discover awake awareness as the ground of Being, you’ll have fewer troubles and can more easily solve daily challenges.
Here is how I guided the exercise, drawing from the book:
    1.    Settle into a comfortable, still position, and close your eyes. Ask yourself this question internally: What is here now if there is no problem to solve?
    2.    Rest and remain alert to who or what is experiencing.
    3.    Who is here? What is aware? What is here when there is nowhere to go and nothing to do? Nothing to know or create or become? What is here, just now, when you are not the problem solver?
    4.    Feel into whatever shows up here and now. Who or what is aware? What is here when there is no referencing the past, no going one moment into the future, when you’re not settling into sleep and not going up into thought? What’s here now? What is it like when there’s no problem to solve just now? What do you notice? What is absent? What essential qualities are revealed?
    5.    Take a breath and pause. Then ask with a beginner’s mind and curiosity: What is here now if there is no problem to solve?

I asked folks what the experience was like for them, because I am always exploring the usefulness of various practices and techniques and it is helpful to have feedback, even for such a short practice with them. Not everything enjoyable is actually useful, and not everything difficult is to be discarded in our practice of course. We generally want to be transformed as long as we don’t have to change! But the responses from folks at inquiry were thoughtful and positive.

We talked mainly about the difference between thinking in terms of problems to be solved and situations to be met. I told the story of Joko and her student who was a brilliant polymath. He had memorized all of Shakespeare’s works, had an encyclopedic knowledge of wine, physics, and many other subjects. But he had decided not to go into academia; instead, he had started a business making custom doors, and had grown very successful. “Joko,” he said, “my employees are not stupid, but they are simple. They would come to me every day with problems.  I told them when they went home, they should write a paragraph describing the “problem” as a situation, leave out any personal pronouns and bring it in the next day. If they had an idea about how to manage the situation, they should go ahead and do it, and they should only involve me if they could not figure out how to manage the situation.” Joko was really impressed with this. “The funny thing is,” he continued, “things not only improved dramatically at work, but they applied the same principle at home and they all tell me their family life has improved as well.”

So for example, instead of “We have a problem shipping the doors on time because they are always late getting them finished,” you would say “unfortunately, the doors are shipping late; it seems the finishing takes more time than planned.” Rather than analysis, blame, and attempts at problem-solving, you have a situation that everyone feels a stake in, and you can draw on multiple resources to manage the situation because no one feels defensive or attacked.

So we played around with what that might look like for various situations people in inquiry described. It is very hard to shake the “problem” frame, which is so prevalent in our culture. It is not that nothing fits in that frame; it is that the frame limits our view and restricts our capacity for a creative, cooperative response to the situation. A problem implies a single, correct solution, typically applied by one person, for a satisfactory (and permanent) outcome. Almost nothing in our world works that way. Something with a simple, obviously correct solution never becomes a “problem.” It is simply taken care of.

What we are left with, then, are messy, complex situations without clear boundaries that can only be met; there is no “outcome,” only an ongoing situation creating future situations to be met. Once we recognize this, we are free to engage other participants in creative responses, to draw on a wide range of resources, to find unexpected paths and evolutionary processes. This is aliveness, meeting situations with openness, friendly curiosity, and what Hershock calls improvisational virtuosity.

But when we define our lives as a series of problems to be solved we are engaged in a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, and we lose sight of our larger participation in the world. The analogy I used was of walking on a rickety suspension bridge over a chasm, struggling not to fall through the slats or over the side. We are completely focused in the moment, but it is a narrow focus. Meanwhile, we are completely surrounded by the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains. From time to time we might glance up: nice sunset! Looks like fog is rolling in, but for the most part, we are intent upon our next step. In such a scenario our Zen practice, our sangha, and the precepts are like the rope hand rails that give us something to hold on to and keep us from falling over the edge. They also make it possible for us to stop and look around at the immensely profound landscape in which we are immersed. This immediate moment is inconceivably wide.

When we think in terms of situations instead of problems, we look not for solutions but for a healthy direction for the whole situation and everyone in it. Problems create anxiety and uncertainty that we rush to relieve; situations are experiential and holistic, not sequential. Instead of fixing something, we are relating with the whole, realizing that we do not have, and cannot ever have a complete view of the situation, or a prescient understanding of what might develop from it. We serve the situation by meeting it wholeheartedly, offering what we can offer, and looking for the potential to move toward relief of suffering, well-being, and liberation for every being in it. The quality of “awake awareness” spoken of in the exercise is a practical necessity for realizing this aspiration. We sit in meditation not to become better problem-solvers, nor to solve particular "problems," but to cultivate the wisdom, clarity, and compassion to meet situations in this way. There is nothing for the ego in such an approach: we are not heroes nor victims nor villains, nor even neutral bystanders. We are simply and fully present, with mind and heart and hands wide open, ready to meet whatever is arising, right here, right now.

So that is what I recall from our Tuesday inquiry, and I apologize for the lack of recording. If you have additions, please add them in the comments below!

Shift Into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness, by Loch Kelly, Sounds True, 2015.

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Appamada is not just the occasional mindful thought or attentive state of mind, it’s actually a commitment to being attentive. It’s more than just a meditative state of mind, it’s more than just being mindful. It has to do with that primary ethical or moral orientation we have in life, with which we bring into being whatever activity we’re engaged in. Whether in formal meditation, in our interactions with other people, in our social concerns, or in our political choices, it’s the energetic cherishing of what we regard as good.

—Stephen Batchelor


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