Which voice in your head do you trust?

It’s all very well tuning into your inner wisdom, but how do you know it’s reliable? How do you know you are following true guidance and making the right decisions? In this short video, Srimati (Maggie Kay) talks about how to know which of the competing voices in our head to trust. She suggests listening to the inner guidance that leads towards expansiveness and freedom.

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Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase…”

man climbing a cliff face

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step,” said Martin Luther King.

Some years ago, two friends took me rock-climbing in Colorado. I’d only ever climbed with ropes once before, and that had been many years before, so really I was a complete beginner. And nervous.

I found myself suspended half-way up a cliff, in a state of panic, with my friends shouting encouragement from below. My breathing was tight, my heart was pounding, and my limbs felt weak and shaky, but I didn’t have time to think much about that. I was holding on to a narrow ledge that ran horizontally across the rock face — really it was more like a crease. The toes of my climbing shoes were precariously holding on to a couple of tiny nubbins that barely projected from the surface. It seemed like a miracle that I was able to hang on at all.

I looked up, and as far as I could see there was nothing but smooth rock all the way to the top. All I could see above me was a featureless expanse of cliff, with no hand- or toe-holds. I was only about a third of the way up, and it didn’t seem as if there was any way forward.

If I hadn’t decided to change something I’d have remained stuck

My pride wouldn’t let me give up. I took a few deep breaths to steady my nerves and give myself time to think. I looked around, and realized that the only way I could move was sideways. That wasn’t going to take me closer to the top, but at least it was movement, and I’d rather move than stay frozen in fear and indecision. I decided to go for it, rather than remain in my paralyzed state. So I found another nubbin to dig my toes into, and began to inch my way to the left, my fingertips barely keeping a grip on the ledge.

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Since moving sideways was all I could do, I did it. And once I moved and took another look at my situation, I could see a handhold above me that hadn’t been visible before. I reached for it, and managed to get a toe-hold so that I could boost myself up. Above me was another hand-hold, and another, and another, and soon there was a clear way to climb to the top of the cliff, which I did, “Like a rat up a drainpipe,” as one friend put it. It was hard to believe that this was the same rock-face that just a few minutes before seemed utterly unscalable.

And here’s the thing: if I hadn’t made that one earlier change in my position, my perspective would never have shifted and I’d never have been able to move forwards. If I hadn’t decided to change something — even though I doubted that what I was doing was going to help in any way — I’d have remained stuck.

Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, is not part of what I do as a Buddhist.

Sometimes, even if the way isn’t clear, you simply have to change something — almost anything — in order to see things from a different perspective. When we’re experiencing a “stuck” emotion, like despair, hopelessness, fear, or depression — those emotions that freeze us in place, unable to go forwards or back — sometimes we just have to try something new. We need to have the faith to take the first step.

And that means having faith in ourselves. And faith in the possibility that change is possible.

Faith, meaning blind faith, meaning to believe in something even in the absence of any supporting evidence, and often in the face of considerable evidence to the contrary. This is not part of what I do as a Buddhist. And that’s quite proper.

Buddhism is not a “faith” in the sense that you have to assent to various unprovable claims. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal. That’s the attitude we should adopt if we are to follow the Buddha — not believe his words but to test the method that his words were attempting to communicate.

Once the Buddha was talking to a clan who were very confused about religious practice. The tribe — called the Kalamas — were in a similar situation to many of us in the West today. They were surrounded by competing religious and philosophical traditions. Due to the discovery of iron, society had been changing. The old religions — which said that the structure of society, with the priests at the top, naturally, was ordained by the gods — were on the defensive because the structure of society had changed, with the emergence of a powerful new class of merchants. Those same merchants had more time for leisure and for asking what life was really all about. And increasingly, new religious movements were taking root, often in the forests, where renunciates would cut themselves off from society in order to explore meditation and other practices (sometimes extreme ascetic ones).

The Buddha suggested that we test his words as a goldsmith would test the purity of his metal.

So the Kalamas were faced with trying to make sense of the competing claims of dozens of religious and philosophical teachings. Some said that adherence to the old ways of the god was the right thing to do — keep paying the priests to mutter mantras and the crops would grow and you’ll be blessed with many children. Others said that all comfort should be renounced. Yet others said that sensory pleasure was the highest good and that no opportunity for gratification should be passed up. And there were many other traditions, advocating ethical codes, worship practices, meditative exercises, and belief systems.

So when the Buddha was passing through, they took the opportunity to ask him some tough questions about how to decide which teachings were true and which false. The Buddha’s answer was extensive and involved some Socratic dialog, but the most important part was this:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias toward a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.

The Buddha wasn’t saying we should automatically reject tradition, scriptures, intuition, logic, etc. But he was saying that we need to submit these things to two tests:

1. Do teachings, when put into practice, lead to happiness and well-being. This doesn’t mean that we have to try out every teaching, because we can learn by observing others. But the important thing is to see whether or not teachings work in practice as tools for alleviating suffering, and for reducing craving, hatred, and delusion.

2. Are these teachings and practices praised by “the wise.” Now this is a tricky one, because who are the wise? Again, this comes back to experience. Who, in our observation, can generally be relied upon to give good advice? Who, in our experience, is generally reliable, trustworthy, and “walks the talk”?

In this teaching faith isn’t something that comes seems to come first. First is observation, reflection and practice (in short, experience), and then faith follows. We have to take the first step in order to get a sense whether the staircase actually leads anywhere. But in fact we need faith at the very beginning, even before we take the first step. When I was climbing, and found myself stuck, I had to have confidence that there was a possibility of climbing that cliff, and confidence that I could do it. In the absence of a clear way forward, I had to be open to seeing things from a new perspective, and that involved letting go of the handholds I had so that I could move on. In moving into the unknown there’s always a leap of faith.

Enlightenment may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think.

I’ve often thought of the Buddha’s teaching as being like a map. He outlines a spiritual journey, and of course without having trodden the path all the way to the end we can’t say for sure whether the map actually matches the territory. But if we’ve explored the lower reaches of the path and found that the map corresponds to our experience, then we start to have some confidence that the rest of the map might be accurate too.

In the beginning we may simply have some trust in the people who are teaching us meditation and speaking from their experience, while at the same time asking ourselves whether what we’re hearing rings true. But then we need to test things out for ourselves. And fairly quickly we can discover for ourselves that, yes, if we pay attention to the breath the mind settles down and we’re happier; yes, Buddhist ethical principles do make daily life more harmonious and satisfying; yes, there are five hindrances and the techniques for overcoming them do work; yes, there are meditative states that are focused, peaceful, and deeply refreshing, just as described in the texts and by our teachers.

And what about Awakening, Enlightenment? That may seem a long way off when we’re starting out, but it’s not as far as we might think. When I had my first experience of non-self I was amazed by how easy and natural it was. There was no struggling for a breakthrough, just the gentle slipping away of a veil of delusion. I think if I’d realized how easy it was going to be it might have happened years earlier.

In many ways we’re conditioned to think of spiritual goals as being far off and almost beyond reach, and some later Buddhist teachings even suggest that it might take countless lifetimes to reach the end of the path. But in the earliest Buddhist scriptures people seemed to get awakened at the drop of a hat. Perhaps they were unburdened by expectations of how hard it was going to be. Perhaps they simply made a small shift in the way they were seeing things and found themselves with a new perspective — one that allowed them to go all the way to the top.

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Prisoners of samsara

Prisoner of Zenda posterOver the years that Bodhipaksa has worked in prisons he’s observed that some of the inmates he works with are among the freest people he knows. So if freedom can be attained even in prison, what is freedom, and how can we find it?

Just about every week for the last six years I’ve met with inmates at the state prison for men in New Hampshire. I enjoy going there. In fact it’s the highlight of my week.

I’m used to the peculiarities of the place now. Sometimes the guards there can be unwelcoming, but mostly they’re now accepting. The room we meet in can be rescheduled at a moment’s notice, but you learn to roll with the punches. The succession of barred doors that lock you away from the outside world is something you get used to. The constant shaking of the floor in response to those same doors slamming shut every few seconds is something you just tune out. The place is drab, but I don’t go there for the décor anyway.

Some people are freaked out by the idea of spending time with convicted criminals, who in the case of “my guys” include murderers, rapists, and pedophiles. But one of the rules for prison volunteers is that we shouldn’t ask people what they’re inside for. Inevitably I do find out in many cases, but by that time I’ve usually gotten to know the man as a person, often a likable and intelligent one who shows every sign of being unhappy with his life and with a burning desire to become a better person. And that brings me onto what it is I most like about teaching at the prison.

I love, more than anything in the world, seeing people change, and seeing people working at trying to change themselves. For me, that’s the most inspiring thing I can imagine, witnessing people as they take responsibility for themselves, develop an “ethical sense of direction,” and strive to become more aware, more thoughtful, kinder, and more responsible beings. It’s a privilege to observe this happening.

These men have tough lives. Imagine being looked in one building for years on end — a building not much larger than a high school, and with about as many people in it. And many of those people they are forced to live with are poorly socialized, aggressive, and manipulative. And you’re stuck with them 24 hours a day. You have to share a room (designed for one person) with one of them. Or maybe you’re in a room (designed for four people) with another seven of them. And the people in charge have immense power and can make your life a misery. They can take away your property at any moment, search you at any time, treat you like a child or an imbecile. I found high school to be hell at times without all that other stuff, but at least I could go home in the evenings. I think prison would drive me mad.

And these guys have felt all that pressure of losing control, have realized that they’re living in a hell realm, and have come to seek an escape. So they learn to meditate and come to see that although conditions around you may be tough, you don’t have to react to them. They learn that there are inner choices you can make that change your relationship with the world and with yourself. They learn the dangers of letting the mind react: how anger and fear multiply their suffering. They learn that stepping back from and observing their experience creates a space in which calmness, compassion, and wisdom can arise. They find they can be happy and sane, even though the world around them is tormented and crazy.

It’s because the conditions they live in are so extreme that they find it so crucial to practice mindfulness and compassion. Perhaps this is why some Buddhist traditions say that there are more “Buddha seeds” (potential for enlightenment) in the Hell Realms than in any other place.

The interesting thing is that escaping from the worst aspects of prison is an internal process, and what it amounts to, as I’ve described it here, is escaping from your own mind’s habitual patterns of reaction. It’s having reactive, out-of-control minds that got all those men into prison in the first place. It’s the mind’s tendency to lash out, to become hooked on quick and easy pleasures, and to pursue gratification without regard to the welfare of others that resulted in imprisonment for all of these inmates. As the Buddha said, “Nothing can cause you as much harm as your own untamed mind.”

To that extent we’re all prisoners of our own habits, or our own untamed minds. We’re all prisoners of our habitual tendencies to pursue courses of action — in the outside world or in the mind — that cause us suffering. This enslavement to destructive habits is what Buddhism calls samsara. Samsara means “faring on,” and it’s not hard to see how we “fare on” driven by unhelpful or harmful habits. We all suffer from thoughts that we find hard or even impossible to tame. Sometimes it’s like being strapped to a wild horse.

We find ourselves compulsively feeling irritable and critical; or longing after things we can’t have, that will harm us, or simply won’t satisfy us; or worrying about things we can’t change, or even letting our anxiety paralyze us and stop us from engaging with the things we can change; or being led in circular thinking that confirms our poor opinion of ourselves. These patterns of thought are prisons that cause us daily and debilitating suffering, and that lead us to inflict suffering on others.

Sometimes when people hear of terms like samsara and nirvana (liberation from suffering) they think of them as being like different places. As if we’re going to escape from the difficulties of this world and go live somewhere nicer. But it’s not like that. Samsara is a way of relating to the world. Nirvana is a different — and healthier — way of relating to the world. So escaping from samsara doesn’t involve actually going anywhere — it means breaking out of habitual ways of seeing the world and of reacting to our experience with aversion and craving.

We’re all prisoners of samsara. And sometimes we just put up with it. We accept — or sometimes don’t fully notice — the background hum of suffering that grinds us down. And we accept — or again don’t fully notice — the suffering we’re causing others. Or we just don’t realize that there’s an alternative. Maybe the first thing we have to do before we can plan our escape is to realize that we’re in prison.

But there is an alternative to faring on. The alternative is to escape our unhelpful mental habits. We can learn to stand back from our emotional reactions. We can learn to create the mental space in which to find creative responses to the challenging situations we face in life. Rather than faring on in the old habitual ways, we can escape into the more spacious realms of mindfulness and compassion. We’ll probably still be in the same world of work and home life and leisure that we’re in at the moment (unless we chose to make changes in those things, which sometimes happens) but our attitudes will have changed. We’ll be freer from aversion and craving. Situations that would have sparked off anger or depression are now no big deal — opportunities for reflection, or humor, or connecting more deeply with another person.

We can escape from samsara at any moment. It might not last long — just a few moments or a few minutes — but long enough. Long enough to stop of doing, or saying, or thinking something that’s going to heap up the suffering even more. Some of the inmates I work with are among the freest people I know.

We can escape from samsara at any moment. And we don’t even need to go anywhere. We just have to stop reacting.

BodhipaksaBodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.

As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at or join him on Facebook.

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