Learning How to Live as a Question

Question: I always feel like I’m stuck in a box. The more I try to get out, the tighter the walls feel. Some days I feel like I’m suffocating in a bad dream. When I talk with my friends about it, many of them feel the same way, but they think it’s just the way life is at our age. We comfort one another, and I appreciate the support. But I’m not convinced that my life has to feel this way.

Michael Richardson-Borne: Let’s begin by exploring what “the box” is – how it comes about, what it’s composed of, how it maintains its experience, and why it feels the way it does.

The first and most important thing to understand is your thoughts are physical. You touch them. It may not be the same kind of touch you feel when your hands caress an object that draws your attention – but you still touch your thoughts.

Q: How?

MR-B: Turn within and watch your thoughts right now. More than likely, as these thoughts arise, by the time they grab your attention, they are pressing against the walls of what you call “the box.” In fact, the pressure of thoughts on the walls of “the box” is the reason you notice your thoughts in the first place.

Sit back for a second, close your eyes, and see if you can feel the sense of “pressure” from each of your thoughts. Feel their presence and see if you find they are pressing back against you in some way. Notice how this pressing occurs simultaneously with what we call “feelings” – notice how these feelings are triggered by the pressure of your thoughts. Notice how it’s this push against the boundaries of “the box” that is the constant agitation felt while being locked in a Separate Self.

As you move deeper into your inquiry, if you pay close enough attention, you will see that your thoughts are present long before they hit the walls of “the box.” By continuing to practice looking within, you will catch your thoughts earlier and earlier in their life cycles, you will be able to watch their trajectories – and if you follow the thoughts to their termini, you will find there’s a “trampoline effect” against the walls of “the box” that keeps all of your thoughts bouncing around in a container with no way to escape. Every thought “presses into” a wall of “the box” and then is bounced back into the over-populated vessel that is the Separate Self – a self where every thought making up its composition floats around until it hits another wall.

Some of these thoughts remain in motion on the surface, remain present, but most continue in motion by sinking into the sub-mental portion of your personal experience. Many of these sinking thoughts become buried in the sub-mental compartment of “the box” and needlessly anchor the totality of your separative experience – leaving you to hunt for the solidified weight that constricts the happenings in your mind. These thoughts can even settle as a type of thick resin on the walls of the sub-mental, making these areas of “the box” rigid, leaving a less than ideal structure for movement. Down here in the subterranean, it’s almost like the walls of “the box” is made of a strong, inflexible film with tiny invisible hands that read a sort of Braille, a dead pre-configured language, written on the surface of thoughts.

So, when you feel this internal pressure, it’s a felt experience of the boundaries of “the box” – it’s feeling the push of the guardrails that protect the enclosure that is the Separate Self. As more and more stories populate “the box,” the sense of pressure builds. Most people just live with this pressure and accept it as the typical experience of life. But a few start asking questions and wind up in conversations such as this.

Q: I still don’t understand how thoughts can be physical.

MR-B: Thoughts are the stories that construct your mind – but the mind, in terms of the Path of Non-separation, is composed of both the inside and outside worlds, together lending you what feels like a personal experience. The pressure felt on the inside, what we referred to as the “trampoline effect,” and the pressure felt on the outside, say if you kick a rock, is a unified collection of stories, what we call your Story Identity. The Story Identity is an aspect of the Separate Self that divides the singular story of its personal experience into component parts, all of which have a palpability that makes them physical.

Thoughts are stories, and stories are objects – so whether you think of these stories as internal or external, they both push back against something tangible that creates felt experience. Can you see that thoughts are objects observed by the same personal consciousness that perceives everything considered “the outside world”? That personal consciousness is the Original Story that lives as the witness of your Story Identity. The Original Story is the wall of “the box” – it is what the stories of the Story Identity press against before they are bounced back into the mass of stories you recognize as the totality of your identity.

Try to push the stories of the Story Identity through the wall of the Original Story, what we can call your original sense of individuality, and see if you aren’t bounced back as if you’d just run into a brick wall. You run into this wall countless times every day, and from what you’ve told me, you are feeling the physical symptoms of the physical interplay of your stories.

The box of stories that make up your identity is just as constricting as the metal bars of a jail cell – and leave your freedom taken from you in much the same way. Constriction is likely what you feel right now. You are trying to barge through a wall and aren’t having much luck. So, it’s essential to understand that getting out of “the box” doesn’t take a “thought-bulldozer” – it takes an inquiry into the nature of separation, an inquiry that leads to remembering how the Separate Self is bulldozing your true being.

Q: You say it’s possible to move beyond this boxed in feeling. But specifically, how? Is there something I can do right now to get out of the box?

MR-B: When you try to get out of your box, a counter-intuitive trap is set that keeps you captured. The harder you try to get out, the more resistance you feel. To relax and ask why your effort isn’t working – and then to remain inside of this inquiry indefinitely is challenging for the Separate Self because it’s the first direct action taken “against” the Separate Self. Sustaining an inquiry feels strange because it opens a novel context, a context where the Separate Self senses it’s being demoted. When the Separate Self feels this way, your habit is to experience fear and to assume this fear means you should run in the opposite direction. Hence, most people return to “the box” where the Separate Self once again feels agitated – but the reasoning is that agitation must be better than fear. So the cycle of fighting in “the box” re-assumes its position as the way life is.

Trying to break free of the Separate Self is much like heating water – the more energy put in, the faster the particles of the molecules move around. The result is you hear a lot more noise, you’re subjected to increased aggravation, as your stories are busier bouncing around against the boundaries of “the box.” The more intent you are in forcing your way out, the more feverish you feel. But with all that said, you are correct in being convinced there is something you can do to get outside of “the box.”

So, what can you do right now? Well, when you stay with the inquiry into why your effort isn’t freeing you from “the box,” eventually, you begin paying more attention to the qualities rather than the quantity of your thoughts. And as you move deeper into these qualities, you discover there is an overarching characteristic that gives structure to all of your thoughts – you realize all of your thoughts, all of the stories that make up your mind, are statements. Even your inquiry, all of the questions you are asking, has the quality of being launched from an assumed secure position – it feels like an individual is behind your thoughts and thus directing them in a continuous flow of declarations.

When it dawns on you that you’re living life as a statement, you notice that thoughts always have forward movement, there’s a certain violence to them, they seem to be projected forward with a subtle aggression that is intent on proving something. But what is this something? Is it possible it’s a desperation to continuously prove to yourself that the Story Identity is real?

And now you’ve hit on your first authentic question – one that changes your life from living as a statement to living as a question. Asking if the Story Identity is real flips your Separate Self from a personal experience of “I am” to a lived inquiry of “Who am I?” Flips it from “I am” to one of the most critical questions on the Path of Non-separation – “Who’s aware of the story?” “Who’s aware of the story of personal beingness?”

Engaging this inquiry as a question automatically takes you out of “the box” because now rather than playing at life fully convinced of being a Separate Self, you are actively questioning the Separate Self. “The box” becomes an object in your awareness, something you now have perspective on, something you are “looking at” instead of “wallowing in.” With this new perspective, you spontaneously move from a sense of “forward doing” to a sense of inquiry-driven being. Now, the pressure of “the box” is gone.

Q: Just thinking about being a question, I can tell it will be difficult to maintain the perspective.

MR-B: Nobody said breaking free of the belief in separation was easy – there is a reason why very few people find their way out of “the box.” It takes an earnestness, a real commitment, sincerity. But the vast majority of us don’t believe a different kind of experience is possible or give up without seriously resting in a true inquiry, or are never blessed with the awareness that an inquiry exists right under our noses.

As you step into the inquiry of living life as a question, don’t worry about how you’re going to “carry” this perspective or keep its presence in the forefront of your mind. It’s not something you’ll need to pack around in your pocket and be diligent about remembering.

Just focus on the qualities of your thoughts as statements, trace how they lean forward in pursuit of something they desperately need – then watch what happens when all of a sudden they stop leaning forward, stand straight up, go nowhere, and have nothing to prove. When you physically watch this happen, see for yourself if you’ll need to maintain the perspective or fear losing it. See if there’s any difficulty. See if you have any choice but to immediately ask how this occurrence just changed who you thought you were.

Once you make the flip from statement to question, once you have the actual transformation, making an effort to maintain the perspective isn’t necessary because it’s now your lived experience. When being a question is the way you’re lived, “Who am I?” or “Who’s aware of the story?” is ever-present as the moment-to-moment way you experience the world.

Think about this. Do you feel like you make an effort to maintain or remember “the box,” to remember your Separate Self? Of course not. Even as “the box” is dominating your perspective, it isn’t something that takes an act of volition on your part. Resting in new levels of identity is the same. The way you inhabit the world as a statement or a question “just is” – and there is nothing you need to do for either pattern to persist.

Q: Why does getting out of the box sound like such a lonely place to be? I don’t know if I could live that way.

MR-B: You’re already living this way, you’re already in a lonely place. Why? Because loneliness is a manifestation of the Separate Self. The only reason you know how loneliness feels is because you’re trapped in a box that separates you from your true being.

If anything, living as a question will bring you closer to others than you’ve ever been up to this point in your life. No longer will you be relating to statements as a statement – there will only be a question that brings you into a more direct form of relationship, a form where the loneliness that depends on a belief in separation no longer inhabits your journey.

Q: Here’s what I think you’re saying. My approach to “the box” is what gives it its strength. It needs my resistance to stand strong. The second I stop believing in statements, I take my resistance away, and the walls fold. I just need to drop the rope instead of playing a game of tug of war I can’t win.

MR-B: That’s right. Very good. Trying to “do” your way out of “the box” is a fool’s errand. “Being” your way out of “the box” is the only way.

Let’s use your analogy for one final point. When you stop playing tug of war and the game ends, where does that leave you? That’s the inquiry you are now living. Discovering the answer is to remember Non-separation.