In Buddhism (and probably other traditions) they sometimes use the analogy of hot coal.
Believing in the idea of I is similar to holding a piece of hot coal. Both bring suffering. And seeing through the belief, noticing what is really true for us in our immediate experience, is similar to noticing that we are holding the piece of hot coal. In both cases, it is dropped – naturally, immediately, without any trying.
Analogies break down at some point, but it may still be interesting to explore this one a little further. What approaches make sense through this analogy?
Say someone is holding a piece of hot coal. They are not noticing it, or at least not realizing that it brings pain. And in the struggle to get rid of the pain, there may be additional suffering as well.
So how would we help this person recognize that he or she is holding a piece of hot coal?
Ways to help people notice
We can give long talks about how he is holding a piece of hot coal, and how this brings the pain he is experiencing. But the listeners are more likely to listen to the words and try to figure it out than really look – going to their own immediate present experience.
We can use force, beating them up in various ways to make them realize it – or even to make them drop it (as if anyone can without the prior realization of holding it). Again, this would only bring their attention to the beating and the consequences of the beating, not the coal. Also, it is likely to bring up a good deal of (healthy and natural) resistance to the process. And it may just add guilt and shame to the situation.
We can help them with affirmations: I am not holding a piece of hot coal. I am not holding a piece of hot coal. Hot coal is cool and soothing. Hot coal is cool and soothing. These may appear to work for a while, but not for very long. And it is also too transparent: we know there is something there – temporarily covered up by the affirmations – which brings pain.
We may help them explore their past. When did you first experience the pain? When did you pick it up? And so on. It may be helpful, but it is also not as direct as it can be.
We may bring people to exhaustion, so – we hope – they cannot help but dropping the piece of coal. This may work, although the process itself is quite painful.
We can have people regularly sit silently and quietly, bringing their attention to what is already happening – allowing what is into awareness. This may work. It may very well help them notice the hot coal in their hand. But in itself, it may be a long and slow process.
We can have them inquire into their experiences. Where is the pain? What may be the source of it? What happens if you imagine not holding a piece of hot coal?
What works for each person is of course different, but for me – sitting practice combined with various forms of inquiry are most attractive right now.
For instance, in the Byron Katie process…
- Questions 1 and 2 – is it true, can you really know it is true – asks us if we really do need to hold onto the coal, whether the coal is the belief in the idea of I or any other abstraction. The questions open for the possibility of not holding onto it.
- Question number 3 – what happens when you hold onto that belief – gets at our experience of holding onto the piece of hot coal. We see the suffering we create for ourselves by holding onto it and how it plays itself out in our life, in detail.
- Question number 4 – who or what are you without that belief – gives a taste of not holding onto the coal. We see the liberation and freedom in it. The possibility of not holding onto it becomes more real. We see that the consequences of not holding onto it are attractive. And we see beyond holding onto it, and that there is nothing to fear there.
- The turnarounds helps us see that I am the one holding it. It is not making me hold it. Somebody else is not making me hold it. I am the one holding it.