Q. I have observed that while on retreat certain unskilful emotions don't arise as often or as strongly as they do in the midst of my daily life, with a family and regular job. This can be quite painful and leads to me beginning to place responsibility for the arising of these mental states on the conditions I live in. Buddhism does seem to place an emphasis on the changing of external conditions to reduce the arising of unskilful mental states. At the same time it seems to be saying that mental states are something we have a choice in and are of our own making, not out there, as it were. I become quite confused and torn when I think about these areas, when I place the emphasis on conditions I feel more resentful of my external situation when in unskilful states and anxious about the need to change it. Please could you say what your understanding is of the role of external conditions in practice, and what it is necessary for us to do 'externally' for our practice to be effective?

A. Buddhism will always say that no matter what our circumstances, it is our relationship with these circumstances that really matters. Through practice we refine our relationship with experiences and situations. We apply new-found degrees of ethical behaviour, or with growing awareness we may take more control of situations that hitherto we have found difficult. Over time we become more aware of skilful and unskilful actions. We can often change circumstances of daily (external) life, but there are also times when we aren't going to be able to do this. At times life just throws us into situations that we would rather not be in, which we find difficult to deal with. However, the same principle applies in both these 'internal' and 'external' situations. We respond to circumstances and do our best to work with our emotional reactions/attachments. Sometimes it's like this, and sometimes it's like that – this is life, and our training ground is always dealing with how things are, and seldom the way we would like them to be.

Q. I read in dharma texts that the process of developing equanimity and insight is one of watching thoughts and feelings arise and pass away. However, in my own experience what seems to be happening is that I become aware that I'm lost in thoughts and then I return to whatever practice I'm doing. It's more a process of returning a wandering mind. So I'm wondering whether with continued practice, does one reach the point of being able to observe the arising and passing away of thoughts, or for some people does the journey always remain more a case of returning a wandering mind?

A. Through time and diligent practice we become more and more aware of the arising of thoughts, and crucially our attachment to them. Through awareness we see that it is our own attachment to those thoughts that make them 'real' and 'substantial'. We discover through awareness that if we learn to leave them alone, they lose their power over us and stay in their original form of being transparent, 'neutral', and something that is always simply arising and passing away. I'm not sure when on the path thoughts stop arising, but their arising or not arising is not the issue. It is identifying with them as being 'me and mine', and learning through awareness to leave them alone, that is at the heart of wisdom.

Q. Many times, particularly I notice after a frustrating engagement with a person that I find emotionally challenging, all that I want to do is sleep. It's as if a sleepiness spell is cast over me! Do you think it's ok to lie down on such occasions for several minutes, to allow oneself to recover emotionally? (Is sleep a mara?)

A. Once I spent quite some time thoroughly looking into sleep and my apparent attachment to it. This proved to be quite a difficult experience to clarify, simply because whatever else may be at play in our relationship with sleep, sleep is also nature's way of keeping us alive and healthy – so it's also beyond any attachment we may develop towards it. In some ways it is similar to our relationship with sex. Most of us are driven to want sex at sometime or other because it's nature's way of propagating the species and therefore needs to seen as natural. But we can also over-identify with what is natural by hijacking nature's way and pouring our emotional insecurities, fears and loneliness into the experience, making it 'mine', which then takes our desires way beyond the 'natural' urge. I think the same principle applies to sleep. The example you give clearly shows that your desire for sleep is likely a way of avoiding something emotional that you are finding difficult to experience. You are choosing to avoid whatever it is by losing consciousness. Your natural need to sleep seems to have been hijacked by a subtle unconscious desire to avoid something about yourself. Being a practitioner, if I were to have this sort of experience, I would get into the habit of not giving into that desire to crash out during such experiences, but rather stay awake and learn to open to whatever it is that is difficult. We are creatures of habit and conditioning; learn to break that habit and by doing so you will learn something about yourself that could be very valuable.

Q. Do you think that 'Just Knowing' is a more meaningful way of describing the 'Pure Awareness' practice?

A. Yes, it could be. We must be careful not to imagine that the state of pure awareness is somehow an abstract state of being, a sort of blankness or a sort of lack of life. Pure awareness is our natural state of being/aliveness that has the crystal clear perception of 'knowing how things really are'; yet it is out of that knowing that the world of greed, hatred and delusion somehow springs and clouds the truth. But who – or what – is it that knows? The quest for that answer is the spiritual journey that our pure awareness practice embarks upon.