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December 2021

Mandala-gold1

The Art and Practice of Working On Yourself

My professional life involves helping people meet the challenges of their psychological/emotional problems.    Beyond exploring experience from a psychotherapeutic point of view,  where appropriate I often encourage those I work with to engage systematically in what I call “practicing with problems”.  This essay unpacks the basic elements involved in this way of working on yourself.

What Is “Practicing With Problems”?

The idea of  “practicing with problems” is adapted from  “dharma practice”, which means the ongoing application of Buddhadharma in one’s everyday life experience.    To “practice with” in a more generic sense means simply to systematically engage in self-reflection about our subjective experience.    Practice in this sense is a method for relating to our troublesome problems and circumstances by bringing deliberate and focused attention to understanding what is going on with us.

Inquiry

One particular method which is useful in practicing with problems is that of “Inquiry”.   Simply stated, “Inquiry” means to formulate a personal question and then listen ongoingly for whatever answers may emerge.    To inquire is to “live in” the question of something,  simply staying as receptively alert as possible to whatever answers may emerge in the mind, body, and/or in events of life.   Inquiry is NOT trying to figure something out or make something happen.  It is a process of ALLOWING wisdom to unfold.

I have found it interesting to reflect on the idea that  “?”  is part of the basic grammar of the mind.   “?” launches a process of looking for answers.

If you’ve ever had the experience of not being able to remember a word you’re looking for (on the tip of your tongue, as it were),  you know that it often happens that the forgotten word shows up in your mind minutes, hours, or even days later.   This common experience demonstrates the nature of the unconscious circuitry of the mind.   Simply by asking a question, we invite the unfolding of the answers.

Finding Relevant Questions

Frequently when I describe the process and purpose of Inquiry,  people want to know “what should I ask?”   That is a great first question!   The common wisdom is:  start where you are.

It’s important to understand that the CONTENT of what you ask (the Question) is only part of what’s important about Inquiry.   Inquiry questions morph, evolve, and deepen over time. Equally important, or arguably more important, is the mindset we bring to Inquiry; receptivity to PROCESS.

Inquiry As The Unfolding of Wisdom

Fundamentally, I believe, what we actually seek when we engage Inquiry is to connect more deeply with our organic or intuitive intelligence.   The template I rely upon is one I discovered in the process of recovering from physical injuries.  While doing rehab at the gym, I learned that it was often more beneficial to mindfully feel my way through a workout than it was to execute a prescribed sequence of exercises.   I discovered that the best workouts were those in which I was able (at least on some occasions) to surrender agency to the wisdom of my body, allowing my body to choose what movement or exercise needed to be done next.   With careful embodied attention, my body seemed able to hone in on what was needed for its healing.   By bringing awareness to the body in this way, somatic intelligence was able to reveal itself.  The frame in such “somatic inquiry”  is that whatever arises (including pain)  is an expression of the organic intelligence of the body.

So, too, with the psychological process of Inquiry.    An inquiry question serves as a container for our experience of problems and difficulties,  framing an underlying intention to grow with and from awareness of our emotional life.   When we Inquire, we repeatedly look deeply into problems in a way that breathes space into them and allows their hidden meanings to emerge.   Inquiry is an intuitive process in which we feel our way forward through our challenges and difficulties, surrendering as best we are able to whatever arises in our experience.

Allowing Your Practice To Find You

People often ask what Inquiry I recommend for them, or what tools or techniques they need to practice in order to solve their problems.   In my response, what I generally try to illuminate is the underlying set of assumptions hidden within that question.  What does the person feel so urgent about getting, doing, or having?  (& what is at stake?)  Are they being driven by aversion to current experience?

More important than what we do is how we are relating to ourselves.   When we prioritize the urgency of relief over the slowness of being present with what is, it is very easy to overlook the intuitive wisdom that is seeking to emerge.

Through the intention to “practice with” our difficult and painful experiences, we can begin to embrace the radical possibility that our symptoms and problems are actually appropriate responses to some underlying sense of loss of meaning, purpose, and connection in our world of lived experience.   Things begin to shift when we start to recognize that painful emotional states have their own intelligence, often to help us recognize what it is that we do not want to feel.  The work given us to do is then to re-own, re-embody, and work through our disowned experience.

The art of Inquiry, of life-as-practice, is a practice unto itself.