Learning how to relate to the problems that come up for us in life–— our difficult situations, feelings, and moods—is a core life challenge for everyone. In Buddhist language, this is the challenge of equanimity: the art of finding balance in the moment.
Fortunately, it turns out that what is psychologically painful can also be quite generative. Our emotional problems show us where we have shut down, where we need to wake up, and where we need to grow. Learning to listen to the wisdom of our feelings is a practice unto itself: cultivating our ability to be with and feel our way into difficult emotional experience.
The meditative practice of asking questions (Inquiry) has been used for thousands of years to develop intuition, inspire awakening, and connect us more deeply to the sources of wisdom within. While Inquiry is often taught as an eyes closed contemplative exercise, it is also very engaging as a speaking and listening practice done with partners. This process explores what happens when we learn to rest in the questions, themselves.
This brief experiential workshop will provide an introduction to the method of “Inquiring Deeply“. A didactic presentation about Inquiring Deeply About Problems will be followed by guided practice of inquiry in dialogue, with some emphasis on the use of inquiry in psychotherapy.
Where and When:
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‘Inquiry’ can be defined as the process of intentionally living in the question of something: consciously engaging our experience in a way which invites it to unfold. We can “inquire deeply” about any problem or concern at the leading edge of experience. This method is useful when we want to amplify our awareness of a challenging situation, a particular emotion, or a difficult relationship. We approach our experience with the attitude of delving into it, feeling whatever it is more fully, and inviting it to reveal itself.
Posing an inquiry question is a powerful act unto itself; the question frames and constructs an intentional matrix of meaning around experience. I think of the process of as a kind of psychospiritual exoskeleton which supports growth and the emergence of new experience. The path of inquiry unfolds in its own way and as a function of our intuitive wisdom. Explicit inquiry frames the intention to grow with and from our awareness of emotional life.
The practice of inquiry rests on the existential premise (beautifully articulated by the psychiatrist Viktor Frankl) that one of the most important things humans beings can do, regardless of their circumstances, is to consciously find— create— meaning in what is happening. In the spirit of this intention, engaging the process of inquiry constructs an explicit frame of meaning around our experience. It is a method for exercising conscious ownership of psychological growth and transformation.
In the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke: “Live the questions now, and perhaps without knowing it, you will live along someday into the answers”. ….Rilke
The Unfolding of Wisdom: Going With The Flow
Wisdom is inherent within us but it takes a concerted effort to learn how to listen deeply for what life is speaking. By following the thread of inner truth which is available in whatever we experience, we connect more and more deeply both with what is so and with who we are.
Wisdom is not abstract. It reveals itself in insights, both large and small, as well as in the answers we discover for our deep questions and in the resolutions we find for our most vexing problems. Wisdom is a path.
Wisdom is also a practice. By bringing alert receptivity to what we experience moment by moment, we increasingly discover whatever we need to see in what is going on; the meanings implicit in what is happening. In this way, we can endeavor to receive life: to open to life instead of struggling against it.
In cultivating wisdom, we attune ourselves to the simple truth of experience, including emotional experience. Wisdom unfolds naturally as we inquire about what is happening, and why; our deepening wisdom expresses itself in our ability to be increasingly present with ourselves and others.
In inquiry practice, we attune ourselves to finding the dynamic intelligence in the flow of awareness. To ‘go with the flow’ of life as an unfolding wisdom process means to align ourselves with what is happening. Literally, we aspire to be like water – to flow in and around the events of life. Going with the flow is a kind of letting go in which we allow life to carry us downstream; surrendering to the currents of our life energy, whatever they may be, we heed the intelligence of our body, heart, and mind.
Ultimately wisdom reveals itself in a felt sense of the existential coherence in life, inclusive of all of its thematic complexities. In the words of the famed Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls, we learn not to push the river; it flows by itself.
Life has a mind of its own.
Mindfulness is the meditative heart of Buddhism, and it seems to have found a secular home in western psychotherapy. This makes sense because Buddhist practice, like psychotherapy, is fundamentally a method for addressing psychological pain.
An implicitly psychotherapeutic view of Buddhist practice is also invited by the work of contemporary dharma teachers who have been educated in western psychotherapy and who have been the authors of our current Buddhist psychological narratives. For example, when we look at inspirational stories of transformation which occur during mindfulness meditation practice (such as those recounted in Jack Kornfield’s books) we see that they can be aptly described either as dharma practice or as Buddhist psychotherapy. Both narrative frameworks feel valid.
However, there are also confusions created when psychotherapeutic and Buddhist narratives are conflated. Healing in the psychotherapeutic sense is not the intended goal of Buddhist practice. Buddhist practice is defined in its own terms; it aims towards a radical re-contextualization of identity in which suffering ceases to have its usual personal meaning and significance. This goal, “liberation”, is distinct from psychological healing.
Psychotherapy is intended to relieve pain by untangling the relational knots which engender psychological suffering. In contrast, dharma practice is a method for radically transforming our relationship to the entire field of our experience — our fundamental way of perceiving and being — in a way which obviates the necessity for untangling. In any event, mindfulness cannot be adequately understood apart from the Buddhist philosophy from which it derives.
The distinction between the psychotherapy and Buddhism is well summarized in the following quote from Buddhist teacher Patrick Kearney:
“We are all living within a myth, the myth or myths that provide us with our fundamental world view. Psychotherapists [often read] the Buddhist myth in terms of their psychotherapeutic myth…But to understand Buddhism, one must enter the Buddhist myth, and once we are within that myth, then we will naturally read psychotherapy in terms of Buddhism”.
Because of their deep roots and the fact that they bear witness to so much of life on Earth, trees have much to teach us. Indeed, life itself is often depicted as a great tree with many branches; the tree of life.
One of the things that trees can teach us is that life and death are not fixed events but rather processes that occur over time.
Just outside the town of Stradivari, Italy there is a forest, with trees from which the famed Stradivarius violins are carved. The town itself is home to dozens of the world’s greatest violin makers. The wood from which the violins are carved is held to be still alive in important essential ways.
Each year, world class violinists come to the town and perform a concert in the forest. The purpose of the festival is to allow the trees in the forest to hear the sweet sound of their brother or sister tree now incarnated as a Stradivarius violin.
Subjectivity is a central philosophical concept, related to consciousness, personhood, and truth. Though defined in different ways, the central idea is that information, ideas, and situations are true only from the perspective of a subject or subjects.
Do we regard truth as objective, a matter of fact? Or do we understand that truth always bears the stamp of what is subjective?
This concept is illustrated in the well-known staircase drawing of the Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher. Two people are moving side by side on the same staircase, yet they have different ideas of what is horizontal and what is vertical. If we don’t share the same reality, it is impossible for us to walk, sit, or stand on the same floor.
A story that Gregory Bateson told about Picasso makes a similar point. The artist was traveling in a train, when a stranger asked him why he didn’t paint things as they actually appeared. Picasso said that he didn’t understand what the stranger meant, so his accuser pulled out his wallet and showed Picasso a photo of his wife. “You see, that’s how she is”, the stranger said. Picasso replied rather hesitantly: Oh, she’s quite small, isn’t she…. and rather flat!
As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said, True and false are attributes of speech, not things.
Buddhist philosophy further illuminates this situation in its distinction between two levels of truth: Conventional and Absolute. That truth is irreducibly relative becomes apparent once it is understood (as it is in Buddhist doctrine) that there are no distinctive things or beings which can be said to be inherently “true” or “false”.
However, this philosophical conundrum leaves us squarely with the question “so what”? What is wise view with respect to the relativity of subjective truth?
Clearly, the whole conception of my mind sitting safely in my body and looking out through its senses on to a universe which is not mind, and with which my own mind has therefore no connection except through the senses, is an impossible one.
The alternative, spiritual ‘solution’ to the problem is that once you experience who you really are – a core consciousness beyond the mind, intellect, and ego – all suffering will come to an end. This is “enlightenment”.
However, for me, the best solution to the quandary posed by these deep questions was expressed by the psychoanalyst George Atwood and his colleague David Klugman. To paraphrase their idea, both the narrative impulse— the need to have and tell a story about one’s life— and the metaphysical impulse— the need for an eternal, changeless foundation for all that exists—are complementary formulations which both serve the human need for purpose, meaning, and wholeness.
Narratives, including the meta-narrative we call “self”, provide a reassuring coherence and unity in the diverse elements of our otherwise unbearably chaotic personal lives. And spiritual narrative (Absolute truth) provides an image of a cosmic ground that solidifies the transitory impermanence which otherwise may seems to threaten us with dissolving into nothingness.
One focus of attention in mindfulness meditation has no specific focus at all. Termed “open attention” or “choiceless awareness”, the instruction for this kind of practice is simply to open the field of awareness to include mindful noticing of whatever arises.
Following a session of sitting practice we had shared, I good-naturedly teased a friend about his mismatched socks. “What’s up with that?”, I asked. Without missing a beat he answered: “Oh, that’s just choiceless awareness from the bottom up”.
In Charles Dickens’ story The Christmas Carol, the old miser Ebenezer Scrooge experiences visitations from the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. As a consequence of these visions, Scrooge is transformed into a kinder, gentler man.
We can think of The Christmas Carol as a parable about the experience of “waking up” in life and its importance in the transformation of human suffering. The Christmas Carol is a kind of spiritual fairy tale. As we engage the story, we are carried along into a deep imagining of how spiritual awakening might feel. In Buddhist terms, we see an example of how greed, hatred and delusion can be transformed through the powers of insight and compassion. The timeless appeal of the story is that Scrooge is able to achieve what we all deeply long for: to transcend the structures of personality that keep us trapped in our own misery. Scrooge discovered the transformative joy of giving.
Emotional equanimity is much more than the ability to feel serene in the here and now. It is about the ability to open to and accept our emotional experience; the commitment to meet painful emotions with awareness.
Emotional equanimity benefits from a clear understanding of how emotional life is organized in the mind. It is based on emotional intelligence: the ability to recognize, understand, and manage feelings. Maintaining emotional equilibrium is not a simple technique but rather a multifaceted psychological function which lives in multiple layers of both body and mind, including innate temperament, biochemistry, and early trauma history. Except perhaps for the lucky few people who were effectively parented in early life, emotional equanimity requires a lot of inner work.
The basic way we understand emotional experience is by consciously feeling our way into it. This may be likened to the process of locating a splinter: first we have to probe the inflammation to find out what is sharp and psychologically painful. What is often insufficiently recognized is that many emotions are inherently inchoate; early nonverbal experience tends to be unformed and it cannot be expressed in words. To get the messages conveyed by our emotions, we need to be sensitive to their idiom of expression, and to develop an understanding of how they function within us. Deeper knowledge surfaces when we open to what is expressed in body sensation and images, metaphors and narratives.
Example: Trying to discern why she was feeling depressed, a woman found herself with an unexpected image of Londoners in World War II sending their children off to relatives in the countryside. As she reflected on what this image was telling her, she realized that her depression was providing a zone of emotional safety, a respite from the bruising forces in her daily life. [Ex adapted from Karla McLaren, The Language of Emotion]
Unresolved emotions lie at the heart of every psychological problem. Cultivating emotional equanimity is not only about training the mind to attain states of calm; it is about learning to use our emotional challenges as opportunities for growth. Bottom line, our feelings reveal what we are unwisely holding onto and where we need to grow. Finding the wisdom in these experiences is beautifully expressed in the metaphor of a lotus in a pond, its roots in the mud below, its flower orienting towards the light above.
No mud, no lotus.