Self-inquiry is Experiential
Self-inquiry is Experiential
I am often asked how exactly does one practice self-inquiry. I think the best way I can explain it is to give an example of how a situation could be used in this way.
Let’s imagine a situation where you are talking with a friend and the friend makes some casual remark which offends you. It doesn’t have to be a big offence, in fact lesser offences make better material for this kind of work, at least for getting started with it.
The reason for this is that major offences trigger major emotional reactions and we get drowned in the emotions for a while.
When an offence happens we usually resort to one of two reactions, and reaction is the important word here. The reaction is a triggering of the fight or flight response. We either hit back in some way, usually with some verbal repost, such as humour to distract or we sink into ourselves and withdraw from interaction with the other person. Whichever reaction style we have is a learned method of coping with the interactions of daily life. My teacher Richard Rose used a phrase to describe the less welcome of these interactions; afflictions to the ego. Pretty much all interactions with others either inflate or deflate our sense of self, our ego. The inflating interactions are just as useful in ferreting out our secret motivations and values but, since they are pleasant we are less likely to start with them.
Everyone suffers affliction to their sense of self in daily life and we develop coping mechanisms to deal with it. We try to protect our sense of self, the image we wish to portray to the world. The problem is that we are not conscious of this image. It’s an automatic programme that is always running when we are in interaction with others. Ego is a verb, not a noun.
With self inquiry, it doesn’t matter what our usual reaction is, what matters is to uncover what our reaction is trying to defend.
We look to see what was offended by the remark of our friend. Let’s say that the friend made a remark that might suggest that I am a mean person, money mean. But, I do not want to be seen as a miser. In fact, I have an image of myself as generous. With self-inquiry you would notice the actual remark, even the word, that elicited the emotional reaction in you.
You don’t have to act on the emotion and it doesn’t matter if you do, what matters is to notice what the actual remark was, not to focus on the reaction. Now, you’ve caught ego in action. You’ve seen it in action in your own emotional reaction to the word; mean, miser, thrifty, tight with money, or whatever phrase was used. This alerts you to the fact that you have an underlying belief, assumption or motivation around this concept. You are offended to be categorised in the category of money mean people. The image you wish to portray has suffered a blow, probably quite unwittingly by your friend.
You picked up this concept somewhere along the line, most likely in childhood. With self-inquiry the thing is to now take this concept out and look at how it has played out in your life. Have there been other situations where you felt offended by a remark that touched on the same belief? Can you see patterns in your behaviour in which you did things to make yourself look generous or carefree about money? How do you feel about or react to others who seem to be genuinely carefree about money or miserly by your standards? Do you feel others are not appreciative of your generous actions? Do you have little tricks to cover over your mean actions?
Having seen this belief or assumption in action you can now check it out in a more mature way. What are the underlying thoughts behind the money meanness? Do I believe that I have to always look out for my own advantage? Do I feel that others are trying to take advantage of me? Do I feel that I never have enough? What is behind this reaction really?
If you stick with the inquiry over a period of time the real underlying belief will emerge and you’ll know it when it shows up.
This is a specialised inquiry, unique to you. The questions you ask and the answers that emerge as true for you may not be true for another. What matters is that you follow your own leads, reactions, and questions that are relevant to you. This truly is an inquiry into the depths of your own psyche.
If you see yourself as having been caught out in your money meanness, have you been mean in other ways? Are you a bargain hunter, always looking to get more that it costs you? This applies to relationships and work as much as money.
Were you upset that someone saw through you, saw something about you that you had carefully hidden with socialisation? Socialisation helps us cover up our basic motivations and drives and usually in the process they become hidden from ourselves. The ego by its nature is self-serving and socialisation is the overlying layers we took on to cover it up.
When I use the word ego I am referring to this underlying layer of motivation, beliefs, expectations, values and assumptions that drive our emotions and behaviour patterns. The important word here is “underlying” or “hidden”. Self-inquiry is the process of uncovering the hidden layers.
It’s not pleasant work but it is necessary if you want to become true to yourself and well worth the effort.
This is not an intellectual exercise in that it works only in the midst of your experience. Since you don’t know what is hidden, you can’t predict what you’ll uncover. Self-inquiry is experiential.
The intellectual aspect of it is that you have heard from the teachings that ego is the cause of the suffering or what veils us from our true nature and self-inquiry is a method of removing the veil.
You have an idea of what your goal is, freedom from ego, illusion, and have heard reports of this method having worked for others. You have to put your trust in this until such a time as you have verified the value of it for yourself. It pays off as it goes along.
Each of us has to practice self-inquiry in our own particular way, dealing with our own self (ego) with the kind of mind and personality we have. In other words we have to adapt the teaching guidelines to suit ourselves. We have to learn to use the tool of self-inquiry in our own individual way. Each ones inquiry is unique to them but there are universal guidelines that help us to find a way to turn our attention back on ourselves.
It’s a skill and like all skills it improves with practice.
So, it’s up to each one to uncover their own layers of conditioning. No-one else can do this for you.
With some understanding of what your goal is, with determination and perseverance and the willingness to use whatever situations present themselves to you, there is bound to be success. My experience was that I was quite quickly able to recognise when I was really getting at the lower layers. From then on it is only a matter of keeping going and accepting and dealing with each new find as it happened. It is really quite natural and it leads you along.
One last word, I found I usually couldn’t do this inquiry at the moment it arose, because there was another person present, the one who triggered it. You can make a note of what the issue was and do the examination later.