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The Process of Inquiring Deeply

The core of inquiry is commitment to deep introspection: looking repeatedly and deeply within for answers to questions or the path through problems.3 Inquiry consists simply of holding a problem in reflective awareness and examining it from different perspectives, deliberately and repeatedly, and then listening inwardly for the answer. Listening can be made deeper by engaging inquiry during meditation (in which case it can be called “contemplative meditation”).

The act of questioning itself breaks open the unexamined and stagnant shell of the present, revealing the hidden and stale surfaces of the way we think about things. Asking probing questions opens up fresh options to be explored (Peavey, 2003).

When inquiry is done as a self-guided process, it may take its shape from a specific intention to inquire about something, or it may simply emerge organically as a matter of curiosity about something. Something happens—an event or an experience—which is painful and which intrudes itself strongly into the stream of consciousness in a way that seems to beg to be investigated. Or, one may deliberately choose to reflect upon a “problem area” where one feels stuck or where one gets recurrently upset. In this sense, inquiry runs in parallel with emotional life.

In the context of psychotherapy, inquiry can be co-created in the process of therapeutic exploration. It may follow a trajectory which is based on the psychotherapist’s input (and in turn, may be influenced by theoretical models).

One key aspect of inquiry as a process is the depth of self-reflection. The dictionary suggests two meanings of “deepening.” The first, based on a spatial metaphor, is the idea of extending from the surface downward or inward, from top to bottom, from front to back, or away from the edge. The second meaning is “profound.” With respect to the mind, both definitions imply a subjective change in the scope and depth of what is noticed.

“Inquiring deeply” implies a particular quality of awareness in self-reflection which is cultivated through mindfulness practice. Subjectively, the effort is to settle the mind until it becomes quite spacious, clear, unified, and collected (as it does in concentration practice, for example). With the clutter of the normal waking state in abeyance, intuitive awareness is quite keen and insights tend to emerge. A commonly used metaphor is that of looking beneath the surface of a muddy pond. As the mud settles, we can see further into the depths below. In such deep states, consciousness may become transcendently reorganized4 and insight is facilitated.

Notwithstanding the fact that inquiring deeply is aided by a meditative frame,5 it can also be done in an “ordinary” state of mind. It is not essential to “meditate” in the moment nor to hold a single-minded focus. In fact, once it has begun, inquiry may continue rather unconsciously—much like what the mind does when it is searching for a word that is felt to be on the tip of one’s tongue. This has been likened to the process of throwing out a question like a boomerang and waiting to see what answer will return.

Most simply, to inquire deeply means to hold the intention to become more fully aware of thoughts and feelings, and of the web of narrative meaning in which experience is embedded. Although in psychotherapy the explicit focus is on the experience of the patient rather than the therapist’s, optimally it will also be understood that dyadic experience is by nature intersubjective: both people participate in what unfolds between them (Bass, 2001).6 The therapist’s job is to listen from a perspective which is inclusive of the patient’s experience as well as his or her own self-awareness (countertransference).

In inquiring deeply, we focus not only on the content of thoughts, feelings, and narratives, but also, at various levels, on process. Feelings give rise to thoughts, which in turn give rise to more feelings, and so forth. In the kind of psychotherapy I do, I see it as my responsibility to track the interwoven layers of the patient’s associations, to “connect the dots” and to provide a container of theory for the dialogue. This kind of listening is a complex skill. On the one hand, it is the therapist’s role to listen deeply and openly, as much as possible without bias or preconception (Epstein, 1995).7 On the other hand, what emerges as salient for the therapist is necessarily shaped by theoretical orientation as well as personal characteristics.

Moreover, this dynamic process of mind looks different at different moments and from different depths of awareness. Depending on the state of mind of one or both participants in the moment, awareness may be relatively spacious and “wide- angle” or relatively narrow and focused on some particular aspect of experience. The importance of the quality of presence and the interaction between the states of mind of both participants is discussed at some length in the next chapter.

In sum, inquiring deeply is mindful awareness of mind, or, as we may say, “minding the mind”. To repeat the definition set out in the earlier chapters of this book, it can be defined as a stance of mindful reflection that arises in the therapeutic process as a function of shared psychotherapeutic intention.

The next sections of the chapter present a series of questions which are valuable for inquiring into psychological issues and problems. These questions have been culled from thousands of hours of clinical inquiry in my several decades working as a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst. They are not intended as a guideline for self-help, but rather as points of orientation for investigating and exploring experience in psychotherapy (or for self-reflection during the course of everyday life8).

On another level, I have found it interesting to also examine how inquiries pattern themselves over time. My own reflections, both personal and professional, often seem to follow in the wake of whatever theories and ideas have currently engaged my interest (including the dharma, which is a constant backdrop). A lot of what I discuss in this book has emerged from these inquiries.

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