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Basic Questions for Inquiry and Self-Reflection

There are several “generic” questions one can ask oneself (or someone else) in regard to any experience; they can be applied in dharma practice or in psychotherapy. Several such questions are described here which can be offered to patients for self-reflection.

Is it true?

The first is the question, “Is that true” and several variations:

  • What is true here? What story am I (are you) believing now?
  • Is it true?
  • Is that really true?
  • How do I (you) know that’s true?

Our notions about what is true often change as we come to understand something more deeply. Also, people may bring themselves to believe almost anything they are inclined to believe, unconsciously selecting for confirming evidence. For this reason, when we examine our thoughts it is very valuable to continually hold the underlying question “is that true?” as a basic frame for inquiry (Katie, 2002).9

A simple inquiry about what is true can be used as a very basic cognitive psychotherapy intervention to help a patient recognize thoughts, beliefs, and judgments that are implicitly present and to highlight the difference between thoughts and feelings. For example, the following brief dialogue took place one day between me and a 65-year-old depressed man named Aaron about his angst over “running out of time” in his life. In the session prior to the one in the illustration, we had discussed Aaron’s concerns about death, and I had suggested the idea that how comfortable we are with the idea of dying often has a lot to do with whether we feel that we have lived fully.

Aaron told me the next time we met that he had reflected on this idea and had concluded that he did not consider his life to have been well spent. Our exchange went something like this:

Clinical Illustration 4.1: Aaron

M.S. Your life has not been well spent—is that true?

A. Well no, not entirely

M.S. Your life has been well spent—is that true?

A. Well no, that’s not entirely true either M.S. What would you say is true?

A. I don’t know ... I guess they’re both true. Some moments have been well spent and some haven’t been

M.S. I imagine most anyone could say the same, wouldn’t you think?

A. Yes, I suppose so. I just wish I could get to the point where I could feel like

in the balance I’ve done a good job with my life M.S. So you’re making the judgment that you haven’t done a good job in life?

A. I suppose so, yes.

M.S. That seems to be a conclusion you draw when you are feeling sad ... maybe

it serves to explain to you why you feel sad.

[Long pause]

I’m reminded of what you’ve told me about how your dad would get so punitive when he was displeased with you.

A. Yes, it is kind of like that. I’m displeased with myself and at the same time I feel like a child who has displeased his dad.

I just wish I could figure out what to do so I didn’t feel that way.

Aaron’s intractable sadness always seemed in his mind to boil down to the idea he wasn’t doing it (life) right: If he were, he thought, he wouldn’t feel so bad. In Aaron’s life, bad feelings were construed as a punishment for being “bad”, as often he had felt himself to be in his father’s eyes. This deep belief and an unconscious identification with his father kept him trapped in a vicious cycle of thought and feeling in which negative feelings led to self-critical judgments which perpetuated the bad feelings.

The exercise of mindful awareness in itself is a simple form of inquiry about truth: we look in order to see what is so in this moment (objectively and/or subjectively). Applied to ordinary experience—that which is grounded in a personality-based view of the world—mindful inquiry examines What is my truth about this? What am I believing to be true of myself, of others, or about life in general?

Aaron had a life narrative, a story about himself which he had formed in identification with his father’s behavior toward him. Although calling it a “story”, it needs to be understood as a relational paradigm that functions automatically to generate Aaron’s negative feelings about himself and his life. This set of cognitions is a common “depressogenic” framework for experience: negative view of self and future. It is this set of core beliefs that most needs to be addressed in Aaron’s psychotherapy going forward.

(This in no way denies that it may be important for Aaron to recognize regrets he has about the past. This is an important part of the ability to make better choices in the future.)

We can expand the inquiry “what is true?” specifically to psychological narrative by asking the question “what story am I believing now?”10 In the very act of asking this question, we have already taken a stance of observation which changes the way that we are relating to “storyteller mind”. This inquiry invites disidenti- fication from belief: it creates space in which we can reflect upon what we may previously have assumed to be true.

Examining what is true applies not only to the way we are construing life events—the spin we place on things—but even to the veracity of the events themselves. It may sometimes happen that we discover that a story we have told repeatedly did not in fact actually happen the way we remember.

Clinical Illustration 4.2: Victor

A clinical example is that of one man I worked with, “Victor”, who had grown up on a farm and had an emblematic childhood story about a family gathering that had occurred when he was about three years old. As Victor remembered it, an aggressive chicken had chased him around the yard while the family stood around laughing. In remembering this event, he described himself as terrified and we speculated together that this joke at his expense must also have felt humiliating.

An unexpected twist in the plot occurred when an old home movie re-surfaced in which this event had been recorded on film. As it turned out, it was not the chicken which had been chasing him, but the other way around! Moreover, the family did not appear to have been laughing at him. It was disconcerting [though therapeutic] for Victor to discover that the “formative event” had not happened the way he remembered it.

Notwithstanding the historical accuracy or inaccuracy of the life events depicted, there is much we can learn from our narratives. We can gain insight from them about the way we see ourselves, what we feel (or felt, historically), and the psychodynamics which gave rise to the narratives and/or which hold them in place. In the case of the patient just described, the narrative condensed a rich store of feelings about aggression and fear (“being chicken”).

"Why?”

The question “why?” (and questioning in general) is very basic in the functioning of the mind. From earliest life, questions are an essential part of mental development (“why is the sky blue, Daddy?”). It is important to ask wise questions, since the seeds of answers are contained within them.

All inquiry contains an implied “?”. We can also pose questions as a formal inquiry process. For example, we can engage a process of inquiry by asking the question “why?” serially and repeatedly to each “answer” that arises in the mind. I learned about this process from a patient of mine, Leonard, who was in psychotherapy for chronic depression. At a meditation workshop, the inquiry “Why?” was introduced as an exercise, and he recorded the following in his journal:

Clinical Illustration 4.3: Leonard

Question for Inquiry: What is salient in your experience right now?

I am sad.

Why?

Because I have nothing to look forward to.

Why?

Because I have no friends.

Why?

Because nobody likes me.

Why?

Because I am so negative.

Why?

Because nothing makes me happy.

Why?

I don’t know why.

The reader will note that this brief inquiry did not uncover the “cause” of Leonard’s sad mood, nor what had triggered it. It did reveal some beliefs close to the surface of Leonard’s mind that were associated with the sad feeling;11 and, in the end, it led to his making an assertion, “nothing makes me happy” that turned out to be quite generative.

As we were discussing this exercise and his experience of it, I asked Leonard if it were actually true that nothing made him happy. He had not really considered this, so I suggested that it might be useful for him to investigate in the ensuing days whether he was actually devoid of happy feelings. (He discovered he was not. To the contrary, he had quite a lot of happy moments.) As this inquiry unfolded in his psychotherapy over the following couple of weeks, we focused clinical attention on the fact that Leonard’s happy feelings tended to go un-noticed and we explored why this was so.

Quintessentially, inquiry is none other than the process and serial unfolding of “?” in the mind. But questions can also be problematic to the extent that they selectively engage the mind in a process of trying to figure out answers. Many questions have to be lived through rather than thought through, so the effort to figure things out tends to ensnare us in mental traps. To the contrary, wise answers to questions generally involve feeling as well as thinking, and they evolve out of intuitive awareness. Cultivating the ability to rest in not knowing, creating a generative space from which answers can emerge, is one of the primary goals of inquiry both in meditation practice and in inquiring deeply.12

 
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