I wrote a blog post back in August about the importance of doing heart-work for social activists, lest we become burned out on despair and/or anger. Titled “Part 1, of 2: Social Justice, Heart-Work, and Evolution”, it shared my own journey of heart-work, which took me straight into anger and then back out into deep and radical love. As I journeyed, this wisdom found me:
“I value my own heart so much that I must pause with and for her health before I do anything else.”
There was much left to be said, so at the end of that post I promised a part 2, which would continue to explore the radical act of heart-work, why it’s needed for evolution, and how to keep heart-work and social justice a sustained part of your life.
But I got a little delayed.
The overwhelming feedback from part 1 was that I needed to write more about anger; people were afraid of their anger, not sure how to handle it, and had some blockages to allowing anger, and so I wrote “The Gift of Consciously Connecting to Anger, aka Social Justice, Heart-Work, and Evolution Part 1.5”. In part 1.5 I shared my own journey illustrating how anger is an appropriate and healthy response to injustice that can actually empower us. I went onto explore how allowing ourselves to journey into anger doesn’t mean we necessarily disconnect from love. Love is big enough to hold it all.
It’s time to return to part 2. This is a stand-alone piece, but in order to grok “heart-work” see my first piece, for an experiential sharing.
Thanks for your patience. ❤
Heart-work, mysterious work
Sometimes our greatest “doings” come from within our deepest Being. In my experience these impacts can be profound, albeit mysterious.
Perhaps a part of what makes heart-work challenging is because it is somewhat mysterious, and maybe in that, a bit risky. In part one I shared the discovery that when I gave myself permission to hate, love found me. Deeply found me. While this may make sense in some ways, it likely seems more counterintuitive.
By giving myself permission to hate, love will find me? Are you sure?
This is my lived experience, as counteractive as it may sound. I’ve found that there is a mysterious sense of redemption that happens when I go deep into the caverns of my heart and into whatever is there, even hate. It’s not always easy – sometimes I have a lot of resistance and need the support of others to help guide me. Other times there is simplicity and a readiness to step right in on my own.
While it may not often be easy, after doing many years of intense embodied self-study my system has learned that it’s safe. This is important. It is my experience that when there is safety, there is an inexplicable knowing that makes surrendering into life – into Love – possible. Safety is a huge part of this journey. If this is a new topic for you, or something you’d like to learn more about, please contact me or see my KISS list at the end.
What is heart-work?
Heart-work, simply said, is starting with, or at the least, always including, energy of the heart. While our culture is largely intellect or mentally based, heart-work is body and wisdom based. While our culture is mainly past or future based, fixated on complication, heart-work is present based, connecting with what is simple.
Heart-work, generally speaking, is not easy: it’s actually counter to what our capitalist culture teaches. Heart-work is life giving and life fulfilling in its honoring and allowance of the individual, where I am free to be my fully human self. My hate and rage is welcome in the heart space within me. Tears of grief and trembling releases of fear are welcome here. Joy, celebration and happiness are welcome here too. Heart energy includes the entire being – from the toes to the head and everywhere in between. Somehow the heart space holds it all, until, if we are patient to go deep enough, there is nothing left but love or Beingness.
Sometimes the ‘doing’ that comes from deep inner journeying is enough. Other times it is the springboard or foundation which births more externalized doings. It is no easy thing to blindly stay with the present moment and go into discomfort and socially stigmatized emotions, but in my experience heart-work, or the path of love, invites just that.
I understand that this is not everyone’s path, and for that I’m grateful – because thank goodness to those on the front lines. I know not everyone has the luxury and/or the time and/or the know-how or desire to deeply feel, but instead know how to deeply act. I cannot bow down to them enough, and I am in full support of outwards actions. As for me, I don’t have that resilience anymore, unless I tend to my heart first.
“I value my own heart so much that I must pause with and for her health before I do anything else.”
Then I can, and I do, act outwardly.
A new way
If you are the kind of person who can have the most impact by jumping to action first, then JUMP! Again, I honor your role in this life.
AND, dare I say to all of us who want to move from the toxicity of our culture towards something completely different: We can’t push through and avoid ourselves – not love ourselves – if we are truly wanting to make change. So please, include your own well-being, as you work for the well-being of others.
Disconnecting from our true well-being is the old way. That is the way of the patriarchy, of powering over, objectifying, and monetizing everything, of valuing thinking, thinking, thinking! over the heart. The old way doesn’t support love, intrinsic worth and value, inclusivity, and the unity of interweaving life.
The old way is life taking – it is death itself. The new way focuses on doings, actions and humaning that are truly life giving as it moves further away from the dysfunction of our current cultural paradigm and into creating something sustainable and loving.
Controlling and killing others is no longer what I want to participate in.
Utilizing internal resourcing, along with clear head and heart energy, ushers in the wise use of creativity and curiosity in living together on this planet. This is what calls me, as opposed to using control and force.
The heart path
When I say heart path, I’m not saying – “let’s just all sit around and feel into our hearts all day!” whilst singing Kum-ba-yah. I’m saying, let’s include heart energy all day, or as much as we can muster, as we go about our activism or social justice activities.
Our current toxic culture insists that the head or the intellect lead. Yet, the space of the mind alone is limited and is often absent of good intent, or what Buddhists call right action. The mental route is often exclusive, based on limited notions of right/ wrong/ good/bad. It is restrictive, rigid and dual.
The heart path invites heart energy to lead, knowing that the mind and wisdom will follow. When I start with the heart, what makes its way to the mind will quite often come easily, creatively, and with a new and renewed sense of empowerment because the space of the heart is limitless and abundant. The route of the heart is inclusive, curious, compassionate… and courageous.
It is also a route that has within it uncertainty and unfamiliarity. While the mind promises that it will solve problems, the territory of the heart isn’t linear, nor does it guarantee. It’s risky, open-ended, and wild. And that is why the path of the heart is considered the path of the courageous warrior – who doesn’t use a sword to kill and destroy, but to gently open and create.
It’s why, when I was confronted with opening my heart deep and wide (See Part 1), an existential fear arose… Going into the heart requires a leap of faith of sorts, because it is the territory of expanse, of ‘more’, of newness… and that requires a letting go and surrendering – two things almost all human beings struggle with.
Love is not neat and tidy, nor is the heart
Going into the heart can be messy. We humans like to know what we’re doing, why, and what for. If we know we’re going to get something out of surrendering, then we’re down for it. But surrendering without a promise of something? It starts to feel like going down into a sewer tunnel, with no knowledge of what the hell might be in there, and if it will ever end. That’s where a certain kind of trust, faith, or Knowing comes in.
The more one explores from the present moment and the heart the more one knows s/he will live through it and the more safe it feels to do so. Knowing, trust, or having faith doesn’t always make it easier in the moment – but maybe it’s lingering just close enough to make a difference. What is more motivating perhaps, is the understanding that I know what the alternative is – it’s our current culture: it’s death.
Taking a step into our own hearts provides us with an opportunity to deeply connect with our planet, with each other, and with ourselves. Feeling these deep connections, we are prepared to creatively, curiously and sustainably find new solutions to old problems – solutions that are not founded in the very same toxic approaches that have created the problems at hand.
Heart-work for the future
It is my experience that we must step outside the old paradigm to find new solutions on a macro level, and so it goes on a micro level. If we can, we must take a moment to pause, and go inward, before we go to automatic pilot and charge outwards. Countless numbers of us have tried that route, and it is not sustainable or healthy. The life of our planet and of humanity depends on not repeating the old, but communally engaging in something new.
You might say you don’t have time to take care of yourself, however, this mindset is part of the old paradigm. If we don’t take time to honor and love ourselves, we unwittingly add to the current state of affairs. Heart-work is political: our current culture hopes we will never take time to honor and love ourselves, it doesn’t want us to be healthy and resourceful human beings.
Heart-work is political, and also practical. We all know political activists, or have been them ourselves, who have gotten burned out. We care so much, and there is so much to feel, that it becomes too much. We get bogged down by our anger, lost in our outrage, and find ourselves bitter and/or hopeless. Sometimes we find ourselves giving up or shutting down. Other times we may disconnect from the world and isolate ourselves.
If one does not allow one’s emotions to be felt, internally expressed, and validated, then the amount of flow one experiences is impacted. Without the movement through there is a stacking up, which can easily result in overwhelm, leading one to simply give up or shut down.
Heart-work, because it is based in allowance and inclusivity, welcomes the anger, welcomes the despair, and welcomes the overwhelm and says, “rest here for a while.”
Heart-work allows fighting energy, tired energy, as well as the peaceful energy. It is sustainable because it is inclusive, based upon the moment, and on the needs of each unique individual and where they are on their journey. It is sustainable because it allows for respite and nurturance.
KISS: Keep It Simple Sweetheart
Heart-work is practical and simple, and at the same time new to most of us. If you are new to connecting to your inner terrain there are options for learning this new paradigm. They all include getting to know yourself:
Attend a mindfulness or meditation class
Hire a professional to assist you in navigating your emotional wellbeing
Learn how to somatically inquire into your experience
Take a yoga class
Spend some time outdoors
Eat good food, and drink lots of water
Join support groups
Ask a friend to hold space for you
Explore your sense of safety in your body/being; learn how to feel and be safe
Exercise can be a powerful way to connect to repressed or active emotions (running up hills is a favorite of mine)
Work through your trauma with a skilled somatic therapist or facilitator
Heart-work has given me the courage to be a change agent. Waking up is a political act, and in my experience heart-work is a crucial part of embodied wakefulness. Journeying into my heart has given me tremendous freedom to act, create, to be. Heart-work has led me to discover my true nature, and has allowed me to be more available for the hearts of others.
It seems to me that we have been preparing for a new heart-work based culture for a while. Mindfulness classes are taught in many schools. Bodywork is now recognized as an important part of physical health. Yoga and body consciousness have become mainstream. Even science confirms that it’s important to slow down, breathe, and take care of our internal mechanisms, as stress is linked to the six leading causes of death.
Should we accept the mission, heart-work might just be the next step in human evolution. Will you take it?
I was going for a run this morning, on a new trail, in a new place. I came upon what looked like an extra large water pipe, but it was human sized- meaning I was to go through it. It was dusk. It was pitch black in there. And I had no idea what was on the other side. I started through, stumbling along the way, hoping I’d not lose my footing because there was stagnant and smelly water on one side of the dirt path that I really didn’t want to fall into. In the dark. I made it to the other side, and onwards I went, into more unfamiliar terrain, onto more trails that were new to me. I ran blindly, not knowing where I was going. At every step, there was new territory. In every moment, new life.
It dawned on me: these runs I take into the wild, they are like the journeys I take into my heart. Sometimes my pacing is awkward… sometimes I’m not sure where my heart is. Sometimes my body is stiff or out of alignment… sometimes my heart feels closed and hard. But I go on these unfamiliar runs, and I continue to go into my unfamiliar heart. Sometimes it feels risky, uncomfortable, and just plain hard. But I go, because I always experience new life in my body, soul and spirit when I do. I go, because I know what the alternative is, and of that I am not a fan.
The alternative is, by and large, our current cultural structure. I will be writing more about that in part 2, but in short, our current cultural structure is pervasively led by the head, not the heart. As such, it is not life-giving, nor life-sustaining, but more likely life-controlling and dominating.
I am a fan of the heart, which honors curiosity, creativity, and expansion. I am a fan of the mystery. I am a fan of the unity and quality of all life. I am a fan of new life – and that is why I run on paths unknown, and travel into inner territories not yet traversed.
Something is better than nothing
A few weeks ago, in late June, I was sitting in the place I spend most of my Sunday mornings – in my Unitarian Universality Church with my daughter. It was the week we started to learn that the US government was taking infants, babies, and children away from immigrants without proper documentation.
That morning Rev. Mary Ann spoke about what was happening on the front lines with regards to immigration. It was not a playful  sharing of information – it was horrific. The room was exceptionally sober. People throughout the congregation were sobbing, and many others had tears in their eyes, listening to the words she was speaking, trying best as we could to not only keep our ears open, but also our hearts.
She encouraged us to do something. She then spoke about the many options of ‘somethings’ we could do; attending marches, making phone calls, sending letters, donating funds, and so forth. She knew that a lot of people were weighed down by the insanity going down on the front lines of our government. She knew that many people felt powerless, and hopeless. She knew many people wanted to just ignore this, until it went away, because it was just so big. “Please do something,” she urged. She asked us to refrain from being complicit. “Nothing will yield nothing,” she said, “but something will always yield something, even if you don’t know what that is.”
Even if you don’t know what that is.
I thought that was profound. When it comes to political action, nothing will surely yield nothing.
Under the weight of what the government was doing, it was easy to think that actions might not have much of an impact. Rev. Mary Ann’s words were not only inspiring, they were also empowering. Even though we can’t know what that something will do, we know it will yield something. And that gives cause to opt for something, any act, over nothing.
(Side note. Pausing a moment for a desperate prayer and to state the obvious which is often overlooked by the liberal left, which includes myself: may we please pick our “somethings” wisely. Doing violence, to counter violence, for example, sustains the toxicity of our current death-fixated culture. I will write more about this in part 2.)
First, some heart-work
I knew action was crucial. Passively praying, or pretending it is “all going to be ok,” not only seems inappropriate but also morally void in these times. Social justice is a passion of mine, and I find that activism, in some way or another, is crucial.
I wanted to jump to action. I’d already been called to heartfully connect with the victims of the atrocities, but because of the amount of anger and righteous indignation  I felt I simply could not. When I tried to bypass that and do something “easier”, again all I could feel was my own arrogance, blame and resentment, and I could not ignore how ultimately disempowering that felt for me.
My heart had been buckling under the weight of these crimes against humanity, and I had been trying to ignore her because it was all just so painful. Not only was she buckling, she was hardening at times, wanting to close at times, and wanting to numb out at times.
It’s not just that I don’t want to live with a hardened or a dissociated heart, it’s that I can’t do my work in the world with a heart that isn’t open.
I knew that I had to address that first – as my initial ‘something.’ I knew I had to go deeper into what was going on for me, and I knew the only place to go deeper into was what wanted to close: my heart. I was in need of some heart-work.
Getting honest with myself
I allowed myself some time to honor what I was experiencing. It felt overwhelming and almost too much to bear and I noticed that I was feeling some hopelessness in light of the political decisions being made. I continued to go slow, and as I got clearer I saw that the government taking children way from their families was hitting me on (at least) 3 levels.
I was impacted as a human being who has empathy and compassion for other human beings.
I was impacted as a therapist because I know how destructive childhood trauma is with regards to the development of a healthy psyche.
I was impacted as a mother: the idea of my child being taken from me broke my heart every time I thought of it.
Between the three, I was overwhelmed with emotional responses. I was angry, I was experiencing immense grief, I was afraid and there was some hopelessness under the weight of all that.
It was the hopelessness that cried out for attention, for in the wake of the hopelessness there was despair and wanting to give up. And I could feel that deep in my heart.
As uncomfortable as hopelessness feels, as much as I don’t like to feel hopelessness, I knew that I needed to move closer to that resonance and get more intimate with what I was feeling.
That was my first ticket into my heart: as I allowed myself to let in this feeling of hopelessness, my heart started to crack, and, like Leonard Cohen, I experience the heart breaking as the heart opening. I could feel more as I stayed with the hopelessness, and that led to the next layer, which was anger.
Then came Anger
Sometimes I still feel weary and/or afraid of letting anger in, or going down into anger. Couldn’t I just jump to love? (Or, let anger spur right action?) No, I could not. I didn’t feel love, I felt pain and anger and rage and hate. And it felt like right action in that moment was to feel into it, as opposed to act from it.
As I owned that powerful righteous indignation I let myself fully feel it down deep into my being. My body felt rigid, as if I was holding, or gripping, and my chest was tight. I didn’t try to change or soften any of it, but instead consciously joined with it as it was. I let the righteous narrative be as it was, and before long started to see myself and feel myself as if I were having a tantrum. I was, as I often refer to this state of rage, ‘Hulk Mad,’ and in true Hulk fashion I was throwing things around (in my imagination). As I stayed with the visuals in my mind’s eye, I also stayed with the resonance of anger in my body, and my breath breathed down and into these sensations that were traveling through my heart, my gut, and legs.
Then a different degree of violent images arose in my imagination- first of caged children and cruel adults. Then, of me- gunning down those determent guards (I am pretty sure there were some politicians in there, too) so as to free those kids. I allowed myself to have such awful imagery and sentiments, and felt deeply into my being while doing so. Whilst breathing consciously I stayed with the heart contractions and let them have their way as they moved through my body. The sensations in my heart were painful, as if my heart was being ripped or torn apart. It wasn’t long before the anger and the rage and the hate started to shift – on their own accord. I started to sob uncontrollably with grief as my heart continued to break open. As I patiently stayed with the anger, and then grief, there was a shift into love and my heart started to open up even more. I could feel the impact of the heart-work I was doing.
The contractions and the rigidity in my body had stopped and were replaced by a deep and wide warmth that flowed through and beyond my body- all around me, and all within me. Love started to pour out to those children, and the guards and politicians, too. The imagery had turned from a killing fest into a love square dance.
The pain in my heart had been replaced by a mysterious yet uncomfortable pulling sensation, as if I was being drawn into the space of my heart. “Come deeper, here,” my heart seemed to be saying. Here.
And that’s when something surprising showed up: Fear.
You’re afraid to love, Lisa, really?
Hell yeah – fear was there. I was afraid to really let my heart blindly love. I was afraid of going so deep into my heart that I’d get lost in there, in my ‘hearting.’ There was so much to feel. Dare I let open my heart that wide? Could I trust my heart? Could I just jump in, without knowing where or what I was jumping into?
I didn’t know what “here” really meant, or where it would take me, or what it would “do”. I didn’t know anything, other than I was being called into a chasm that was deeper and wider than I knew. Like on those runs I take, I was being called to go into unfamiliar territory. I was being called to go into what seemed like emptiness.
I took it slow, and my dead friend Travis showed up to help me. He held my hand, and he reminded me that I didn’t have to go in deeper if I didn’t want to. I was feeling the deep desire to love, but I also felt some ‘supposed tos’. In the wake of those supposed tos, I paused, and I let myself not love, for a bit. And that was just what I needed because after that the love started pouring through on its own accord.
When I can honor doubt, and just let it be there for a moment, the trust that comes next is inevitably more powerful. I don’t know how that happens- perhaps it is pure grace.
My heart continued to beckon me into it, and in doing so it softened, filled, and emptied, over and over in a dance that is impossible to describe.
As odd as it may sound, I wonder if the first act of heart-work stems from the radical act of self-care.
Maybe this is the heart-work motto: “I value my own heart so much that I must pause with and for her health before I do anything else.”
For me, in the above life-story, valuing my heart meant that my first ‘doing something’ was to deeply feel, because without doing that my heart was going to close, and then what good am I in creating the social change I believe in and advocate for?
Once I tend to my heart, all things become new
After tending to my heart, after following the path of love, then I can be grounded and open enough to be myself. I can attend marches, I can write letters, I can make phone calls, and be a political activist. AndI can continue to work with the hearts and souls of my clients, and I can continue to be a mother, and I can continue to create, and write. And I do.
When I keep my heart open, I get to live another day in creating change, in creating newness, and in advocating life, not death, as our current political and economic institutions pray to. But once my heart closes down, it’s game over for me – and they win. Believe me, they want my heart to close – they want all of our hearts to close, and stay closed.
They want us to feel too overwhelmed, too depressed, and too powerless to feel, to act, to be alive. They want us to get lost in the horrific images on Facebook and television, and believe that we can do nothing.
Giving up isn’t an evolutionary option, but caring for ourselves is. In fact, the love and compassion that is at the center of self care may be at the heart of evolutionary progress on a macro level. As I tend to my heart and keep it open, I have more space and resourcing to participate in life on all levels. When I tend to my being, I have more available to tend to all beings.
We all must find that which sustains us. Taking care of my heart sustains me. It keeps me truly alive and furthering. Do what keeps your well-being alive, and involved in creating a different, a new, tomorrow.
Stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll be writing more about the radial act of heart-work, why it’s needed for evolution, and how to keep your heart-work and social justice work a sustained part of your life.
The theme in June was play, and had became a paramount part of her services each Sunday because, despite what was going on in our country politically, she felt we needed to remind ourselves of the importance of play. Rev Mary Ann Macklin had done some research – convicts of unspeakable crimes most often come from childhoods where there was little to no play. Furthermore, she contended, the opposite of curiosity – something utilized in play – is depression. “In times like these,” her words sang throughout the room, “we need play.”
And, she did, thank goodness, later in the service invite us into some experiential exercises so that we could connect with curiosity, aliveness, and playfulness.
 FWIW Righteous indignation has its uses, and can be extremely powerful – and perhaps that would have been the perfect springboard into action for me in the past. Perhaps my new slogan for myself will be, heart work first, then righteous indignation.
Thank you for arising! Thank you for being one of the millions of appearances floating in and out of the vast and infinite space of now. Sometimes you have come hidden within logic, seeming to arise as a thought that needs to take action about the future. You are such a great Thespian, worthy of an Oscar.
You have fooled me into thinking I am just rationally making decisions about the future. When you come disguised in this way, I am blind to you. You hide within the voice of the mind and the deep caverns of the stomach and chest. I cannot see you at all. And yet you are pulling all the strings. I am your puppet in that moment. We make a great team, fooling the consciousness within myself and all others, making everyone think that I am just making clear decisions to protect myself, set appropriate boundaries, build a future . . . or (and here’s the best one) make an intelligent decision.
Through the years, you have been so good at hiding yourself that I have made millions of decisions based on you, without even knowing it. And you have protected me, set boundaries for me, built a future for me and helped me make decisions. You have done all of that and more and I am grateful.
But, thank you, each time you have revealed yourself more consciously to me. In some moments, you have been gracious enough to arise directly in awareness so that I could peek at you, feel you, taste you, know you directly – without the veil of concepts. You could have stayed hidden but you didn’t. You allowed me to see you. And in those moments, you allowed me to see just how much you have been running the show.
In a phone call one day, I found myself responding to someone’s question. I thought I was just responding out of fearless clarity. But you revealed yourself in that moment. You showed me that I was responding out of you. You gave me a chance to meet you directly in that moment and a thousand insights came flooding into my awareness about how so many responses in my life have been a result of you. In a decision with my partner one night, you popped up again directly in awareness and it stopped me in my tracks. I thought I was just protecting myself from him. I thought I was just using my mind to make a decision about the household. But in feeling you directly in that moment, the walls of separation between him and me disappeared and I found no one and nothing to protect. And so I felt more intimately close, inseparable really, from my partner than ever before. You are love disguised as fear.
One day I was looking for a way to fix a problem at work. I thought I was just using my intelligence to decide between several viable options. I was so ignorant and unconscious. Oh how you had fooled me. I noticed you there in my stomach and I sat quietly with you. I gave you as much space to be exactly as you are. I loved you fully. And you revealed that there is nothing to fear. And in that, new options arose that were not based in fear anymore. A great relaxation swept over me and another thousand insights came flooding in, showing me that there is nothing that I need to try to make happen. I am already in the flow of the present moment. I am that flow. As you released that day, you provided me the way to allow work to happen naturally, without the toil and spin of the mind.
Most of all, dear fear, thank you for showing me that I can live without you. Although I am so grateful for the many years of self-protection, ultimately, I see that you were here to show me that there is no self to protect. I appreciate that you come back now and then to reveal this again when it is needed. I am so grateful that you have arisen so often to do exactly what you need to do in any given moment. You are not my enemy. You were only there to protect me at first. And then you became the doorway to freedom. You became my way out of suffering. You are the most loyal friend in that way, letting me dissolve into a great spacious peace and love, but only when I was ready.
This post is republished from the previous Living Inquiries website
The phenomenon of triggering is widely recognised now that trigger warnings have become commonplace. We often know when we have been triggered because we experience some kind of unpleasant emotional and/or physical response to an event, situation or circumstance. We might not immediately understand exactly why we have been triggered – disentangling many years of trauma and layers of self-identity is an ongoing process – but inquiry enables us to at least be aware when we are triggered and gives us tools to look at what is going on.
We may be conscious that our triggered reaction is out of proportion – at least in some respects, if not all – to the actual situation. Intellectually, we can clearly see that the levels of distress, fear, anger, grief or shame we are experiencing are not fully accounted for by what is happening here and now. Around 90% of an iceberg is under the water, and so it often is with triggers. While the conscious 10% may be a proportionate response to circumstances, the far larger part is often hidden from view until we look. The intellectual knowing that our response is out of proportion may assuage the feelings a little, but often it makes no difference. The horse has already bolted – our systems have reacted spontaneously and viscerally – and we can’t think or reason our way to the response we think we should be having.
Generally speaking, it is easy to tell we are triggered when our response is an over-reaction. Over-reactions, by definition, are vivid, visible and easily felt. We cry, tremble, shout. Our hearts pound, we sweat, we feel strong bodily sensations and emotions. We think non-stop about the situation, going over and over it in our heads. Over-reactions can be intense and all-consuming. We might think about little else for a few days. And yet, when we take time to inquire and discover what has given rise to the over-reaction – be it a sense of threat, a feeling or belief of some kind of deficiency or lack in ourselves, a past trauma – the over-reaction quiets. The recognition and acknowledgement of the previously unconscious material that gave rise to the trigger allows us to put the present circumstance or event back into proportion. Our present-day triggers or over-reactions inevitably stem from unmet feelings from the past or the abandoned, suppressed or fragmented parts of ourselves which we have tried to avoid or deny. Once brought back into the fold, so to speak, and given space and time in which to be seen and felt, they are no longer triggered in the same ways.
However, our out of proportion response may equally be an under-reaction. Something happens to us which would upset or anger most people, and we shrug it off or say it doesn’t really bother us. Or we jump to spiritual teachings to put a positive spin on what has happened. Under-reactions tend to go unnoticed, of course. We may have a subtle sense of flatness, emptiness, deadness or inertness, but it may not be disturbing or concerning. In fact, we may even take pride in our lack of emotionality. Particularly within some spiritual circles, people aspire to respond to all life’s travails with calmness and serenity, as if non-reactivity were the apogee of spiritual attainment. I have heard many people – myself included – berate themselves for being emotionally reactive to situations, as if that were a bad thing which the people we deem to be more spiritually evolved than us would not do. Yet if we lose sight of the fact that under-reaction is just as skewed as over-reaction, we will fail to recognise that bypassing, denial, avoidance, over-intellectualisation or an unwillingness to feel might all masquerade as equanimity, when in fact they are nothing of the sort.
The hoisting of rationality and non-reactivity above all other qualities has profound and detrimental consequences, in my experience. It leads to judgement and manipulation – both inter- and intra-personally – and cuts us off from the truth and aliveness of our deeper selves. It supports existing power structures by framing the proportionate responses of oppressed or disempowered peoples – outrage, anger, grief to name a few – as unreasonable and over-reactive. It paints our natural, human emotions and responses to the large and small tragedies, shocks and joys of our lives as something to be ashamed of or to shrink from. A lack of reaction to our lives and the world around us is no more or less out of proportion than an over-reaction, but it is much more readily sanctioned by the powers-that-be, both temporal and spiritual.
Inquiry, therefore, is not about investigating our triggers in order to dampen or quiet our responses, either now or in the future. It is about giving full rein to our humanity and admitting to the whole extent of all our emotions and reactions, including the ones we have previously attempted to avoid or deny. As we do so, our responses begin to become proportionate to events and to the circumstances we find ourselves in. For some of us, this may manifest as a greater sense of calmness. For others, it may manifest as more emotionality. There is a time for calmness and a time for perturbation; a time for peace and times for rage, anger, and indignation; a time for happiness and a time for grief or misery. When we are willing to be with our experience just as it is in each moment, the idea that there is a state at which we need to arrive no longer makes sense.
Q: Scott, eventually I want to get to some more controversial and depthful questions about your work. But let’s start off with some basics. What are the Living Inquiries?
Scott: They are a set of tools developed by me and other facilitators to help question the beliefs, stories and identifications that create suffering. They are designed to help us feel emotions and sensations directly in the body, without the layer of words and pictures (i.e., thoughts) stuck to those emotions and sensations. The Inquiries undo what I call “the Velcro Effect” which is the experience of thoughts being stuck to emotions or sensations. There are three main inquiries – The Unfindable Inquiry (UI), the Anxiety Inquiry (AI) and the Compulsion Inquiry (CI). I first developed the Unfindable Inquiry. The Compulsion Inquiry was later co-created by Colette Kelso and me. The Anxiety Inquiry was developed by Fiona Robertson mainly, with some help from me and Colette in the beginning. But virtually all of the facilitators, especially the Senior Facilitators, have helped in the ongoing development of this work. It’s truly a co-creation in every sense. For more information about the Inquiries, visit www.livinginquiries.com.
Q: Please explain how the Unfindable Inquiry works.
Scott: It works through the process of naming it and then finding it. You start by naming what it is you are looking for. For example, you might look for the self or a more specific version of the self like “the person who isn’t good enough.” Where is it? While resting as and looking from awareness, you bring words, pictures, emotions and sensations (elements) into awareness, examining each of them in isolation, one by one. For example, if you are looking for the person who isn’t good enough, you ask that question towards each element. Let’s say a memory in the form of a picture arises. You look at that picture and ask, “Is this picture me, the person who isn’t good enough?” Instead of answering with the mind, you take note of whether there is any emotion or sensation stuck (or “velcroed”) to the picture. If there is, you answer “yes.” If there isn’t, you answer “no.” If there is a yes, you slowly move to that emotion or sensation and ask the same question towards that emotion or sensation, while feeling it without the picture on it. “Is this emotion, by itself, me, the person who isn’t good enough?” If you are experiencing that emotion without any words or pictures on it, you generally answer “no, that isn’t me” and continue resting and letting the emotion be as it is. If there are any words or pictures stuck to that emotion, you answer “yes.”
Then you slowly move to each set of words and each picture, one by one, asking the question. As you move through the various words, pictures, emotions and sensations, you often begin to notice that you cannot find that person. In not finding it, there is a release or relaxation from identification with that story. The key is to stick with the looking, trying to find it wherever you look, at whatever arises. Another important key is slowing your experience down, truly examining everything in slow motion. Trying to move quickly through an inquiry can result in skipping over important elements that continue to create suffering (i.e., bypassing).
For a demonstration of the Unfindable Inquiry, watch these videos on YouTube:
(demonstration of me doing the UI on myself, looking for the Self) and
(here, I am facilitating someone else through the UI).
The video “Understanding the Living Inquiries Before You Inquire” is a good explanation, rather than a demonstration:
Perhaps the best source for understanding how the UI works is in my book, “The Unfindable Inquiry,” which will be released in 2016. If you don’t want to wait for that book to be released, the book, “Living Relationship,” which is available on amazon now, also contains thorough instructions: visit: www.amazon.com. (Note: this is a republished post, the book “Living Relationship” is no longer available via Amazon)
Q: The Compulsion and Anxiety Inquiries work in a similar way?
Scott: Yes, those inquiries are specific adaptations of the Unfindable Inquiry. With the Compulsion Inquiry, the object you are looking for is an urge, desire or command to do something compulsively. The CI can be used not only on addictions but on any compulsive movements e.g., the desire to change your experience or even the urge to be right. With the Anxiety Inquiry, the object you are looking for is the threat, danger or attack that underlies fear or anxiety. The CI and AI work the same way as the UI with the only difference being that you are looking for one of those specific objects, rather than looking for the self. Once you become adept at all three inquiries, you can begin weaving them together, which is very powerful.
Fiona has some great videos explaining how the AI works:
(Introduction to the Anxiety Inquiry) and
(self-facilitation using the AI). She and I are also writing a book on anxiety that will include specific instructions on the AI (to be released in 2016). (Note: this is a republished post, you can find Fiona’s book “The Art of Finding Yourself” by clicking here). The CI is not yet demonstrated in any video. However, my book, “Natural Rest for Addiction” contains specific instructions on it: visit www.amazon.com.
Q: How do you know what to look for with the UI – how to name it?
Scott: Trust your own experience. Who do you think you are? What identity feels really sticky, real or true – or creates suffering? Deficiency stories such as “I’m inadequate,” “I’m unlovable,” or “I’m unsafe” are popular targets for the UI. If you have difficulty naming what to look for, use the Boomerang or Panorama Inquiries (naming tools) to help. Explanations of these tools can be found in the upcoming book, “The Unfindable Inquiry” and also in the book, “Living Relationship.” Essentially, with these naming tools, you are asking what other people or things mirror back to you about who you are. For example, if my father triggers me, I might ask, “What identity is he mirroring back?” Perhaps the answer is, “I’m helpless.” Once I’ve named it, I can then use the UI on that identity. These naming tools work within the mirror of relationship and really help illuminate the root of the suffering. It looks like someone or something outside of myself is the source of the pain. But quite often, the other person is merely triggering a certain identity that is unconscious until I properly name it and then attempt to find it. The UI is not limited to looking for deficiency stories. You could look for anything, such as a table, a bad day, cancer or anything else.
Q: So, the point of these inquiries is to see the unfindability of whatever you are looking for?
Scott: Yes and no. The main purpose of the Inquiries is to allow us to bring into the light of awareness unconscious thoughts, feelings and sensations that create suffering and then to rest and allow them to be as they are. These thoughts, emotions and sensations often fall away naturally just from resting and looking at them. In this way, the Inquiries are providing a natural and deep acceptance of our entire experience. Transformation happens just from that resting, looking and allowing. It also happens through seeing the unfindability of whatever you are looking for. But if people make unfindability the main purpose, as if they are trying to reach an endpoint where they see something as unfindable, they may miss the delicious opportunity that the Inquiries truly provide, which is the experience of allowing everything to be as it is. Essentially, the Inquiries help us change our relationship to thoughts, emotions and sensations, so that we are no longer resisting, trying to change, fighting and/or avoiding whatever arises. Bypassing becomes virtually impossible once you become adept at this kind of inquiry.
Q: Do you suggest that people try the Inquiries on their own or work with a facilitator first?
Scott: Some will be able to read about the Inquiries or watch some videos and then be able to use them skillfully. But in most cases, I suggest people work with a facilitator first. A certified facilitator is trained to help a person spot the identities and other sources of suffering that are largely unconscious and then gently guide them properly through the Inquiries, so that there is no bypassing. Once you become adept at self-facilitating, doing the Inquiries on your own can be incredibly liberating. It’s like having a sword in your arsenal that cuts through suffering like a hot knife through butter. But the key is skillfulness. There are all sorts of pitfalls that people experience when they do not first learn how to properly use this method. This is why working with a facilitator first is so important. Facilitators can be found at www.livinginquiries.com.
Q: I know you did private work online for many years. Do you work with people in groups or one-on-one anymore?
Scott: I only work with clients at the Kiloby Center. It’s a full time job. I no longer work online or in person with people. But there are many, many very good facilitators available for online or in-person work. Occasionally I will do a retreat. But they are few and far between. I am doing weekly podcasts called RUF talks (note: this post is republished, the weekly podcasting has been stopped). They are free. You can listen to them here at www.kiloby.com.
Q: But why have a method? In the nondual community, teachings often say that liberation cannot be realized through a method and that methods often just create more seeking towards the future.
Scott: Some methods do that. But the Living Inquiries are designed to reveal the emptiness of that self that is seeking as well as the object or future state that is being sought. For example, if you really looked for the one who is “unenlightened” and you looked for whatever you are chasing (e.g., enlightenment) you would likely discover that these things are unfindable. You would see that there is no inherent self and no inherent enlightenment. This would relax the seeking and provide a deep rest as present moment awareness and a natural allowing of everything to come and go without identifying with whatever arises.
Q: At the risk of beating a dead horse, I want to stick with this point. All these teachings that shun methods can’t be wrong. Doesn’t the very idea of using a method create the idea of an endpoint that you are trying to reach?
Scott: I’ve already answered that above. But I do understand where your focus behind this question comes from, so I want to honor it. Allow me to elaborate. If someone uses the Inquiries to try and get somewhere (which some do in the beginning until they learn the true purpose of this work) they are missing a key component. They are missing the opportunity to examine the very identity of the seeker and the thing being sought. You can only continue seeking if the identity behind the seeking and the thing being sought are not examined. Again, the main point of the Inquiries is not to reach the point of unfindability. Somewhere along the way, you start to see that the point is to rest and look from and as awareness and let everything be as it is. That’s what enlightenment is really all about. The fact that you can also realize the unfindability of whatever you are looking for is like icing on the cake. The cake is the resting, looking and allowing. The inquiry questions are designed to bring about a more gentle, thorough and directed examination of the elements that make up suffering. They are not intended to make the process heady or overcomplicated. When done skillfully, the questions make looking much easier.
Q: But don’t those Inquiry questions just get in the way? Why not just rest and allow? Isn’t that enough?
Scott: Before the Inquiries were developed, I spoke a lot about the value of just resting and allowing. I still do, as resting and allowing lie at the heart of the Inquiries. The problem is that it just doesn’t go deep enough for many people. Many of us are not consciously feeling emotions and sensations directly as they arise. By directly, I mean feeling them directly in awareness without the veil of thought on them. The Inquiries are designed to help us feel into and rest with whatever arises in the body directly. Our default state is to focus on and identify with thinking. Many teachings focus too much on just watching thoughts or resting as awareness. They do not point people to how to be consciously in their bodies. This is a big miss because so much of our suffering arises in the body. We feel the past and the future in a very visceral way. If you check into your own experience, you will find that you identify with thought mainly when there is an emotion or sensation stuck to it. The stronger the emotion or sensation, the more you believe or identify with the thoughts. The Inquiries help to undo that Velcro between thoughts and the corresponding emotions and sensations. I have noticed that many people who have been involved with nondual teachings for decades are still suffering and seeking some future state, mainly because they haven’t yet developed the skill of truly allowing the emotions and sensations to arise and dissolve without thoughts on them. They wonder why they are still suffering so much and still seeking. But it isn’t rocket science. It’s just that a big part of their experience (the body) remains unconscious. The Inquiries help everything come into the light of awareness. No stone is left unturned. You cannot learn the Inquiries and use them skillfully and continue to suffer and seek.
Q: What do you mean by suffering? Are you saying that the Inquiries eradicate all emotional and psychological pain?
Scott: The trajectory of this work is the natural diminishment or elimination of emotional and psychological pain. But suffering is not the same as temporarily experiencing negative thoughts, emotions and sensations. Suffering means to carry identification over time – to identify with something, believe it, feel pain over it and continue identifying with it for hours, days, weeks, months or even years. Thoughts, emotions and sensations are natural, temporary arisings in our experience. This is not about trying to eradicate them through the force of personal will. It is not about trying to get somewhere, including to a future place where you feel no pain. It is about allowing every arising to be as it is and undoing the velcro that holds the arisings together. It is about seeing that what you perceive to be real and true and to be the source of your suffering is actually unfindable. It is about seeing that thoughts only stick around and make you suffer when you do not notice and fully, gently allow the emotion or sensation stuck to it. As you begin to see this more and more, in the midst of whatever is arising, suffering diminishes or even vanishes. But again, it’s not a seeking game. It’s a game of resting, allowing and asking a few skillful questions to truly face and resolve what makes you suffer.
Q: How deeply can one take the Inquiries? It seems as though someone could use them in only a surface-level way, dealing only with some painful thoughts and emotions. But couldn’t one also take them deeper than that, into seeing that everything is unfindable?
Scott: Yes, this work is influenced by (but different from) the Madhyamaka School of Buddhism, a rarely translated school. I first learned about the teaching of unfindability from my friend and teacher, Greg Goode. In this school, the point is to refute the notion that things exist inherently. Inherent existence makes us suffer because we are constantly misperceiving reality and the people, things and circumstances of our lives as being objective, fixed and permanent. If you take the Inquiries very deeply, you begin to see the emptiness of everything. This is incredibly liberating. If one does not want to take it that far, the Inquires can be used to simply deal with some pesky addictions or anxieties or deficiency stories that create suffering. It’s up to each individual to gauge how deeply he or she wants to go.
Q: Emptiness – a confusing term. In awareness teachings, emptiness is often considered to be the same as awareness. Is this what you mean, that life starts feeling like a big empty space?
Scott: No, even that big empty space is unfindable if you look for it using the UI. Emptiness here means that whatever object you were perceiving to be true, real, objective, fixed and permanent does not exist that way at all. Seeing the emptiness of a thing means that you cannot find it when you look for it. If you then come to rest in what feels like a big, open, empty space called awareness, you can look for that awareness and see that it too is empty and unfindable. This helps from landing on the notion that life is one big void (which can bring about nihilism or dogmatic thinking). The big void is as unfindable as the self or a threat or urge. All things are equally unfindable.
Q: If one takes the Inquiries that deeply, wouldn’t life start feeling meaningless? Everything would seem to be untrue and illusory right?
Scott: As I answer these questions, keep in mind that I am speaking from my own direct experience. I am not assuming that everyone comes to see things as I do. Meaningless only becomes a landing point when you refuse to look at it. Meaningless is unfindable also. Life is full of meaning. Every word I type has meaning. Every story we tell has meaning. The difference is that you see that nothing has inherent meaning. This “means” (see the irony?) that all the stories in life continue showing up but you are not identified with them. You are not grasping and clinging to them anymore. You can play in this world with all of its stories. Tell them. Listen to them. Enjoy them. Argue with them. But you also see the illusory nature of all these stories at the same time. It’s paradoxical. For example, if you looked for the self and didn’t find it, you would still refer to yourself as “Joe” including all the stories that pertain to Joe, but you would do so with a lightness and non-seriousness about it all. Life becomes joyful play, rather than the serious and heavy sense that everything you are thinking about a Joe and about everything else is objectively true and real.
Q: But how does this help the world’s problems? How does this end terrorism, for example?
Scott: It doesn’t, unless terrorists start to inquire into the inherent beliefs that propel them into violence. Inquiry is something you do for yourself. As Michael Jackson sang, start with “the man in the mirror.” You begin to change the world by changing your relationship to thoughts, emotions and sensations. With that investigation, you begin to see the world very differently. Until the terrorists and murderers of the world begin to inquire, we have to look at more conventional ways to address these problems. I’ll leave that to the politicians and I’ll vote for those politicians who are aware of the possibility that even their own beliefs are empty. Inquiry opens the door to more transparent, compassionate, loving and harmonized relationships. Right now, the world is largely involved in a lot of outward pointing. It’s always someone else’s fault. Something or someone else is seen to be the source of pain and suffering. Inquiry encourages us to go deeper into the triggers, beliefs and identifications behind all that outward pointing. It would be amazing to see two world leaders engaged in inquiry about each other or two dogmatic religious people inquiring into their beliefs. But inquiry is very threatening to our most precious beliefs. That fear alone stops many people from taking a deeper look.
Q: Relationships are so challenging, including the relationships between people and between groups, nations, religions and political parties. Is there any hope that we will all begin to investigate our perceptions more thoroughly to help harmonize these relationships?
Scott: We are far from that right now. You don’t see Inquiry on CNN. You don’t hear about it in presidential speeches or debates. You don’t often see couples who are mutually engaged in inquiry instead of reacting from the usual triggers. Part of it is education. Many people don’t even know about the possibility of inquiry. They heve never even heard the word “inquiry.” The more we speak about inquiry and the value of it and demonstrate its effectiveness in our own lives, the more other people will catch on to it. Freedom is very contagious.
Q: Couldn’t inquiry result in someone staying in an abusive relationship instead of taking action to leave or speak up more?
Scott: Not if it is done thoroughly and effectively. Most people find they are able to take clearer action after inquiring. For example, just looking for the “victim” can dissolve the victim identity. And that identity keeps many people in relationships that are harmful or destructive. Inquiring into one’s own suppressed voice or expression can bring about a greater ability to speak up in relationship.
Q: Do people experience a sort of nothingness about themselves after inquiring, such that self-love becomes irrelevant?
Scott: Quite the opposite. Speak to facilitators who have used the Inquiries on the deepest identifications. They will most likely tell you that there is much more self-love and compassion now. That’s another paradox. One might think that the result is just seeing no self or self as like an empty space. But in a very mysterious way, inquiry brings about a compassion, love and acceptance for how we show up in life in any given moment.
Q: How has Inquiry helped you personally?
Scott: The previous deficiency story that ran my life – I’m unlovable – is nowhere on the radar for me. It feels like a faint memory with no velcroed emotion or sensation with it. This allows me to experience more unconditional love towards myself and people with whom I am in relationship. I feel much more comfortable being whoever or whatever I am in any moment. Yet I cannot truly define what or who I am, which allows me to take myself and everything else much less seriously. It has also helped tremendously with trauma, anxiety and addiction. Addiction has virtually been wiped off the map for me. I still indulge in some pleasures, but I don’t feel shackled to them.
Q: What would you say to those readers who are reading your answers here, but who still feel reluctant to learn and use the Inquiries?
Scott: Just try it. What do you have to lose? Even if you have no money to work with a facilitator, there are plenty of free videos explaining how the process works, so that you can try it on your own. If it doesn’t work, you can abandon it. But it is very rare for someone to try it and find that it doesn’t help at all. Mostly what stops people from trying it is fear, close-mindedness or some idea that methods generally don’t work. Some people are just not ready for this work. They need to suffer more. But suffering has a way of leading people to what works. So they may eventually come to the Inquiries after a few more years of suffering. Any resistance one experiences towards this work can be examined through inquiry. For me, life is too short not to have a skillful way of examining the source of my suffering.
Q: Aren’t some people really stuck in their heads around spiritual concepts and not really experiencing what nondual teachings are truly pointing to? How can those people be helped with Inquiry?
Scott: Yes, we call this overcompensation. It is safer to cling to the concepts than to examine them. Overcompensation is a way of avoiding the deeper, more painful emotions and sensations in the body. It’s often a way of masking unresolved trauma. It’s always a question of readiness. Do you want to strengthen your ideas and your knowledge about spirituality or do you want to directly experience freedom? Do you want to continue bypassing and overcompensating or do you want to examine and resolve the pain underneath all of that? For me, the choice is very easy. I know that during times in which I was trying to understand all these spiritual concepts, I was bypassing. I was not ready to examine the deeper pain. But life has a way of showing us how we are not going deep enough. The suffering continues until we open the door to looking more skillfully. That’s when Inquiry can help a lot.
Q: Do you still inquire?
Scott: Much less than I used to. The less suffering there is, the less there is to examine through inquiry. And now I am experimenting at the Kiloby Center with new avenues of exploration, ways that incorporate the basic foundation of the Inquiries but add new elements, especially elements that address deeply rooted contractions and trauma in the body.
Q: What does Scott still need to examine? Is there any suffering left for you?
Scott: No, I don’t carry things over in time. Occasionally, a small trigger will arise, but it is usually seen very quickly, resolving itself on its own. When my mother passed, I felt tremendous waves of grief. But the inquiries helped to remain conscious of the deep pain. They allowed me to see that grief is really just love, disguised as pain. But there was certainly pain there. It resolved itself naturally but the grieving process had to be fully explored. The pain has not been carried over in time. When I think about my mother, I feel only love and compassion. In the last five years, I have focused more on some of the deeper contractions near my spine, remnants of earlier trauma from growing up gay and being bullied. But those have largely released. There is still some energy in small pockets near the spine. They are dissolving naturally through simple rest and occasional inquiry. It’s been quite an amazing process to watch, as previous deficiency stories, addictions and anxieties have fallen away, resulting in the deeper contractions and blocked energies coming into the light of awareness and slowly dissolving. Life is great! There is no end to the depth of freedom. It hasn’t always been easy. I have dealt with a lot of pain through the years. But I feel so blessed to have found this approach. I can’t imagine a life without it. This is why I’m so enthusiastic about this work. This is why I write and speak about it so much. I just want others to know that it is out there and that they don’t have to suffer anymore.
This post is republished from the previous Living Inquiries website