“The shame of being me was a frequent visitor during my dark night…It felt shameful to have all these feelings. The shame was difficult to feel, not least because it felt endemic to my whole being. Every cell of my body, every memory, felt shaped by humiliation. It had misshapen my whole being.”
The Dark Night of the Soul, page 81.
Several weeks ago, shame visited me again. Even though I am now usually able to meet emotion with minimal judgement, the density and intensity of it were stunning. Bodily feelings and vivid memories flooded in. As I looked and felt, I wrote:
The shame feels so deep. I am utterly mortified. Being this – me – is so utterly mortifying. I see everything through this lens. I’m mortified by everything; my body, my life, the house. Every inch of me, every memory. I’ve lived from this place of utter mortification. I am mortified at how my life turned out. So much of what I have or am is mortifying. My whole life has been built around this. I don’t know if there’s any disentangling from it. (I suspect we would almost rather kill ourselves than feel this.)
How do I get unmortified? How do I recover a shred of dignity?
By abiding and persisting. By sitting upright, breathing, and still being here.
I sat upright, music on, and kept breathing as the waves of mortification came and went.
So far, so familiar. I have tapped into this well of shame many times, a little deeper each time. Then came something I had not been conscious of until the moment it appeared: self-mortification. I began to see all the ways I mortify myself. Having been brought up a non-conformist protestant, I was only dimly aware of the role of self-mortification in Christianity, but when I read a little, I saw that I had unintentionally practised self-mortification in a variety of ways. The dictionary definition resonated strongly:
To mortify: to make death. To subdue by abstinence or self-discipline; to humiliate, to chagrin, to wound.
This is what has made me ill. I see all the patterns are self-mortification. Now I feel like I can be here until it all comes home. I see images of my twenty-eight-year-old self, blown apart by traumatic events. I needed to become who I am now to be able to go back to her. Even with all the inner work I’ve done, I couldn’t get back to her until now. It’s a little shocking it’s taken this long. I have a sense of all the fragments coming together.
There is so much pain and shame in telling our truth. Yet it is in telling our truth that the pain and shame can finally be met. Shame (or mortification or humiliation) hides, believing itself to be guilty of heinous crimes or wrongdoing. When we are in the midst of it, we are convinced that what we are or what we have done is beyond redemption, as I have described. In reality, the sentence we have passed on ourselves rarely bears any relation to the supposed crime. At some point in our past, we were shamed or humiliated, made to feel bad for being ourselves or for some aspect of our being. Such shaming, coming as it does from outside ourselves, leaves us trying to cope with what has been imposed or projected onto our young selves without recourse to support. We develop a skewed and imbalanced view of ourselves and our imperfections. We believe there is something fundamentally wrong with us, and that we have no choice but to cover it up as best we can. Shame is convinced that we are on our own with our wounding, that it is inconceivable we could tell anyone else what is within us. Feeling shame evokes further shame. Trying to avoid or distract from shame sometimes involves activities or compulsions that bring about even more shame. And shame thinks the world sees it as it sees itself; it cannot imagine we could be seen from any other perspective.
Shame is a kind of death. Crippled by humiliation, utterly mortified (from the Latin mortificationem, meaning killing or putting to death), we die inside. How can we really live if we are unable to be ourselves? How can we survive when shame implies our complete isolation? Particularly if we were shamed as very young children, shame strikes at the very heart of our being, making it virtually impossible to be our true selves. We have a sense of how shame curtails our aliveness, but it feels as if feeling the shame would kill us. Indeed, people die of shame, either taking their own lives or via addictions or some form of self-neglect.
As I sat in my shame, I looked around the room. Everything was mortifying except for a set of headphones. I clung to them and sobbed. But it was in finding this one object – which for some unknowable reason was not tainted with shame – that it began to feel okay to sit and breathe and be with the feelings and images. The presence and touch of the headphones allowed a small aperture, a space through which the possibility of not-mortifying could emerge.
Shame believes that if we tell our truth, we will be rejected, ridiculed, hated, killed, or shamed further. We need to take it slowly and gently, allowing shame to feel its way towards safety, to find something or someone that will hold it as it comes fully into consciousness. Indeed, it is of paramount importance that we tell our truths in places of safety and equality. Places where our truths will be heard, honoured and respected. Places where our shame will be witnessed with love and understanding. The antidote to shame is sharing, telling the truth to ourselves or each other. When we listen to each other’s woundedness, when we hear each other’s stories of messing up, ending up in destructive patterns, not being perfect; when we hear the truth of each other’s lives, our shame begins to realise it is not alone and isolated. Our shame realises it can tell its truth and survive. Our shame realises it is deeply human, one amongst many. We can share our shame, and live again.
We’re all familiar with the play of oppositional, fear-fuelled politics. Don’t elect them. They will damage you or threaten your lifestyle or your life in some way. Whether it’s the other political parties, other countries, a particular group, or a kind of people, the dynamic is the same: there’s them and there’s us and never the twain shall meet. In the early 1970s, feminists coined the phrase, “The personal is political.” I’d suggest that the reverse is also true: the political is personal.
Since I was young, I’ve sided with the underdog. I’ve worked and lived in disadvantaged, inner-city areas. I’ve expressed disdain for the one percent, the bankers, the flagrantly rich. As I looked with another facilitator, an underlying story became very apparent. I saw the words, “I have to be modest.” In addition to the words, there was a strong sensation and numerous images. Not only was there a self here who has to be modest, but also a command or instruction to be modest. I began to see how this played through in many areas of my life.
I don’t yet know how seeing through this story of having to be modest will play out. We look, and see what follows from the looking. There’s no prescription here. Whatever happens from now on, I’m no longer carrying that previously unconscious story of having to be modest, which was understandably triggered by images of people living in grand, distinctly immodest opulence. I no longer need to project it onto others; if it arises again, I’ll most likely be aware of it. If not, I can simply inquire further.
Wherever you sit in the political landscape, take a look at those you think of as them, whoever they are. Whoever you hate, passionately disagree with, campaign against, or shout at when you’re watching the news. Be it the political right, left or center, Muslims or Jews, black people or white people, refugees, feminists, paedophiles, the religious right, the religious of any shade, those in same-sex relationships, immigrants, Darwinists, homophobes—this isn’t about deciding who is right or wrong, but looking at how and where the political is personal.
Rest for a few moments, close your eyes, settle into your body, and take a couple of breaths. Then bring an image of them to mind and have a look at it. Simply look. Judgments about them may well arise. That’s okay. We can come to those later. For now, see the image there in your mind’s eye and see if it’s a threat or danger or attack—find the word that fits the best. Remember, this isn’t an intellectual or cognitive process; let your body give you the answer. If it responds in some way, it perceives a threat. However the response comes (as a sensation of tightness or contraction, a feeling of fear, some kind of emotion), let the response happen just as it’s happening. Take time to feel it. And then let the process unfold, looking at the words and images that arise, and feeling the sensations and feelings. See exactly where the threat lies, going by your body each time.
You may also notice that a self-identity arises in response to the perceived threat. You may notice words like “I’m under attack” or “They want to take something away from me” or “I’m inferior or superior to them.” Look for that self, too.
It may also be useful to use the Boomerang or Panorama Inquiries here. We use the Boomerang to inquire into one triggering person or situation and the Panorama for looking at more than one.
When we project qualities onto others, be they positive or negative, there’s nearly always a deficient self-identity in play. Again, rest and bring an image of them to mind. As you look at them, see what the image of them says about you and who you are. Who are you in relation to them? Ask the question and listen for the answer. Ask several times, as different answers may come each time. See which one resonates in your body most and continue looking for that self in the words, images, and body sensations and feelings that arise.
Using the Inquiries in this way helps to defuse the fear and sense of threat around any political issue. Even things that seem inherently real—global warming, refugee crises, financial crises, whatever you feel affected by or preoccupied with—can be inquired into in this way. Leave no stone unturned. To inquire isn’t to deny the existence of things or to arrive at a conclusion about them; it is simply to explore our experiences of them and to see where there are unexamined assumptions and beliefs operating.
When we’re looking in this way, we can let go of any notion of being politically, emotionally, or spiritually correct. The Inquiries allow us to be gut-level honest in any given moment. We may be shocked or embarrassed by what comes—that’s all part of the process. If there are places we dare not tread, we can look. What’s the worst that could happen if we look at these words or images, or feel these feelings?
When we take the time to disentangle the personal from the political, we often find there’s more clarity, flow, and spaciousness around our opinions. Perhaps we discover that the anger we’ve always felt toward the other side actually stems from an unconscious deficiency story. Or we find that we’ve aspired to be like our parents in order to gain their approval, side-lining our authentic selves in the process. Whatever we discover, we’re left free to hold whatever views make sense to us, minus the rigidity that comes from fear or deficiency.
Watch below as Fiona discusses this article with Richard Cox:
On Realising the Political is Personal. Fiona Robertson and podcast host Richard Cox (50 minutes)
Fiona Robertson comes back on the Deep State Consciousness podcast to talk about her essay On Realising the Political is Personal. Fiona and podcast host Richard Cox discuss how our political positions are inextricably linked to our core beliefs about life, both in terms of the positions we hold and the dogma or open mindedness with which we hold them. They go on to discuss how cultivating a relationship with a sense of self which is deeper than the opinions we hold can allow us to drop our addiction to certainty and engage with people in a more relational way. They ponder what the implications of this would or could be for our polarised political climate. What if we were all open to inquiring about all our political viewpoints?
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
Many years ago, and in the throes of relationship turmoil, I went to see my wise friend and mentor. Having sobbed and complained about the behaviour of my soon-to-be-ex partner, I then went into a long diatribe about how I knew I was supposed to accept what was happening and that my inability to do so was evidence of my obvious and inherent flaws. Having recently encountered New Age teachings, I had unquestioningly swallowed the idea of unconditional acceptance and surrender. I believed – for a mercifully brief period, as it turned out – that all my suffering could be affirmed out of existence.
My friend listened, patiently. And then picked up a sharpened pencil from his desk.
“What would happen if I poked you in the eye with this?” he asked.
Flinching, I replied. “Well, it would really hurt.”
“Exactly” he said, and smiled.
It took me a few moments to realise what he was getting at. I was hurting, not because there was something inherently wrong with me, but because what was happening was hurtful. The behaviour I had presumed I should accept wasn’t acceptable. My feelings were there to guide me, rather than being inconvenient reactions that I should repress, censor or overcome.
The belief that we should not be feeling what we are feeling is a major source of distress. This belief may come from a variety of sources. We may have grown up being told certain feelings were unacceptable (in some families, for example, anger is always suppressed or grief goes unacknowledged). We may have been taught by our culture, religion or spirituality that particular feelings are signs of deficiency, weakness or badness. Wider society sanctions or punishes feelings according to race, gender and sexuality. So when we find ourselves in the grip of rage, grief, envy, anger, fear, or any other emotion which has been unduly designated as ‘negative’, we think there is something wrong with us. We assume we need to fix, solve or get rid of the feeling. In addition to feeling the feeling itself, we also have to contend with shame or self-blame for having it in the first place. Our confidence is eroded; we doubt and criticize ourselves.
At the heart of this dynamic lies the internalised ideal self-image, the fictional uber-self which remains forever out of reach and unattainable. The ideal self-image varies for each of us, of course. Created in childhood and refined as we progress through life, we measure our actual selves against it and find ourselves wanting. Perhaps our ideal self-image is of a serene, calm person who can cope with any eventuality. We find ourselves raging and hostile and judge ourselves accordingly. Or our ideal self-image is adventurous, fearless and risk-taking, and we find ourselves trembling with uncontrollable anxiety and caught in a cycle of self-hatred as a result. Regardless of what we believe we should be and feel, we are stuck with the moment-by-moment reality of what we are actually feeling and being. We can find ourselves caught up in frantic efforts to try to make our real selves conform to the ideal self-image. Such activity is, ultimately, a violence to ourselves and often to others; we often attempt to keep our ideal self-image intact by making others wrong, lashing out in the process.
If we are willing to investigate more deeply, we can begin to unpick the strands of this Gordian knot, and allow ourselves to feel more honestly and deeply rather than suppressing or denying what is here. First, we notice the presence of a should or should not, a must or supposed to. I shouldn’t feel like this. I’m supposed to accept this. I should not be jealous. And then we question it. What tells us we shouldn’t feel like this? How do we know we are supposed to accept this? In inquiry, we are not asking these questions from an intellectual perspective. Rather, the answers come from a deeper place; from memory, from the unconscious caches of data we have stored in both mind and body. It may be we discover we vowed never to feel anger because we had a raging parent who traumatised us. Or we were bullied in school for daring to show tears in the playground. The possibilities are endless; we each discover how such inhibitions, vows, rules and so on work within us.
In my sessions with clients (and in my own looking), there is often a moment when a previously denied, forbidden or taboo feeling is finally felt. In the safety of the space, the feeling can be itself at last. And even if it is excruciatingly painful, there is a relief in being able to be with the reality of what is here. The feeling can express, tell and show, its message being acknowledged after many years. We may be astonished to discover the wisdom that lies within all of our feelings. We become more honest with ourselves. We come closer to the realness of ourselves as we no longer cling quite so tightly to the ideal self-image. We find ourselves more willing to feel what is here, and less willing to buy into teachings and rules that tell us how to be or what to feel.
All our feelings – whatever their nature, and whatever our ideas or beliefs about them – are natural responses or reactions to experience. They naturally arise, not because we are wrong or at fault, but because that is what our systems are designed to do. They are an essential part of the experience of being human. Being judgemental about them – either our own or others – misses the point entirely. When we develop the capacity to feel whatever we are feeling – and we have a safe space either on our own or with others to do so – we no longer need to act out in destructive or harmful ways. By becoming fully conscious of what we are feeling we are able to be present to ourselves without the self-shaming or self-criticism that leads us into denial. We begin to feel the full spectrum of our feelings, and connect with our innate aliveness, freed from the rigidity of trying to fit into the shoulds and oughts of the ideal self-image we no longer ascribe to. Instead of trying to be Teflon-coated super-selves, we become fully and vulnerably human, embracing all aspects of our being. Life touches us – and we touch life – ever more deeply.