I don’t know about you, but I grew up always looking for the right answer. There could be only one of them, and gosh darnit if I wasn’t going to find it — ideally before anyone else did. My right answers were, fortunately for my fragile ego, plentiful. They were correctly spelled words and astutely solved equations; rightly identified years of foreign wars and perfectly placed participles.
Oh, these answers got me lots of exactly what I was looking for, everything from “A”s scrawled on the tops of papers in that gorgeous medium weight red ink to sparkling-eyed approving looks from the grown-ups.
Sure, there was also the fact that I was getting smarter. At least I was learning things. But with enough years of reflection under my belt, I can say that I’m not sure I was getting better. I most certainly wasn’t learning myself.
When I first discovered self-enquiry — in an RO-DBT training in Berkeley, CA — I had brought my good girl/girl student (because really aren’t they the same thing?) brain to the practice.
What do you mean you aren’t supposed to find the answer?
It’s not about the answer here, I was told. It’s about finding the right question. The one that brings you to your edge.
My edge? That certainly does not seem like a place I want or need to go. I’m pretty sure I was there in 2002 and it didn’t go so hot.
Uncertainty and lingering questions and edges are generally not places where perfectionists and self-identified successful people like to hang out. But what if that’s exactly the place where all the good stuff happens?
Our culture and our brains don’t seem to like unanswered questions. It’s uncomfortable to sit with the stirring sensation that there’s something there, more to discover, and certainty around the other side.
That’s why self-enquiry is a practice. Just like mindfulness and yoga and all the other annoyingly helpful things, we have to lean into the discomfort of never actually perfecting them and keep doing them (I KNOW).
Starting to ask questions
I’ll share with you the way that I learned to practice self-inquiry, because if I’m honest, it’s probably the most powerful tool I’ve learned in my own growth and development.
First, notice when you get really pissed off. Okay, so it doesn’t have to be pissed, per se. We use self-enquiry when we observe ourselves having a lot of “energy.” It could feel like agitation, fighting off feedback, excitement, irritation, or any other strong feeling of discomfort. It might be that sensation of pushing a bowling ball of feeling back down into your stomach because like hell if that’s going to come up.
Next, grab a journal or a scrap of paper, something where you can document your practice.
Start by asking yourself, What is it that I need to learn from this? The “this” can be a person, an event, an outcome. Try not to define it to concretely if you can, as leaving it more ambiguous might allow more questions to come.
Wait for your mind to go completely blank. Or to scream, like mine does, “NOTHING! I need to learn nothing! HE needs to learn to stop leaving his crap all over the counter when I’ve asked him eight hundred times to put it away and he never does and he should really know by now that this is the only important thing to me and I never ask him for anything else and why does he not even care about my feelings and I am at the very bottom of his priority list?!”
If you’re there, you’re doing great.
Now, and this is where it gets tough. Because self-enquiry is actually all about taking responsibility for our own perceptions and being willing to closely examine them. So my two favorite next questions are:
How do I contribute to this situation? (OUCH.)
What about this dynamic is the thing I least want to look at? (EEK.)
Let those questions linger for a bit. DO NOT try to come to quick answers. Answers — especially quick ones — are the shadow side of self-inquiry. Answers usually mean that we are rationalizing or rehashing our familiar narrative. A familiar narrative (the story we always tell ourselves) is often how we keep ourselves stuck. These kind of answers are an attempt to resolve the discomfort instead of leaning into it.
From there, you’re going to allow yourself time for your mind to land on the most pertinent questions. You’ll know that they are the most pertinent because they will elicit a feeling of “edginess” — that sense that you are going somewhere slightly more uncomfortable or even dangerous. You’ll know you’re in the right vicinity when you have the urge to stop looking.
When you get to your edge or about five minutes has passed (seriously, don’t let this go longer), jot down in that journal you picked up (okay, or type on your phone’s notes) the questions that surfaced. If there is one that stood out, write it down and promise to come back to it.
So that’s it? I know… It may seem a bit unsatisfying. No massive discovery of some hidden truth of being? To be honest, I think this is the key way to those truths. But don’t go in expecting some revelatory experience every time. It’s a practice, remember.
Self-enquiry is all about the journey to self-discovery rather than a destination. It’s about finding the edges and knowing where they live. It’s about practicing leaning into the dark places where we’ve always averted our eyes before. It’s about cultivating courage to examine our own participation (via beliefs, expectations, and actions) that perpetuate our own discomfort.
It’s funny how the older I get, the fewer answers I have. I choose to believe that I may not be getting smarter, but I sure am getting wiser.