Inquiry can be done any time, anywhere—when you are alone, with a friend, with a teacher. When I first teach inquiry in the retreats, I teach it as a writing practice. I ask people to begin by becoming aware of a question—something they don't know but want to know. If they are aware of a problem they have, but think they know why they have it and what to do about it, there is no reason to do inquiry. The effectiveness of inquiry lies in its open-endedness, its evocation of true curiosity.
When you practice inquiry, you see what and who you have been taking yourself to be that you have never questioned. Inquiry allows you to be in direct contact with that which is bigger than what you are writing about: the infinite unexplored worlds beyond your everyday discursive mind.
Here are the instructions I give to my students:
- Give yourself twenty minutes in which you won't be disturbed.
- Sense your body. Feel the surface you are sitting on. Notice the point of contact your skin is making with your clothes. Be aware of your feet as they touch the floor. Feel yourself inhabiting your arms, your legs, your chest, your hands.
- Ask yourself what you are sensing right now—and where you are sensing it. Be precise. Do you feel tingling? Pulsing? Tightening? Do you feel warmth or coolness? Are the sensations in your chest? Your back? Your throat? Your arms?
- Start with the most compelling sensations and ask these questions: Does the sensation have shape, volume, texture, color? How does it affect me to feel this? Is there anything difficult about feeling this? Is it familiar? How old do I feel when I feel this? What happens as I feel it directly?
- At this point, you might begin associating a sensation with a memory or a particular feeling like sadness or loneliness. And you might have a reaction, might want to close down, go away, stop writing. Remember that a sensation is an immediate, primary experience located in the body, whereas a reaction is a secondary experience located in the mind. Some examples of reactions are: the desire to eat compulsively, telling yourself that your pain will never end, comparing how or what you feel to how you want to feel, comparing the present experience to your past experience, comparing yourself to someone else, making up a story about what is going on.
When you notice that you are reacting to what you are experiencing, come back to your body. Sense what is going on in your chest, your legs, your back, your belly. Inquiry is about allowing your direct and immediate experience to unfold; it is not about a story you are constructing in your mind.