The German girl was speaking. “It was as though I was picking up shells in a stream by a beach … where every shell pointed back to another, until I got to the sea – and couldn’t stop the joy of having the waves breaking behind me…”
I remember the moment vividly, though it was several years ago, during a mindfulness seminar accompanied by Sue Vincent, in London.
The idea of inquiring into one’s own mind seemed odd. Surely the mind already knew what it had stored in its own archives? There was the question of the ‘subconscious’ of course, though reliable definitions of that in a non-fluffy sense, were scarce.
What stuck me about the memory was how the German girl had spoken with such conviction. I remember that it had marked a turning point in my attitude to this, and I began to understand how much more there might be to this idea – this potential method of ‘diving deep’ into the ocean of consciousness beyond our normal range of action and memory.
A spiritual inquiry (I’m using the international form of the word with an ‘i’, as ‘enquiry’ tends to signify a less formal action) is a process of taking intelligent refreshment from the unknown. When carried out from a spiritual perspective, the goal is to find out more about our own essential nature.
When we think about such a seemingly mental action, we often associate it with a withdrawal or remoteness from the present moment or present state of ourselves. But an inquiry of this nature begins with an immediate self-exploration via a journey within the flow of our experience. The moment – the now – is key to all this. We want to enter a fully mindful state where our only attention is the flow of our now and its contents.
We do not impose on this any worries or other concerns. We simply observe – and follow the chain of thoughts, emotions and experiences that emerge from that stream.
Ideally, we relax into an ‘open’ inquiry centred on what is happening in the now of our body and mind; or we may have a question to seed the flow of the inquiry. If the inquiry is to begin with this question, then we need to hold it in mind as we begin. In either situation, we want to begin with a peaceful ‘taking-in’ of our current experience.
That’s all we need do…
The purpose of inquiry is not to get an “answer” in the usual sense but to use either the question or an immersion in your present experience as a starting point for your flowing exploration.
Let the question be open-ended; don’t become focused on getting too specific an answer. Let the question be lived entirely in the present moment, then passed into the watched flow of experience.
Our mind’s questions are special; they have properties we do not often consider, such as ‘how can we even ask a question, unless we already know part of the answer?
The method of inquiry is strongly associated with the three centres of belly, heart and head. The area below the belly-button is associated with our body state. The belly centre is located three fingers below the belly-button and two fingers into the body. There is no special physical organ there, but centuries of traditional meditative practice locate it as the point of focus of an important ‘awareness’ and an associated energy.
But tuning into the belly-centre and linking it to our breathing, we can ‘ground’ our efforts and stop them running away into the purely mental; in other words, we engage the body up-front in the practice.
We do this because, in this mind-dominated age, the body has much to teach us…
Moving up the spine, we have the heart-centre. This is the seat of emotional feelings, but has many other dimensions of perception which will reveal themselves in our practice of inquiry.
Finally, we have the head centre, traditionally the point in the middle of the forehead and just above the eye level. Here is the locus of the mind and thinking. It is good beginning practice to think of thoughts as things that come to us, rather than being generated in our own brains and having no real substance. Thoughts are the passing ‘stuff’ of the mind, but habitually take us away from the wholeness of the rest of our moment-by-moment experience.
It’s useful to begin the practice of enquiry by establishing contact with these three centres via breathing. One powerful method is to hold the attention – without being tense – on the belly centre, feeling it expand and contract, gently, with each breath. During this you may notice a warmth in the feet. This warmth can be used to dynamically explore the state of the body, in a vertical ‘sweep’ starting with the feet, as though we are bringing an energy up from the ‘earth’ and through our physical form; making it a key part of our inquiry process.
Use your own pattern to gradually bring the probing warmth up from the feet to the ankles, calves, past the knees and into the thighs before allowing it to flow into the midsection.
A related technique is used to raise the warmth beyond the waist level; this will be considered in future posts in the series.
The three centres on which we have established a breath-linked focus can now be used to inform us of the nature of our body, heart and mind – in terms of how we are experiencing and reacting to the flow of our inquiry. We may, for example, find ourselves following a line of thought that generates strong feelings and even tensions in us. It’s important – and very therapeutic – to let this take its course, but within this to ‘stand back’ in our attention, protecting the flow of experience rather than having our continuous awareness submerged in involvement. Watch and involve yourself with your experience via the three centres, rather than losing the flow in details.
We have a choice: we can stay involved with all three centres as the flow of our inquiry develops, or we can continually check into all three. Often, the flow will dictate this. We may choose to ‘zoom in’ as we notice an important observation is developing in consciousness, inviting us to learn more about how it affects or affected us. It is at this early stage that we come into contact with the power of the inquiry method – feeling it to come alive with focus, feeling and insight.
All we need to do is protect our continuous awareness of the flow. We should avoid being caught up in delving into meaning or resolution of what appear to be issues resurfaced. Being present to them has its own power, and the mind can return, later, to its usual worrying…
It’s useful to have a notebook and pen next to you, but don’t jot down your key moments until the whole session is finished.
Remember to decide whether you are going to begin your inquiry with a general journey into yourself or a specific question to which you’d like the answer.
Examples of questions might be to find your own general state of mind, what to do about a specific issue which is taking up a lot of attention, how you can be a kinder person in a specific situation. Considering these will generate many more ideas for questions specific to your present state.
It’s important to let the answers be ‘born’ from your present experience. The most powerful answer are unexpected, but instantly ‘right’ – in sense, feeling and correctness. In this latter consideration is a glimpse of the power of the method and its link with a ‘living sea’ of our deeper selves.
In the next post of the series, we will take our inquiries to new depths.
©Stephen Tanham 2023
Stephen Tanham is a writer, mystical teacher and Director of the Silent Eye, a correspondence-based journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.