• reflection on lived experience

  • reflection on lived experience

Contemplative self enquiry

Listening for inner wisdom’s invitation towards authentic self knowledge, so that we may figuratively:  stand in our own ground, openheartedly.

We are living in a spiritually expansive era.  There is an information overload of seemingly competing spiritual practices and belief systems to choose from.  For many people, such an information overload can be confusing at best and overwhelming at worst.  How do we find our way with so many competing voices?  How can we discern inner wisdom’s invitation towards personal integrity and authenticity amongst the many voices within our outer world and inner landscape? 

The ongoing practice of contemplative self enquiry is one way of listening for our inner wisdom.  Contemplative self enquiry is an ancient spiritual practice reclaimed for our Time.  In its reclaimed form, contemplative self enquiry is not dependent upon any particular belief system.  Rather, the practice guides each one of us through a personal inner adventure of self discovery, within the light of our current belief system.  Also, even though the practice is one of self discovery, the intention is not to seek some authentic self per se.  Rather the intention is one of seeking authentic self knowledge at any given time in our lives.  Therefore, contemplative self enquiry is an ongoing spiritual practice which enables us to continue to fully embrace our humanity so that we may live daily life with personal integrity and authenticity.   

(To view the actual practice of contemplative self enquiry,  scroll down below the photo)

The practice turns on posing our spiritual questions regarding meaning and belonging, within the light of our current knowledge, beliefs, and lived experience.  We then allow the questions to work their way through us. In this way, our spiritual questions become the pathway for discerning inner wisdom.  When we pose our spiritual questions with nonjudgmental curiosity and openness to wherever the pathway is guiding, then our questions can lead us towards authentic self knowledge. Why are questions fundamental to the practice of contemplative self enquiry?  In response to his research into human consciousness, the philosopher and theologian, Bernard Lonergan, claimed that open ended questions lay at the very heart of authentic self knowledge; open ended questions enable us to break through and transcend the confines of our socially constructed view of selfhood.

Our spiritual questions emerge within us in response to our ongoing lived experience.  Therefore, the practice draws from, and flows back into, our daily lives.  As a result, this spiritual practice focuses on our lived experience of the here-and-now, and in the words of Loch Kelly:

is no longer showing us how to transcend or escape the human condition, but helping us discover how to live a fully intimate human life.”  (Shift into Freedom – The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness).

Our being and our doing
Contemplative self enquiry leads towards self understanding, which in turn, leads towards the inner freedom of self love.  With inner freedom we can live daily life in accord with our values.  Also, as we continue to grow in self love, we project less of our shadow-side into our world, which in turn, allows us to be the change we want to see in the world (Mahatma Gandhi). Therefore, the practice of contemplative self enquiry involves both our being (who we know ourselves to be in our world), and our doing (the way we live within and act upon our world).

A contemplative orientation
Why a contemplative orientation?  According to author, educator, and activist Parker Palmer, our [inner wisdom] is like:

a wild animal – tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient and yet exceedingly shy.  If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out.  But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods, sit patiently at the base of a tree, breathe with the earth, and fade into our surroundings, the wild creature we seek may well emerge.     (A Hidden Wholeness:  The Journey Towards an Undivided Life)

Drawing from Palmer’s quotation our shy, inner wisdom hides from analysis which takes the form of logically probing, dissecting, scrutinizing and evaluating.  In contrast, a contemplative orientation creates a safe place for our shy, inner being to show up.

A contemplative orientation is one where we choose to let go the desire to control the experience of self-discovery.  Instead we wait patiently for inner wisdom’s revelation, which is usually perceived in the form of a whisper – Anne Hillman calls “the primordial whisper” – the primordial whisper of wisdom and compassion calling forth transformational shifts in our view of ourselves-in-our-world.  

Also, a contemplative orientation involves the choice to engage in the discovery process with a Zen Buddhist notion of a beginner’s mindset.  According to Japanese Zen monk, Shunryu Suzuki, a beginner’s mind is:  “Empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities.”  As such, a beginner’s mindset encompasses an attitude of openness, curiosity, non-judgmental exploration, and being comfortable but not complacent, with the unknown until it is known. 

The gentling light of lovingkindness
The poem “It felt love” by 14th Century Persian poet, Hafez, underscores the importance of grounding our practice of contemplative self enquiry within the gentling light of  lovingkindness.  Hafez wrote:   How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty? It felt the encouragement of light against its Being. Otherwise we all remain too frightened.  In terms of the practice of contemplative self enquiry, we need to ground our practice with lovingkindness towards ourselves, otherwise we might become too frightened to undertake the venture of self discovery.

Allowing our questions to work their way through us
The entry point for allowing our questions to work their way through us is: in response to posing a spiritual question, noticing our present moment affective experience.  Our affective experience includes the whole range of present moment thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.  We can notice our present moment affective experience – without either acting out of it,  seeking to repress it, or being swallowed up by it – in the knowledge that we have thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations, however we do not need to be totally identified with them.   In line with such an understanding, contemplative self enquiry includes such elements as: noticing what is stirring within us in response to spiritual questions; letting it be; gently opening it up; curiously wondering about it; asking open-ended questions of it; and patiently listening for inner wisdom’s invitation towards authentic self knowledge.

the gentling light of lovingkindness


Regarding an attitude of gentleness when engaging in the practice of self enquiry, John O’Donohue cautioned that our inner being “was never meant to be seen completely.”  So he suggested that we approach our inner being through the metaphor of candle light.  He maintained that a candle sheds enough light to “befriend the darkness, [as] it gently opens up caverns in the darkness” which need tending at this moment in time.


The Practice of Contemplative Self enquiry

Commence with some form of stilling practice and an awareness of the gentling light of lovingkindness.  Also, remember that you have thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations, but do not have to be totally identified with them. 

In response to posing a spiritual question – notice what is stirring within you:

Bodily felt experience e.g. relaxing/tightening; warmth/coldness; opening up/shutting down; drawn towards/repelled by…
Emotional response e.g. delighted; sad; angry; joyful; stressed; fearful; alive; challenged…
Thinking e.g. are your thoughts judgmental; compassionate; circular; racing; calm; stuck in a habitual pattern

Letting be

As you are able… simply hold your affective experience within the gentle light of loving kindness… breathing through your experience without denying/resisting/seeking change

Listening and waiting

If and when you are ready, pose some open ended questions to yourself:

  • I wonder why it is that my body responded this way?
  • Is this sensation or emotion tapping into a particular area in my life?
  • If this sensation / emotion / image had a voice, what might it say to me?
  • Is there a colour / shape / texture / image which seems to encompass it?
    (if so, feel free to draw it;  express it in prose or poetry;  or simply jot down words which arise in response.)

What may inner wisdom be inviting you to see or see afresh through this experience?

  • Is there any insight arising for you?
  • Are you being invited to stay; move; change; grow?
  • Are you being invited to embrace your current view of selfhood, or perhaps surrender some attachment to a fixed identity, or perhaps name and claim a new view of self?

Conclude your practice by simply resting in the quiet for a few moments.

Note:  Do not try to manufacture a response.  Simply wait for a response to arise – metaphorically try it on and see how it fits.  Do not worry if there is no discernible response initially.  Simply pose the question and live into the response.


Anne Hillman, Awakening the Energies of Love, Fire for the Second Time
Loch Kelly, Shift into Freedom, the Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness
John O’Donohue, Anam Cara
Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Towards an Undivided Life
Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind,  Beginner’s’Mind