Contemplative Self enquiry is an ancient spiritual practice reclaimed for our Time. The practice guides us through a personal inner journey of self discovery, within the gentling light of lovingkindness. The practice draws from, and flows back into, our daily lives. Therefore, this spiritual practice focuses on our lived experience in 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).
Contemplative Self enquiry leads towards Self understanding, which in turn, leads towards the inner freedom of Self love. 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).
Why a contemplative approach? According to author, educator, and activist Parker Palmer, our [inner being] 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 being 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.
In line with the above orientation, contemplative Self enquiry includes such elements as: noticing what is stirring within us in response to our lived experience; 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 inner freedom, personal wholeness, authentic communal belonging, and joyful humility and reverence for the mystery of being human in a wondrous universe.
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
Let your mind wander back over the last 24 hours
- How were you when you got up in the morning?
e.g. refreshed; tired; hungry; looking forward to the day; hesitant about what the day held for you…
- How did the morning pan out for you?
- Continue like this for your whole day and evening e.g. how were you at lunch time etc.
- What stands out for you?
- What do you find yourself remembering?
- Do you notice any particular shifts within you during the day?
- Around what event/moment/situation do you now feel the most energy?
Revisit that moment/event/situation
- What was happening?
- What sights/smells/tastes do you remember?
- Who was there, if anyone?
- What was your reaction/response at the time?
- What is your affective experience now as you remember that situation?
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
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