Self-inquiry is a beautiful contemplative practice to include in our mindfulness and self-compassion repertoire. The purpose of self-inquiry is to strengthen the resources of mindfulness and self-compassion through cultivating relationship with our self in each moment. Self-inquiry is different to self-therapy or seeing a therapist, because it does not involve visiting our history or our story – it is allowing for an organic response from our own self-wisdom to help us understand our present-moment experience. During many self-compassion and mindfulness trainings, a teacher is conducting an inquiry to cultivate a teacher-to-participant relationship. In self-inquiry, we are our own inner teacher, bringing the same curiosity and kindness a teacher would bring. We are aiming to attend to our inner experience with a sense of courage, connection, awareness and affection.
Steps for a self-inquiry practice
- Do your regular self-compassion or mindfulness practice. You can find a list of practices here. Make sure you set aside some time after practicing for self-inquiry.
- Once you have completed your practice, sit in silence and simply be with your experience, as much as you can without judging or narrating it. Explore your moment-to-moment experience including thoughts, emotions, sensations and felt sense (intuition).
- Distill your present moment experience down into its components – we are not going into the story of our past. This is not a “dear diary” exercise. If you find your mind heading off in a story, bring your awareness back to your body and your present moment experience.
- Ask yourself, “What is going on in my experience?” rather then, “Why am I having this experience?” You are not analyzing your responses or trying to figure out or judge your motivation. See below for more self-inquiry questions.
- Sit with this receptive part of the process – looking inward to allow and notice your inner experience – for as long as you need to before moving on to the active part of the process – expressing yourself creatively.
- Be open to your own unique way of processing and expressing your experience. Self-inquiry can be practiced through quiet contemplation, journalling, doodling, Zentangle, singing, vocalizing, SoulCollage, painting, drawing, moving, dancing, walking, speaking … whatever works for you. Wait to find out what your body wants to do to process your meditation experience. It can take some time to cultivate trust in your inner-wisdom, but it’s there and it will emerge when you give your system time and you let your body know that you are curious about what’s going on.
- Engage in your chosen self-inquiry practice for as long as it feels fruitful. You’ll know when you are finished. Don’t force more if you are complete. Listen to the wisdom of your body.
- Self-inquiry is opening to what is happening in the present moment rather than trying to fix how we feel or who we are. Fixing is sometimes an effort to avoid our experience, to resist our internal processes by looking for escape routes. In self-inquiry we bring mindfulness and self-compassion to our experience rather than trying to make it go away.
- We are the expert on our own internal experience and on any thoughts, emotions, sensations or associations that arise during self-inquiry. Self-inquiry relies on the self as teacher, rather than looking externally for someone else to explain our experience. Avoid any impulse to “look up” something you are experiencing to see what someone else says. Get curious about how you feel and any associations made in your system.
- Self-inquiry is a way of being, not doing. It is being with our experience, getting curious about it, allowing it to be just as it is and allowing space to find out even more about it than was initially apparent to us. In this way self-inquiry leads to self-understanding.
- You might like to have a particular place you practice your self-inquiry, or a special notebook where you record what you learn. Make this practice delightful – use ritual, beauty and function to support you in developing a regular ritual of self-inquiry.
Questions to help with self-inquiry
Self-inquiry questions relate to mindfulness or to self-compassion. Mindfulness-oriented questions focus on the content of our moment-to-moment experience – body sensations, intellectual thoughts, feelings, and felt sense. We also explore whether or not we are judging our experience as we’re having it. Mindfulness questions include:
- What did I notice?
- What did I feel?
- What emotions arose for me?
- Is there any emotional discomfort?
- Can I name the emotion?
- Where do I experience the emotion in my body?
- Can I expand my awareness and hold that experience in spaciousness?
- Is there any resistance to my experience?
- Can I hold my experience with a greater sense of ease?
- What can I let go of in this moment?
Self-compassion-oriented questions are more focused on the quality of our awareness and how we are relating to ourselves. Self-compassion self-inquiry questions include:
- What do I need right now?
- How can I respond to my experience with kindness?
- How can I give myself what I need right now?
- Is there a part of me that is frightened/angry/annoyed/frustrated/bored etc right now, that I can be more curious and kind towards?
- How might I bring in courage or fierce compassion so that I can be with my experience?
- How can I connect with myself in this moment?
- Can I feel what it’s like to offer my dearest friend/pet/family member compassion and then U-turn that feeling back toward myself?
- If I am judging my experience, can I see that, also, as suffering, and bring kindness to the pain of self-judgement?
I’d love to hear about your experience of self-inquiry. Please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to explore self-inquiry some more, check out the Somatic Self-Compassion program. I’d love to see you there!
Self-Inquiry Guidelines adapted from Christopher Germer’s Mindful Self-Compassion Teacher Training paper, “On Inquiry”