Reflective Practices in Inquiring Deeply

Inquiring deeply includes a number of different “reflective practices.” I delineate various kinds of introspective awareness under this umbrella, including noticing, investigation, inquiry, and self-reflection. All of these involve mindful awareness, but it is sometimes helpful to distinguish among them, so I will define each before I proceed with further illustration and discussion.

“Noticing”: Awareness of psychological events and experiences as these arise during daily life or during meditation. Noticing is one of the basic experiential modes of the conscious, cognizing mind. However, it is important to recognize that the experiential quality of noticing varies a great deal from moment to moment. Here, I am referring to “mindful noticing” as distinct from ordinary noticing.

“Investigation”: Focused mindful exploration of some specific aspect of experience, including the thoughts, images, body sensations, emotions, mood, and mental state that are present.

“Inquiry”: Looking into the nature of something in a deliberately open and receptive state of mind in order to discover something about it. As I use the term, inquiry is a deliberate, strategic, and sustained process, “living in the question” of something, whereas investigation is the probing of experience as it arises. Finding the right questions is the art of inquiry, and is itself a process; questions become progressively more refined and clear as we be with them over time. Once a question has been posed, the major task is simply to keep questioning and looking, sustaining an attitude of curiosity and receptiveness.

(When inquiry is done as a formal meditation process, it can also be called “contemplative inquiry.”)

The optimal state of mind in inquiry is aptly described as “opening the hand of thought” (as Uchiyama called Zen practice in his 2004 book). This is a state of mind which is open and receptive, one which neither holds onto nor pushes away thoughts. It rests on a platform of mindful attention. This quality of mind invites an experience of not knowing, which can be both creative and generative.2

“Self-reflection”: A process of introspective inquiry into the connections between the present moment of experience and the broad network of associations in the mind. We ponder and/or contemplate what something means to us or we try to understand what is happening within us in the light of what we know about ourselves. Thoughts and feelings are examined to see how things are connected, what memories are called up, and what context of personal meaning is present. Selfreflection helps us to see more clearly and understand more deeply how we are relating to our experience. A process of deliberate self-reflection can be engaged in order to invite insight or to create wise intentions for future experience.

Self-reflection is not necessarily “meditation,” nor vice versa. For example, self-reflection occurs frequently in ordinary conversation as we respond to something someone has said with our own associations. Self-reflection occurs when we start thinking about something and follow thoughts as they deepen along their own path;3 (“having a good think,” as the British psychoanalysts are wont to say). Self-reflection can be regarded as a continuum of states: at one end of the continuum, it is a casual mental process, barely noticed; at the other end, it can be a formal, self-guided inquiry practice (holding some question of interest in mind throughout a period of sitting meditation4). Ordinary psychotherapeutic conversation falls somewhere in the middle of this self-reflective spectrum.

Collectively, I refer to these various methods of exploring experience— mindful awareness, noticing, investigation, and inquiry—as “self-reflective practices.” They are used as adjunctive interventions in inquiring deeply to discover or encounter what is subjectively true—i.e. to become directly aware of how we experience something. This is somewhat distinct from the same methods as forms of dharma practice in that psychotherapy focuses selectively on what feels psychologically important, generally aspects of experience that have to do with personality, with self. We look into psychological experience with the intention to discover the subjective truth of something; to the best of our ability, to strip away the biasing influences of fantasy, belief, and desire, and to invite discovery of what is so that has not yet been seen.

Inquiring deeply is a psychotherapeutic approach which is based both on self-reflection integral within psychotherapeutic exploration and self-reflection which is engaged as a deliberate awareness practice. Although inquiring deeply uses mindful investigation, inquiry, and self-reflection as adjunctive strategies in psychotherapy, it should be emphasized that inquiring deeply cannot be equated with meditation as a process nor with any particular state of awareness.

What we choose as the object of self-reflective practice may be focused and specific (for example, “what about being with that person makes me so anxious?”) or it may be general and abstract (“what am I not seeing?” or “what experience am I pushing away?”). A framework of questions for clinical exploration informed by contemporary psychoanalytic concepts will be provided in the next chapter.

As we have said at other points in this discussion, inquiry and other reflective practices engage both intuitive awareness and analytic thought, so they should not be considered to be only cognitive processes. Optimally, they are grounded in the immediacy of deep experience, including feelings.

With this nomenclature in mind, the first clinical illustration (“Alice 3.1”) that was given above will now be re-examined as an illustration of these various reflective practices, as follows:

Clinical Illustration 3.2: Alice

I noticed that I was anxious. I tried to see where it was coming from [investigation] but it was opaque to me, so I decided to sit in order to explore what the anxiety was about [inquiry]. A lot of thoughts came up about a conversation I had yesterday with my sister regarding a fight she had with her husband [reflection]. Suddenly it became clear to me that I am upset about my relationship with John [Alice’s significant other]. I am worried that he may be attracted to Betty [a woman John works with].

I spent the rest of my meditation trying to locate the roots of my jealous feeling. I also thought about the nature of jealousy and what you said to me once about my tendency to confuse jealousy and love. I could see clearly that my jealous feelings are based on feelings of insecurity [self-reflection].

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