Heartwork – Inquiry

It makes a sound like AHHHHHHHHHHHHH
It feels like silence and space
A place where I can hear again
Where the longing simply is
And the thread is like gravity itself
Drawing and pulling inward effortlessly
A tear and a smile
A tender calling
Into grace
Falling
Into the arms
Of the one
Who is always there
A silent cry explodes within my soul
As my knees bend into majestic mercy
For the LOVE that is always present
—Donna Berber

Inquiry is a dynamic, open-ended exploration into the immediacy of our experience to more deeply understand the mystery of who and what we truly are. The practice is based on a simple but profound principle: being freely reveals itself to anyone who loves to know the truth of reality and is willing to wholeheartedly surrender to not-knowing and remain open to and curious about truth. To paraphrase George Washington Carver’s reply upon being asked how he discovered the thousands of uses for the lowly peanut, if you love something deeply enough, it will reveal all its secrets. 

In Inquiry, one brings together all the qualities necessary for deep understanding and transformation developed through working with the previous tools:  

  • the gentleness, vulnerability, surrender, sensitivity and unconditional love developed in Unwinding and Soft Body Meditation 
  • the interest, curiosity, need to understand, commitment to truth, focus, strength, courage, willingness and deep intimacy developed in Guided Heartwork
  • the steadfastness, witnessing, presence, openness, spaciousness, awareness and immediacy developed in the Awareness Meditation

The purpose of Inquiry is to see as deeply as possible into the truth of an issue. Inquiry requires—and develops—both a profound openness as well as a laser-like ability to focus your awareness. Without the openness, what you are inquiring into will not reveal itself. Unless it knows it’s going to be received openly, it will remain unconscious, behind the wall you built to protect yourself from it. The intensity of your focused awareness needs to be equal to or greater than the intensity of the wall. These two qualities—openness and focus—must be accessed together if you are to see deeply into the source of the issue. It’s as if you are patiently, persistently and determinedly boring into an issue with a laser beam of “What is this?” and receiving whatever is uncovered or revealed with the tender loving care you would have for your own child if he or she was experiencing what you are opening to—even though what you are opening to may not necessarily be gentle and loving. 

You need to develop awareness so that you can stay present to the big picture (spacious, non-discriminating awareness) and simultaneously discriminate the parts (what you are inquiring into) from the whole—much like looking at something in the dark with both a searchlight and a spotlight operating together. If you lose the big picture of presence or pure awareness, you will not be able to inquire deeply into the heart of the matter because you will easily get caught in storytelling and re-telling (how many times do we fruitlessly replay our stories about ourselves and the way the world is?). While you need to be open as deeply as possible to your feelings in Inquiry, take care not to get caught in them, allowing them to turn the process into a deep emotional release. If deep feelings threaten to overwhelm the Inquiry process, in order to stay with the Inquiry, you will need to bring an awareness to the process that is greater than the intensity of the deep feelings. Likewise, take care not to go to the other extreme and suppress the deep feelings through philosophizing, psychologizing, projecting (putting onto others those parts of ourselves that we don’t accept), attaching to the feelings that bring pleasure or rejecting those that bring discomfort. Try to see them as a detached observer would. This ability often takes time to master and comes with the development of powerful presence.

Yet the mind must ultimately be the servant to the heart. In Inquiry, you need to adopt an attitude of openness and curiosity. Curiosity is a heart quality that affects the mind—it comes out of our deepest yearning to know the truth. Inquiry usually feels like you are grappling with something—really needing to understand it. To support the curiosity, you may find it useful to keep a question running in the background of your consciousness: “What is this?” “What’s that about?” “What’s behind or underneath that?” “What does that mean?”—anything that will keep you looking increasingly deeper into the truth you are seeking. Ultimately, you want to be questioning every thought, feeling, sensation and image that comes into your consciousness, using each as a doorway to the next deeper layer of insight and understanding.

In Inquiry, there can be no manipulation, no agenda and no pre-conceived ideas about where the inquiry will lead. You need to get out of your own way and simply be with and surrender into whatever thoughts, feelings or images arise as they arise—just as they are. While you will usually have a starting point, this attitude of surrender and not-knowing allows the process to unfold in a natural, open-ended way. The truth is here and now and you can only see and experience it by looking more and more deeply into what is happening in the moment. By following the intelligence of the soul and surrendering to the deep yearning within, Inquiry takes you through layers and layers of conditioned self—the ego structures and defenses, the self-images and identities and the incessant mental activity of thinking and reacting—and leads you home to an experience of your essential qualities and ultimately a realization of your true nature. 

You can do Inquiry with others or by yourself, so experiment to see which way works better for you. You can learn Inquiry only by experience—and lots of it. As you progress with this tool, you will find your own way with it. 

The more you practice Inquiry, the more it will become your natural way of being in the world. So whenever you don’t understand something or encounter a difficulty, instead of fighting it or running away from it, you will find yourself automatically asking, “What is this? What’s happening here?” When the commitment to the truth becomes stronger than the commitment to protecting your self-image, you have become free in a most significant way. One of Japan’s greatest Zen Masters, Dogen Zenji, said, “In the end, the final refuge is sustained practice.” Sustained Inquiry has the power to transform your life.

Inquiry Questions:  The question that is really eating at you is most likely the best question to begin with. If that or another burning question grabs you and doesn’t let you go, go with it—let it take you wherever it takes you. In addition to asking yourself, “What is this?” or “What is this about?” the following questions may also be useful:

  • Am I pushing, fighting or running away—or am I letting go into the truth of my being in the moment? 
  • What’s in the way of my being completely present right now?
  • What do I need right now? (Give yourself what you need, being careful to distinguish between need and want.)
  • What do I really want? (Surrender into the wanting and yearning.) 
  • What am I experiencing right now? What am I feeling?
  • What is real? What is the truth? 
  • What is happening here?
  • In my present situation, what is being mirrored to me about myself?
  • Who or what am I?
  • Who do I think I am? Who am I taking myself to be?
  • What am I pretending not to know?

(Note: While I have practiced my own brand of Inquiry since 1982, my understanding of the process has been deepened and broadened greatly by Alia Johnson, my Diamond Approach teacher, with whom I have been working since 2000. The Diamond Approach is a profound spiritual practice developed by A. H. Almaas that works through the psychological aspects to access the spiritual dimensions of being. Almaas’ book, Spacecruiser Inquiry [Shambhala, 2002], gives a more detailed description of the process.)


It is more important, more thrilling, more satisfying and infinitely more valuable to know the Healer than to be healed.—Anonymous

Not long ago, I had a boss who not only had no respect for me but was downright abusive. In our sessions, Dale often asks me why I stayed in my job. It seemed incredible that I would stay in such a violent situation that has so damaged my self-esteem. For quite some time, I felt trapped, hopeless and powerless to leave.

I started to slip into a mind-numbing depression and had trouble waking up to go to work. My whole body would be in pain, and I dreaded the thought of getting out of bed and getting ready for work. One morning, the dread shifted to terror. The terror turned to a deeper depression. As I lay in bed, part of me wanted to know what was happening and wanted it to turn around. It wanted to know why I had created this painful and frightening relationship. I started to gently inquire into what was behind the depression, and I asked myself why I felt so helpless and hopeless. 

I took a deep breath, and a memory came flooding back from when I was four years old. My mother used to wake me at 5:00 each morning and drop me off at a babysitter’s place, where I would stay until it was time to go to school. All of the children in her care were verbally and physically abused. She was very rigid with us and any small diversion from what she wanted was punishable with a public spanking—without clothing. I was paralyzed in terror the whole time I was there. This memory was so real to me that I actually felt as though I was really back there again. I became nauseous and the terror 

of being small and frightened and helpless overwhelmed me. 

I told my mother the babysitter was hurting me, and I begged her not to take me there. But she didn’t hear me, and after awhile, I gave up asking for help. I shut down and suppressed my needs and feelings. I became a depressed child, subjected to the babysitter for years—until she was shut down for abusing children! 

After this Inquiry experience, I cried for that little girl who needed help and could not get it. I had tremendous compassion for her and decided that I could not expect someone who had been abused in that way to be functioning effectively. The next time my boss was abusive, I gave notice. —Madeline Stewart*

I was feeling a little stuck and so I started to look at that, and I came across my solar plexus and the buzz that lives there, that is always on. I let myself feel the charge that went through my whole body. After awhile, the hole in my center closed up and I went deep, deep into bliss. I also encountered my snake, and I realized he is part of what keeps me awake at night—constantly, vigilantly guarding me. He’s a kind old snake, as old as I can remember. We have started a dialogue, and we agreed that he can start to just ease up a little. He is tired. He’s been working so very, very hard for so long, guarding my (inner) little girl. He has known that I haven’t been ready before. 

Later, I discovered more about the purpose of my snake. He’s a guardian of my grief. When I asked him what he needed, he said, “Play with me.” I asked, “How do I play with you?” He answered, “Enjoy yourself more; have fun in what you do; be present when you’re doing it; lighten up; don’t take yourself so seriously. You can do it all, have it all and be it all.” 

I know I have work to do with my snake. I know that I need to befriend him and stop being afraid of him. He wants to play. I feel that this process will take me a little further each time I allow it. —Donna Berber

I’m looking into the anxiety that permeates my daily experience. It lives throughout my entire body but seems to be centered in my belly. In making contact with it, I immediately become aware that I use anxiety to mute my fear and make it more manageable. I approach this fear in my belly gently, and when I make contact with a layer of sadness directly underneath the fear, the fear disappears. What am I sad about? I have to be very gentle with this inquiry, because I know that whatever is in there is frightened, vulnerable and not willing to expose itself.

My breathing begins to relax and the tension in my belly starts to release. My body stretches and then sits up straight. I become more alert. Warmth fills me. Then I begin to experience nausea, and the sadness becomes stronger. I rock back and forth, as if to soothe the sadness. It feels like grief. I sit gently with the grief, wondering what it is about. In touch with the grief, I notice that all the anxiety is gone. This feels like the deeper truth. I sigh and yawn. It is 4:30 in the morning. I feel deep exhaustion from decades of pushing myself to avoid dealing with this grief. What is it?

I focus more intently into my body where the grief is centered. I get very still with it, and I am aware of how everything begins to settle down. I sit patiently in the silence, and it feels like the silence is nourishing my entire being. The image of a woman-friend who is the manifestation of Mother Earth’s love comes to mind, and I am touched by her deeply healing warmth. I am more aware of my breath and the nourishment it brings.

I am feeling very peaceful now, and it occurs to me that what I am grieving is the loss of this peace that is my natural state. Why would I repeatedly leave this state when it feels so very good, so right? I sit with this question for a long time and nothing comes except my teacher’s voice saying, “I never answer why questions!” I pick up the inquiry again later on. I become aware that what keeps the anxiety running is the fear that I won’t do something that needs to be done and that something terrible will happen as a result. So I’m always pushing myself to make sure everything gets done. And of course, that’s impossible. 

So I’m never at peace, except when I’m doing some kind of inner work like this that brings me into presence. This realization saddens me even more. It seems like a hopeless situation, much like being on a hamster wheel that’s endlessly turning. Again, I realize that when I’m present, I’m not feeling driven. It’s only when I’m not present—when the unconscious is running the show—that I feel so anxious. So all I need to do is remember to get present. I make a commitment to take time throughout the day to get present—at least a minute or two every hour. That feels like a good start. 

Later still, I realize that although this resolution will make a big difference, it doesn’t get at the root of the issue. So I pick up the thread again and ask myself why am I so afraid I will forget to do something vital, and what am I afraid will happen if I do? All I can get is this sense of impending doom, that something awful will happen. 

Then I recall being 16 years old, riding in the car with my father, when he turned to me and told me I was a disappointment to him. I was shocked, devastated. My father meant a great deal to me, and for him to tell me that was the worst thing that he could have said. I also remember taking an oral final exam in school and could not answer the question. I remember feeling so humiliated. I was a good student and thought of myself as the smartest student in the class. The experience severely damaged my sense of who I was. I realize that I now live in continual fear of ever feeling these kinds of wounds again.

I see that I am trying at all costs (even running myself into the ground) to protect the image I have created of myself as a committed, competent, reliable person with great integrity. That’s what my anxiety is all about. So I guess the real question for me is, “What do I really want—to be inflated with a false sense of self, or to be simple and real?” —Lawrence Abraham*