Listening for Self-Understanding
Tools to Hone Your Inner Advisor
Asking good questions from a place of curiosity is one of the most important things we can learn and practice. Listening in order to understand, in relation to both ourselves and others, grounds us in a sense of connection and belonging.
Skillful questioning helps us notice what is happening as it is happening, through an open lens. An open lens of attention is not layered with judgments, premature conclusions, and unhelpful stories that limit our experience.
Last week, I wrote about how the Center for Courage & Renewal creates temporary communities for people to practice deep inquiry in order to bring their skills back to their personal communities. This week's essay focuses on the kinds of questions which deepen self-understanding, and the ways to ask them in day-to-day life.
Psychotherapy clients ask their therapists important questions as they seek greater self-awareness and the tools to live authentically. In my own work as a clinician, I get asked questions such as, “How do I do this differently?” or “What do I do the next time x or y or z happens?” Clients less frequently ask themselves these same questions during our time together. One of the most important functions of psychotherapy is to create space for the client's innate wisdom to surface, a safe space to trust and deepen their insights.
Of course, it makes sense to ask a professional questions, since their perspective is an important part of the process of psychotherapy. At the same time, it is important to ask yourself what the heart and mind want and need to know (and not just while in psychotherapy). And, more important still is to listen to the answers! Pause and listen as if something important is being said. Even when you are confused or uncertain, the practice of listening to the response to your own sincere inquiry can yield valuable guidance.
The skill of inquiry (asking good questions and listening to the answers) is essential to access your wise inner advisor. This is not to say that we should trust all the stories we tell ourselves. But the point of skillful inquiry is to test out the accuracy of our self-talk and beliefs, which often remain under our conscious radar.
Asking direct questions trains the mind to become a more conscious participant in your own thought process. With direct questions, you will more likely get clarity about what can and cannot be known at this moment.
We don’t always have to ask a question or know what the best questions are to ask. Noticing without formulating a question is a great way to become an adept observer – the bedrock of knowledge and wisdom. Still, focusing attention on what is a good question to ask – or if there even is a question to ask – helps to practice the skills of meaningful self-inquiry.
An extremely helpful question to practice asking yourself is, “What’s happening right now?”
Pause throughout the day to ask this question – and do so in different environments and when you are experiencing different internal states (like comfort or discomfort, relaxation or busyness). Notice what is happening in neutral moments, those that are not emotionally charged. This can help you become aware of quieter sensations, thoughts, and feelings that can otherwise get overlooked. The question "what's happening right now" helps us practice being present, simply noticing what’s happening before we jump too quickly to thinking about what’s happening.
Another great question to ask yourself is, “Is this true for me?” It is important to understand whether you really believe what you are telling yourself, and if it is truly accurate for you. It’s not helpful to come up with stories that you don’t believe, but the mind does this all the time.
For skillful reflection, the spirit in which you ask the question is as important as the question itself. Directly ask yourself questions rather than thinking about them. Then listen to your response and take it in before rushing off to the next thought.
Don’t ask yourself questions in a rhetorical way. An example of a rhetorical question might be, “Why do I keep doing this same thing over and over?” said with frustration and a lack of compassionate inquiry. Again, when you ask yourself a question, ask it sincerely and with curiosity, and care about your response.
Practicing the skills of self inquiry helps you observe what is happening around you, think with greater clarity, and feel a greater sense of connection and well-being.
Pay attention to how often your mind tries to make sense of things by thinking about them rather than practicing direct reflection.
Notice your experience of asking yourself direct questions, and then regard your answers with sincerity and openness. How does this differ from thinking about?
Notice what you pay attention to when asking yourself the question, “What’s happening now?” Do you tend to notice things within you, or what is happening around you?
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