The call to “know thyself” seems to reside deep in the human psyche—this maxim was inscribed in the ancient Temple of Apollo in Delphi, and we have been experimenting with ways to gain self-knowledge for thousands of years. Many of us engage in practices—mindfulness, meditation, yoga, contemplation, and an array of therapies—that have grown out of this collective search for self.
What is it that ignites the attempt to find ourselves? For many of us, psychological or physical suffering propels the search for self as well as the wider spiritual search for peace and meaning. For others, a feeling of dissatisfaction with life or a sense of being a fake or a fraud, despite external appearances, may lead us to seek. We begin to ask life’s deeper questions: Who am I really? What’s the point? Is there any meaning to existence?
As we search, we eventually encounter a conundrum. We know ourselves as a solid, separate self. We define ourselves (consciously or unconsciously) as a particular someone, our identities hinged around a set of ideas about ourselves that appear to be true. We may see ourselves as the one who is unloved, unwanted, wrong, not good enough, anxious, worse off or better than others. Unsurprisingly, we view the world through that same lens, experiencing life as though we are unworthy, lacking, or unsafe. But what if the self we think we know isn’t who we actually are? What if we are fundamentally mistaken about our identity?
We grow up believing that we are who we think we are. Thoughts, memories, feelings, and circumstances all seem to point to an inescapable conclusion, whatever that conclusion may be. One of the conclusions I came to early in life was that it was all my fault—whatever it was, I was to blame. While I came to understand intellectually that this was a typical belief for the child of divorced parents, a deep inner conviction that it was indeed my fault remained.
Why is it that our beliefs about ourselves feel so compellingly true, even when we know that they are not logical or rational? Scott Kiloby, author and originator of the Living Inquiries, suggests that it is because both mind and body are involved in belief in a very specific way. Thoughts and mental images come together with feelings, sensations, emotions, contractions, or other bodily energies. Scott calls this the Velcro Effect, because it feels as if the thoughts and images are stuck to or welded onto the bodily feelings and vice versa.
We experience the Velcro Effect frequently, sometimes many times a day. For example, you think about the friend you had an argument with and your stomach tenses up as you begin (again) to mentally list the reasons why it was or wasn’t your fault. You daydream about the presentation you are giving at work next week and your chest tightens up as the word “failure” comes to mind. A memory of your grandfather comes into your mind’s eye and tears well up. You wake up with an anxious feeling in the solar plexus and start to think about how you have always been a loser. A mental picture of a bottle of the beer you drink arises along with the familiar craving deep in your belly. A mildly critical e-mail from your boss feels like an all-out attack and your body goes into fight-or-flight mode. It can feel as if we have to constantly manage or contain our experience, trying to modify it and ourselves as best we can.
There is another way. The Living Inquiries take us beyond trying to manage, deal with, fix, or contain these perceptions. They take us right into the heart of our experience, exactly as it is, and undo the Velcro. Once the Velcro is loosened, the identification drops away. We no longer assume that we are a loser, even if the anxious feeling in the solar plexus arises. A picture of the beer bottle comes and goes with no bodily response, the craving gone. Our fight-or-flight mechanism begins to relax and we find ourselves responding calmly to our boss or coworkers.
How do we undo the Velcro? By taking the time to notice each element of our experience and asking the inquiry questions. We look at (or listen to) the words that make up our thoughts: It’s my fault. I’m broken. I feel terrified. I want chocolate. We look at the pictures or images that appear in the mind’s eye. We feel the sensations and feelings that arise in the body, and we let all of it be as it is. No changing, substituting, fixing, analyzing, rationalizing, or any other activity beyond staying with it all, just as it is. We simply look and feel and ask the relevant question.
When we inquire, we try to find the self we think we are in that moment. We may be looking for a self of which we’ve long been aware, like the self I named earlier, the one whose fault it is. In the course of inquiring, we may also discover selves that have been out of sight and out of the conscious mind since childhood, hidden or suppressed because they were too painful to be fully aware of, even as they have colored our perceptions and behavior at every turn. The inquiry questions—answered by the body rather than the rational mind—take us deeper and deeper into our experience, allowing all that has remained unconscious or unspoken to come to light as we try to find the particular self.
A deep paradox lies at the heart of inquiry. As we find the self that we’re looking for—in the words, images, and feelings that emerge as the process continues—we simultaneously see that we’re not that, whatever that is. At some point during the session, the whole construct of that self begins to fall apart—sometimes almost imperceptibly, a kind of slipping away or dissolving, and sometimes with the fanfare of insight and profound realization. Either way, we experience what Scott describes as “unfindability”; when we really look, the self that we have assumed ourselves to be cannot be found. In its stead, there is something else—spaciousness, peace, awareness, a sense of presence—which cannot be easily conveyed in words.
The Living Inquiries are not a quick fix or a way to perfect or improve ourselves. Rather, they are a profound exploration of the self. It takes a deep willingness and courage to explore in this way; we inevitably encounter all that we have avoided, denied, or bypassed, and that is frequently painful. Those who are willing to look, however, often describe a deep relief as all that has been rejected, projected, or resisted can finally be felt and seen. Our capacity to be with whatever is here increases, and we begin to welcome feelings, thoughts, and images rather than trying to get rid of them. We come to know ourselves in an honest and compassionate way.
As we continue to inquire, the sense of being a separate, deficient self unravels. We are freed from erroneous beliefs about ourselves, like believing that it is our fault or that we’re unworthy. We rediscover aspects of ourselves lost since childhood; we no longer identify ourselves as flawed or lacking and are able to receive all that arises with greater equanimity. We find ourselves more contented, our relationships more harmonious. We discover that the beliefs we hold are innocently mistaken, and that life does not require us to be a certain way. We feel more like our true selves, rather than feeling we’re hiding behind a mask. We find a self that is so much more and less than we believed it to be, a self that is both gloriously unique and a part of the majestic whole.
If you would like to learn more about the Living Inquiries, please visit www.livinginquiries.com. We offer individual sessions, group inquiry, and a wide range of other resources designed to support you in your explorations.
Fiona Robertson is author of The Art of Finding Yourself: Live Bravely and Awaken to Your True Nature—coming this December from Non-Duality Press. She is a senior facilitator and trainer of the Living Inquiries, and cocreator of the Anxiety Inquiry. She is also the editor of Scott Kiloby’s books Living Realization: A Simple, Plain-English Guide to Non-Duality and The Unfindable Inquiry: One Simple Tool to Overcome Feelings of Unworthiness and Find Inner Peace (coming January 2017). Fiona lives in the UK and also writes poetry.