Some people came to me because they were seeking awakening. They carried the hope that awakening to the “Truth” would free them entirely from this suffering. Many, however, weren’t seeking anything in particular. They were just struggling, looking to free themselves in any way they could from the grip of whatever addiction, depression, anxiety or other dissatisfaction was currently running their lives.
Many had read my first two books where I spoke the non-dual speak as best I could from my own direct experience. And yet my books and all the other books, videos and satsangs from the multitude of teachers left them still feeling as if something was missing—as if they weren’t quite there yet.
Before the development of the Living Inquiries, I was working with people in a way that was similar to a lot of other satsang-type teachers, speaking spontaneously from my own direct experience and giving certain pointers to non-dual awareness. As authentic as it is to speak from one’s own direct experience, I found the usual presence or non-dual awareness talk to be wholly inadequate in meeting people where they actually were. I found that many of the concepts floating around in non-dual circles (e.g., awareness, consciousness, presence, emptiness, formlessness, non-conceptuality, etc) were actually inadvertently adding to the confusion and suffering of people. I knew that a paradigm shift was needed. I, along with all these other people, needed something else, something more than just another meeting, another book or an endless regurgitation of nondual pointers.
I began to change my approach completely in 2010. I took the usual non-dual speak out of my language and just began inviting people to look more closely at what is actually going on in their experience moment by moment. I stopped sitting in the front of the room in meetings (except when there is a large crowd) and began sitting in a circle with everyone. I took off the hat of the teacher, stopped regurgitating pointers, and turned towards a mutual discovery together, where everyone, including me, is an explorer, a student of present looking into whatever is arising in a simple, direct, systematic way.
Before implementing this systematic way of looking with people in private and group settings, I had already realized the effectiveness of this approach in my own life. Even after the initial awakening experience that happened years ago in my life, core conditioning continued to arise now and then in my experience, old childhood stories and wounds that were unresponsive to the usual absolutistic pointers like “you are already what you seek.” “there is no self,” “there is only Oneness,” “your real identity is awareness,” or “everything arises and falls in unconditioned presence.”
These kinds of pointers sometimes inadvertently create a division in experience that is not real. It’s another mind game. It’s a sense of something (or nothing) that is prior to all appearances, as if the appearances (including the self) are the “bad” stuff and the awareness that sees them is the Holy Grail, free of all of that. The notion of trying to get rid of the self or dissolve the ego seems really tempting when such a division is made. But these pointers to presence or “that which is prior” often have the effect of bypassing or avoiding this basic human, “bad” stuff that arises. So instead of engaging their desire to dissolve the self, I began asking them if they could even find that self. The focus of their energy had been on seeking enlightenment, improving their stories, or trying to rest or be present, hoping that somehow addiction, depression and anxiety would relax. The focus was on finding a solution rather than seeing if the problem can even be found. And with that focus, avoidance and bypassing of certain sensations and emotions were clearly present. Even the more refined nondual language that attempts to clear up bypassing often doesn’t go deep enough. For example, the constant reminder to “be with what is” often continues giving people more of what is, more of the same old suffering that has been there since childhood without a way to see through that suffering.
I noticed that, mostly, what people believed to be objectively real is the basic belief in a self that is fundamentally flawed or deficient. Not just a self but a self that has a personal story to it. This sense of a deficient self comes in many forms (e.g., “I’m not good enough,” “I’m not there yet,” “I’m weak,” “I’m unsafe,” or “I’m incomplete”). I noticed that these core stories were driving all of the seeking and fueling the addiction, anxiety and depression. And they were responsible for most of the bypassing and avoidance. As long as there is a belief in fundamental deficiency, we will avoid the pain of that deficiency story in whatever way we can, including trying to find teachings and methods that help us bypass instead of helping us move through pain and see that there is no findable self no matter what arises. No matter how people presented suffering to me, it all boiled down to this basic belief in deficiency or lack.
Guiding people in this systematic way to try and find this deficient self, in whatever form it seemed to take in any given moment, made all the difference. It developed into a set of simple tools called the Living Inquiries. And these inquiries, when taken deeply into one’s experience, make the teacher and teaching obsolete, for when every person knows how to look directly within experience, outside authority is no longer needed. Seeking towards what someone else has attained can finally end.
Here’s how the Inquiries work: Our entire experience arises by way of words, mental pictures and sensations. When these elements are stuck or Velcroed together, we suffer. When this Velcro effect is undone, suffering is released into a simple joy and freedom. It is that simple. No nondual speak is needed to realize this. With the Inquiries, we look into our experience to try and find whatever we believe is inherently and objectively real as a separate person or thing. For example, if there is a belief in a self that is inherently not good enough, we look at each set of words, each mental picture and each sensation, one at a time, and ask, “Is that you, the one who is not good enough.” In not being able to find that particular self, a simple clarity dawns.
This approach works on any self, other or object that seems to be inherently fixed and separate in experience. And because we look at absolutely everything that arises, rather than merely recognizing some groundless ground, there is no bypassing or avoidance. No stone is left unturned. Every arising is allowed to be as it is, but no inherent or fixed thing can be found. And we don’t land on any absolutistic ground this way, attempting to bypass human experience. Human experience is celebrated and honored. Even the notion of conventional selves and others is honored and not negated. The only thing that is seen through is the belief in things that exist inherently and objectively, on their own side, seemingly apart from everything else. It’s that kind of belief in self and things that causes suffering, not the everyday notion of a self that types an email, walks a dog or goes to work.
With this new approach, people were beginning to actually experience the freedom to which the ancient non-dual teachings have been pointing for centuries. This is why I changed from the old non-dual speak to showing people how to look within their own experience using these tools. I was and am only interested in what works, not what is true or what sounds good. There are now over seventy facilitators in eleven different countries and our community is growing.
Here’s an example of me guiding someone through the Unfindable Inquiry, which forms the basis of this work:
The Living Inquiries continued to develop as more facilitators were trained. We have now refined the work and targeted it towards specific areas of suffering. We work with addiction and anxiety in a unique way. With addiction, we look for the urge to use a substance or engage in an activity. As the urge is seen to be unfindable, the addiction releases. With anxiety, we look for the actual threat in experience, by examining words, pictures and sensations. In not finding the actual threat, the anxiety subsides.
So what happens when these inquiries are taken deeply into one’s everyday experience? Well, that cannot truly be explained. It has to be experienced. But generally people report an easefulness and harmony in relationship, an end to seeking the future, and the experience of life as translucent, non-fixed, and non-objective. The seriousness is taken out of life so that a simple joy of living becomes one’s experience moment by moment. Non-duality is experienced directly, without having to rely on all the non-dual catch phrases and pointers. Those who have taken this work deeply into their lives report not being interested in a lot of the conceptual talk around awakening. They are living it instead. This is why we call the work, “The Living Inquiries.”
This article explores untapped potentials for Integral Theory that can emerge from recognizing the original nature of the Buddha’s awakening.
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