The Work: simple questions to profoundly change your life
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Self-inquiry may seem too simple to have profound, life-changing effects. However, when you have an awe-inspiring "a-ha" moment, or an entirely new perspective suddenly occurs to you from this work, you'll be hooked. It becomes incredibly enjoyable. Three years into doing this work, and I feel so blessed to have this method as a fluid way of being, to have The Work to support me so completely, and to have gained freedom and moments of rapturous joy. There is no where else I'd rather be, no other work I'd rather devote to. It is profundity within simplicity.
This is serious work, though, and it isn't always easy. Anyone who knows me would see that I feel whatever feelings come up from perceived hardship, pain, and old patterns, but, because of The Work, I don't get stuck in them. I can learn from them, have deep gratitude for their teachings, and move on. As you may have read in My Myth, the initial breaking-through period was terrifying; I had to be ready to allow the unknown beyond control. I imagine that this first leap into The Work is the scariest for most of us: you give up your shield, you give up your sword, and you humbly stretch out your hand to that part of you that had been locked away. After this first leap of faith in yourself, the fear about seeing yourself fully and completely dissipates astonishingly quickly. The Work becomes fluid; the inquiry happens automatically as it naturally integrates into everyday life. The sometimes very difficult and serious work also allows for an everyday ease, lightness, and mental and emotional clarity and freedom.
I'll list 5 basic questions for this post, and provide a deeper exploration of how they might relate to an individual's experience. These questions are among a series of questions that I've found can be used as an immediate go-to when your become emotionally triggered, when someone or something outside of you impacts your internal state. It is a way to see the truth of your situation, your self, and your chosen states and ways of being. If you find yourself living in hurtful emotional states or feeling controlled by behaviors that don't serve you or others, the questions of The Work can free you out of these prisons.
1. What story am I telling myself about this?
Most of us are living stories — our lives are dictated by patterned behaviors that we think of as us or as static reality. Most of us are living stories instead of living our lives.
First, perspective can be gained by simply allowing the possibility that your view of reality has been distorted by your past, the beliefs and patterns you didn't know you held, or any other baggage we tend to accumulate. When you can allow for this openness to deeper truths, for a less-cloudy lens on reality, you can begin to frame your thinking not as absolute truth, but as a story that is spun from the mind to make sense of reality. And, indeed, in a interactional interdependent reality, internal stories about ourselves and the interactions with others are our reality. So, the question is: what reality is my mind creating? With humility, openness, honesty, and bravery: what is the story I am telling myself about this situation, and how might that actually be keeping me stuck in the past, purely stuck in patterns or events from the past?
Simply, I acknowledge that my perception of reality is always told in a story to myself, and thus, it is malleable; it is open to change; it is free-flowing and accepting.
This moment is new. You can choose in every moment.
If that seems overwhelming, please know that healing is sometimes a journey; it’s okay if you feel that you don’t know how to do this, because you truly cannot know until you walk it. The first step on that journey for me was to acknowledge those deep, fundamental traumas and other origins of my internal stories. In engulfing self-hate, it seems unthinkable, even preposterous, that compassion and self-love will lift you from the bonds of this suffering. Yet, allowing the initial traumas to truly be seen, and seeing the hurt and vulnerable being that you were at that time, the seeds of self-compassion are planted. And they grow over time.
2. Am I stuck in "Ya, But"?
This is a question I learned from someone who views reality as less filtered by unthruths than anyone else I've known. I found it to be an incredibly powerful indicator of the level of responsibility I was taking for my own state. The particular abduction of "ya, but" is such an easy and common go-to:
Ya, I can see that I'm hurting myself and others, but you did that and made me...
Ya, I think and act in ways that keep in me deep suffering, but this happened to me and made me...
Ya, I am angry and anxious and depressed, but this is my fate...
For me, this realization was life-changing. I could stop giving the excuse that I could or even should think and behave in hurtful ways because of the actions of others. I am responsible for my own state, not for controlling the actions of others. Full-stop. I choose to continually push past the limitations of my mind, my body, and my past and not feel victimized by them.
3. What are my motivations for my actions? Am I trying to control someone else’s experience?
It has been a powerful practice for me to acknowledge and let go of the attempt to control others’ experience, even when it comes from a perceived place of love, or an attempt to "save" someone else. I've had to deeply internalize that I cannot save anyone from their mental and emotional suffering. I wish it was that easy. I can support and love, but forcing anyone else's happiness or freedom from self-suffering is not possible.
I find it generally helpful, even in everyday life, to ask: what are my motivations for saying that, or doing that? Am I actually being helpful; have I been asked for help? Or, is my motivation to ‘force’ someone to understand something the way that I do, or to act or think differently in general? Are my motivations based in fear, and only masquerading as love? If it is about control, it's not helpful, and it's not loving.
Additional thoughts on control:
1. It never works to reach others. We reach others by saying our truth and fully living our truth. No one can effectively be forced into a way of being.
2. The attempt to control completely robs the other of their autonomy. Unconditional love and support shows faith in the other’s ability to learn and grow and move through experiences and learnings as they need to. It would be so easy if we could just tell someone what was in their best interest, and it could be heard, but we all know that it doesn’t work this way.
3. For many of us, this behavior is part of an intellectual framework that tells us that we do and even can know what is right for someone else, and that a particular path is ‘best for them’ and the ‘right’ way of being and thinking. For those in dominant culture, it is worth understanding that these frameworks are deeply rooted in colonialist intellectual constructs. Most of us in dominant Western culture have this orientation to the world; it functions as our unrecognized lens on reality, the background framework that informs how we and others must behave and think. This is not the way most of the world processes reality. As one example of a non-dominant, non-colonialist perspective, I once heard from an Indigenous Anishinaabe person that their people would say, “That is one way,” instead of “That is the right way,” or “That is the wrong way”. This may seem subtle, but understanding this perspective shift has the power to transform thinking, and for me, it provided the space to free myself from the chains of control. This includes the incessant drive to control others’ experience as well as the hurtful and shame-filled control of oneself.
One way that I internalize this perspective is this: I do not have access to the future; I cannot possibly hold all of the variables of this interconnected web of all life, the interplay of all things simultaneously that exists; I therefore simply cannot know what is best for myself or for others for the future. It is only through the teacher of experience that we gain the wisdom to see how the events of life shape us, make us, and guide us. I have cultivated the most important and deeply soul-satisfying growth and wisdom through periods of suffering and hardship that I wouldn’t have chosen at the time. In this sense, one particular chosen way cannot be seen as “right”; we simply cannot know what this is. The concept is of "right" only as we project it to be, and thus, it is not real in any static or universal sense. There are many different paths we might choose, and they will all lead to lessons and growth. This is holding the perspective that we’ll each find our way as we need to. Indeed, this is the only way. Spending emotional energy on attempting to force a path on another is creating unnecessary struggle for both.
4. What is the energy behind my words, behaviors, and general interaction with others?
It is one (important) level to recognize the motivations behind ones thinking and actions. Another very important step for me in self-inquiry is: what is the energy behind it? The energy, or the feeling, or deeper personal state, behind the words is felt by the other person immediately. Those deeper states will come through, and one simply cannot hide behind their words. Like it or not, we reveal ourselves constantly. More than we think we do. When we’re very clear on how our expression externally is really a reflection of the internal world, we can practice being impeccable with both our words and the energy with which we express them.
One example that comes to mind is the snap emotional disregulation that children experience when their parent’s voices are raised or are full of emotion that may seem angry or fearful, no matter whether or not the children even understand the words that are spoken.
Words and thoughts matter, but our intention matters just as much.
5. Am I identifying with emotional states?
Do you assume that you are a feeling or an emotional experience that you are having? Perhaps you find yourself baffled at why the hell a loved one would act erratically, or say and do things with such conviction which have no basis in reality, and that seem so obviously crazy to you? They are not crazy, but they may be wounded, and acting out of fear and in defense. This behavior is not who they are, but an ephemeral state. Instead of, why the hell are you acting so crazy? A question that seeks the truth of the situation and infuses compassion, a question that actually works to resolve the conflict instead of creating more conflict and misunderstanding is: what are you feeling, and where is this coming from? What is the story that you are telling yourself about this, right now in this moment of suffering?
The same compassionate light that is shed on your loved ones can be shone on yourself. Perhaps you feel as though you are acting out of emotion, but it isn’t what you’d choose. Perhaps you feel as though you have no choice, that this state simply is you. I invite you to consider that this is a trap of the mind, and a shift in thinking can have an immediate and profound effect for you. Emotional states simply move through us, sometimes for a brief moment, and sometimes we cling to them for years. It is profound and empowering to realize that those states are not you but simply move through you, and that you actually can choose not to linger in them.
It is our stories that cause us to cling to and identify with emotional states. The Work flows naturally into a questioning of where those stories come from. If we seek freedom and to better our situation and perhaps that of others, we must ask about the deep origin of our stories. If we do not, the traumas, subconsciously acting on those traumas, and identifying with these resultant states can keep piling up. The suffering can intensify until the underlying, initial traumas are seen and heard clearly, and can then be healed.
Bryce Canyon, Utah
I hope that these questions spur you to find your own flow to navigate life with more ease.
These teachings are gifted to me through connection to all things. They arise through stillness of mind and ego, but not necessarily stillness in the body. Often it arises in a space of light-heartedness, playfulness, silliness, of skipping around or giggling freely in the sunshine. I suppose this is when I am most open. Tiny echoes of though pop up when then mind is still, when the ego isn’t telling and demanding and holding particular constructs of self in place. The tiny thoughts echo louder and louder as though through a great canyon.
The teachings also come strongly in the time spent doing nothing; not thinking, but just being. Perhaps it is drinking tea in the sunshine and breathing in the breeze; perhaps it is simply sitting near and existing with the trees.
It comes strongly in the time spent in contemplation of particular phrases or sentiments or writing that stirs my soul. When I’m moved in this way, I stop. I take the time to stop for stillness or to reflect. If something is stirred in me, it is worth investigation. Nearly nothing else could be more important in those moments.