Inquiry 101

Recently, just before sitting I was thinking that for most of us there seem to be two primary entrees to spiritual practice — great pain or great inspiration. Difficult things happen that bring us to our knees, compelling us to seek answers outside ourselves — beyond our ordinary coping and solace. At other times we are so inspired and blown open by unexpected experiences of immense love and profound grace that we seek a way to integrate these incomprehensible experiences. Either way, we want a way to meet our questions about the inconceivable, the unbelievable, the paradoxical, and the awesome nature of life.

I asked myself, “What would a first-time visitor to Inquiry need to hear? What kind of orientation could I offer that would keep it simple and yet make the way clear?

I jotted down some personal notes and joined the large group for our sitting.

At the end of meditation I launched into my brief talk with joyful enthusiasm. I felt energized and urgency because these things mean a lot to me. When I finished and began to invite people to come forward with their questions I realized I had forgotten to turn on the recorder. The talk was lost – Impermanent – Ephemeral – Just this moment.

I recall reading that when asked what it means to be a priest, Dogen Zenji, the thirteenth-century monk and founder of the Soto Zen school in which I am ordained replied, “One continuous mistake.” Apparently so! With this realization I pressed the appropriate button and recorded the relational part of the session. Although I was disappointed not to have captured the reflection from my notes, I see once again that engagement with the questions is the most important part. The immediacy and intimacy is the space through which the teachings flow. This is how we meet in Inquiry, Buddha to Buddha, because this is the way the Dharma is expressed and how the Sangha comes to life. The teachings were there, after all, coming forward personally – intimately.

Nonetheless I was asked to share my notes, so here they are. They are not a full narrative, just personal reflections from which I spoke. The portion of the recording I did capture is below (if you are reading this on the blog). I hope you find something of use for your everyday practice.



  1. In order to gain some stability of heart and mind, we sit. Hopefully, without too much manipulation, we come to recognize and rest in the stillness and silence that has nothing to do with movement or noise, the essential and primary awareness that is always and already with us, which is always on our side. Basic awareness, our natural state, does not move, does not comment on experience, and has no preferences. Awareness is the unobstructed space in which all conditioned phenomena arise and pass away.

  2. Through regular and steady sitting we also begin to have access to insight associated with the contents of awareness. Resting in the boundless we meet the every day with less obstruction. We learn to bring stability and spaciousness to each thing that arises. Boundlessness meets conditioning with wisdom and compassion with which life flows.

Meeting Suffering

  1. What do we notice as we turn toward suffering? — Our favorite bad feeling, a habitual and predictable ditch we fall into over and over, our addictive cycles of grasping and aversion, the power of shame or fear, and a seemingly endless list of other forms of distress and dissatisfaction. We sit to settle with a modest amount of stability in order to realize what is arising and to see the arising as an object of our consciousness, not as our identity. This shift from identity with the objects of our awareness to the unobstructed flow of awareness is the first gateway to inquiry.

  2. As we open in stable awareness we can then turn toward whatever we become aware of, all the contents of awareness. In doing so we do not attempt to move up and out of experience in an attempt to transcend suffering (remember “trying to outrun suffering” from our last Inquiry?). Instead we move down and into embodied immediacy of present moment experience. Practice does not take us to a place of no suffering. It helps us meet the inevitability of suffering in a new way. The true gift of spiritual practice is not bliss without suffering. It is the peace of not being caught by suffering.

  3. What are some typical ways we come to know suffering? Whatever we discover we can bring to Inquiry.

    1. In the body. Pain, discomfort, ease, pleasure, numbness — anything within the body, as the body. This is the primary source of information in the immediate present.

    2. Primal reactivity in the body-mind. We begin to notice very natural and automatic habits of grasping and recoiling from experience. We may even notice strong traces of the autonomic nervous system’s reacting with flight, fight, or freeze. This all happens in the body before concepts can even be formulated and this is another reason for the cultivation of steady awareness of the body and its reactions.

    3. Thoughts and feelings arise together. We can see the ways we cling to patterns of emotion/thought despite their often painful and unsatisfying results. This is the common territory of psychotherapy. Thought and feeling dance together, inform each other, and create the “self-centered dream” in which we can become entangled. They are gateways to freedom when met in a skillful manner, they are not simply painful symptoms of “pathology” or distress.

    4. Entrancing stories emerge from emotion-thought. Stories are not the problem. Believing our stories is the problem. An alternative would be to simply witness them as creations of our entire body-mind. These are the movies we unconsciously inhabit and then mistake for reality. Through Inquiry we become aware of how we create these virtual realities and react to them rather than relating to the ongoing and contingent flow of the lived moment.
These four ways we come to know suffering correspond generally to the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness.
  1. The next question that inevitably arises in this turn toward suffering is: “Are you truly willing to meet all of this, and are you also willing to have all of this seen and met?” It is common to encounter some shaky limitations to seeing and being seen, to meeting and being met, to intimacy and the willingness to engage suffering deeply.

    1. Are you willing for others to bring their own mature stability and insight to meet your vulnerability? This is the question as we engage with trusted teachers and good spiritual friends.

    2. Are you willing to dedicate yourself to practice in order to cultivate your own maturing stability and insight? This might allow you to be a liberating resource for others.

  2. Your life is your answer to the question, “How should I live?” Inquiry does not answer your questions about life. It questions your answers, which is your lived experience of your life. Inquiry is not the answer, it challenges your life which, to this point, is the manifestation of your answer to life’s challenges.

    1. Meet everything, both inside and outside, with Curiosity and Patience

    2. Cultivate an attitude of Intimacy and Care for everything and everyone
Refer to A Few Practice Principles from an earlier blog.

Reactivity Shifts to Resourcefulness

  1. What beliefs about the world do we hold as true? For example: The world (people and experience) is — terrifying, a never-ending challenge, a sad place, full of pain, delightful, awesome, boring, beautiful, one problem after another, full of wonderful people, full of complicated and difficult people...And the list continues.

  2. Truth is, life is everything that it is!

  3. The world IS. I am in this body, at this time, under these conditions, with these people. Therefore, I must ask myself if I am committed to taking good care of myself and my life NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS? This is the self-responsible key to freedom!

A New Relationship With Experience

  1. Practice until it is a habit, not a special “thing” you do now and then.

  2. Always turn toward what arises with curiosity and patience, intimacy and care.

  3. Commit to embodiment. There is no freedom hanging out in the transcendent, as tempting as this may be.

  4. Remember the primary vow – “I will take care of myself and I will be responsible for my life no matter what happens.”

  5. Through practice realize that “self-care” reveals itself ultimately as care for everyone and everything.

The Inquiry Sequence Summary

Remember, (1) engage in meditation in order to mature into enough stability so that you can (2) turn toward suffering, including your resistance to suffering. This will allow (3) a shift from reactivity to resourcefulness. Ultimately, you begin to realize (4) a new relationship with experience.

Thanks for hanging in with this long post and these incomplete notes. The recording includes the Inquiry meetings themselves. The image is by Cassy Weyandt.


Inquiry recording: