Monday, March 1, 2010

The Process of Inquiry

An important teaching tool in the vipassana meditation tradition is the inquiry process. The Latin origin of "inquire" (in + quaerere) means "to ask or seek into," and also "that which persists." Inquiry in the context of teaching meditation is a systematic means of deepening into our practice, both during and after the experience.

After the practice has ended, the teacher often takes questions from the student(s). These are often simple questions such as, "Is it normal for my leg to fall asleep during meditation?" Instead of answering the question outright, a teacher who utilizes the inquiry method asks more questions to take the student into a deeper experience of their leg having fallen asleep.

Here's how a typical pattern of inquiry might proceed.
Teacher: What was that experience like for you?

Student: It was a throbbing, tingling sort of sensation that I especially noticed in my left hip.

Teacher: What happened when you paid attention to the physical experience in this way?

Student: I was worried that I might be causing permanent damage to my leg.

Teacher: What were some of your thoughts about that?

Student: I had a fantasy that I wouldn't be able to get up off the floor and that someone would have to call an ambulance.

Teacher: Did those thoughts produce any emotional reactions?

Student: Yes, I was getting pretty anxious about it.

Teacher: Then what did you do about this, if anything?

Student: I realized that my mind was telling a fantastic story about something that hadn't happened yet, and I returned to the feeling of the breath.

In this brief inquiry, the student deepened into their experience of the practice by several layers. First, at the top layer, they are concerned with just the leg falling asleep, which is a common occurrence in meditation. Then they recounted the noting of specific physical sensations. From there, they were able to then follow this to see how the mind greeted the experience, by expressing worry about injury, and then the fantasy about needing emergency medical assistance. These mental contents then led to an emotional experience, and finally to an insight that the thoughts were not facts. The process culminated in the ability to disengage from the thoughts, and return to the present-moment sensory reality of the breath.

So we can see from this short example that inquiry mirrors the vipassana meditation experience. In vipassana, we can see clearly how an event makes contact with one of the senses (in this case the sense of touch), and then the mind colors that experience. Insight is then gained from this experience. Once we have noted the insight, we can then utilize the ability to de-couple from the thoughts and return back to the physical reality of the breath. After a student learns this inquiry process, they can deploy it in their own meditation practice, and it becomes a much richer and more rewarding experience.

Of course, the insights gained during this practice can then be used to help make effective choices in daily life and help reduce suffering.


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