The Art of Compassionate Enquiry


The human brain has two primary functions:

1. Protect and keep you safe and alive

2. Move you away from pain and towards pleasure

In this basic functioning the brain perceives things on the most elementary level. The brain sees its environment in terms of safety or danger, right or wrong, like or dislike, pleasure or pain. We share this core functioning with all living creatures. All organisms either contract or expand. This ‘either or’ duality is most effective when it comes to survival. As the human brain developed and became more sophisticated other elements came into play.

A glue called Oxytocin

Besides basic survival instincts, we developed social and moral codes. This is courtesy of a hormone called oxytocin; the connection / glue hormone. Oxytocin helps us to not only survive, but to thrive as a human race. While essential for a tribe, group or society’s functioning, these codes (agreements) also reinforced dualistic thinking; right or wrong, black or white, good or bad etc. From early childhood we are taught these codes, rules and agreements. If we stick to these societal rules we are considered good if not, we are bad. While this way of thinking has its merits in terms of survival as well as living and working together as a group, it also has some drawbacks.

Friend or foe?

Our innate instinctual ability to discern if something is good or bad and if someone is friend or foe is great for staying alive, but it also handicaps and limits us. Skills to instantaneously judge people are a bit of a ‘hit or miss’ strategy. As the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. While that is a nice theory, in practice it does not seem to work that way. Why? Ultimately it goes against our core nature. Holding off judgement triggered by the limbic system (the survival part of the brain) is challenging.

Enter prefrontal cortex

This is where the more sophisticated part of our brain comes in; the prefrontal cortex, which is the thinking part of the brain. It is this part of the brain that has the ability to suspend judgement and deliberate logically. This higher functioning is not shared with other living creatures, at least not to this extent. This part of the brain has the ability to move away from basic survival impulses (impulse control) and activate cognition; the ability to think, enquire, question and deliberate. This is the hallmark of an intelligent mind and is a later part of our brain evolution. www.corporatexl.com

Beat yourself harder!

Yet when it comes to our own personal evolution, more often than not we are ruled by the survival part of our brain and rather than being curious, interested, fascinated and intrigued we fall back into the dualistic world of black and white, right and wrong, failure and success. Again, great for survival, but not so good when it comes to exploring, understanding and evolving! Rather than exploring our extraordinary rich inner world, understanding who we are and what we are capable of, most people limit themself. How? By judging themselves harshly! Rather than gaining understanding and insight through enquiry and exploration, many people berate and even abuse themselves. It is as if they are living with a terrorist inside their head. No matter what they do or who they are, it is never good enough. They seem to think that the more critical they are of themselves and the more they beat themselves up, the more they will strive to become ‘better’. If this works for you, than go ahead and beat yourself up harder!

I like talking about my ‘imperfections’

I have conducted workshops where I have asked people to make a list of all the things they don’t like about themself and share it with someone else. It is my experience that people eagerly wrote a long list and appeared reasonably comfortable sharing it. It is as if they liked talking about their ‘imperfections’. When I asked the same group to write a list of all the things they like and appreciate about themself, guess what? Yep, many people really struggled to come up with even just a few points for their list! Most of the time there is a massive imbalance. When it came to sharing the positives with someone else, many people felt uncomfortable and even embarrassed. They seemed more comfortable talking about their ‘negative’ than their ‘positives’. Somehow we are taught that it is okay to point out all our ‘flaws’ but when it comes to acknowledging our gifts, strengths, talents etc, it is considered being ‘full of yourself’ or even being a narcissist. I am not talking about constantly bragging about how amazing and wonderful you are (that actually comes from deep-seated insecurity). Can you relate to any of this? Could you be one of these people?

Shutting the door right in your own face!

Nothing can replace getting to know yourself, understanding your inner world and exploring what you are capable of. Ultimately nothing in the external world will ever be able to provide that inner richness, that inner wealth. One thing is certain, relentlessly criticizing yourself and beating yourself up is not the pathway to your inner world. On the contrary, it shuts the door right in your own face!

You can’t get there from here

You can’t get to know who you are and what makes you tick if you continue to choose the path of being critical of yourself, ‘You can’t get there from here’. So what is the way you can discover your inner goldmine? What is the path to uncovering your inner wealth, to get to know what drives you, what your values and beliefs are? How can you evolve and flourish? What does it take to value and respect yourself, to have a healthy self-esteem and get to know and understand the various aspects of yourself?

The art of compassionate enquiry

Think of a scientist observing the behavior of a creature they are studying. The scientist would not preface understanding by saying: ‘What is this stupid thing doing now?!’ One thing is certain, being judgmental (meaning to negatively judge oneself) never leads to understanding. What is far more effective is to be curious, to enquire without judgement and ask yourself questions such as: What drives my behavior? What motivates me to do the things I do? What needs am I trying to meet or what results am I trying to achieve? Rather than ‘wronging’ the behavior you gain insight into what needs you are trying to serve by engaging in that behavior. Now you can gain insight, learn from it and perhaps engage in more effective and constructive behavior.

The simple mind sees the world in black and white; the intelligent mind sees the world in color

You are a person with enormous of potential. True, you sometimes make poor decisions or don’t engage in the most appropriate behavior to get your needs met, just like anyone else. It’s also unlikely that you do this out of malice or ill will. Ultimately the majority of people do the best they can with the understanding, information and experience they’ve got. This is why it is so important to engage in the art of compassionate enquiry. Only compassionate enquiry will provide you with the insight and understanding that will allow you to evolve. The right/wrong, good/bad, failure/success paradigm will only stand in the way and prevent you from developing, evolving and flourishing. I often say: The simple mind sees the world in black and white; the intelligent mind sees the world in color. You need to move beyond this limiting duality and use your higher intelligence to truly appreciate the amazing being that you are.

So what is compassionate enquiry and why is it an art?

Firstly, the reason I call it ‘the art’ is because art is an expression of something special, something beyond the ordinary. It is the creation of something that has not been brought into existence before. Just like any other art form, this not only requires special skills, it requires a different attitude, a different way of looking at things; the latter is most important. You need a different way of looking at yourself. Rather than reducing yourself to the two dimensional world of black and white, you need to realize a few important things:

  1. In the whole universe there is no one like you, you are unique

  2. You can change your thoughts, beliefs, behavior and actions

  3. You can influence the results flowing from these

  4. You have come from star dust (unless you believe in intelligent design rather than evolution)

  5. You are ‘matter’ that is conscious and aware of itself and conscious and aware of its surrounding

  6. You can change the neural pathways in your brain

  7. You can change, even your brain, as a result of this

  8. Your thinking directly affects your physical well being

Is this not absolutely miraculous? Is this not just something awe inspiring? Is this not something to be respected? Is this not something to be most intrigued about? Is this not something you’d like to explore and know more about?

Slapping a bit of paint on a ceiling of the Sistine Chapel

This is where the enquiry element comes in. Enquiring about what makes you tick what makes you uniquely you, what your strengths and gifts are, rather than focussing on what you are not so good at, questioning without preconceived ideas or judgment. How to develop your gifts, how to work on your strengths, how to align your values to what is meaningful to you. What are the things that are meaningful and purposeful to you? What are the things that fulfil you? Is it any wonder that most people are reasonably clueless when it comes to answering these questions, when rather than being curious, intrigued, exploring and enquiring they can only be critical and judge themselves? Just like Michel Angelo’s Sistine Chapel ceilings; they are more than a bit of paint slapped on a couple of surfaces, and the same goes for you; there is so much more to you than appears on the surface.

Would you?

While being critical and judgmental is driven by the God complex, being compassionate towards yourself (and others) is driven by humility. Let’s face it, would you open up to someone that constantly and relentlessly criticizes you and tells you that you are wrong no matter what? Only when you enquire from a non-judgmental position will your true self, your essence, reveal itself! Here is what you can do to practice the art of compassionate enquiry

  1. Don’t ever think you are not okay just as you are. Just because you want to grow, develop and evolve does not mean you are not okay now. Just as a small tree grows into a bigger tree does not mean the small tree is wrong. Start with accepting who you are, the so-called good, bad and indifferent.

  2. Get out of your own way. Stop all the negative commentary right now! Your negative commentary is like putting a brick on a seedling. Remove the brick and the seedling will grow towards the light.

  3. Be compassionate towards yourself and drop wanting to be perfect (drop your God complex).

  4. Understand that your inner judge and critic (see sub-personalities) might come from good intentions, as they want you to do better, but their overzealous method is counterproductive.

  5. Don’t live your life to get other people’s approval or think that you have to be like them. This is a sure way to lose yourself and to never get to know your true essence.

  6. Discover what your likes, dislikes, needs, values, strengths and gifts are regardless of other people’s opinions.

  7. Listen to how often you hold yourself back by living your life according to the book of ‘shoulds.’ Find out what you really want to do instead of what you should or should not do according to the book of ‘shoulds’ (which is often written for you by others!)

You are the one you are looking for

Remember, there is no one exactly like you in the entire universe. Honor yourself, become insightful and be humble and compassionate. Seek to understand rather than judge. Be respectful towards yourself. If you treat yourself like this only then are you able to do the same for others. Remember the saying; for things to change first I must change. And then you can say; gosh things have changed since I’ve changed. You are the one you are looking for and the art of compassionate enquiry will help you find yourself.

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