The Inquiry process from an embodied perspective

By Helen Stephenson, Ann Rosenthal & Christin Illeborg

In embodied mindfulness we work from a state of alert but relaxed awareness. We don’t add to, or interfere with what comes into awareness. This bare attention is receptive and enhances our awareness of whatever is. It is a courageous and honest encounter with current reality, with what simply is at the moment.

To be the best teacher, we support our participants to look within and to pay close attention to their experience. As teachers we ourselves open to the experiential present of what is, and in this process, we let go of our assumptions of what should/could be, that may separate us from the perceived reality. As such, the Inquiry process is a continuation of the guided practices, but now it is done in the format of a friendly dialogue.

Friendliness is the overall tone and relationship that is created in an embodied Inquiry. The teacher intervenes minimally, attempting to simply being present, allowing and providing space and moments of silence to facilitate the discovery. The relationship feels natural and the Inquiry happens in a dynamic spirit of openness asking ourselves, if what we do or not do will be helpful for new discovery and insight. It is like a friendly conversation, but still different to ordinary conversations, as the invitation to reflect on the direct felt experience is part of the contract.

Humour and lightheartedness can be a useful part of this interaction, and an expressed compassion can be a helpful forerunner to provide a sensitivity to be revealed and flourish. Compassion can sometimes be expressed through a light touch, and it can jerk us out of our well-known ways of thinking, into some buried resourcefulness. It reminds us that life can be enjoyed, as it continually shifts and changes and moves from the tragic, to the mundane, to the elation.

As teachers we have no investment in changing anybody, looking good as a teacher, or following some personal agenda. Having our own regular practice, we will be able to enter into a space of ease and relaxed openness and simply let the process unfold. Having befriended our own limitations, our own “humanness”, with its fallibilities, its ambiguities, we trust the process and don’t attempt to control things. In the book of Tao Te Ching, translation by Stephen Mitchell, it describes this state as such: “When you are content to be simply Yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.”

Our work is more like midwifery, being a witness, carrying the water, stacking the fire, but it is the students’ process. It is he who experience looking inside himself. It is she, who courageously explores the line between the known and the unknown. It is them who encounters the difficulty. They explore new ways of relating, thinking, feeling and reacting. As teachers we participate by supporting that which is arising and wants to be seen. We are there to guide our participants into an experience of themselves and help them to be able to become more comfortable with it.

Inquiry requires awareness of timing. Timing is ruined when we fill a need to do something, just because we feel uncomfortable with not knowing. Based on our own experience we can trust the process and that the next action will inevitably suggest itself, now or later. When things are foggy, we can be patient and trust that they will eventually become clear. Waiting for the right moment is an expression of equanimity and trust. With the awareness of non-striving in mind: to choose the right moment is an art.

The questions we ask to facilitate the process of experiential discovery will direct awareness into the bodily experience as opposed to ideas and theories. To respond to a question such as “Which one of your legs feels tighter than the other?” requires a different kind of Inquiry compared to the question “Why do you think one leg is tighter than the other?” In a similar way Eugene Gendlin, founder of the Focusing method, teaches people to concentrate on the “felt sense” of an issue (as we do e.g. in session 5, sitting with difficulty) as opposed to wandering off into disembodied theories about and analysing the issue. Approaching an issue through body centred Inquiry can at times feel raw and awkward, because normally we lean on and attach us to our theories to make us feel safe. We want certainty, so we can close the chapter. Instead, we invite in the organic wisdom of the body to unfold by staying a little longer. Questioning into the experience asking if it is pleasant, neutral or unpleasant can open to a new layer of understanding, letting go of judging and just seeing whatever is revealed as a way of accepting the experience. Approaches like that help the process let go of like and dislike, right and wrong.

The attitudes we work with in the Inquiry process are the same that are recommended for our own mindfulness practice: gentleness, precision and openness. The following guidelines are intended to help you to inquire sensitively. Their aim is to give you a flavour of Inquiry; they are not intended to be seen as the ultimate way of doing the Inquiry, but to help you flourish in your work as a teacher and practitioner.

Sensitivity is our capacity to perceive with our senses. More precisely, in mindfulness, when we speak of embodiment, we mean our ability to sense ourselves through our bodies. Becoming tuned in with our bodies leads us to access the intelligence of the body.

Several suggested factors will help increase the sensitivity of the participants bodily experience, as well as your own.

  • Be sensitive to your own body: Through continuous practice you will refine your awareness of the changing phenomena in your body, regarding mass, motion, fluidity and temperature. Be on the lookout for the impermanent nature of pleasant and unpleasant. Get to know from the inside the whole spectrum of phenomena that can arise and cease. This insight into the real nature of the body is a way of developing detachment. There’s no better substitute than you modelling what your participants are engaged in learning.
  • Curiosity: Generally let yourself become genuinely curious about what’s going on in your own body, so that you can help your participants to be curious about their bodies. In MBCT-L it is called the 50/50 practice, where part of your attention is with the other, and part of your attention is with you. In this way you can mirror and remember in your own body how “this” might feel and be experienced in the participants body. Allow curiosity to lead you. It can be a strong ally, much stronger than technique, in facilitating sensitivity.
  • Have open mind: Pay attention to simply hearing what has been said. Do not assume you already know what the other person meant. You can ask questions that encourage a receptive, mindful awareness. Questions that direct the participant back to their own experience as the only source of knowledge. Repeatedly directing an open-minded awareness to explore the nature of the body enables mindfulness to become strongly centred and anchored in the body, also when we bring mindfulness to other perspectives.
  • Do not explain, that comes later. During the Inquiry the job is to hear how the other person experiences. Resist your impulse to explain, except if it helps the person to stay with the direct experience they are having right now. If appropriate facilitate the process with questions that direct the participant directly into their own bodily experience as opposed to our/their theories. “Feeling your body right now, can you sense what’s going on? Where do you experience the anxiety/sadness/elation in your body? How is it registering in your body?
  • Be curious about your own state of mind. Notice what arises in your mind as you listen. Recognize whatever thoughts, sensations, feelings arise in you. Check for the presence or absence of a mind with lust/ wanting. Own your own experience. Work with what you notice mindfully.
  • Put yourself into the other person’s place: and consider their readiness to share. Pick your time in a way which shows respect to the other person. When in doubt, ask for permission to ask questions. Approach the interaction with a sense of gratitude for the generosity of the other person’s willingness to share.
  • Be a clean mirror. Be descriptive and be careful when offering interpretations. Remember your intention is to intervene minimally, attempting to help, but not being too helpful.


Questions to facilitate sensitivity in the body

  • Offering general possibilities: “Feeling your body right now, can you sense what’s going on? Maybe some places are tight, some are more open? You probably feel your breath a certain way, maybe full in your chest, or shallow in your chest? Does the inhale seem more complete or the exhale? Some parts of your body might feel dense, puffy, stringy, held, fluid, unpleasant, tingly, flexible, moving or unmoving, contracted expanded…some places might feel more alive, or dead, vibrant, agitated, or stuck.”
  • Getting precise information, will help the participant to stay a moment longer with their experience, therefor allowing more information to show up. “Sensing the tension, is it pulling up, down, diagonally, back pushing out, or a combination? What are the qualities of the tension: tight, dull, achy, smooth, jagged, intense, blocking, congested? What are the qualities of the expansion: light, airy, roomie, open breezy, colourful? Does it feel pleasant, neutral or unpleasant?”
  • Invite curiosity: “what’s it like, to feel this sensation? What happens if you stay a little longer? What do you notice? Are some places different to the experience that you are having in this part of your body? Turning your ears inward, what sounds do you hear? Turning your eyes inward, what do you see? Colour, tissue, landscapes? What are your reactions to the experience? Do you want to turn your back, hold it gently, do you get tired sleepy, want to move….or what are your reactions?”
  • Exaggerate: “If you make the sensation/relaxation/tension a little bigger, just imagine it growing, what might that be like? What places in your body welcome this sensation? What places in your body reject it? How does making it bigger/smaller affect the rest of your body? Do other parts of your body tighten, contract, loosen, or take part as well. “
  • Differentiation through comparing questions:” Notice the body a whole and also the different parts of your body. Do they all feel the same? Do your feet feel different to your stomach? Are some places hard, others soft? “
  • Impulses:” Sensing your body, are there any impulses to move in your body? Does your body want to dance, run, sleep, shake, yell or hit? What position does your body want to be in? How would it be more comfortable? Does it want to hide, turn away, spread out, curl up or be open? What position would be the one where you feel comfortable, at home, that feels right?”

A word about words

Words create meaning. They help us to bring an experience to expression and to understand it. However, they never can precisely capture what our experience was like. And at times we can get lost in words, separating us form our experience.

In our embodied mindfulness practice, on retreat and during supervision we look within and pay close attention to our experience. It can be a rewarding, at times challenging experience, when we can focus a bit longer on our direct experience and be ready to stay there without words until the experience itself gives rise to the words.

If we label our experience, or the experience of our participants too quickly, we might separate ourselves from the inner reality, using theories and ideas and losing the connection to what is being experienced. When something is not yet fully understood, it might not yet have a name to it. For example, we might experience a slight sense of tightness around the chest. If we can resist for a moment longer analysing this to purge it of this uncomfortable namelessness, it may lead us to fuller understanding.

Simply being present, befriending the uneasiness, allows it to emerge fully and leads, perhaps to our mind expressing it in words such as “sadness, fear of conflict, grief.” These words are then not imposed by our minds, but have arisen from a willingness to stay a bit longer with our “not knowing” from which they arose.

When we hear words we can carefully mirror back by using exactly the same words we have just heard, so that the participants can hear what she has just said.

Since we were attending receptively to the movements of our consciousness around this issue, other information naturally gathers around it and feelings, sensations, words, thought and impulses could spontaneously arise.

Just being a witness, as though standing by a pond and watching the ripples caused by a fish breaking the surface. The fish is the direct experience, the pond is the conscious awareness in which it appears, the ripples are a thought, a memory, a sense perception, a thought or a feeling, whatever happens in relation to the triggering event like the reactions and impulses.

The witness part of our consciousness is the steady stable quality in us, that can stand back and notice what is going on internally, without being unaware caught up in it. It is in this process of observing, studying and exploring, we can register the effects of it in our body, the feelings, the thoughts and therefore we become able to learn from our experience. We have a choice and can step out of habitually and automatic thought and behaviour patterns.

The 8-week course and all its components, including Inquiry help us to find new ways of relating to our experience. Awareness, understanding and choice is introduced, where else before we often acted habitually and automatically, not feeling we had a choice. None of this happens, however, by denying or avoiding our present experience. The Inquiry is another took(tool?) to enable us to embrace who we are now, with the hope of new possibilities to live our lives.

And now, after you have read all this, relax. All roads lead home. All rivers flow down to the sea, the moon never stops changing, the birds are still singing. Don’t worry about your way of Inquiry. Start with what you feel comfortable with, what triggered your interest…a sensation, a feeling, a thought, a gesture, a facial expression a way of holding the body, the way the person talks.

If we are not spot on it will soon become apparent to us and the process will correct itself. A good Inquiry allows for not-knowing, for being comfortable with not being in control. Trusting the process, encouraging mindful awareness, the rest will come. This is the case, because we are organic harmonious systems whose inner wisdom can be trusted.

Bringing to mind that everything changes, even the “I” that is experiencing something right now is also changing. The “I” is not a solid thing. Whatever you experience is never the end, we all experience suffering in our lives and we have so much in common as human beings. Remembering this brings kindness and compassion to the process.


Helen Stephenson, Ann Rosenthal & Christin Illeborg ©2019