"Inquiry is not an abstract spiritual practice. It is living your life fully, consciously. Then your whole intelligence is available for discovering what is the right way for you to live."
This powerful inquiry is taken from a conversation with a war veteran. It took place in 2011.
Participant: Hi Gangaji, … I don’t really know where to begin, but I’ve got a lot of pain inside me. When I was eighteen, I was deployed to Iraq. I drove a tank, and I just saw a lot of difficult things, you know? I’m starting to see certain things about myself and to believe in myself again, and I just... well … I’m ready for it.
Gangaji: I’m really glad you’re here.
You got a strong dose of the horror of war, and in many ways War is a concentration of the smaller wars we have all around us—in our politics, our communities, our families, and in our own minds. When it comes to being human, there can be so much horror and pain, so much mess. Yet, in the midst of that, always the purity and innocence of your heart is still here, and that’s what I am seeing here in you.
When you are able to honestly say, “I have a lot of pain inside me,” you are already bringing that pain to the purity of your heart where pain is can find refuge. The part that your mind can play in this is to be consciously aware of the pain, and then to be aware if you are fighting the pain or telling yourself a story about the pain. Even if the story is true, you can stop the story, stop the fight, stop the war, and let the pain all the way into your heart.
In this moment, what is your experience? Do you feel the pain somewhere in your body? There is no right answer. Simply notice whatever is here in your experience.
I guess it’s not a physical pain, it’s an emotional pain, and there is a drive to get it to cease.
The drive to get it to cease is part of the inner battle, the inner war. What I am inviting you to in this moment, just as an experiment, is to stop making war with the pain and stop trying to get it to cease. Not because it is the right thing to do. In some instances, it may not be the right thing. In this moment, it is. You are safe here. You can let the pain be here fully. Is that possible in this moment?
Fighting the pain takes energy. We are afraid of the pain because it feels so big, and you don’t know where it is going to take you. But I have some very good news for you. When you stop fighting the pain, when you actually open to it and let it into your heart, the pain itself is healed. It may come back later for more healing, but in the instant when it is met in the core of yourself, the battle is over.
How can you tell when you’re meeting it right?
Well, what are you experiencing? Experience is different from thought. When you have the thought, “How can I tell if I’m meeting it right?” you can stop that thought and directly investigate, “What am I experiencing right now?”
There is physical pain, which is felt in the body, and there is emotional pain. But emotions are felt in the body too. We experience emotions through the body. Right now, are you aware of this pain that you mentioned when you first came up here?
Yes, it seems so.
Where is it right now? Let’s go after it with your attention.
I guess the place I feel it most is my heart (points to his chest).
Yes, that’s just right. Now tell me, what do you mean when you say, “my heart”? When I say to let the pain into your heart, I’m speaking of a heart that is deeper than the physical or emotional heart. There is the emotional heart that aches for the horror in the world. There is the physical heart that also joins in that ache sometimes. And then there is a heart underneath that. This is where I’m inviting you. It is the heart of hearts. It is the core of your being. It is the truth of existence itself.
So, when I —
— Wait, let’s stop right there, before you jump to “so, when….” Right now, as you put your attention on this pain that seems like it is in your heart, what do you experience
I feel lost.
Okay, that’s just right. Whatever you feel is just right. Can you let yourself be lost? In this moment, can you stop fighting?
I try, but I’m always looking and searching for that thing that will make the pain stop.
Right now, just for this one moment, stop searching. You can go back to the search, but for this moment you are simply here. Now, what are you experiencing? This is the question that will always bring you back to the present moment.
Right now, I feel a calmness… and a kind of emptiness.
Okay, now, just like you were willing in an instant to experience the pain and the sadness, you can fully experience this calmness, this emptiness.
Inquiry is about really telling the truth. Not the “right” answer or the “spiritual” answer, but truthfully examining for yourself, “Is anything missing in this calmness, this emptiness?” Then you tell the truth about that and fully experience whatever that is.
Now, from here, is there anything missing in this emptiness, this calmness, this peace?
No. It doesn’t seem like it.
That’s just right. Seeming is all we have in terms of experience. And, as you know, seeming can change. Experiences can change. But the gift of inquiry is that you can always stop and see, “What is the experience under my experience?” In this case, under the emotional pain, under the sadness, and then finally under the calmness, there was emptiness. You can always inquire. You can reel your mind and your thoughts and your attention back to your experience and honestly inquire.
So then from there, do we just live?
Yes, you start freshly from just living, from just being, knowing what you know. It is not about erasing your mind or your experiences. It is about recognizing and discovering more deeply that the innocence of pure beingness is still here, regardless of experiences that come and go. In that recognition is a clarity of mind. Your intelligence is freed from searching so that the truth can actually be discovered.
You are a young man, and there is still much to discover. If you begin at the beginning, at zero in your discovery, what can be discovered is limitless. That’s how we all serve one another, we bring our individual discoveries to the whole of our collective discovery.
Your experiences of war were traumatic and generated pain. There are things you can do to help with that, like trauma work or other healing modalities, but what I am inviting you to here is the secret of direct inquiry. You can stop for a moment and inquire, “What is here? Well, pain is here. What is this pain? Where is this pain when it is experienced all the way through?”
I cannot stress enough that the truth that is discovered through inquiry only takes one instant of purely stopping and, with your conscious intention, opening to whatever is here.
In this case it was pain and sadness. It could be anger. It could be fear. It could be despair. It could be joy. What is it when you let it all the way in? The answer is good news because you will always discover that you are still here, and you are life. Life is animating itself through your particular life form. The source of life itself has been here with you through every experience, every trauma, every opening, every closing. You are life itself and you can know yourself as that. You cannot make yourself be life because you already are life. You can experience yourself as life. Without life, you could not be seeing through your eyes, blood could not be flowing through your body, oxygen could not be flowing through your lungs.
Then what do I do with my drive and determination to do right in the world?
What have you done with it up to this point?
I’ve tried to gain insight and to do the right thing.
This is beautiful. There is nothing wrong with it. You have a drive to serve, you have a drive to do right, and that is beautiful. Now, what you can also do is be willing to tell the truth freshly in each moment. You can be willing to tell the truth when you discover that what you thought was right is not actually right, or what you have thought was wrong is actually right in a certain circumstance. You are an endless, open, living organism of discovery. This is inquiry. Inquiry is not an abstract spiritual practice. It is living your life fully, consciously. Then your whole intelligence is available for discovering the right way to live.
Your drive is beautiful. It is the drive of a young man. It is energy. Like a young tree, it may be bent down but it snaps back up. You have been bent down, but you have snapped back up. You are still here. You are alive. You are free.
Thank you so much.
Thank you for your willingness.
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Gangaji is the author of The Diamond in Your Pocket, Freedom & Resolve: Finding Your True Home in the Universe, You Are That, and Hidden Treasure: Uncovering the Truth in Your Life Story.