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Inquiry: the second of three building blocks of mindfulness
In the second article of this three-part series, Professors Megan Reitz and Michael Chaskalson from Ashridge Executive Education discuss the second building block of mindfulness – inquiry. They explore how developing a curiosity about your present moment experience, through just 10 minutes of mindfulness practice every day, can help you and your teams shape your minds and working lives
In the previous article we learned that mind has an information processing capacity greater than the combined power of all the computers, routers and internet connections on Earth. However we are only aware of a tiny fraction of what we are thinking, feeling and sensing – so we’re barely conscious of how and why we behave the way we do.
It’s as if we have a large, elegant, state-of-the-art ocean-going cruise liner at our command and all we use it for is chugging about the harbour.
The good news is that we can do so much better, and it’s not that hard. We just need to know how to use our minds more effectively.
There are simple things you can do every day to help you shape your mind so that whatever life and work brings, you’re better able to respond creatively. And the even better news is that it only takes 10 minutes per day. We call this mind time, and we all need it.
If you can set aside 10 minutes each day to engage in mind time practices – which you can access for free online here – then in a few months things should get better for you, your colleagues and your teams. There are some simple practices that you can do every day.
Learning to AIM
Mind Time Practices will help you develop three key capacities, collectively referred to as ‘AIM.’ These fundamental building blocks of mindfulness, as we see it, are:
Allowing – an attitude of kindness and acceptance
Inquiry – a curiosity about your present-moment experience
Meta-awareness – the ability to observe your thoughts, feelings, sensations and impulses as they are happening
Throughout this series of articles we will explore how by developing each building block of mindfulness – A, I and M – through 10 minutes of mind time every day, you and your team members can build a better working life.
When allowing, inquiry and meta-awareness come together, in any combination, they open up a space in which we’re able to respond, rather than react, to whatever situation we find ourselves in.
2. Inquiry – a curiosity about your present-moment experience
Inquiry involves taking a lively interest in each moment of experience. As you develop your capacity for inquiry you find yourself occupying an increasingly interesting world.
You begin to notice what’s happening inside you: your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and impulses – right now.
And you get more interested in what’s happening outside you, in the world around you, right now.
Regularly inquiring into what is important in our lives is like remembering to set our compass when we are navigating at sea.
You get more interested in other people – what’s going on for them? And you get more interested in what’s happening between you and others – the constantly changing, endlessly fascinating dynamic of humans relating to each other.
With inquiry, the rich and complex tapestry of this present moment lights up. You become more alive to each moment and begin to see more into the depth of things.
Instead of reacting you begin to inquire. You broaden your attention. Rather than being lost in what is happening out there – as if you’re immersed in a TV show, emotionally at the mercy of what happens next – you become interested in your experience. You begin to wonder what other people might be experiencing and notice things in the space around you that might be influencing what’s happening.
The workplace application of inquiry
Example 1: Inquiry helps us understand what is important in our lives
Vivienne, a friend of mine (Megan’s) came to see me one day with a problem. She had a persistent sense of unease about her job along with distressing feelings of guilt about the amount of time she spent doing it.
She told me that six years ago she’d promised herself that she would reassess what she was doing and change her work so that she had more time with her family. But those six years whizzed by and she still couldn’t say why she was working such long hours.
Many of us find ourselves in similar situations, maybe because it’s scary to think more deeply about what’s important. If we do that, we may feel that we have wasted time. Or it might turn out that we must make even scarier decisions and implement real changes in our lives.
But wouldn’t that be better than sticking our head in the sand and hoping things will somehow change by themselves?
Regularly inquiring into what is important in our lives is like remembering to set our compass when we are navigating at sea. We wouldn’t think of getting on a boat – especially if we have others we care about alongside us – and allowing the sea and the wind to take us wherever, hoping that somehow we might just end up on a nice beach.
But sometimes that’s what we do with our lives. We can get stuck on automatic pilot, passively allowing the changing circumstances of the world around us to dictate our decisions. As a result, we can come to feel trapped in a pattern of ‘work’ and ‘life’ that we don’t want, like Vivienne.
Example 2: Inquiry helps us to listen, collaborate and empathise
Richard, a high-flier, is unusually quick thinking and passionate – he can be fun to be around but also breathtakingly energetic. He leads a successful team in a demanding industry.
He wants results and seems to get them. But he struggles with one key issue. He is so quick to react that the people who work for him are scared of him. They’re unwilling to open their mouths in case he dismisses their ideas or judges them as incapable. Listening and empathising are two things Richard is not known for.
Richard is determined to change his behaviour. He believes that for his team at work to function even more effectively, there must be more sharing of ideas, learning from mistakes and more confidence in speaking up.
If we do not inquire, then we have no impetus to do anything differently or to learn.
When we first met Richard, he was aware of his behaviour and the effect it was having, but he didn’t know how to stop doing it. Teaching him listening skills, or telling him the benefits of collaboration and empathising – things that he was already well aware of – would make no difference.
Instead, what we’ve been helping Richard do is to become interested in how he’s behaving now. To focus less on what he is trying to become and, rather, first inquire about how he is.
This may sound paradoxical but if you inquire into your current experience with interest, rather than trying to be something else, you may naturally respond and change it.
The power of simply noticing
If we ask you, right now, what’s your posture like while you read these lines? While you question and find answers, there’s a good chance that you’ll subtly change your posture in response. This doesn’t come from trying or forcing – it comes from simply noticing.
And that noticing doesn’t happen unless you inquire in the first place. The people we have worked with tell us of the key role inquiry played in their path towards being more vital and alive.
Asking questions leads to change. Inquiry is the ignition key – if we’re stimulated to wonder and ask questions, we give ourselves a moment to pause and reflect.
If we do not inquire, then we have no impetus to do anything differently or to learn. If we don’t learn, we won’t change.