Chapter 9: Engaging in Inquiry
The following is an excerpt from Teaching the Mindful Self-Compassion Program: A Guide for Professionals by Chris Germer and Kristin Neff. Translations of the Professional Guide are forthcoming throughout 2020 and 2021. See scheduled release dates here. May this Professional Guide serve you and inform your teaching!
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— An Excerpt —
The Three R’s: Radical Acceptance,
Resonance, and Resource-Building
Teachers can focus on three components of inquiry, which we refer to in MSC as the “three R’s,” as a guide for how to engage in inquiry. Radical acceptance is the overall attitude of the inquiry process; resonance is the primary mode of engagement; and resource-building is the desired outcome of inquiry.
Radical acceptance means “fully entering into and embracing whatever is in the present moment” (Robins, Schmidt, & Linehan, 2004, p. 40). In MSC, radical acceptance refers not only to embracing our experience, but also to embracing ourselves. This does not mean that we are perfect and have no need to change. It refers to knowing and accepting ourselves, right now, as a foundation for meaningful change.
In inquiry, radical acceptance is the attitude of not judging and not fixing. It is letting our students (and ourselves as teachers!) off the hook, at least for the few minutes of inquiry, of needing anything to be other than it is. A teacher is simply curious about how a student experienced a practice or exercise and how the student responded. Then, if the teacher detects that the student is struggling (which usually means the student is resisting the experience or fighting with oneself), the teacher and student can collaboratively explore what is going on, still without needing anything to change during the inquiry process. Since all beings instinctively resist distress, both personal and empathic distress, radical acceptance is rather an ideal than a constant reality during inquiry.
Radical acceptance also refers to respecting students—honoring their needs, cultural circumstances, vulnerabilities, and wholeness. Since teachers know very little about students’ lives, they need to proceed with care. Speaking up in class can make a participant feel vulnerable and exposed, especially if old wounds have surfaced during the preceding exercise or practice. Therefore, when a teacher senses that a student is feeling vulnerable but the student would nonetheless like to continue with the inquiry process, the teacher may ask, “May I ask you a question?” or “Would you be willing to go a little further into this?” Even those questions should be asked without expectation because some students are unable to say “no.” When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of safety and back off.
In general, open-ended questions are experienced by students as safer and more respectful than specific questions or statements. Open-ended questions give room for students to choose what they are willing to share. For example, a teacher might ask, “How do you feel right now?” rather than “Are you upset right now?” Another example of an open-ended question is ending an inquiry with “Is there anything you need right now— anything that would be helpful?” rather than suggesting what a participant should do next.
Radical acceptance also refers to how teachers relate to their own learning process. Teachers should be patient with themselves as they develop competence with engaging in inquiry. Just as striving to learn self-compassion can be an obstacle on the path to self-compassion for students, striving to get inquiry “right” can interfere with the flow between two people. It is better to be a natural, friendly person and make lots of mistakes rather than self-consciously trying to conduct a perfect inquiry. In other words, the intention for teachers is to learn what their students experienced during a practice, not to act as if they are doing inquiry.
The primary task of MSC teachers during inquiry is to resonate emotion-ally with their students. Resonance is 90% of inquiry. When resonance is happening, not much else needs to occur during inquiry. While resonating, teachers listen not only with their ears, but also with their bodies. Resonance is embodied listening. Resonance occurs when students can say, “I know that you know how I feel.” They feel felt (Siegel, 2010, p. 136). Another measure of resonance is that a teacher is in a state of loving, connected presence. In other words, a student senses the warmth of the teacher, perceives a sense of intimacy, and feels under-stood.
The intimacy of emotional resonance evokes a sense of deep connection. One student reported, “When my teacher and I were speaking, it felt not only like she was talking to me, but also like I was talking to me. No difference.” In this way, inquiry can activate and strengthen the com-passionate voice within each student. Moreover, since other participants are also likely to resonate with the student engaged in inquiry, the dyadic inquiry process can activate self-compassion in everyone in the room.
The final key component of inquiry is resource-building. Resources are not cultivated through resonance alone, but also through validating how a student has used the resources of mindfulness and self-compassion in the preceding practice or by evoking mindfulness and self-compassion during the inquiry itself.
For example, when a student gets derailed during an exercise because of strong emotions, the teacher can return to the point in the exercise where the student got lost, bring mindfulness or self-compassion to the scene, and then escort the student through one or more remaining phases of the exercise. Here’s an inquiry with a participant, Joan, after the Meeting Unmet Needs exercise in Session 7.
Joan: I don’t know about that exercise. I just checked out.
Teacher: Can you remember when you checked out?
Joan: Not really. Wait . . . it was when you asked us to let go of the person who hurt us and go deeper into what we were feeling. I didn’t want to do that. I want an apology from the person.
Teacher: I can understand that. Don’t we all, when we feel hurt by someone? It’s so natural.
Teacher: I’m curious. When we got to the part of the exercise that asked what unmet need was driving your feelings of hurt, were you able to identify anything?
Joan: No, I was just stuck feeling sad and hurt.
Teacher: Do you mind considering the question now? For example, did you want to be treated more respectfully, or be seen, or be valued?
Joan: Yes, I really loved this person and needed to be loved back. I just wanted to be loved back (eyes becoming moist).
Teacher: Of course you did. You needed to be loved back. (Pause) It hurts so much when we don’t feel loved back. (Pause) I wonder, what would you say to a good friend who felt this longing, just like you?
Joan: Oh, I’d say, “You are so lovable. You are so beautiful.” I’m afraid he just couldn’t see that.
Teacher: Yes, you would say, “You are so lovable. You are sooooo beautiful.” Is it okay if we do a little experiment together?
Teacher: Let’s just say those words together. Maybe even as a whole group, silently. If others are willing, let’s close our eyes and just say those words silently to ourselves: “You are so lovable. You are so beautiful.” (Long pause)
Joan: (Smiling) I get it.
Teacher: What do you get?
Joan: It will take some time, but I get it. I can give it to myself. I actually feel much better right now.
In this short exchange, the teacher referred Joan back to the moment in the Meeting Unmet Needs exercise when she “checked out.” That grounded the conversation in direct experience. Then the teacher escorted Joan through the next set of instructions in the exercise, which were about discovering unmet needs behind hurt feelings. When Joan was able to complete that activity, she was guided into the final part of the exercise—giving ourselves compassion in response to unmet needs, and meeting our needs directly. Joan was able to finish the exercise this time, with the help of the teacher and the rest of the group. The inquiry process also reminded the whole group about different elements in the exercise that they had just completed, especially how to meet our unmet needs from old relationships by using the resource of self-compassion.