In order to be happy and do well in life we need to get on with others and understand them. The best way of doing that is to understand ourselves deeply, because as we have explored before, the human mind functions in the same way in all of us. Understanding ourselves also leads to a sense of inner peace. So- how do we begin? Just as we see a bird flying across the sky, just watching it without commenting, we could observe our thoughts and feelings as they rise in us. That’s the first step. The second step is to go deeper and explore where these thoughts and feelings come from and the hidden mechanisms behind them. In that exploration lies a wealth of understanding which brings intelligence, wisdom and change can occur without effort. This journey of self-enquiry needs no special expertise, just a keenness to find out and a certain sensitivity. It is important that we are honest with ourselves and accept what we find. It is also important not to judge ourselves as good or bad because that blocks further questioning. Here are 2 examples. Suppose we go and see a movie with some friends. Some think it was wonderful, and others didn’t like it at all. The discussion gets quite heated. ‘Why does everyone have a different opinion of the same movie, and why are we so attached to our particular view? On exploring further it is clear that our perception of a situation and hence our opinion is determined by the content of our memory- which includes all our past experiences and our conditioning. Because the opinions come from our mind, we get attached to them and want to defend them. We are not aware of this process working in the background. We are sure our opinions are correct and never question them. Others do the same and that can lead to conflict. This applies in all walks of life. Understanding this process may allow us to explore situations from different perspectives, without being attached to a single one, and that would make our interactions with others so much easier. Another example could be noticing in a conversation how poorly we all listen to each other. We are more interested in speaking about ourselves, and less interested in others. Most people are not aware of this. If we explored it further we would realise that speaking about ourselves strengthens the ‘me’ and that brings us pleasure. This understanding may make us better listeners and improve all our relationships. In this way we can explore the entire spectrum of our thoughts and feelings. The understanding that flows from this will make help us get on better with others and help us in all our endeavours. It will also make us more comfortable in our own skin and result in a sense of inner peace.
I’d like to explore the subject of conditioning- which is a process by which all of our past experiences are stored in our memory and then act from behind the screen of our awareness to influence our thoughts and actions. When I was young, I thought the opinions I had were mine, and the decisions I made about my life were also mine, but they were just a response to my particular conditioning. Let me give you some examples of conditioning. If you read a right wing newspaper which is critical of immigration, for example, that becomes your opinion and if I read a left wing newspaper that supports it, I begin to think it’s a good thing. We meet and have an argument about immigration we just repeat what we have read- except now it has become ‘our’ opinion which we want to defend. We have been conditioned in this case by the media. Or if you are born in Belfast, depending on which street you lived you would grow up as a catholic or as a protestant and adopt the views and beliefs of the people around you. Or if you live in the US, you may think its every persons right to carry a gun, but if you live in Europe you think that’s just mad! If we have suffered some traumatic experience it conditions us, and in some cases for a life time. In this way we are conditioned by our parents, our society, the media, our culture, and all our experiences. Our conditioning affects every aspect of our lives including our relationships, our opinions, our career choices, our sense of what we can do in life, and our daily habits. This process of conditioning is common to all human beings and we never question it because we are not aware of the process occurring in the background. Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent every year by various organizations to try and influence us to think in a particular way. They would not do that if they did not think the human mind can be easily influenced. In order to live an intelligent life, and not be controlled by outside influences and our own past, it is absolutely vital to wake up and question our conditioning and see the link between that and our thoughts and actions. That awareness brings its own intelligence and change occurs without effort. We realise then that we do not have to be slaves to our past, and all our conditioning. We cannot erase our memories, that would be foolish, but we can break that link between our past and our present through enquiry and awareness, and live a much more intelligent and rich life. Understanding the process of conditioning may also allow us to live with compassion, because we can see that others are just acting from their particular past, just we do from ours.
When we see the problems in our own lives and those in the world, they seem too complex, and we feel helpless and do not know how to begin to address them. Every great human endeavour, like going to the moon, started as an idea. On this still spring morning, with the cherry blossom in bloom outside my window, I write to you about a project that may improve not only our own lives, but the world we all live in. The Human Enquiry Project is based on the fact that hidden from our awareness, the human mind functions in the same way in all of us, and is responsible for the world we have created, including all the problems in our own lives like loneliness, stress, sorrow, anxiety, and conflict. It is also responsible for creating all the problems we see in the world like wars, corruption, poverty, drug addiction and climate change. By studying and understanding how our minds function, we can begin to address these problems and there is the possibility of deep change. The aim of the project is to encourage all human beings to begin their own journeys of self-enquiry and to bring this study of our inner spaces to schools, colleges and universities around the world. The other aim of the project is to explore, together, whether it is possible for human beings to change deeply. This website has a number of resources which allow people to come together to explore what it means to be human, and share what they learn. The book Understanding Me, Understanding You is part of this project and has been written to make it easy for everyone to begin their own journey of self-enquiry. You can contribute to the project by beginning your own journey of self-enquiry and sharing what you learn with us all. The book and the website are there to help. Just as many computers have different contents in their hard drives, but share the same operating system, so we humans have different contents in our memories which we think makes us unique, but in the background, our minds function in the same way. Though the cause of fear in your life and mine may be different, the underlying feeling of fear, the mechanism behind it and the way it affects our lives is the same, so we can explore it together. Similarly the mechanism behind loneliness, sorrow and anxiety will be the same is all of us. By enquiring into the way our minds function, by asking questions and through self-awareness, we can begin to address these problems we all face. Understanding ourselves helps us to understand others, which leads to more harmonious relationships. This also leads to wisdom, intelligence, compassion and a sense of inner peace. We human beings are astonishingly capable when we come together to tackle a problem. We have eradicated so many diseases, cracked the genetic code, created the internet and can feed 7 billion people on this planet. We are now trying to tackle climate change. Yet, when it comes to our inner spaces, we just assume that the problems we see there like stress, loneliness, conflict and sorrow do not have a solution. We have assumed that we can never change. Why is that? In the last century alone 200 million human beings were killed by other human beings. The same consciousness, the same mind that led to those killings, is also alive in you and me today and given the right circumstances we are all capable of that violence. If we want our children to live in a peaceful world we have to investigate that shared consciousness and find out if it is possible to change. Each of us can be a scientist and investigate the way our minds work, ask questions and share what we find with each other. If in investigating jealousy for example, you had an insight that completely ended it in you, that would help all human beings. We can then begin to ask questions like ‘Is it possible to live without conflict in a relationship’, or ‘Can loneliness be dissolved’, or ‘How can we find love in our lives’ or ‘Is it possible to live a life based on intelligence, and not just one influenced by our past’? Please do not think only clever people can do this or that some expert is going to solve the problem. Each of us is equally capable of this understanding. Please join us on this journey.
Have you ever wondered, in a quiet moment, why we feel hurt, or lonely, why we feel dissatisfied, or why happiness is so elusive? Have you ever wondered why there is so much conflict in the world, and in our lives? To explore these questions we need to look within. We don’t know how to do that because throughout our education we are taught about the world around us, but not about the world inside us, or our inner spaces. Why is that? We know much more about mathematics and science than fear, sorrow or the art of being happy. Much of the conflict in our lives and in the world is because of this lack of understanding. This book, Understanding Me, Understanding You aims to make the process of looking within simple and accessible to everyone. It provides a framework in which we can understand ourselves and how our minds function, and in doing so realise that the human mind functions in the same way in all of us. This then allows us to understand others better, simply by understanding ourselves, and this could bring harmony to all our relationships. Over 26 chapters it explores the landscape of being human covering subjects like fear, loneliness, desire, sorrow, happiness, conditioning, our habits and addictions, relationships and love. Take the example of people chatting in a group…. If you notice how other people cut each other off mid-sentence because they feel the urge to say something- you could call that awareness. If you notice that tendency in yourself- that is self-awareness. If you explore it further you will find that this is common to all human beings and is linked to the need to express ourselves which brings us pleasure and strengthens the sense of ‘ME’, because they are MY opinions and stories. That could be called an awareness of our shared human consciousness. Similarly if you explore fear you will find that though the cause of fear in each of us may be different, the actual fear we experience, the mechanism behind it and the way it affects our lives is the same in all of us. We can therefore come together to explore our shared human consciousness. We can then ask questions like ‘is it possible to live without fear’ or ‘Can we live without conflict in our relationships’, or ‘do we live intelligent lives, or a life dictated by our past influences or our conditioning’. In understanding ourselves as we are, we can also understand others better, because deep down, we are the same and share the same mind, or consciousness. As a result we can live with intelligence and compassion, cope better with life’s challenges, find peace in our hearts and live in harmony with others and with the earth. The beauty of this approach is that it is simple and requires no new ideology, no rules to follow, no authority figure or new belief system. Take the first step and find out for yourself.
I’d like to explore the question of why human beings feel hurt and the many benefits that enquiry could bring. This feeling of being hurt is not unique to you and me but the same in all human beings, so we can explore this together, just by looking at ourselves clearly. That understanding itself can bring change. So what are the common ways we get hurt? We get hurt when our expectations are not met. We may expect a friend to call us on our birthday, and when they don’t we feel bad. We also have many psychological needs, which we are not aware of and expect others to fulfil. We want to be loved and respected, feel important, be listened to and understood and so on. If these needs are not met, we can feel hurt. We also get hurt when we are criticized. If I am a surgeon and you are critical of my surgical skills, I feel hurt. If on the other hand you say I am a useless cook, I would probably laugh and agree with you. The difference is that I have an opinion or image of myself as a good surgeon, but don’t regard myself as a good cook. We have many such images of ourselves, which we are not aware of, and when they are challenged, we get hurt. We can also get hurt when an opinion or belief we are attached to is challenged- if someone says something bad about our religion for example. So, how do we respond when we get hurt? We usually blame the other person for hurting us, even though the expectation or image or strong opinion that caused the hurt in the first place was created by our own thinking. We may react by withdrawing our affection and not speak to the other person, who may not know we have been hurt, and not understand why. Sometimes our hurt leads us to get angry, and that can lead to violence and we can see the effects of that in the world. There are many benefits of understanding this process more deeply. It may make us take responsibility for the feeling and not blame others for hurting us, because the ultimate cause of being hurt lies in us. This may push us to understand the whole process by which our images, expectations, opinions and psychological needs are created and see the link between them and getting hurt. As a result of this understanding we may not react in the usual way by withdrawing our affection or with anger or violence and that may help not only bring harmony to our relationships- but also bring peace to a troubled world.
There are many benefits of self-enquiry. These benefits include living with a sense of peace and joy within and having more harmonious relationships. There are however many obstacles that can get in the way of this enquiry and I’d like to explore four of them. Firstly, as we look within, our images of ourselves may be challenged. We may realise, for example, that we are not as loving and kind as we thought we were and that challenges our images of ourselves as kind and loving people. That creates a disturbance in us and may push us to stop enquiring further. It is important to keep going because it is only in understanding and accepting ourselves as we are that we can find peace within. Secondly, our fear of change may also block our enquiry. As we look at ourselves we may realise that there are aspects of our lives that need to change, like our jobs, or a relationship, or our addiction to pleasure. The possibility of change may however make us feel insecure and anxious and that blocks any further enquiry. It is important however to explore our fear and keep going because the understanding that flows from this enquiry brings its own intelligence and change follows without effort. Thirdly, we may feel the enquiry is too big a challenge. In exploring fear for example we may say ‘But its only human to be afraid’ and give up without even taking the first step. When it comes to problems in the outside world we humans are so good solving them- look at the advances in medicine for example. Why do we assume, without trying, that our internal problems like fear and sorrow have no solution? Surely, we can do better than that. Lastly, we may be very keen, and have read many books on self-enquiry and become experts- and know all about self-interest and fear for example but get frustrated because despite all that knowledge, we find that there is no real change. The difficulty here perhaps is that we may just be repeating what others have said, and not have taken the trouble to look at ourselves deeply. It is only in looking at ourselves as we are that real understanding and change comes. Being aware of these pitfalls in our journey of self-enquiry may help us to avoid them and keep going. It leads to wisdom and goodness and is a lifelong journey.
I want to explore the question of whether our minds function in similar ways, and how that understanding can change our life. You know physically we think we are unique because we look different and that’s obvious but scientists say that 99.9% of our DNA is the same, so biologically we are very similar. Psychologically we feel we are even more unique. We may speak different languages, come from different cultures or countries, and have had different experiences. These are the contents of our memory. We identify ourselves with this content, which is unique, and this creates the sense of us being separate individuals. Behind the scenes however, despite our apparent differences, I wonder if our minds function in the same way? Take the example of a couple who are arguing about what they should spend their money on. She may want a new phone and he may want to go on holiday. Each is attached to their own desire which creates conflict. If they explored that more deeply they would realise that the feeling of desire in both of them is the same. It is linked to an anticipation of pleasure and as soon as the desire is fulfilled the pleasure ends and they would feel empty again. If they understood that the nature of desire in both of them is the same, what impact would it have? In this way if we explored any feeling we would realise that the mechanism behind it is the same in all of us. We are all shaped by our past experiences, we all want to be happy and we all get hurt. In the background, our minds function in similar ways - just as computers run the same operating system even though they have different contents stored in their memory. Is the ‘operating system’ the same in all human beings? If we can understand this fact, it can be life changing and has been for me. We might feel less alone. Realising that our minds function in the same way as in other people may allow us to accept ourselves as we are and that may bring a sense of peace. It may allow us to understand and accept others, though they may look different and have different opinions from us, and that may lead to compassion and harmony in our relationships. It would also allow human beings to come together and explore whether it is possible for us to change deeply, and live with less conflict in our lives, which would make the world a more peaceful place. We could also ask if by understanding desire, pleasure and insecurity whether we could live in harmony with the earth. We owe it to future generations to find out.
Many of the wars and conflicts in the world and throughout history have been caused by people with different beliefs. We call ourselves Christian, or Hindus or Muslims, or believe in Life after death, but we never pause and ask - what is belief? Though you and I may believe in different things, the underlying nature of belief itself is the same in all human beings, so we can explore it together. There are many benefits of exploring this question. Could we say all beliefs are a collection of thoughts and ideas which we think to be true, but are not proven to be a fact? If it was a fact, we would not need to believe in it. We would never say the earth is round because it is a fact, but we might say we believe in Life after Death, because nobody knows for sure. We usually pick up our beliefs from the culture we live in, and we rarely question them. Our beliefs bring us many benefits including a sense of security and certainty, offering explanations for questions which make us anxious - like what happens after death. We like to gather round people who share our beliefs and that makes us feel less lonely. Our beliefs also bring us pleasure because we identify ourselves with them and that strengthens the sense of I or the self. Because our beliefs fulfil so many of our deep and hidden psychological needs, we can get attached to them. Our attachment to our beliefs may divide us from others with different beliefs and also push us to convince others that our beliefs are more valid than theirs. If someone questions or is critical of our beliefs we feel hurt, like we are being attacked and that can escalate into violence as we can see around the world. Our attachment may also allow our emotions to be manipulated by others who share the same beliefs, pushing us to do things where we may forget our own humanity. Understanding the nature of belief which we all share may make us realise that all beliefs are fundamentally the same- a collection of ideas which are not proven but we think are true- and as a result conflicts between people with different beliefs may melt away. It may also make us question our attachment to our beliefs and we may never allow our emotions to be manipulated by others. We could go on to ask if we can live without belief and that may push us to explore and understand deeply our insecurity, uncertainty and our loneliness, which is where the real problem lies. In that exploration we may discover a deep sense of peace, goodness and compassion for all human beings, whatever their beliefs. If we can educate every child not only about the world around them, but also about the nature and mechanism of belief we would have peace in a generation.
All of us want to have happy relationships, but often find that difficult in practice. Why is that? Perhaps it is because we do not understand deeply how our minds work. Let me give you 2 examples. All of us have many psychological needs, which we are not aware of, and which we expect others to fulfil. The closer our relationship, the higher our expectations. We want a balm for our loneliness, be loved and respected, feel important, be listened to and understood, feel secure, have physical affection, be stimulated, and so on. When these needs are not met we may respond by losing interest, getting hurt, or angry, or withdraw our affection or try and manipulate the other person to meet them. If two people are pushing to get their own needs met, and not aware of it, they become insensitive and less giving to others and conflict inevitably follows. If we understand this deeply, we may become aware of our self-interest operating in the background trying to get our needs met by others and this awareness brings its own intelligence. We may then question our needs and take responsibility for them and at least not blame others for not meeting them. This may open up a dialogue with others, because the same process is operating in all of us, and this would lead to a relationship that is more loving. All our experiences are stored in our memory from childhood. We call this our conditioning. We identify ourselves with this content which includes all our opinions, and it becomes the me or the self, and we become protective of it. We scan the world around us and compare what we see with what is in our memory. If it is familiar and something we agree with it, we feel comfortable and this brings us pleasure. If it is unfamiliar or we do not agree with it then there is a disturbance in the brain, which we may not be aware of and we respond by being critical of what we see. In a relationship this may result in us being critical of how the other person is thinking or behaving and we may want them to change, so we can feel more comfortable. We assume that our opinions are correct because they come from our memory, and it follows that others must be wrong. This makes it difficult to compromise with another point of view, because we are so protective of our own. If two people are constantly critical of each other and pushing each other to change, it leads to conflict. This process is the same in all human beings and happens beyond our awareness. If people can wake up to this process operating in the background, it may not only dissolve the conflict between them, but also lead to a deeper understanding of themselves. There are other ways in which an understanding of ourselves can lead to happier relationships- and these are explored in the book Understanding Me, Understanding You and on the website humanenquiry.com
I’d like to explore a new way of addressing the problem of climate change - by understanding the way our shared human mind functions. Scientists say it is the greatest threat facing humanity and despite the efforts of many governments, the problem is getting worse. How can you and I respond? We know that rising greenhouse gas levels, which are responsible for global warming, are caused by increasing human consumption and a rising population. The main factors which are driving this rising consumption- are the human need for pleasure and our fear of the future- both of which are common to all human beings. Buying things and having new experiences bring us pleasure. We identify ourselves with our experiences and our possessions- it is my new phone for example- and that strengthens the sense of self or the I, which makes us feel good. Unfortunately, all pleasures fade with time and need to be replaced by new ones and that leads to increasing consumption. So, why do we have this constant craving for pleasure, which is so strong that it overcomes any effort to limit it from the outside or through our own will power. Perhaps it is because deep inside us we have this sense of restlessness or emptiness, which we are not aware of, and the stimulation that pleasure brings covers up that feeling, if only for a short time. We want to accumulate wealth, not only because it buys us pleasure, but because of our fear of the future, which often operates in the background. We are not satisfied with how much we have, and always want more. Exploring and understanding our sense of emptiness and our fear of the future can bring a natural stillness and sense of peace within, and with that the need for pleasure also recedes. The origin of the problem of Climate change therefore lies in the way our minds function – in our need for pleasure and new experiences and our fear of the future- all this leads to over consumption. If we are to tackle this problem, this is where we must direct our energy. We can do this by exploring how our minds function and through education, where young people are taught not only about the world around them, but also about themselves. If we can do this, we could address this problem in a generation. Let us not say it cannot be done without even trying. It’s not as hard as it seems. Future generations are counting on us.