Writing Exercises for Self Inquiry.

Image Unceremoniously Nicked from the University of Hanover Website. But don’t worry, they didn’t make it either.

In previous pieces, drawing on the work of John Vervake and Ian McGilchrist, I’ve discussed the importance of reciprocal processing and participatory experience in enabling insight, wisdom, and implicitly, eudaimonic well being. For the most part, those pieces were theory-oriented. Now let’s talk about applying the theory in practice. These practices are not my own invention. Rather, I’ve adapted them from other sources to match my theory a little better.

Writing and journaling have always been dependable methods of self-inquiry; this goes back at least as far as Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations were never intended for publication. The self-interrogative philosophical dialogue is a good example of how to apply reciprocal processing to self-development.

And it’s important that we process reciprocally if we’re after practical wisdom. The human mind is extra-ordinarily biased. It may even be evolutionarily adaptive to be delusional. But we should still work to overcome our fixed perspectives, even if we ultimately want to return to them.

Writing for self-inquiry has an advantage over therapy in that it can be pursued alone. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have therapy. I’ve had it, and it’s great, as long as you get a good therapist. But that’s not always practical, and sometimes it’s preferable to pursue self-inquiry solo.

But if we want this to be a solo activity, as opposed to therapy, we need it to be organized so you can be both the expressive and restrictive agent in the relationship. In each of these exercises, it’s important to be honest as often as possible. If you feel even a bodily twitch to the effect that you’re telling porkie pies, you should delete what you just wrote and tell the truth instead.

This also means that you should plan to destroy or hide the results of the writing exercises. Don’t think about anyone else’s perspective if you can, or let the possibility that someone else might one-day read them intrude on the process. If you do these exercises right, you’ll learn things about yourself that nobody else needs to.

The first writing exercise I want to discuss is oriented towards exploring beliefs and perspectival structures you might not be consciously aware of. When you perform this exercise, be sure to maintain an open minded state. Focus on concrete, sensory details as much as you can. This will let you explore implicit rather than explicit belief structures. Try not to edit as you go. That will interrupt your flow.

After that, we’ll follow my standard reciprocal method, and we’ll explore a way to structure the insights you just discovered, and interrogate them.

Exercise 1: Fill in the Blanks. (Question Time!)

The basic idea of this exercise is not unlike The Morning Pages exercise invented by Julia Cameron. The difference is that these are formulated to get you to start exploring your ideas and opinions about topics you might otherwise be avoiding. Cognitive Bias is a real stinker sometimes.

Here’s how to do them:

Open up a blank file, or take a blank piece of paper, write one of these questions at the header and start writing. Don’t finish writing until some pre-determined milestone. You will be surprised at how you create content to fill the space, whether it’s time-defined or word-count defined or page-defined or whatever. Your mind is very goal oriented, so give it a good goal and watch what results emerge.

Here are some future-oriented example questions you might be avoiding:

If I could do anything, I would _________.

The only thing about myself stopping me, in the real world, from doing _________ is _________.

If I didn’t do ________, then __________ would happen.

If I did do __________, then __________ would happen!

The thing I hate the most about myself is _______, because _________.

The thing I love the most about myself is _______, because _________.

You might be a little overwhelmed thinking about how to go about this exercise, so I’ll give you more guidance. Here’s how to use these questions:

Step 1. Take your paper or blank word document. Do it now, don’t wait. If you have enough time for the next blog piece you’re about to read, you have enough time to improve your understanding of yourself.

Step 2. Write ‘The Only Thing Stopping Me from Taking this Exercise Seriously is…’ at the top. Be ready to repeat the exercise after you’ve done this first one.

Step 3. Agree with yourself that you will write until the entire page is covered in symbols, thoughts, ideas, and cognitions.

Step 4. Start writing.

Note: It’s okay to deviate and let yourself loose. In fact, it’s probably good if you deviate. This is an inherently divergent form of writing, where you start closed off, focused on one topic, and open up as you go. You’ll probably find yourself tempted to write another blank page after this if you have time. Self-inquiry can get pretty compelling if you’re being honest with yourself. We’ll have plenty of time to get specific in…

Exercise 2: Dialectical Reasoning.

Now we’re going to split you into two people! Don’t be afraid. Everyone is multiple people. We are in-fact multifaceted: we contain multitudes. If you’re cool with that, cool!

If you’re not, read some neuroscience, Plato’s Republic on the tripartite soul, some psycho-analysis, meditate more, and/or read more Whitman. Or do this exercise. That’s what it’s designed to show you. This video by CGP Grey is also good for convincing you.

Often, it is our primary perspective that can block us from finding a solution to our problems. If your perspective was so fancy and useful, how comes it didn’t stop you from getting in this mess, huh?

One way to think outside the box is to think outside your own skull. This is the functional root at the base of Peterson’s advice to ‘treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.’

To illustrate a way of writing that you probably haven’t tried before, let’s tell a story:

(Note: I wrote all the parts. Don’t be fooled.)

Part 1.

Q. I wonder what this section of the essay is going to be about.

A. It’s going to be about splitting yourself into two beings, and using them to speak to each other!

Q. How could people possibly do that?

A. Well, it’s really not that hard to do that. We’re doing it right now?

Q. Who do you mean we?

A. I mean me. Get it?

Reader: Yes, I get it.

Part 2.

This brings me to the next useful tool in dialectical reasoning. Naming your characters!

I like to use Latin or Greek-sounding names, cause it makes me feel like a Classical/Hellenistic philosopher. Which makes me feel fancy. Which makes it easier, I guess.

It also helps them develop personalities that aren’t you. Which means you can acknowledge implicit beliefs that you might not be able to under your primary persona. Engaging with one’s subpsychic parts is a historically Jungian idea, but the technique has definitely been appropriated by the therapeutic community at large, and with good reason.

Quintus: Is there something essentially Greek or Latin about this process?

Antoninus: Absolutely not. That would be ridiculous. However, what it does do is allow the person writing us into existence right now to examine possible positions without endorsing them explicitly.

Quintus: So you’re saying that it allows him to sneak ideas past his psychic censor?

Antoninus: Precisely! Which, as you well know, can sort of get in the way of realizing wisdom. Have you ever heard of the Solomon Technique? It’s an insight generation tool. By imagining yourself from the third person, you can see solutions to your problems that you couldn’t see from within your own perspective.

Quintus: That sounds like Peterson’s injunction to ‘treat yourself like someone you’re responsible for helping.’

Antoninus: It’s similar. The human super-ego is a real shit-heel, and it gets in the way of proper cognition. Perspective-taking is the key. Remember Quintus, as Aristotle says, it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain an idea without accepting it.

Quintus: So you’re saying the reader should bear tools like us in mind for his/her own self-inquiry work?

Antoninus: Precisely. But, they should certainly bear in mind that we have spent the majority of this conversation agreeing with each other, and that while your summarization has certainly helped me get my ideas across, that it can also be very useful to position your dialectical characters on opposite ends of an argument, to get a perspective on how that argument really works.

Quintus: Bearing in mind of course, Antoninus, that if you make yourself overly-critical to your own intuitions and position, then you’re likely to end up spirally into nihilism.

Antoninus: An effective counter-point, which also perfectly illustrated my own point.

Quintus: That’s real dialogue right there, baby.

Antoninus: Agreed!

For more examples of this sort of writing, read anything by Plato. I especially like Meno and the Sophist. Three Dialogues by Berkeley is also a good example. Or — and here it comes — you might want to read some of my own dialogues.


Once you think you have got to grips with this form of writing, try Exercise One, but instead of writing it from one voice, try writing it from two voices.

You will be surprised by what you discover.

Also, apply the insights you derive from Exercise One to attempts at Exercise Two. When you discover a question that you can’t get either of your voices to answer by writing an essay in Exercise Two, take that question and do an Exercise One on it.

Ultimately, these exercises are designed as spiritual practices. That means you will benefit from applying them with some sort of regularity. I’m not going to give you advice on forming a schedule.

If you have problems sticking to a schedule, try writing a self-inquiry with the question ‘Why do I have hard time sticking to a schedule?’

That would probably help. But remember, be honest with yourself. Or whoever else you invent.

One final note: while I’ve presented these techniques in a context of self-inquiry, the process is also useful if you want to work on your fluency of understanding for most subjects, or at least any subject where a good discussion on it makes you better at it.

For example: you might write an Exercise One on the sum of your knowledge on a subject, do an Exercise Two to discover your weak points, then go study some more and repeat the process.

I’d be keen to hear people’s experience with these exercises, so do please find a way to let me know if they were useful for you.

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