Changing The World By Changing Myself First
An Interview With Tan Hwee-Meng, Director Of The School Of Inner Work
What is Inner Work?
In the broadest sense of the word, Inner Work can be applied to any transformational work that we do to express our highest qualities such as love, power, strength, will, understanding, peace and patience.
I remember one of my teachers’ remarking that if a wise sage were to tell him that doing headstands whilst singing the national anthem for a year would make him wise, he would gladly do it. Well, if that process were to transform me into a wise person, I would consider it to be a form of inner work!
Inner Work is the inner growth from being a childish egocentric personality to being a spiritually mature adult. Each of us must consciously choose to embark on this path of awakening. No one can take this journey for us. NO ONE! Each of us must make our own commitment to manifest our personal best. I urge each of us to take this leap.
We are living in a time of the most extensive and rapid change in human history. What we do with our lives can make a difference as to whether our planet grow or die. More than ever, we need to bring forth our inner gifts and strengths to create a better world.
You use the term, spiritually mature adult? Can you explain what that means?
You can split the term into 2 concepts; a spiritual adult and a mature adult.
Let us talk about a mature adult. We erroneously assume that just because our physical bodies have grown to full maturity that our psychological self is also mature. This is rarely the case. Having an adult body is no guarantee that we have an adult mind, adult emotions and adult behaviors. Unless we do the inner work to grow psychologically, many of us still have incredibly childish responses to life or we act like immature teenagers. For instance, you may have met adults who throw tantrums, sulk or throw things on the ground when they don’t get their way. That may be age-appropriate behavior for a 2 year old but it is an immature reaction to not having your own way.
Immature patterns of behavior sabotage your chance of personal happiness and success in life. So, if you cannot cope with life effectively, if you are unable to create intimacy in relationships, if you do not know how to pursue your dreams and goals, or if you are overwhelmed by your negative emotions like low self-esteem, anger, jealousy and hatred, I recommend that you do the inner work to grow psychologically into a healthy, functional and mature adult. Personal growth programs like inner child healing, communication skills, assertiveness training, Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), motivational programs, relationship counseling, or any program that teaches you self-responsibility and self-esteem are appropriate types of inner work. I also really recommend the book, How to be An Adult by David Richo.
I want to share one of the most useful advice I have ever received. Whatever problem in life you are facing now, whether it is financial, sexual, relationship, career, life direction or parenting, you are not alone. Someone else on this planet has met with the same problem and has dealt with it effectively. Reach out and ask for help. Be willing to learn and grow. One of the most erroneous beliefs that holds you back in life is when you think you are the only one with your problems. YOU ARE NOT.
So, what about spiritual adult?
This part of you has to do with the mystery of your being. Who are you before you are born? Who are you after you have died? What is the meaning of life?
In this path of inner work that I teach, there is recognition that we are spiritual beings living in a human body. Who we are is not just our human personality. We are spiritual beings as well.
If we see ourselves as only the ego personality in a human body, it is hard to cope with the fundamentals of human existence such as birth, illness and death. In life, there is always suffering. We must find some way or some practice that help us transcend our human existence and our limited identification with the human body. Spiritual practices and spiritual studies are an integral part of inner work because they help remind us of the deeper dimension of our being – our spiritual nature. Our spiritual nature is in fact who we really are.
To be a spiritually mature adult is to walk between 2 worlds, the world of heaven and earth?
Yes. We recognize our inner divinity as well as honor our human incarnation. In the school, 2 sets of skills are taught. The first deals with how to live on this earth plane and the other helps us connect more deeply with our spiritual being. Both sets of skills are essential to reclaim our wholeness.
Can you name and recommend any particular form of inner work?
In today’s world, we are very blessed to have access to such a broad and deep range of Inner Work, drawn from many modern and ancient masters from around the world.
There are psychotherapeutic approaches such as Gestalt therapy, spiritual approaches such as the yogic path or meditation, body-centered approaches such as Core Energetics, energetic approaches such as breathwork… the list is endless.
In the School of Inner Work, I have gathered tools and resources from many disciplines and schools of thought that I have found effective for healing and transformation. However, it does not really matter what kind of inner work you do as long as you have a practice or a discipline that helps you become a better and freer person in life.
Just watch your process. Do you feel your life and yourself opening up more and more? If that form of inner work is right for you, there will be a sense of expansion, of being freer and lighter over time. However if your practice is causing you to be more judgmental and rigid and you have a sense of contracting more deeply into fear and paranoia, you may wish to check if that practice is still right for you.
For example, meditation is a great inner work practice. I have seen some meditators that have meditated for decades and instead of becoming more spacious and at peace with life, they have unresolved anger and hatred in their relationships. Another great inner work practice is to see a therapist to heal your relationships with your family of origin. However, if you have spent 15 years dealing with your childhood issues and your life is still deeply overshadowed by your relationship with your Mother, then, you may want to consider changing your inner work practice or adding another type of practice such as forgiveness practice.
There are so many forms of Inner Work to cater for the many different temperaments as well as stages of inner development. It is crucial to understand that you may need different types of inner work at different stages in your life. You really need to develop your own path and not to copy anyone else.
Ultimately, inner work is about becoming a fully conscious and awake human being. Whatever discipline takes you into a deeper place of peace, inner knowing, wisdom and open-heartedness is great. Whatever helps you manifest your highest potential in this life is wonderful.
How has inner work changed your life?
Inner Work has made me who I am today. Let me share one example.
Doing inner work has helped me to live more fully and more authentically in my life. When I began my inner journey, I wanted to run away from my life. I was always fantasizing I was someone else or I was somewhere else. I felt that my life was a total disappointment; mediocre and boring. I was also a bitter person, constantly wishing that my life could have been different.
After travelling thousands of miles to study with spiritual teachers, wise masters and anyone who has any answer on how to transform myself, this long journey has led me back home to myself. Letting go of the need to be somebody else, go someplace else and have something else have helped me to embrace my life more fully. The inner knowing that who I am right now is okay and where I am in my journey is perfect for me right now, has calmed a lot of my inner struggles and demons. Even the struggles and the difficult times are meant to be and so, I can stop trying so hard to fight myself and my process. I have greater inner peace.
I can relax more deeply into my life and I delight in the preciousness of each moment. The joy of seeing someone I love sitting across me, the warmth of the sun at the back of my neck, the smell of freshly baked bread and the singing of birds – how rich and exquisite the ordinary moments of life are. I sometimes laugh because I had to travel half way across the world and live half my life to learn this lesson.
Another wonderful gift of Inner Work has been to the opening and awakening of my heart. It has become much easier for me to express my deepest feelings for people that I care about and to have the courage to love others and myself. I have slowly learned that people are what matters most, not success, fame or fortune.
I have just become a kinder, more patient and understanding person. Perhaps many people would think, “What is the big deal?” But these values are important to me, or rather, they have become important to me. Being kind, patient and understanding may not bring huge recognition in our culture but guess what? I am a happier person because of these qualities.
What inspired you to create the School of Inner Work?
Our traditional way of schooling may prepare us well for our careers but it is completely inadequate to prepare us for life. There is a real need for alternative lifelong education if we really want to take responsibility for our own happiness and wellbeing.
My own joy and contentment have been the fruits of a commitment to lifelong learning with personal and spiritual growth teachers. I am enormously grateful for their wisdom and love. I wanted to share what has excited me and what has worked for me, hoping that someone else may find what I have learned to be useful.
My vision is to create an environment where people could feel safe and supported to be true to themselves and at the same time, learn skills to create a life that is in alignment with their deepest values and most secret dreams.
When I was young, I was very moved by this poem.
When I was young and free and my imagination had no limits,
I dreamed of changing the world;
As I grew older and wiser, I realized the world would not change.
And I decided to shorten my sights somewhat
and change only my country.
But it too seemed immovable.
As I entered my twilight years, in one last desperate attempt,
I sought to change only my family, those closest to me,
but alas they would have none of it.
And now I lie on my death bed
And realize (perhaps for the first time) that
if only I’d changed myself first,
then by example, I may have influenced my family
and with their encouragement and support
I may have bettered my country,
and who knows I may have changed the world.
Written on the tomb of an Anglican Bishop
I really believe that if you want to make a difference in the world, it is important to start with yourself first. Change yourself first. Work on yourself first. I have practiced this principle over 2 decades now and my life has really changed. I have more loving relationships and I am able to be a source of support for many people.
Can we do inner work by ourselves?
That really depends on where you are in your development. Unless you are enlightened, I think, it is better to work on yourself in the company of others. Spiritual teachers have always taught the value of spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood.
Firstly, a lot of our pain, shame and self-hatred originated in relationship to other people. Most of us were shamed by our elders in the process of growing up. We may have been judged, ridiculed or shamed for being who we are. It is important to heal in the non-judgemental and loving eyes of another human being.
Let me give you an example. One of my clients had a very lively, curious and passionate personality. As a child, she was told that girls should not laugh so loud, girls should not ask too many questions and girls should be shy. This part of her that is full of curiosity and energy about life felt so ashamed and went into hiding. She carried the belief that there was something unfeminine and unattractive about herself for a long time. She had to keep holding back her natural aliveness and her adventurous personality. In an inner work process, I told her that it was okay to laugh out loud and to be bold and adventurous. A huge relief went through her body. It was a homecoming. A lost part of her came home to herself.
Secondly, it is easy to delude ourselves about our progress. We are often the last person to see our faults and dysfunctional patterns. It is something like the saying that a fish cannot see the ocean it lives in. It is hard to see ourselves. That is why working with another person or a group of people is important, especially in the early stages of inner work.
Also, humans tend to progress faster with support. There is a great story about Hakuin, a great Zen master most famous for his riddle, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” His friend and he pledged to meditate 7 days and 7 nights without sleep. So great were their commitment to enlightenment. They vowed that should one of them sleep, the other will hit the sleeping one with a great, big stick! Well, neither one had the occasion to reach for that stick. They both fulfilled their commitment. This is the value of community.
Is there anything we can do to start our inner work right now?
Absolutely. Self-reflection is an important skill to cultivate. Most of us just move through life. If you want a life that matters to you, if you want to make a difference in your life, you must pause and review your life periodically. Otherwise, we are no better than machines running on automatic conditioning and behavior. We all long to have a better life but unless we learn to study and know ourselves, we do not even know what parts of us need changing. Honesty with the self is a prerequisite to growth. There is a great exercise called Life Review from the School of Inner Work that I want to share. Just as you may go for health check ups or send your car in for a tune up, well, this is the check up for your life, to see if your life is going where you want it to go. It is a great idea to do this exercise periodically.
Honor yourself by setting aside some time for your life. You are following the footsteps of the wise ones in our culture who have valued the benefits that come from contemplation.
THE LIFE REVIEW EXERCISE
This is an opportunity to deepen your reflection on your life. This is not an intellectual exercise. Nor is this about your aspirations, hopes and dreams. This is an opportunity for you to reflect on your life AS YOU HAVE LIVED IT, clearly and honestly. It is important to find a comfortable, quiet and private place to sit. Let your mind relax and use this time to connect to your deepest thoughts and feelings. Write your answers in a private journal which is for your eyes only. Tell yourself the truth with great compassion. Truth is painful and liberating at the same time. Always have great compassion for yourself when you embark on your own inner work.
- How old are you? What do you look like? How do you feel about your body?
- Where do you live? Who do you live with?
- What is happening in your life right now?
- How do you spend most of your time?
- What are your predominant feelings? Fears? Sadness? Anger? Worries? Happiness?
- What are your joys and pleasures? What do you take delight in?
- What are your relationships like with your family and friends?
- What would you like to ask forgiveness for? Who do you need to forgive?
- What have been your successes? Which accomplishments would you be most proud?
- What have been your failures? What are your deepest heartaches? Your regrets and disappointments?
- What are your strengths and weaknesses?
- What lessons have you learned? What lessons have you failed in learning?
- What is your relationship to your God/Spirit/Religion?
- As you reflect on your life, what is most important to you?
- What is your gift to your family, your community, this world?
- If you were to die right now;
- What would you like to be most remembered for?
- What final message would you leave for those who would gather to remember you?
- If you had your life to live all over again, would anything be different?
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