Changing the world by changing myself first.
An interview with Tan Hwee-Meng, Founder of the School of Inner Work
What is Inner Work?
Inner Work is the transformational work you do:
To express your highest qualities: Love. Power. Strength. Will. Understanding. Peace. Patience.
To be the best version of yourself.
To grow from being a childish, egocentric personality to being a spiritually, mature adult.
To bring forth your gifts and talents.
You must consciously choose to embark on this path of awakening. No one can take this journey for you. NO ONE! You must make your own commitment to manifest your personal best.
I urge everyone to take this leap of inner evolution. To be the best version of ourselves. To create a better world.
What we do with our lives can make a difference as to whether our planet grows or dies.
You use the term, spiritually mature adult? Can you explain what that means?
I 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 selves are 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.
We may 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 throwing tantrums is a childish reaction to not having your own way.
Immature patterns of behavior sabotage your chance of personal happiness and success in life. 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, NLP, motivational programs, relationship counseling, 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?
Spiritual studies are an integral part of Inner Work because they remind us of the deeper dimensions of our being, our spiritual nature. If you see yourself only as the ego personality in a human body, it may be hard to deal with the fundamentals of human existence. Birth. Illness. Death. Pain. Suffering.
Who are you before you are born? Who are you after you died?
Spiritual practices help us transcend our human existence and our limited identification with the human body. To realize that we are spiritual beings in human bodies.
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 nature. 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.
Monitor yourself. Do you feel you are 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. 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 25 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 many forms of Inner Work to cater for 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.
Inner Work helped me live more fully and more authentically in my life. When I began my inner journey, I wanted to runaway 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. I stopped trying so hard to fight myself. I have greater inner peace.
I can relax more deeply into my life. 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 halfway across the world and live half my life to learn this lesson.
Another wonderful gift of Inner Work has been 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. I have the courage to love others and myself. I slowly learned that people are what matters most. Not success, fame or fortune.
I have 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. I like myself so much more.
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 soulful 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. Change yourself first. Work on yourself. I have practiced this principle over 3 decades now.
My life has really changed. I have more loving relationships. I am able to be a source of support for many people.
Can we do Inner Work by ourselves?
As a rule, it is difficult to practice Inner Work alone. 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 were. It is important to heal in the non-judgmental and loving eyes of another human being.
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. Girls should not be bold and brave.
The 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 kept holding back her natural aliveness and her adventurous personality. In the non-judgmental space of a SIW session, I told her that it was okay to laugh out loud and 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 like the saying that fish cannot see water. 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.
Thirdly, 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 programming. 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, 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 who valued the benefits of 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?
- If you were to die right now: