Field Notes

What is Inner Work For?

January 31, 2021 - 8 Comments


As you may be aware, Heesoon reviews the Field Notes before they are published and contributes editing and ideas. Upon reading some of her comments for my initial draft of this Field Note, I felt inspired,  thought that this would be a good opportunity for a dialogue between her and me, which is what follows here. And you, too, are invited to participate in this dialogue. So, feel free to pick up at any point and share with us your comments, thoughts, ideas, experiences, and questions.


What is Inner Work For?

Avraham: A long time ago I read, “there are no boring clients, only bored therapists.” I believe that this came from Sheldon Kopp who wrote a famous book about being a therapist, If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him. I think this, perhaps shocking, title has some application in most all relationships. What I take out of this is that fixating on the other person in the relationship, especially by attributing deficit qualities, is actually a way of avoiding our own part in the circumstance. If my friend, my partner, my student, is bored (unhappy and so on), how have I contributed to the relational dynamics that might have influenced the other to be as they seem to be? 


Heesoon: Indeed, we are such sensitive, responsive, and, most often, reactive, social animals. We get easily touched, affected, influenced, and impacted by others with whom we have relationship. But, often, what ends up happening is that we attribute the result of our sensitivity to the other person. For example, if you were to look at me in a certain way, I find myself very getting upset. I then label your look as mean, and create in my mind a direct causal link between your ‘mean look’ and my ‘upset.’ Thus, you are now the cause of my upset. However, in fact, you might have a headache, and your ‘look’ will have nothing much to do with me.


Avraham: Indeed! When I find myself drifting towards judging and labeling others, like, so-and-so is boring, or he or she is unhappy with me, I remind myself that this is a precious opportunity to engage in learning about myself. Where does my perception that the other is this or that way come from? Who and what in my life influenced me to see this other person that way?


Now, I am not suggesting that, whenever you find yourself upset in response to another person, the other person has done nothing to provoke your ire or angst. They may have done something inappropriate, disrespectful, or even threatening, and they should look into themselves and reflect, besides issuing an immediate apology and seeking to remediate. Typically, though, our ability to get the other to do such is often very limited, if not zero.


Heesoon: I want to go back to the example of finding oneself perceiving the other person as ‘boring,’ or whatever pejorative term is arising in consciousness. My guess is that if a person is in the practice of doing inner work ongoingly, building and cultivating an increasingly complex or rich inner worlds, such person just wouldn’t be seeing in our minds and describing in words the world and others in this externalized and labeling way like, so-and-so is boring, annoying, stupid, and so on. Don’t you think so?


Avraham: Yes, I do think so. Inner world and outer world increasingly correspond or, you might say, co-respond, and there is a great possibility for a fine-grained experience of attunement. To a person with a rich inner world life, the outer world, including other people, appears in a rich and complex way. And since one does not really know what another person’s inner world is like, one’s first response could be curiosity, not boredom. With curiosity comes, often, an associated inner framework that is ethical and generative. Of course, having such a framework as point of reference is, realistically speaking, the outcome of development: a process of uncovering, under the gaze of consciousness, what framework and associated sub-identity has been created for reasons of survival adaption. This process can continue into rediscovering and reinhabiting the core intention that resides there and that can be cultivated and facilitated to grow towards one’s true nature—indeed, their most human nature. In this vein, a central feature of inner work is the recognition that each of us, should we undertake inner work, will have a different way of exploring our inner worlds and doing what is wanted/needed in that domain and in the way that fits.


Heesoon: That makes total sense. If I am not doing my uniquely “Heesoon” inner work, then it can’t be my inner work, can it? By the same token, as an outsider, I can do things for others, but I cannot do their inner work. However, I may well have opportunity to facilitate and support their inner work. Still, questions arise for me, and I find them challenging to answer. How would I know that the inner work that I am doing in the moment is “what is wanted/needed in that domain, and in the way that fits [the domain]? To begin with, how would I recognize the domain in which I’m doing my inner work? And how do I know that the inner work I’m doing fits the domain?  


Avraham: I really appreciate your questions. To me, your questions point to a central idea about life and inner work: namely, the experimental and research-like nature of inner work on how to live life, individually, relationally, and collectively, and in accordance with the ongoingly unfolding of what is. Inner Work is an imaginative and rich process that provides opportunity to grow an aspect of yourself, to grow your creative and generative abilities, to stretch towards your optimal nature, and to learn from any so-called mistakes. It is my growing conviction that our human life on the earth is about engaging with this inquiry and preparing ourselves increasingly to be more open and clearer so as to engage fully and richly with everyday life. Each of us may only be a very small ripple on the bigger surface of life, but we can each be surely that potential ripple creator. And, to respond to your inquiry about ‘fit,’ the opportunity for a rich dialogue is present when one or the other person perceives a non-fit, and expresses this in an engaging, curious, and warm-hearted way.


Heesoon: Wow, that’s quite the vision, Avraham! I like your hopeful and sincere vision. Not only do I like it but I also do think your vision is based on deep insight into what it is to be, to live, and to grow as a human. Because, historically speaking, the vocabulary of “human nature” has been tainted for so long with the meaning of something dark and nasty, brutal and destructive, as well as something innate that thinking and progressive people wanted to move away from talking about ‘human nature’ altogether. I myself thought it quite unusual that you would frequently invoke ‘human nature’ when you strongly believe in the malleability of human thinking and perceiving. I’m now coming around to understanding your usage of ‘human nature.’ There are, come to think of it, two reasons for my coming around. One is due to my psychological or psychotherapeutic studies that I have undertaken formally in the past ten years (under your influence, of course!). I came to see that the Hobbesian depiction of a dark and nasty part of human nature is really about the wounding of the human psyche in the developing egoic structures especially in childhood. There is nothing inevitable, inherent, and innate about the construction of the dark and nasty. The other is, interestingly enough, my rediscovery and appreciation of the Confucian concept of ‘Li’(禮) that can be roughly translated into ‘law,’ ‘logic,’ or ‘nature.’ Confucius taught that the universe, human and more-than-human, followed this Li. I won’t go into the extensive and difficult philosophical scholarship around all this, which would include comments about the Dao in Daoist philosophy as well. Another time!


Avraham: I look forward to that ‘another time!’ I appreciate your revised view of the Hobbesian perspective about life being ‘short, brutish, and cruel.’ Isn’t this why both you and I are interested in education? If humans were innately brutal and destructive, even if only partially, it would be futile to try to educate humans to be otherwise. We can at best contain and discourage, even if forcefully, the destructive side. But we can do better. As an educator-therapist and a therapeutic educator who has an understanding of how psychic wounding, if unaddressed and continually exacerbated, can lead to utterly horrifying destructiveness, I try to teach, by showing and modelling, how to heal the wound and learn to live according to the Li. I have spent my entire life, healing myself, helping others to heal, and studying myself within the context of life and in the service of optimizing my beingness.


Heesoon: Well-said, Avraham! It, too, is my growing conviction that, to be educators and psychotherapists today, at this moment in time, we can honour and take the opportunity to move towards a more enlightened way of being. This does not mean that teachers stop teaching math and science, reading and writing. Of course not. But the primary responsibility of being teachers is to lead humanity on this course of reclaiming the human nature prior to wounding. Of course, I am aware that many educators think that ‘teaching’ the human dimension and caring for it, is not the job of educators. To me, such view is uninformed, and even, reckless.


Avraham: The human wounding and the human potential come into all classrooms. Ignoring it is akin to ignoring a river that is about to over-run its banks. There are huge, imagined and actual destructive consequences. However, I don’t want to be misunderstood here. I don’t have the view that the wounded selves that inhabit each of us are to be supressed and eradicated. Rather, they are to be experientially known and helped to grow, and to develop the inner and outer relationships that are so clearly, and I might add, desperately, needed.


Heesoon: Interestingly, the Zen folks did talk about the original face: the face before you were born or even, before your parents were born! The meaning is also becoming clear to me: the original face is one before the conditioning and wounding takes place. But then, since life is inevitably about wounding and conditioning, there is just this full acceptance of the reality of wounding and healing that must go on fully and continually, every day, every moment. The word, ‘revolution,’ comes to have an insightful, and increasingly deeper, meaning to me now. It’s about every day revolving around wounding and healing and growing stronger and psychically and spiritually bigger . . . as big as the universe, meaning we become one with reality. To me, that’s the big story of education.


Avraham: Thanks, Heesoon, for sharing your deepening understanding of these precious concepts. I join your understanding and add a note that growing a culture of deep knowing, care, and aliveness is core to education and psychotherapy. I see psychotherapy as a deeply educational process. This process requires each of us to make our share of the contribution through our own inner and relational work, and to learn increasingly to feel and express the joy of aliveness that accompanies our endeavours.


I have recently become aware of the Japanese word, furyu, from reading the writing of Wayne Muromoto who wrote the forward to H.E. Davey’s book, Living the Japanese Arts and Ways: 45 Paths to Meditation and Beauty. Muromoto said to his teacher, Ono Sensei: “[Furyu] is a literary concept used by the Heian courtiers of Kyoto… but I could never grasp what it meant. It was a very complex term.” His teacher, Ono Sensei, replied: “Not really. Furyu—wind and flowing water.” When I read this passage, I was immediately struck by a felt-sense, accompanied by images, that life is full of change and that this change is like water and the wind, and that our task is to become so unified with the nature of being that we are simply a part of changes, expected and unexpected, wanted and not wanted. Such a way of being allows us to live fully in the world and to contribute as fits within the moments and the context.


Our ongoing Inner Work is central to our being at one with the wind and flowing water.


Heesoon: Wonderful!


Avraham: Shalom!



Heesoon Bai, Ph.D., is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC). She has a small private practice. She can be reached at:



  • Karen Hoshino February 1, 2021 at 8:27 pm

    Thanks for this, Avi and Heesoon! I am intrigued by the Japanese term, furyu and am going to explore it in more detail.

    • Avraham Cohen February 2, 2021 at 1:02 pm

      Hi Karen, thanks for joining in on the conversation. We were both intrigued by this term, as well. It would be great to hear more about your explorations.
      warm wishes, Avraham & Heesoon

  • Roberta Borgen (Neault) February 1, 2021 at 9:07 pm

    I really appreciated you letting us listen in on your conversation, Avraham and Heesoon. What a lovely teaching/mentoring tool!

    • Avraham Cohen February 2, 2021 at 1:00 pm

      Hi Roberta, thank you and welcome to the conversation…
      warm wishes, Avraham and Heesoon

  • Avraham Cohen February 2, 2021 at 1:03 pm

    A comment from Glen Grigg:
    Beautiful dialogue—and connected to a theme that has been moving through my life, which seems to be connections that can be drawn with the Li, the Dao, the Buddhist concept of karma as orderly causation based on conditions, and the Stoic concept of Nature in the sense of an orderly world in which reason can give us access to the how phenomena relate. Your dialogue reminds me of how each of us has, uniquely and at the same time universally, a subjective view of the events that enter our circle of awareness, and hence so much challenge with desires, fears, and ignorance.



    • Avraham Cohen February 4, 2021 at 12:37 pm

      Thank you Glen! I think you have definitely caught the essence of our Field Note. I am reminded of David Wallin’s comment that I really liked. In essence he said, subjectivity is not a question. We are subjective beings. The important question is whether we are conscious of our subjectivity. I would add that this awareness is potentially overall, and particularly in the moment as we are responding to something or someone. This, of course, is increasingly challenging as the effect on us has increasingly large somatic and emotional effects.
      best wishes,
      Avraham & Heesoon

      and now a further addition/comment from Heesoon:

      “Beautiful dialogue—and connected to a theme that has been moving through my life, which seems to be connections that can be drawn with the Li, the Dao, the Buddhist concept of karma as orderly causation based on conditions I am so glad that you see this! Exactly! Although this causation is not the linear kind but more like the “mutual” kind that Joanna Macy, the Buddhist scholar and activist termed. She uses the language of systems theory to explore and express her understanding of the Buddhst worldview in MUTUAL CAUSALITY IN BUDDHISM AND GENERAL SYSTEMS THEORY. It’s a wonderful read! And the Stoic concept of Nature in the sense of an orderly world in which reason can give us access to the how phenomena relate Ah, yes . . . I am not as up on Stoicism as I am on Asian Phil, but I do remember now that point about Stoicism. In fact, now, come to think of it, perhaps Stoic’s cardinal virtue of ataraxia (tranquility) may be related to the Buddhist ‘virtue’ (one of the Four Immeasurables) of equanimity (Uppeka) because of their sharing of the ontological/metaphysical view of causality?. Your dialogue reminds me of how each of us has, uniquely and at the same time universally exactly! simultaneously!, have a subjective view of the events that enter our circle of awareness, and hence so much challenge with desires, fears, and ignorance exactly . . . the ‘remedy’ or ‘correction’ to this ‘error’ from the viewpoint of these wisdom philosophies would be that we place and see what arises in the subjective dimension (desires, fears, ignorance…) in the larger totality of Li, Dao, and Karma. The exercise is not that we humans actually know what’s going on in the Li-Dao-Karma Field. But, more than anything, having this perspective, attitude, and approach ‘saves’ us from the usual suffering-ridden melodrama with which we become ensnared/entangled. As a bonus, we may get helpful insights that can actually address and redress the particular challenges and suffering we are confronted with.”

  • Hamid February 3, 2021 at 11:04 am

    Very nice to hear your voices in dialogue
    Feels like a beautiful duet

    • Avraham Cohen February 4, 2021 at 12:33 pm

      thank you Hamid! and Thanks for bringing your voice in, as harmony…
      warm regards,
      Avraham and Heesoon


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