Living New Questions

Getty/Nuthawut Somsuk

Explore ways to shift the self-judging questions you're asking yourself into more compassionate ones that can help support healing.

Twenty-five years ago I wouldn’t show my poetic or prose dabblings even to a good friend. Since then, I’ve written six books, but I have noticed my ego-mind dogging me lately: “A few successes, all well and good, but when are you going to make the big time?” When I take the bait, this question hooks me into self-doubt, coulda-woulda-shoulda thinking, feelings of never-enoughness, and even shame.

Telling my ego mind to stop asking the question is not particularly effective. I’ve decided that whenever I hear the big time question, I will calmly acknowledge it and shift it to: “What will I choose to do with the little time I have left in this world?” This new question is remarkably helpful in refocusing my energy.

Big-time poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s most quoted words to Franz Kappus, a military officer and aspiring writer who wrote 10 letters to him between 1902 and 1908, are:

“I want to beg you, as well as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” (Letters to a Young Poet, 1929)

We are all consciously or unconsciously living questions, but do we ever question the questions we’re living? As we go from day to day and year to year trying to address our human longings, it’s easy to slide into living unhelpful, misleading, or even addicting questions that do not allow us to “live along some distant day into the answer.” A misleading question leaves us looping through endless attempts to answer it, all the while wondering what’s wrong with us instead of what’s wrong with the question.

To borrow an image from psychologist Steven Hayes, we approach our yearnings early in life the way a fish enters a fish trap. Our youthful questions, like the mouth of a fish trap, are wide and inviting. As our longings meet the real world, our questions can become narrower and narrower until we feel trapped in the life we’ve created. Poet Mary Oliver’s question, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?” can, after a few decades of swimming into the trap, become: “Tell me, how many more years can you tolerate this job before you retire and do what you really want to do with your life?”

We needn’t shame ourselves when we realize that misleading questions have structured our inner and outer lives. This happens not only to individuals but to couples, families, businesses, communities, religions, and nations. Management consultant Peter Drucker wrote: “The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The true dangerous thing is asking the wrong question.”

Why are we so prone to living misleading questions? Another big-time poet, Emily Dickinson, wrote of the “mutual monarchs” vying for power in her:

But since Myself – assault Me –
How have I peace
Except by subjugating
And since we’re Mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication –
Me – of Me?

The Monarch of Essence in us asks very different questions than the Monarch of Ego. The wise poet of Amherst counsels that if we want inner peace, one monarch must stand down to allow the other’s questions to shape and rule our lives.

One job of a psychotherapist is to question the questions the patient brings to therapy. It’s not that therapists always have the right questions, but at least they can see how narrow, misleading questions have left the patient feeling trapped. Here are ten common fish-trap questions I hear in psychotherapy and some possible new questions:

  • FISH-TRAP QUESTION: How do I get higher self-esteem?
    NEW QUESTION: How do I live with higher self-awareness?

  • FISH-TRAP: How can I manage my time to get more accomplished?
    NEW: How do I clarify my priorities to give more time to what’s most important?

  • FISH-TRAP: How do I get rid of my anxiety problem?
    NEW: Whenever I notice myself trying to fix anxiety about the future, can I come back to the present and fix my attention on taking small steps to enact my deepest values?

  • FISH TRAP: How rich do I need to get to feel secure?
    NEW: How, beyond meeting basic needs, can I focus more on being richly engaged in living with meaning and purpose?

  • FISH TRAP: Why can’t I find peace and happiness?
    NEW: What way of living is most likely to create peace and happi-ness as byproducts?

  • FISH TRAP (FOR COUPLES): How can we get back to that loving feeling?
    NEW: How can we go forward into a more soulful love by practicing deep listening, compassion, forgiveness, acceptance, shared dreaming, and affirmation?

  • FISH TRAP (FOR COUPLES): How can I get my partner to fulfill my needs?
    NEW: What kind of spiritual chemistry could we enjoy if we both let “Become the love you seek” be our guide?

  • FISH TRAP: How can I stop feeling so bad when I compare myself to others?
    NEW: Can I, without self-judgment, be aware of my habit of comparing and come back to gratitude for my incomparable essence?

  • FISH TRAP: Am I just broken beyond repair?
    NEW: Can I see myself as B&B (beautiful and broken) like kintsugi pottery?

  • FISH TRAP: Why can’t I just enjoy life and stop struggling?
    NEW: Can I serve others compassionately from the mix of joy and struggle that is my life?

This list is just a small sampling of the misleading questions that can narrow and distort how we try to address our human yearnings. The Monarch of Ego can generate an endless variety of these traps!

If you have questions about this column, you’re welcome to contact me, but you don’t really need to because the point is to live the questions now!

Ask no longer Am I loved?

Ask no longer Am I loved?
Let a new question guide you now.

Ask no longer Am I loved?
Let a new question guide you. Now
ask only Am I Love?

Ask no longer Am I loved?
Let a new question guide you. Now
ask only Am I Love to
all still asking “Am I loved?”

From Now is Where God Lives: A Year of Nested Meditations to Delight the Mind and Awaken the Soul © 2018 by Kevin Anderson

Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.

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Living New Questions

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