Are you asking the right question?

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[This is the transcript of a speech I gave this week.]

When I was about eight years old we were living in Evanston, Illinois, and I remember one day after playing with my girlfriends, I burst into the kitchen where my mother was cooking dinner, and said, ‘Mommy, mommy, where do babies come from?’

She stopped and turned off the burners, grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil and started drawing little diagrams with stick figures, explaining really fast in that way she had that could make my brain freeze up.

Finally she looked up at me with earnest hopefulness and said, “Understand?” I nodded yes, even though I had no clue what she had just told me. She looked relieved and said, ‘Oh good, sweetheart, I’m glad we had this talk. Now go wash up for dinner.” As I sped out of the kitchen I felt befuddled, but mainly frustrated because I still didn’t have the answer I needed to weigh in on my friends’ argument about whether you can just go a few blocks over to the Northwestern University Hospital to get a baby or if you have to take the El and go all the way into Chicago to get one.

Mothers! Oh well.

We humans are naturally inquisitive creatures. Asking questions is the way we come to understand the world around us, each other and ourselves. The survival of our species and the creation of our cultures, civilizations and technological advances — all of this began with someone somewhere asking how or why or what.

But as you can see from my childhood example, it’s really important to formulate your question in a way that gets the answer you’re looking for. Nowadays we are learning how to formulate better questions for fact-finding missions on the internet because otherwise we end up with pretty wild answers. So we are perfecting our abilities to ‘refine our search’.

When it comes to the more personal questions we use in our lives on a daily basis, we need to be sure they too are effective, not just autopilot things we say, which is often the case. Some questions can be downright destructive, yet we use them all the time.

For example, when something’s gone wrong at work or at home, instead of collaborating and asking ‘How can we resolve this?’ and ‘How can we assure that this doesn’t happen again?’ we are often more likely to reach for our handy pointer finger and take aim at everyone but ourselves, asking ‘Who can I blame for this?’ Unless this is a criminal investigation, that is generally an useless question that can destroy relationships, and is better left in its holster.

Another destructive question is ‘Why me?’ We ask this question when we are feeling vulnerable and victimized. The world is against us, it seems. But asking ‘Why me?’ just digs us deeper in the hole we’re in. It makes us feel even more isolated. It seems as if everyone else is frolicking happily in the meadow of life while we are stuck in a bog. Sure, logically we know that everyone has their burden to bear, but we can’t see that from this ‘Why me?’ perspective. And when we ask ‘Why me?’ we feel kind of mean-spirited for wishing that someone else was experiencing our miserable situation instead of us.

Noticing when we’re using these kinds of destructive questions, and letting go of them as much as possible, makes rooms for questions that really can make a difference in our lives.

I’ve been working with just such a question lately. When I notice that I’m stressed, worried, fearful or angry, I pause and ask myself, ‘What am I cultivating here?’

Just last night I woke up and found myself thinking about giving this speech today. I felt tense and stressed, so I said, ‘What am I cultivating here?’ And I could see that I was feeding and fueling nervousness and worry with stories about how long it’s been since I’ve given a formal speech. Sure, I’m speaking to groups informally on a regular basis, but a prepared timed speech seems so very different. Look how I’m stumbling as I practice. Oh, I’ll never get this right. Oh, I’ll make a fool of myself.

What am I cultivating here? See how that question shifts perspective? It’s not an ‘oh, woe is me’ kind of stance but an acknowledgment that even though perhaps this emotional turmoil may have been sparked by external circumstance, I am the one who is creating it now. This is not to blame myself for my feelings or to make them wrong. It’s just a way of seeing more clearly what’s actually happening.

What am I cultivating here? is a question that reminds me that I have the power to cultivate other qualities as well. I can cultivate compassion for myself, lost as I am in these feelings. I can cultivate ease in my body to release any pent up tension. I can cultivate spaciousness to hold all the emotional content, the stories, that gives me perspective. I recognize my power. I am not pushing anything away, I am making room for it all in a way that frees me to see it more clearly.

What am I cultivating here? is an important question, too, because these emotions impact others, not just ourselves. You know if you’re around an angry person or a nervous person that you feel that energy and are made uncomfortable by it, or maybe you catch it, like a virus. So our ability to see the power we have to impact not just our own lives but the lives of those around us is huge.

Asking ourselves what we are cultivating at any given moment helps us to clarify our intention in life, helps us to contribute in ways that are meaningful and helps us to find how to hold all that arises in our experience.

This is just one of many beneficial questions you might ask yourself.

We humans are naturally inquisitive, and our questions are the way we can either create a path of destruction or illuminate our life and the lives of those around us. So next time you find yourself asking a question, see if it’s the kind that will bring you the answer you seek.

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