Learn To Love The Questions
I’ve always had an attachment to having all the answers. As a child, I sought safety in being overly-capable, and making sense of my environment by creating explanations that reduced the confusion. My academic life was the only thing that came easily to me: blessed with a good memory, all I had to do was learn the ‘right’ answers. The few times at school that I tried asking questions, I was labelled as insolent. Later, in my professional life, I carried a compulsive need to prove myself by having all the answers, terrified of the shame of admitting ‘I don’t know’.
But I think I’m growing out of needing to have all the answers. And growing into embracing the questions.
This is definitely a growth area for me, and I slip into the habit of ‘having all the answers’ quite often. But now I’m aware of that habit. And from that awareness, I trust that change will emerge.
I think that asking questions is also what brings many people to the practice of mindfulness. When we’ve spent our whole life trying to tick the boxes that are supposed to make us happy – and find that it’s not working – we start to question the received wisdom of our culture. And this questioning opens the door to new possibilities.
So I’ve been pondering – when we don’t have all the answers, what do we make room for? A few things that can fill that space are:
When I don’t have all the answers, I’m not caught in the role of playing the expert. I can listen properly to other people, and appreciate the wisdom that other perspectives offer. It’s harder to access this wisdom when we’re caught in the heroism of compulsive problem-solving.
We’ve come to fear uncertainty and the unknown, but what if we embraced the mystery of not-knowing? As the saying goes, ‘Life isn’t a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived’*. Being with uncertainty, without freaking out, is a really valuable skill for the times we’re living in.
Of other people, just as they are, even if they make different choices to ours. Acceptance of ourselves, just as we are, even when we don’t have life all figured out. Compassion, rather than judgement, helps us to grow. A flexible, creative viewpoint gives us the ability to see something from a new perspective. But thinking we have the answers already can keep us stuck in habitual, limited responses.
This is a tricky one to open to, but I recognise that appearing to have all the answers, or to be ‘right’ can be a way to avoid feeling vulnerable. The only way I know to meet this vulnerability is with self-kindness. When I do that, I’m free to open up the space to learn – from others, and from the earth we inhabit. I’m able to admit ‘I don’t know’, and share a space of exploration and unfolding with others. I can even ask for help, instead of trying to do things all by myself. It’s my belief that we’ll need these experiences of inter-dependence as we navigate the environmental challenges we face.
As the famous Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki said, “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s, there are few”. This is an articulation of the mindfulness skill known as ‘beginners mind’. As we deliberately cultivate curiosity, we find a playfulness that leads us to learning and discovery. There is no ‘expert’ in a mindful space. We don’t need to have all the answers, or look for someone who does. We can trust in something bigger than ourselves, and let go of trying to control outcomes.
Really Good Questions
We might not have all the answers, and maybe we don’t need to. Maybe what we need are the questions. I’ll leave you with the wise words of Rilke on this (which inspired the title of this post).
*This quote is attributed to various people, usually Soren Kierkegaard. If anyone has a definitive source, I’d be interested to know.