Ever find yourself asking questions about who you are and what you should be doing? Do you feel like the answers are out there somewhere? Are the answers more important to you than the questions themselves?
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke has this advice:
Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answers.
Notice that Rilke does not talk about asking questions. It feels to me that there is a big difference between ‘asking’ and ‘living’ the questions.
Asking… is it more about a want or a need? I do tend to find chewy questions, asking myself over and over again what I should be doing. The problem is that I am engaging only the intellect, not the senses and the body. Simultaneously I am expecting that the confused intellect doing the asking can also find the answers!
Living the questions feels more to me like a process, like becoming the question itself. Is that possible? It sounds a bit like going on a quest, in which the trials and experiences become the teachers and the prize itself is unimportant.
So are the answers that important? Are we too het up on the answers in the West?
Guy Claxton and Bill Lucas in their book Be Creative actually encourage their readers to not know stuff. They recommend practising saying “I don’t know” at least three times a day. They even advise dithering over choices more often! Guy Claxton is a professor of psychology, and he has found a correlation between creative genius and the ability to admit that you don’t actually know the answer.
Think about it. All the greatest inventors and scientists have had to ask questions, without knowing the answers. Their has led to their developing a new invention. But even then, they look for the next advancement. Mr Dyson is not resting on his laurels. He is searching for the next great vacuum cleaner, with even more advanced technology.
Within religion, we can find a similar approach to questions. Zen Buddhism is renowned for its ambiguous sayings. Many of their wisest words are laid out in philosophical riddles. For example:
When the task is done beforehand, then it is easy.
(Zen master Yuan-tong)
Not so straightforward, huh? Zen sayings always seem to require living with the question for a while, not seeking a quick fix. Masters often gave questions as answers to their students’ questions. The rationale in Zen is that in life, there are many ways of seeing one thing. A riddle allows for ambiguity, and therefore allows different ways of seeing to exist at one time.
It seems to me that it’s all about potential. Within everything in the universe, within every cell and atom is a limitless potential. Within an acorn is the potential to become a huge oak tree. Every seed asks the question, “Can I grow into a big tree, and bear fruit?” and still every day it grows. It grows and grows, asking the question, without looking to answer it.
If the seed asked, “Can I grow?” and answered “No”, it would stop growing. It would have limited its potential. If the seed asked, “Can I grow?” and answered “Yes”, it would keep growing, but with expectations. It would also have limited its potential. Expectations limit potential by pretending to glimpse the future. The seed cannot truly know whether it can grow or not.
When we ask intellectual questions, it is our ego that seeks to answer them. The ego wants to know, to be right. The ego hates to admit that it doesn’t know. The ego’s answers are limiting because it cannot know the future. When the ego answers a question with a definite answer, the fun of finding out is replaced by a ‘truth’ or a prediction. The potential of exploration through questioning, through finding different ways of looking, has now been limited as the ego pushes to prove its own answer. The ego, believing its perspective is right, will seek to find any other perspective wrong. This is the beginning of conflict and often ends in separation and destruction.
Can you forget the answers and the need to be right? Can you let open questions work their own magic? Can you develop the same patience as the seed that questions, but trusts that answers will come? Can you give yourself the huge freedom that is not having to know all the answers!
Click here to check out the full text of Rilke’s poem. It’s magic.