Asking the right questions

The answer is implicit in the question. If the answers are elusive, I’m not asking the right questions.

Recently I have pondered several major decisions. Friends and colleagues had strong opinions on the course of action I should take, and each lobbied hard for their preferred course of action. I needed a sounding board, I thought; choices that had seemed clear and obvious earlier were becoming less so. And in a moment of insight I realized that if the answers I sought were so elusive, I must be asking the wrong questions.

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The issue of asking the right questions first arose for me a few months ago, as a friend began to teach me to throw the I Ching. Questions intrigued me more than the answers. I wasn’t much good at understanding the answers anyway: My interpretations lacked skill and finesse; his were subtle and elegant. But the questions were something I could work with, scaffolding for the universe to guide me to understand my own intentions and intuition.

By framing narrow questions around the decisions that confronted me, I was framing correspondingly narrow choices. I didn’t have the right questions yet, I realized. But knowing that, I knew also that I wasn’t making the best possible decisions for myself and that without better questions, without a more sophisticated and nuanced framework for my choices, I wasn’t going to make the best choices for myself. So I made a firm decision: that I would not decide. Not yet.

Not deciding, in itself, is a decision, and some time-sensitive options would be closed off to me. Some, temporarily; others perhaps permanently. Other people would make decisions that would affect my universe of options. Those factors were beyond my control.

Tibetan Buddhism, which I have studied for nearly two decades, offers advice about how to understand a teaching. This advice comes in the form of the Four Reliances: rely on the teaching, not on the teacher; rely on the meaning, not just on the words; rely on the definitive meaning, not the provisional meaning; rely on the mind utilizing wisdom, rather than ordinary mind.

The Four Reliances could shift my perspective on questions, as well as inform my understanding of a Dharma teaching. To hone in on the essentials of a situation, and shift my focus away from the people and personalities involved. To move away from the superficial questions of whether a job/boyfriend/condo was right for me, toward the broader questions of the role of work, love, home and community in my life.

Moving from the provisional to the definitive, I shifted away from asking whether the situations were serving me, and questioned the motivations and impetus for change. Have I learned all of the lessons that I can learn from the current situation? Have I contributed everything that I can contribute? In the discomfort, is there a lesson I am trying to avoid?

And moving from ordinary to wisdom mind, Is it possible that I can transform the situation, rather than moving away from it to a new set of circumstances? Can I influence the play of dynamic energy?

Sometimes the answer to that is no. Sometimes we choose the easy way out.

And so I began to frame questions not in terms of the job market, how my resume will look, or what people will think if I am single or live in a small space. All of those issues reside in the category of the mundane, and while they are important and can’t be neglected, they are not essential.

I would make my decisions from the core essence of my being:

  • Am I acting in accord with my values and my stated purpose to transform suffering into love and joy?
  • Will this situation continue to provide me with opportunities to grow and to use my talents and abilities to the greatest extent possible?
  • Am I acting out of love or fear?
  • Can I accept what is unchangeable about the situation I am in?
  • Am I contributing to love and healing in the world?

Anything of value has a cost; aligning my questions with my values had a significant financial cost. It has also opened doors to doing more of the things I truly love.

The reframing made the direction more clear, but the path harder.

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Sometimes, in order to change the experiences of our lives, we have to change. Sometimes, factors external to us have to change. The key lies in distinguishing between the two, and understanding their interplay.

December 31, 2014

Atlanta, GA

© 2014 Teresa I. Sivillli. All rights reserved.