Do you ever wake up empty? I mean, do you first think versions of hollow questions like “what’s for breakfast?” or “Do I look fat in that shirt?” You know, questions that trigger, “ugh, another day, blah.”
Me too. “Ugh” questions don’t nudge us out of bed like poet Mary Oliver’s, ”What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I wonder about more courageous questions, ones for which we jump out of bed, “Yay! Another day!” Or maybe, a la Oliver, “Wild? How do I express wildness? What of my wild side seems lost? How can I find it? Precious? Who lives close to my heart, precious to me? How can I know the preciousness of life?”
When I wake up with “ugh” questions, like should-I-make-my-bed-now-later-or-never, I remind myself of Will, my first graduate school professor, who invited us to craft good questions. He urged us to hone our imaginations, to nurture our inner inquirers, to follow the breadcrumbs of “don’t know,” to become lifelong learners. He believed—no, knew—that in each of us live vast territories to explore. He asked, “What are you learning today? How are you stepping into your latest learning project?”
I never fully understood cultivating the conversation with what we didn’t know because I held other questions. What about my career? Do I have a five-year vision? Therapists, life coaches and financial planners ask such questions because these queries matter. Yet questions that consider how to live offer not so much a reach for answers, but rather summon creativity and curiosity, maybe a tending to the deeper callings of the heart. We take refuge in wonder. Answers change. Open questions don’t lead to simple answers: “Eat Cheerios. Wear the navy-blue shirt.” Open questions, if we listen and wait with patience, lead to surprise.
In Will’s class, I started to pose an unresolved something daily, something more expansive than “how did I get all these wrinkles?” Break-open questions showed up from my imagination or from books, words of friends or mentors, like these from mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield who noticed that people at the end of life often ask:
Have I lived fully?
Have I loved well?
Have I learned to let go?
Those are wow questions. To shine the light on powerful questions, keep one inquiry alive all day as a focal point, a way to direct thoughts and actions, a way to guide love and care for self and others:
Who in this world have I chosen who have also chosen me?
What guides me?
How do I let love in? How do I shrink from love?
What do I most need to feel most alive?
How do I lean into the day’s gifts?
Who am I when no one watches?
Where does simplicity lie in this moment?
What rises today as truly important?
Where does peace reside?
My question today: What inspires me? Can I turn toward it??
Maybe Rainer Maria Rilke said it best in 1903, In Letters to a Young Poet
… have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves… Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday, …you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
Yesterday a friend called for my thoughts on a looming decision. I gave the best advice I knew, “what questions are you asking?”