Do you find yourself frustrated on your path to increased insight, balance or inner growth? Do you ask questions, but don’t seem to receive, or understand, or know what to do with the answers? Or do you get answers and follow up on them, only to find yourself walking in circles? If this is you, you might want to take a closer look at the questions you’re asking.
In life in general, and certainly when it comes to inner growth, asking the right question is key. In school, we learnt that our job was to get the answers right. Towards the end of it — hopefully — more and more of our own questions in certain areas might have been met with a “what do you think?”, encouraging us to hone our reasoning skills. But how are we faring trying to use the skills we acquired as adults, on the inner journey? And do they really work the same in this area, anyway?
The questions that lead us astray
Of course, there are multiple ways to screw up the questions we ask along the journey of discovering ourselves. After all, as adult and cognitively sophisticated human beings, most of us live to complicate things. And when it comes to the questions we pose on our way to increased wholeness, insight and understanding, there seem to be two ways we primarily mess up. Either, we ask for someone else to to our job for us, or we provide inadequate information for the answer to be of any real value. Asking the right question is a fine art indeed.
Wanting someone to do our job for us: “instant coffee” type questions
Another name for these kinds of questions might be “quick-fix” ones. Say I had an experience, and there’s an emotional reaction I can’t really make sense of. Then, rather than exploring this reaction, I intellectualise it and ask my therapist, teacher or guru what they think might be behind my reaction.
Of course, there’s a chance that the answer is obvious to this person. On the other hand, there’s an even better chance it’s not. After all, it’s my reaction, not theirs. And moreover, even if they know, and tell me — what good is that going to do? What will I make of this information? I can believe it or not, but that’s all in the intellectual realm. None that is going to address the actual issue, which is about something much deeper.
Even if they know, and tell me — what good is that going to do? I can believe it or not, but that’s all in the intellectual realm. None of that is going to address the actual issue.
This kind of question is the equivalent of the ones we might have posed in a chemistry class in school and been advised (and, if our teacher was any good, helped) to think a bit further. Only, in this adult inner growth setting, it’s not so much about thinking anymore (although it might be that sometimes, too). It’s more about letting stuff percolate. Sitting with experiences. Holding them for a while without having to do anything with them, but also without brushing them off. For that, too, we might need help — but not in the form of someone providing the answers for us.
Not providing adequate information:
“D Y I” type questions
The other classic way we mess up is when we try and piece together an answer ourselves, and towards this end, we post questions to someone. We might be trying to figure out our Enneagram type, for instance, so we start asking questions that we believe will help us do that. We ask, ”what type’s likely to do X” (and I recently wrote a whole article about why that is usually a futile question), and if we’re out of luck, we get suggestions. But we’re missing that that way we do X is a particular one. Or we stay in the behaviour discussion without realising that for inner growth, the motivation behind the behaviour says far, far more.
Often, the reason we ask DYI questions is that we don’t want do divulge the context — why we’re asking, or the full story. But if inner growth is the goal, there is something to be said for putting it all out there. We can rarely reason our way to the answer, since the reasoning comes from the same ego that we are trying to break our identification with. It’s only natural that this does not work; it’s like trying to see our own eye without a mirror. We need that mirror, and for us to have it — in the form of a therapist, coach or friend — we need to offer the whole picture, not just pieces of the puzzle.
“OK — so, either I’m not doing enough or I’m trying to do too much? What questions am I supposed to ask, then?”
At this point, we might get a bit exasperated. Either we are over-engaging, or we are under-engaging? What, then, is the right amount of engagement, and a productive way to ask questions? That is, in itself, a very fair question 🧡 — and I did wonder, too! And then I started leading groups, and I could add other’s efforts to my own (ample) experience of making both these mistakes. By then, it had begun to fall into place, of course. It does tend to work itself out as we go along; only, it might take a decade or two 😉.
In the meantime, there are some things that we can look at, a checklist, if you will. This gives a hint whether our question will get us anywhere. The list is not complete by any means — but it is one that I could have used myself on more than one occasion!
Before asking, check:
Is your question general or personal?
This is a most basic question, but also very relevant. Since we’re talking about inner growth, you’d think questions would, by definition, be personal. And of course, they usually are. But they are not always phrased like that.
Sometimes we like convolute our actual questions — the personal ones, those that relate to ourselves and our situation, feelings or experience — in more general terms. It feels less … private. Vulnerable. Self-revealing. But the thing is, discussing philosophy won’t foster inner growth. Discussing ethics won’t help you come to terms with what your partner/friend/colleague did. Discussing how one emotion might, in theory, cover up another won’t help you explore yours. Et cetera.
Obviously, there are contexts where we feel less free to share. I don’t mean to say we need to be permanently transparent, regardless of our company. Be discerning, by all means. But if you often find yourself in a context where you don’t feel comfortable going into more private domains, you might want to think about seeking out one were you do. Keeping it in the abstract won’t help you grow.
Before asking, check:
Do you in fact want to hear the answer?
At first glance, this question often elicits a kind of duuuh response. Of course I want to hear it, we might think. Otherwise, why would I ask?
But oh, there are plenty of reasons. Sometimes, if we’re really honest, we don’t want there to be an answer. Rather, we want the person to agree with us that the situation is hopeless, that we cannot be helped (or can only be helped in a certain way), that we are right (whatever it might be about, and even if it’s “bad”). At other times, we do want an answer, but not just any answer. We might expect a certain admission, or we envision an answer in a specific direction, at least. And when another answer is materialises, we are not open to receive it (or, in fact, miss that we got it in the first place, as it doesn’t reflect what we expected to hear).
Sometimes, if we’re really honest, we don’t want there to be an answer. Rather, we want the person to agree with us that the situation is hopeless, that we cannot be helped, that we are right.
And sometimes, of course, what we phrase like a question is not really a question at all. We are not open to taking anything in. We just want to engage people, have them respond to us, give us attention. Gently check if there might be some truth to any of these for you.
In a situation where you find yourself asking the same thing over and over — either in the same conversation or in a series of conversations with the same or different counterparts — it’s a good idea to sit down and look closer at these expectations. What is it — on a deeper level— you feel that you need or want?
Before asking, check:
Supposing I get a correct answer —
still, will I know?
The reason that this is an important question is our old “data mining” perspective from school. We need to remember that, in inner growth, there is a difference between having information and actually knowing.
If what we want to know is how much a certain chunk of metal weighs, or the formula of a chemical element — sure, then we can get the answer: “48,6 kilograms”, or “H2O”. OK, thank you. And we’ll actually know, as what we are asking for is an established, concrete fact. If we want to double-check with a different source just to be sure, we can. That’s the way we build up intellectual knowledge: rounding up facts, checking their validity and storing them for future use.
But when what we want to know is to some degree about ourselves, different rules apply. We might go see a therapist, a psychic, a coach or a counsellor, and we might ask: “What should I do to accomplish X ?” or “Why is it that I tend to Y?” If they are worth our while, though, they won’t tell us. They will help us figure it out.
We need to remember that, in inner growth, there is a difference between having information and actually knowing.
Integrated knowledge, actual understanding, cannot be handed over by someone else. In fact, when we ask for it and something is handed over, there’s a good chance that this even sets us back, rather than propel us forward. Of course, the mind believes it propels us forward. It feels that way. Finally, there’s a statement that we can either take to heart, or object to and question. In case of the former, we then believe we “know”. And sure, we might, technically. But our knowledge is empty; it’s not embodied. And in the case of the latter, the ego has just bought itself time to keep fiddling about in the abstract. Neither helps us know ourselves.
So if you ask yourself this and realise that no, I won’t actually know know — then you can reflect some more over what would help you learn, for yourself and in your own experience, that which you want to know. And then you can perhaps ask for help with that instead.
Before asking, check:
If you receive advice or instruction,
will you follow it?
When we ask questions in the arena of inner growth, it’s sometimes about getting advice, receiving instruction. Maybe we want tips on how to approach a specific issue, how to take the next step. And we might be genuinely interested to hear the answer — but are we also interested in heeding the advice? Or are we just out to collect a variety of them, browse the market, as it were, evaluate what path seems the least hassle?
Sometimes, we might realise what we want is a magic wand: an answer that takes care of our issue with minimum effort on our part. Are you looking for a magic quick-fix? On this inner journey, it’s usually safe to assume that these don’t exist. (In fact, it’s actually more likely that what looks and feels like a quick-fix will take you on a detour of questionable value. But then, whatever walks we walk on this journey, they are all valuable, in some sense. So no sweat.)
We might be genuinely interested to hear the answer — but are we also interested in heeding the advice? Or are we just out to collect a variety of them, browse the market, as it were?
And if you’re answer is no, of course I realise this will take some time and engagement on my part, then look honestly: how much time are you prepared to give it? How much engagement? We’re not looking to make resolutions or set up a schedule — but it’s good to check whether the answer is still in days where it would be more realistic to think weeks or months. Does “Sit with this question in meditation” translate to pondering it for ten minutes while you are preparing dinner? Does “practice this asana for ten minutes every day for the next month” dwindle to holding it for two minutes once a week, or five consecutive days before you give up?
Be honest with yourself. Sometimes, we’re just not prepared to put in the work — at all, or for now. And that’s OK, too. But it causes MUCH less trouble if we can own that and not pretend otherwise. And again, it’s not like there’s a right and wrong stance here. All approaches don’t appeal to us. All techniques or tools don’t fit everyone equally well. But sometimes, we have (knowingly or unconsciously) pre-excluded all the modalities that would actually help, so as to be able to stay safely tucked in our (usually cognitive) approach where we want to “understand”.
Sometimes, we’re just not prepared to put in the work — at all, or for now. And that’s OK, too. But it causes MUCH less trouble if we can own that and not pretend otherwise.
So you might want to check with yourself, how sincere is your request for help? How much faith do you have in the person you’re asking? Is there someone else, or another context, where you would be more inclined to actually put the instructions you receive into practice? Think of it as a bandwidth situation: focus your attention where you actually think it might do some good, and then stick with that for a bit. Don’t just restlessly move on to the next option before you sat with this one for a while.
Before asking, check:
Are you OK with assuming, for now,
that they know more than you?
Again, this is obviously not always the case. Sometimes we ask someone with some scepticism as to their ability to come up with a satisfying answer, but we are prepared to be surprised. (Sometimes we might even ask mostly to get our suspicions confirmed that this person is as clueless as we think!) But it’s good to take an inner reading here: How much credit do I give this person in the area I’m asking about?
Sometimes, reflecting upon this beforehand, we might we give the person a lot of credit. Then, when we hear their answer or suggestion, we’re suddenly not so sure anymore. If that is the case, look at that for a bit. What made you change your mind? Might it actually be that you are resisting the truth of what they said?
If we judge and re-judge someone’s insight and level of development by how well their advice sits with our ego — and if this ego is quite resistant to go where we are in fact longing to go, which tends to be the case — then we are going to dismiss teacher after teacher, busy defending against the very progress we seek.
Be kind to yourself
OK. Deep breath. Remember, these aren’t crimes. Sometimes we feel small and want validation. Sometimes we long for change but can’t really let go of the structures that keep us where we are. And this is all fine; cut yourself some slack.
The ego might read the check questions as dismissive. But their purpose is not do dismiss. Neither is it to demonstrate our insincerity, foolishness or inadequacy. Rather, they help us de-tangle, shed light on, and bit by bit take down the walls some of us unwittingly and innocently build against our own truth, clarity and liberation. And we can use them at a pace we are comfortable with. Or, not use them at all. The choice, really, is our own.