Asking Better Questions

When we hit a rough patch—especially a long one like the year we’ve had—it’s common to feel stuck, restless, worried. In many places here in the US (including where I live in California) we’ve entered another period of the most restricted Shelter in Place. It will last for an entire month, through the holidays and New Year.

It’s only natural to wonder (perhaps with a groan), “When will this be over? How will we get through the holidays? What will happen with the economy? What will I do if/when…?”

The Buddha called focusing on such questions “unwise attention,” and warned against their danger. They tend to be driven by fear, anxiety, or an unhealthy desire for control. They can obsess our minds, sap our energy and don’t lead anywhere useful.

In one ancient text (Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta, MN.63), he refused to answer to a series of metaphysical questions from one disciple. In response to the student’s frustration, he shared an allegory:

It’s as if a person were shot with a poisoned arrow, but before allowing a doctor to operate, the wounded person insists on knowing who shot the arrow, where they are from, what kind of bow they used, where the arrow was made, what kind of feathers it had, and so on.

This person would die before learning the answers.

Learning to ask the right questions is key to finding our way through hard times. For the questions we ask frame how we see the world, how we relate to ourselves, to one another and to life.

The Buddha also talked about a different kind of attention, “wise attention,” that engages and shifts our perspective in a helpful way. Rather than thinking of things in terms of the past and the future, me and what I want, we can ask more useful questions that reveal where we’re stuck inside, encourage presence, and support transformation.

“How am I relating to what’s happening? What am I learning from this? Where am I holding on and what can I let go of? What’s needed right now? What do I value and how do I want to show up?”

So if you’re feeling down or stuck as the holidays approach, consider how you’re thinking about things. Are you attending to your experience in a way that is unwise, spinning your wheels with questions that can’t be answered? What kind of questions might be more helpful to ask?