Moving beyond answers to live the questions
I was part of a dialogue
group in the early 1990s. One of the exercises we did was a conversation
consisting entirely of questions. We could talk about any topic
that came up, but could only ask questions, not make statements.
(It was a non-competitive, very substantive and thoughtful activity,
game of questions made infamous in the "questions
tennis" depicted in the play Rosenkrantz
and Guildenstern are Dead.)
I highly recommend this to groups. Like listening
circles, it looks extremely easy on the surface, but becomes
profoundly transformative as you get further into it.
Participants are encouraged to make notes for later discussion,
regarding things they notice about questions during the exercise.
Many different types of questions will surface, including statements
masquerading as questions, rhetorical questions, open-ended questions,
questions that simply direct attention, strategic questions, questions
that modify, overlap, or focus on some portion of another question,
or link the issues of a previous question to another area of inquiry,
etc. I noticed that powerful questions
simultaneously open up and focus attention. They are like a spotlight
lighting up a specific territory to explore.*
This exercise is a great opportunity to explore what relationship
we can have to questions other than answering them, and what power
they have outside their usual role.
Ultimately, questions can take us deeper into the meaning of our
lives. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said in his Letters to
a Young Poet,
"Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and
try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms
or books written in a very foreign language... Live the questions
now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually,
without even noticing it, live your way into the answers."
(Random House, 1984, pg. 34-35)
The essence of dialogue is exploration, inquiry, openness -- which
is also the essence of "the questions" Rilke spoke of
-- those things that are unresolved in our hearts. When we live
the questions in our conversations, we are in dialogue with the
people around us. When we live the questions as a way of life, we
are in dialogue with life, itself.
When we live our questions, we are always discovering new answers
to them. Perhaps we shouldn't even speak of "answers".
Perhaps living a question, living an inquiry, is like living with
a fruit tree that continually generates fruit -- in this case insights
-- for our nourishment. There is never anything final about any
particular apple from an apple tree. More will follow. They don't
answer, they just nourish. And they're full of seeds, as well....
Our initial responses to an inquiry are best seen not as positions
to be advanced or descriptions of Reality, but as part of a process
of individual and collective awakening to who we are at a particular
point in our journey. Can we together use inquiries to embark on
a shared exploration, an adventure in which we all evolve in an
ongoing co-improvisation of our best collective awareness and capacity?
Can we consciously co-evolve
through shared inquiry?
Quaker's often use what they call "queries"
in this way -- as a focus for individual and collective meditation,
consideration and prayer, guiding Quaker seekers in their search
for greater love, truth, and insight into how to serve humanity
and live lives that are consistent with their core values. It seems
that any group or community could use inquiry in this sense, if
they are sufficiently dedicated to it, to each other, and to their
"collective self" and its enterprise. If, in addition,
they can -- like Quakers -- attune to a benign higher intelligence
at large among them, and use their inquiry to open themselves to
it, then all the better.
* Peggy Holman notes that this dynamic quality
of inquiry represents an integration of masculine energy (focus)
and feminine energy (openness) in consciousness and conversation.
The Power of Questions
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