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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, unlike the 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.


See also

The Power of Questions

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