my “living the questions” tree

Yesterday I told you some of the reasons why I love stories.

But I forgot that there’s even more I love about them.

I especially love the relief they give us from our constant questioning minds. I’m sure you’re familiar with that tape in our brains that can get stuck, rehashing the past or rehearsing the future. Worrying and trying to control what’s coming. I think we’ve all experienced that at some point in our lives.

I am forever grateful to a very wise teacher who encouraged me long ago to ask fewer questions and listen more for the deeper story. He taught me that asking too many questions either shuts us down and hijacks our imaginations, or leads to stress and tension.

But asking for a story and exploring its deeper meanings and feelings can be very transformative. 

Recently, another wise teacher reminded me of why this is so: stories activate the right brain–intuitive, creative, visionary; questions, even the open-ended kind, activate the left brain–analytical, rational, problem-solving.

Now, sometimes it’s necessary, and very valuable, to take a problem-solving approach to life. But I’ve noticed that can lead to analysis/paralysis, where you’re caught in an ever-tightening knot. So I say give space to the inner voice of Story and let it help you untangle the knot.

That said, I’ve noticed something else too.

Human beings are hard-wired to ask questions.

We yearn for answers. We reach and grasp for them, the treasure at the end of the rainbow.

But here’s the thing: the questions that we most want answered are big. So big that they don’t really have answers, at least in the rational, logical sense.

And trying to answer these big questions can leave you feeling like you’re coming up empty. Or worse, berating yourself because you can’t figure them out, in a world that places great emphasis on knowing the answers.

There’s an infinite variety of big questions, like these:

Who am I now?

What do I want?

What is enough?

Where do I belong?

What does it all mean?

How do I heal?

How do I let go?

What is hope?

What makes me whole?

Who are my people?

The paradox about big questions is that even though we don’t know the answers, we still continue to ask them. We even continue to ask them after we think we’ve finally answered them. (I know. The ultimate paradox.) So we need a way to get them out and explore them.

We need a loving container to hold these big questions.

A container that builds trust and acceptance about the unknowable qualities of big questions.

A container that helps us move away from the overwhelm and anxiety of big questions, and move toward living (and loving) them, like Rilke said:

Try to love the questions as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers…because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.

During the past year I’ve been experimenting with just such a container to hold my big questions. I call it my Living the Questions tree.

It’s simple, really.

I start with leaf-shaped paint chips from Home Depot. On each one I place a question, along with images and art materials that speak to me when I hold the question loosely in my mind.

I’m not actually trying to answer the question, because I want to stay open to the images that support it. Then I can move toward metaphor/story, and away from analyzing/figuring out.

My takeaway from this process has been huge.

When I stop insisting on seeking and knowing answers, I find that the images themselves provide everything I need. I’ve learned to trust them.

For instance, when I lost my father earlier this year I was overwhelmed by the sense of time passing. Although my dad lived a good, long life and I was at peace about that, I still found myself pondering the passage of time.

Time felt like a crashing wave, and I was pulled in by how fast it all goes by.

And the big question that rose up for me was this: What is time?

As I was flipping through images to support the question, I came upon this quote from William Saroyan: In the time of your life, live–so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.

That’s the kind of serendipity that can happen in this process. And now, when I get caught up in the rush of time passing quickly or thinking I don’t have enough of it, I stop and tell myself: In the time of your life, live. And that’s all I need.

I’ve discovered that this activity not only comforts me, but gets me out of ruminating and into movement.

Like, if I’m feeling lonely and wrestling with the question–Who are my people?–all I need to remember is this: My people are knitted together with hearts.

Or when I’m stuck and asking how to transcend, I can hold the leaf that tells me through images: Look toward the sea and the shells and you will transcend.

And when my over-thinking brain takes on the complicated question of forgiveness I know I have this answer at the ready: Forgiveness is a blooming flower on a dark night.

Every single time, these are the only answers I truly need.

Now it’s your turn. What are your big questions?

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4 thoughts on “my “living the questions” tree

  1. I love Rilke and I use his Loving and Living the question quotes over and over in my writing, teaching and coaching. Love the concept of the question tree. I am going to start on one, too… I can see it as a changing object with leaves that vary… love love love it!!

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