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How Your Own Questions can Teach You the Art & Skill of Therapeutic Inquiry

peaceful-meditation-woman-of-color-eyes-closedMore than anyone else, my Buddhist teachers taught me how to relate to questions and questioning. They taught me the art of inquiry which led to what I now call Therapeutic Inquiry. This kind of inquiry is the most important skill I teach to my clients, as well as to students in the Finding True Magic courses.

Once when asked “What is Zen?” my teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi answered, “Whatever you say, that is Zen. Whatever you say, that is not Zen.” Then, Roshi would say, “Do you understand?” Our blank stares gave the answer.

With a mischievous chuckle, Roshi would begin to explain that words can’t contain the whole truth. When we use words to talk about the truth, it’s like pointing a finger at the moon. So becoming attached to a particular answer to a question is like thinking that only your finger – and no one else’s – can point at the moon. If two people think this way, they end up fighting about their fingers, and forget all about the moon!

An important element in a Buddhist approach to this or any question is to be mindful of the effect the question has on you. How and where does your mind move when you hear it and consider it? In what way are you invested in getting an answer to this question?

Ever since Buddhism appeared in the West, a commonly debated question has been “Is Buddhism a religion?” After 43 years of Buddhist studies with teachers from different cultures, I see how answering either “yes” and “no” would leave out important aspects of Buddhism that are extremely rich — aspects I wouldn’t want to lose.

As long as I keep in mind that “yes is not a jail and no is not a jail,” I’m free to appreciate that the answer is both yes and no. Yes and no are each a valid entryway into what Buddhism, or any topic of interest, has to offer.

One person may hear a statement like ‘Buddhism is a religion’ and feel very comfortable, while another may hear it and “go ‘round the bend.” If you remember that words only have the meaning we give to them, then you can appreciate any question (or statement) as a mirror that you look into, to see how your mind is working.

If you try to settle a question with a final answer, or start defending a particular statement, you destroy the mirror. You miss the opportunity to see more deeply into the workings of your mind.

Woman-walking-park-sidewalk-green-sunlight-bench-decisionsFinding the Real Answer to the Real Question

A while back, one of my hypnotherapy students became extremely angry at her fellow students for their lack of punctuality in coming to class. When she couldn’t take it another minute, she began voicing her frustration with them, defending her position with ideas of right and wrong, rude and polite, considerate and inconsiderate, and so on. Everyone in class became annoyed with her for making a mountain out of a molehill.

Because it’s an experiential class, I asked her to focus on her anger and look into it, to see if the anger might have a deeper cause than being offended by others’ rudeness. With a little help, she soon remembered being a little girl in Germany during World War II. She had been visiting her grandparents in the country and had missed the train home. Back in the city, much later than usual, she arrived to find that her home had been destroyed by Allied bombs and her parents killed. If only she had been on time! Maybe she could have had those last precious moments with her parents. She broke into sobs.

When her classmates heard this story and witnessed her grief, their irritation with her dissolved. And because she had discovered the real reason for her irritation with them — the real answer to the real question — she was released from her desperate obsession with being on time.

Everyone in the class now changed their attitude about being on time. Punctuality stopped being a rule to be enforced by some and selfishly ignored, or rebelled against, by others. Classmates stopped seeing each other as being right or wrong, or good or bad depending upon their choice to be on time or to be late to class. Because choosing to make the effort to be punctual was no longer a point of contention, it became an opportunity to support each other with compassion.

Woman-backlit-sunset-golden-brownQuestions can lead the way to clarity and freedom

If you think of questions as a way to greater clarity and freedom, it changes the way you relate to them. Instead of trying to defend one right answer (for example, “punctuality” being the answer to “lateness”) you contemplate. You ask yourself, “Is this my real question? Is this the real answer?” In this inquiry, your questions and answers become stepping stones to a more profound Q & A.

In the Buddhist approach, or simply from an open-minded approach, questions and answers are not meant to settle any matter. Their purpose is to sharpen the intellect and to awaken the best in the human heart/mind by removing confused thinking. When you use Q&A in this way, you find both healing and liberation.

So . . . Is Buddhism a religion? Is it important to be on time? Is reality for or against you? Should the rich be taxed?

May you discover why you care about the questions and answers you really care about. May you go beyond enforcing, ignoring, and rebelling against rules and doctrines. May your questions and answers become contemplations that bring you healing and freedom.

To learn more about how to develop your artfulness and skillfulness at inquiry, check out the full seminar on DVD, The Art & Skill of Therapeutic Inquiry, recorded live in London, October 2014.

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