Most of us ask questions all the time without necessarily thinking through the question itself first. Our smartphones enable us to ask anything, essentially at any time, without having to do any real investigation ourselves. Want to know what years the American Civil War took place? What is the exact wording of the 13th amendment? We hardly even need to finish typing these questions into the search field before Google is completing our thoughts. The answers, of course, follow just as rapidly.
Let’s consider the contrast of this experience to the one from the pre-Internet age. Back then we would perhaps ask someone we were with to see if they knew the answers. Failing that, we would need to find an encyclopedia (that’s what Wikipedia is named after, by the way) which, if we didn’t own, would require us to visit the library. Think on this for a moment. Attempting to answer a seemingly trivial question by today’s standards required not an insignificant amount of resources. It could require a drive to the library, or at least a visit to our own bookshelf. Not least of all, answering such questions required some degree of patience and a genuine desire to learn the answer. One does not spend an afternoon flipping through encyclopedias without purpose.
It is with this in mind that I would like to explore the nature of inquiry. So let’s start with a question:
Why is this important?
When we ask a question, we are revealing something about ourselves. We are showing our ignorance of a thing and/or some level of doubt. (I’m using the term ignorance in a non-judgmental way, it’s simply the lack of knowledge in some area.) This leads into the territory often called a “blind spot”. What we don’t know about a subject is a mystery to us and, by definition, could be much deeper and richer than we could have anticipated. Asking a question can lead us into an involved journey of discovery that is both challenging and rewarding. Furthermore, by asking a question, we are assuming it has an answer, that it in fact can be answered. This has a potent implication. To inquire about history or science is the low-hanging fruit of inquiry. These are answerable questions, despite many remaining open still. But what about life’s larger questions?
We often ask about the meaning of life, about our purpose as humans and as individuals. Questions about what occurs after we cross that great river into the vast unknown have been in our anthropological discourse throughout all antiquity. Are these questions answerable? If in the asking we are assuming that they are, then how? It’s not unfair to state that most of us ask such questions without the expectation of ever receiving an answer.
Yet they remain, and we wonder.
My metaphysical teacher uses the term “essence question” to denote a question that is essential, existential, and that requires a protracted holding of the question within our awareness for months, years or perhaps lifetimes. In his view, an essence question is one that spawns from our core, our being. They are so important that they cannot be asked glibly. These are not Google-able questions, not by a long shot. These are questions that are often found behind another question. This last statement requires some explanation.
Earlier I stated that asking a question reveals something within ourselves. What is revealed is of course dependent on the question itself, and the context in which it’s presented. Let’s look at an example to help clarify.
During an astrology consultation, a client was asking about career and relationship considerations. While the specific questions were honestly asked by this client, we ended up going “behind the scenes” a bit and discovered an essence question. It was this essence question that was actually motivating this person’s other, more on-the-surface, questions. Basically, she was asking if there was perhaps something wrong with her. She was wondering if she was “doomed” to her past patterns that have left her unfulfilled in life. While this article is not about astrology, I will make a brief statement about why I practice it as it’s relevant here. Astrology allows us to look at our needs and motivations through a perspective that is not bound by any of society’s rules and programming. It can reveal aspects of our true nature that we may already know, but probably only dimly. By illuminating these factors through symbolic — archetypal — processes, we can learn to accept ourselves without judgment as we move towards greater awareness of how to lead a fulfilling and meaningful life. Astrology can help us become the individual we sense we are but haven’t fully seen and accepted yet.
For my client, our consultation helped nudge her toward that very awareness. By discovering her essence question, the question behind the question, we engaged in a meaningful discussion together, and while the answer will remain a process for her to continually work through, the seed of an answer was at least planted.
Practicing inquiry involves working towards these essence questions. This will become an invaluable skill in both mundane and personal, subjective matters. Trying to solve a problem at work? Get to the essence of the issue. Knowing what the right question is to ask gets us halfway to solving the problem. Matters of the heart are actually no different. In both cases, the underlying question is the key. So how do we get to this essence question?
“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”
– Albert Einstein
According to Albert Einstein, it would seem that answering the bigger and deeper questions requires a shift, or leveling up, of our consciousness, our awareness. We won’t be able to see behind the scenes if we’re still underneath the question. To get on top of the situation, there are many tools and techniques. I will share a basic one here.
Essentially, one process is to ask an initial question, whatever it may be, and then attempt to answer it, simply by using whatever comes to mind first. What happens next is the important part. Once you have an answer, don’t stop there. Form another question based on your answer. Then repeat this process, following your own breadcrumbs that are dropped with each and every answer you provide yourself. Eventually, you will land on a significant, core question, an essence question.
From there, you now have a bit of gold to carry with you as you maintain this question in your awareness. As you do this, you will continually increase your conscious awareness, broadening your perspective on life and yourself with each discovery you make.
I wanted to provide an example of the method I just described. But I first needed a question to work through. Not having one, I decided to use the question of what to ask as my question. The intent here is to arrive at an essence question of some kind, though I of course have no idea what it will be. So I begin by asking myself…
> What is a good example question to use here?
“I can pick anything but would prefer a non-mundane question. Something like ‘Should a buy a new car?’ isn’t quite what I’m going for.”
> Can you describe the type of question you want to ask instead?
“Ideally it would be common enough that most people will recognize it. It should have some intrinsic meaning to it.”
> What is “intrinsic meaning”?
“I’m defining meaning here as something that is of a personally significant nature. Perhaps it has to do with how we feel connected to life in terms of the value we bring to it and our place within it.”
> How can a person feel connected to life?
“Say, that’s not a bad question!”
Your turn. Start by answering that last question any way that you can. Then create a new question based on your answer. Rinse and repeat until you find some meat to chew on, some essence.