Ask useful questions.

I was stuck.  Faced with a nagging problem that wouldn’t let me go, I went round and round asking myself:  What should I do?  Maybe you’ve been there, too.  If you have, then you know how utterly exhausting it is to get sucked in to that endless loop of a question.

I spoke to a few close friends, I journalled, I read Hafiz and looked to some of my favorite blogs and other sources of inspiration.  And finally, I realized that part of my problem was the question itself.  It was not useful.

It was loaded with judgment and criticism.  It was as if a stern and disapproving crone was looking over my shoulder, scrutinizing my every move.  I felt stifled and restricted, and very much stuck.

The question implies that there is a correct answer, a right choice.  It also suggests that the answer exists outside — that you can find it in a book, or from someone with higher authority.  It lets you delegate responsibility.  For these reasons, it is the perfect question if you are, for example, changing the oil in your car or braising chicken for the first time.  There’s a standard protocol, a form or formula that will guide you to the outcome you desire.

The issue I was wrestling with was much more personal.  The answer had to come from within, and it had to be right for me.  Even my champions — my friends and family who love me and want my every success — even they couldn’t resolve this for me.  I listened to their counsel, sometimes irritably opposing their view.  I realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I wasn’t being very kind to my friends.  (Because why ask for advice if I was just going to be disagreeable about it?)

And so I changed the question.  I dropped What should I do? and instead I played with this:

This question was a breath of fresh air.  My body relaxed, and I began to breathe more easily.  What do I want?  It’s an expansive question and invites an enormous range of response.  It invites humor, and the biggest, wildest, and sweetest dreams.  And it’s a question that only I can answer.  Rather than consulting with others, this question requires me to go inside and listen to my desires.

I noticed that there are layers of wanting.  My brain, heart, gut, spirit, ego and body all have their own desires.  So I had to pay attention to all of the different answers, and work to distill and prioritize them.

After that, I felt the need for a bit more focus.  And so I considered this question:

I became smitten with that question, What might I do?  It provides room for both whimsical and practical options.  There’s neither commitment, nor judgment, nor criticism embedded in that one.  It’s thoughtful and frank.  After considering my desires, this was a very helpful question because it provided some focus and let me sketch out possibilities while keeping an eye on what it is that I truly want in the first place.

So if you feel stuck on the question What should I do?, remember that it brings your attention outside of yourself, and assumes that someone else knows what’s right.  You might need a more useful question.  Ask:  What do I want?  Write down everything that comes up.  And then ask:  What might I do?  And write down all those, too.

Do this alone.  Take yourself out for Thai noodles or tea.  Get quiet.  Ask useful questions.  And then just listen.