Beautiful Questions

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue…And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.” – Rainier Maria Rilke

I needed a break from the minutiae of data that I was dealing with at work yesterday so I took a few minutes to listen to Krista Tippet’s conversation with poet and philosopher David Whyte on the On Being podcast. The conversation turned to the human experience and how we face life. Referencing the poet, John O’Donohue, David Whyte posed the practice of asking beautiful questions:

John used to talk about how you shaped a more beautiful mind; that it’s an actual discipline, no matter what circumstances you’re in. The way I interpreted it was the discipline of asking beautiful questions and that a beautiful question shapes a beautiful mind. And so the ability to ask beautiful questions — often in very un-beautiful moments — is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered. And you don’t have to do anything about it, you just have to keep asking. And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.

David Whyte

This sent me on a search to find out more about John O’Donohue’s idea of a beautiful mind and found this passage in an excerpt from John’s unpublished work:

Your mind is your greatest treasure. We become so taken up with the world, with having and doing more and more, we come to ignore who we are and forget what we see the world with. The most powerful way to change your life is to change your mind.

When you beautify your mind, you beautify your world. You learn to see differently. In what seemed like dead situations, secret possibilities and invitations begin to open before you. In old suffering that held you long paralyzed, you find new keys. When your mind awakens, your life comes alive and the creative adventure of your soul takes off. Passion and compassion become your new companions.

John O’Donohue

Inspired by both of these Irish poets, I started trying to think of beautiful questions.

What is the softest touch I can apply in this situation? (to myself, to the Earth, to others)

What is there to see right here and now with compassionate curiosity?

And this one I heard from my 8-year-old next door neighbor as I was ferrying the girls home from school, “Why would we not?”

Indeed, why not?

In the interview with Krista Tippett summed up David’s musing on beautiful questions with “That’s what Rilke called ‘living the question.‘”

What beautiful questions come to your mind?

(featured photo from Pexels)

16 thoughts on “Beautiful Questions

  1. Lovely essay, Wynne. Thank you. Rilke, it seems to me (in reading some of his work), is suggesting we take on the world — not shy away from it, including the challenging and unbeautiful aspects, as well as what is beautiful.

    If we think of the greatest painters and artists, such as Beethoven and van Gogh, we deal with individuals who saw the world differently from most. This “different” angle was part of their unique genius, a larger vision than others, not blindered to the harshness of some of what they witnessed. For me, if we take the risk of seeing the whole world, we will see what is beautiful and what is not.

    One of my favorite poems is Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” The last line hits like a sledgehammer: “You must change your life.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Wow, Dr. Stein. You have as usual added so much to this conversation and my thinking. There is such a fearlessness in seeing the world in the “different” way. And so it makes sense the “risk” you talk of when seeing the whole world, beautiful and not. That leads to the last line of Rilke’s verse which is indeed a sledgehammer because if you open yourself that way, you would have to change right? I must read more Rilke. Thank you for pointing me in that direction!


  2. When you beautify your mind, you beautify your world. You learn to see differently.

    I love that statement. The question that comes to mind is: how could the forgoing idea be such a threat to so many people that they actively discourage anyone from learning to see differently?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh wow, Ally – that is a good question of eye opening and mind bending proportions. I was listening to a podcast with Father Richard Rohr recently where he talked about certitude and he mentioned that laws and rules worked really well when you wanted to control people and have the answers. Perhaps that applies here.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. “When you beautify your mind, you beautify your world. You learn to see differently.” I love that.

    I thought of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.” She asks several questions in it and describes a day in the fields and ends with …
    I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
    into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
    how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
    which is what I have been doing all day.
    Tell me, what else should I have done?
    Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
    Tell me, what is it you plan to do
    with your one wild and precious life?

    I have been thinking of many of my own questions now after reading your inspiring post today, Wynne. Thank you for encouraging that in me!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Inspired by the poem and your 8 year old neighbor’s question, I’m reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s question “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Oh, Nancy, I love this. I’ve heard that poem from Mary Oliver before and know of the last question “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” But I didn’t think of it in this context. And I’d forgotten all about those other wonderful questions in the same poem. “Tell me, what else should I have done?” That is another wonderful question. This is so rich! Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. You’ve packed a lot to think about, Wynne. My immediate reaction, thinking about your information overloaded day and mine too, is that part of being able to ask beautiful questions is to also create the space for that reflective moment.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that we live in a culture that thrives on being busy and cluttering our calendars. When we take the time to declutter and create space in our minds, we have the opportunity to ask those beautiful questions.

    So thanks for that wonderful reflection and insight today!

    Liked by 1 person

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