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to find out more about John O’Donohue’s idea of a beautiful mind and found this passage in an excerpt from John’s unpublished work: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

Curiosity and Judgment

There is a wisdom of the head…and a wisdom of the heart.” – Charles Dickens

I came around the corner the other day to find my 6-year-old daughter lifting her 2-year-old brother and telling him, “If you want down, say ‘Down please.’“ Because there’s only about a 10 pound difference in weight between the two of them, it looked a little precarious.

The moment I gave birth to my second child, my oldest all of a sudden seemed so grown up. But every time I think of her as the “One who should know better” or my son as the “One who is too young to stick up for himself” I suffer from that lapse into judgment.

My meditation teacher once led a beautiful meditation about gratitude. In it she suggested that there are some things we can’t feel at the same time – like gratitude and greed. I think another pairing for me is judgment and curiosity. When I’m sitting in judgment, my curiosity is not available to me.

Of course my brain is just trying to make a fast assessment about what I need to do in a situation and so judgment serves the purpose of quick analysis. And my brain doesn’t only do this my kids but jumps to scan a homeless person for danger or to dismiss an apparently wealthy person as too busy to help.

Once I get past that quick assessment to check if anyone is in danger, I can remember to breathe in curiosity and compassion. Those two tools that almost always come up with a better and more creative response to whatever situation I find myself in.

 My compassion tells me my daughter is trying to figure out how to use her strength and knowledge to help her brother and that my son likes the attention most of the time. Once I figure out no one is getting hurt, I can sidestep my judgment and let them figure it out.

In my daughter’s quest to teach her brother some manners, she hasn’t quite thought to ask if he would like to be picked up before holding him hostage until he asks politely to get down. I’m curious how long it’s going to be until he figures that out.

Hot Mess

The good road and the road of difficulties, you have made me cross; and where they cross, the place is holy.” – Black Elk, Oglala Lakota Medicine Man

Yesterday morning I was feeling so optimistic about getting the kids out the door. It was a beautiful spring morning, I’d just had lovely quiet time meditating and writing. Then I got the kids up and I had my two-year-old son changed into his Superman costume for the day and breakfast on the table.

And then with 15 minutes to go we had a potty accident. Trying to recover from that, I didn’t give my 6-year-old daughter the 5 minute warning before she had to turn off her math game and get her shoes on. All of a sudden we were late, Mr. D was having a fit. I think it was mostly because he hadn’t eaten yet but probably a little because he had an accident and although I hadn’t said anything, he was attuned to my stress of being late. Miss O was upset because the pressure was on to get out the door. Our neighbor girl who carpools with us looked a little horrified as our hot mess unfolded.

I could find nothing to help my toddler calm down –  he didn’t want to sing or rock, he was resisting sitting in his car seat, screaming about going to school, there was no way to get him to eat and the pressure was on because we were going to make my daughter and her friend late to school if we didn’t leave NOW. All of a sudden, I went from my usual “it-will-all-work-out” state to being emotionally flooded.

I’ve seen different descriptions of the being flooded – but generally it seems to describe a feeling of strong emotions, release of adrenaline and cortisol in the body. For me it shows up as an inability to be creative and problem solve in the moment because the surge of emotion. I got the kids into the car – my daughter was fine after the initial grump that I was hurrying her – but I just couldn’t wait to drop my son at daycare because I was flummoxed.

After we dropped the girls at the elementary school, I still had no success in calming my son who was really upset. He didn’t want to listen to music or for me to talk. And while I still just wanted to drop him at daycare and make it someone else’s problem, this state was so unusual for my easy-going toddler I just couldn’t. In fact, I knew that not only he needed to calm down and heal from this moment – so did I.

I found myself driving to Home Depot which thankfully had small excavators and backhoes for rent sitting in their parking lot. I parked where he directed me to, scrambled into the back seat to be next to him and his curiosity for the construction equipment took over. Once he started doing something else, I could get him to eat and everything settled from there. We ended up having a lovely time at Home Depot. The great thing about kids is how quickly they heal and move on.

It reminded me how in the moment where we are flooded, doing something else until we can restore our balance is the only thing that works. I’ve heard Drs Julie and John Gottman suggest doing a crossword or going for a walk – anything but continuing a conversation that can’t go anywhere.

I’d say 90+% of the time, my little family operates according to plan and we all do great. But it’s in messy 10% that we find our resilience and healing, figuring it out one Home Depot parking lot at a time.

The Conditions for Change

A careful inventory of all your past experiences may disclose the startling fact that everything has happened for the best.” – unknown

I heard a story about a woman complaining about her ex-husband. When they were married he drank heavily but once divorced, he stopped drinking, remarried and turned his life around. His ex-wife said, “Why couldn’t he quit when he was married to ME?” and the punch line of the story was “People change, but not when and how we want them to.”

When I was married, I refused to have children. I had an instinct based on raising a dog with my now ex-husband. It was difficult enough that I didn’t want to extend that experience to kids. My husband would ask and I would say, “I don’t want to have kids.” But in my head, I knew the whole sentence was “I don’t want to have kids with you.”

My ex was not a bad guy. But he had a difficult childhood where he was both beaten and neglected. Before we were together, he’d raised a puppy with a previous partner. He told me he’d hit it with a newspaper if it peed on the floor. Only by experience did he find out that made the dog afraid of him and he stopped hitting it. To his credit, he then learned so that when we got a puppy together, he didn’t hit it.

But every step of the way was my husband having to learn a lesson directly before it sank in. He wouldn’t take my suggestion for how something needed to be done, he couldn’t trust an experts work for what might be best, he had to do the cause and effect himself. I didn’t want to raise kids with someone who had to experiment with them to find out what did, or more painfully, didn’t work.

I imagine that it’s pretty obvious now that I’ve had two kids on my own, that the whole sentence was “I don’t want to have kids with you.” But fortunately I’ve never had to say that sentence directly to him. We are on fine terms with each other but he’s moved away and gotten remarried to someone who has grown children so we rarely interact.

More than that, I am grateful for that divorce because it turned me to meditation, strengthened my faith and set me on the path that I’m on. The bigger issues of my marriage such as his infidelities and the things we valued created a relationship that was not meant to survive. But it still gives me rich ground to learn from.

People change, but not when and how we want them to. I think of that now that my life is so different than when I was married. We can’t control how others change but as I watch my children change every day, I see that we can control the conditions that help change to happen. Curiosity, openness and support work like the seed, soil and sunshine with which people grow.

I see as I create the conditions for my kids to change, I also create the curiosity, openness and support for myself to change. As I grow, I realize that even I don’t know when and how I’ll change but in these rich conditions, I trust it’ll be towards something good.

Say More

You can never really live anyone else’s life, not even your child’s. The influence you exert is through your own life and what you’ve become yourself.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

The other day I was having a conversation with an acquaintance that I know professionally. She was sharing her concerns for her younger son who is starting his freshman year of college 3,000 miles away. Trying to find the balance between listening well and not prying, I remembered a prompt that I’d picked up from a Brene Brown podcast, “Say more.”

It works like a can opener! I’m a pretty good listener but since I think the art of listening always can be improved, I’m always trying to expand two things to make me better: curiosity and space.

My acquaintance was telling me that her son got a nose ring and was trying out partying. Her story had two threads. One was a little bit of a mother’s grief because she thought she knew who her son was and thought that he did too. And who he was, a smart geek, didn’t match with his freshman year antics.

The second was her effort to be open supportive of her son as he grew and changed. As he texts her updates about what he’s doing, she is trying to find the right balance of how to respond. In many ways, she said she wished he wasn’t telling her because she was having to walk the line of condoning what he was doing.

Curiosity and space. It’s what her son is experiencing in these first months of college. It’s what my friend is trying to give her son. It was what I was trying to give her so that she could vocalize her story. Two gifts that allow us to change and to still say more.

(featured image from Pexels)

Newfound Celebrity

Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.” – Allen Ginsberg

On Tuesday night my daughter was on the news. It was a complete fluke. I rounded my kids up to go out for popsicles about 10 minutes from where we live instead of our go-to gelato place up the hill. The popsicle place was closed so we ended up going back to the usual place in our neighborhood. When we got there a camera crew was wanting to interview the gelato staff about how people are dealing with the upcoming heat wave. We were at the counter and they asked if they could interview us outside. I had no desire to be on camera but my soon to be 6-years-old daughter was excited so I said “yes” for her benefit.

They were so gentle and asked her lots of questions about how she plans on beating the heat. She said she was excited for it because, “Let’s see, I think I’d go to spray parks.” And whether she minded the heat and she answered she didn’t because it was special to eat ice cream in the heat because otherwise “It’s not so special because it’s not so hot.” Those were the quotes they used – she answered all their questions pretty darn well and when it was done she said. “It’s my dream come true to be on tv.” All before she is 6. 🙂

My toddler just got to sit at the table and eat his gelato which he did enthusiastically because I think he was happy to be able to just sit there without anyone messing with his portion. But as they zoomed in on his face, his sister’s spoon enters the frame and steals a bite so the encroachment that is his lot in life was well-documented on tv!

And they asked me questions too. I’ve done some public speaking and also a lot of training classes so I was surprised at how different it was to be interviewed. I felt this complete tunnel vision so that I couldn’t think independently of what they were asking me. And this was just a fluff piece! I felt so much sympathy for anyone being interviewed or questioned about anything serious. It made me sense how strongly we seek approval when we speak.

As they were wrapping up and we were finished with our ice cream, my daughter asked for the car keys. I told her no because there are good reasons to be on the news and bad reasons to be on the news. The camerawoman overheard this and laughed. My daughter asked what the bad reasons to be on the news were. As I ticked off because you’ve been in an accident or have done something wrong, I was glad to see that her newfound celebrity hadn’t pierced her curiosity and independent thinking in the least!

Three Things

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth.” – Buddha

I’m a sucker for things are written in wood, anything that advises to be kind and advice that comes in three. So I couldn’t help but notice this sign when we’re stayed at a beach footage this weekend.

It made me think about what my three instructions would be. Be curious. Be vulnerable. Be kind.

But I keep wanting to add on with things like never stop trying and it’s going to be great, kid! Which is why I never write in wood.

The Power of Curiosity

“If you see the soul in every living being, you see truly.” – The Bhagavad Gita

My five-year-old daughter kills snails. Let me pause here and say that it’s not a serial-killer-in-training kind of thing where she tortures and then decapitates them or something like that. It’s very well-intentioned interference in their life where she builds these very elaborate snail houses with pools and vegetation and then stocks them with snails. But then she’ll put them directly in the sun or forget to refill the water and oops, another snail is dead. One of my friends gave her a Bug Hotel terrarium and she put so many unfortunate snails in there that I started to call it the Bates Motel.

I have a friend who does a similar thing with humans (the help thing, not the killing thing). She doles out well-intentioned help to people that she believes need an upgrade in their circumstances. Unfortunately it sometimes backfires when people feel like they are projects and don’t absorb the help they are given.

I recently listened to this Dare to Lead podcast with Brene Brown and Michael Bungay Stanier that talked about the pitfalls of giving advice – the person with a problem may not accurately know what the problem is, any solution that you offer might not solve the root issue and even if you have the perfect solution, it can undercut their ownership of solving the problem themselves. Michael Stanier’s advice was to stay curious a little bit longer.

This seems to be a common theme in the content I’m listening to and reading these days – the power of curiosity. Asking open-ended questions like “how can I help?” and “what makes you think that?” and “say more” changes the nature of the conversation. Curiosity brings the power of mindfulness to an interaction and is a gateway for openness, an antidote to judgment. If we believe that we don’t have enough time to have these conversations, think about how much time it takes to solve problems again and again because we didn’t get it right the first time.

I’m finding curiosity a great tool for parenting because kids have so much of it. I could continue to slip out at night and free the snails or I can flat out tell her not to capture them but both of those solutions undermine her ability to see the soul in everything. Because of course this is not just about my daughter and snails, it’s about our agency in this world and learning not to destroy it. I’m hopeful as we research about whether snails grow out of their shells, what leaves they like best and how long they usually live that we can connect more deeply with compassion for others and retire the Bates Motel.

Bottomless Questions

“Keep your feet on the ground and your thoughts at lofty heights.” – Peace Pilgrim

When I awaken every morning, I tiptoe past both the kids closed bedroom doors and walk downstairs with the cat winding her way around my ankles. After I feed her and do a little stretching or yoga, I meditate. I have three or four books that I keep next to my meditation cushion and I read these short meditations as I sip my tea. The thing I like best about this practice is that when I flip to the page for April 20th in the Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo for instance, what is written there is usually something different that whatever is on the top of my mind for the day. It takes me out of my life for a moment to ponder a bigger or deeper theme instead of the logistics of my day.

So today when I opened another of my books, A Year of Daily Joy by Jennifer Louden, I loved that what she proposed, “Try asking bottomless questions – the kind that tantalize and stretch you.” Her examples were “How can I love more?” and “What do I want to create today?”

I sat with this idea for a while, watching the sun start to play on the house across from me, the birds flitting in and out of my plum tree, the feeling of observation starting to warm up my engagement with life and came up with this question “How can I bring curiosity into what I see and do today?”

The feeling of that question matches with my mood when I awaken. Light and open — and curious. My morning routine helps me set the tone for the day so that even long after what I read gets forgotten in the bustle of the day, I am still sustained by the broader horizon that came with my morning moments. I love the idea of posing that bottomless question to intentionally lengthen that note throughout the busy-ness of the day.