The One Question That Can Set You Free
Finding freedom wherever you are
Yesterday was a difficult day, so I gave myself permission not to force this and to send this today instead of the usual Wednesday. Thank you for understanding.
And as for which day you prefer to receive these essays? Sixty-seven percent prefer to keep it on Wednesday, while 33% prefer Sunday. Wednesday it is (extenuating circumstances notwithstanding.)
What is this? is the most liberating question.
Growing up, I was your typical curious kid. I wanted to know about (almost) everything, and I read regularly and asked many questions. Thankfully, my parents were patient and indulged my curiosity.
The type of question I asked most often was, Why? Why does gravity exist? Why do fireflies light up? Why do men unbutton their shirts and wear gold chains? I didn’t just want to know facts and information. I tried to understand why things were the way they were. Before talking about the mechanics of gravity, let’s talk about why gravity exists in the first place and what purpose it serves—asking why felt like the ultimate question.
But occasionally, asking why got my mind into trouble.
Why do I have to use a number two pencil and fill in the bubbles completely? (If one circle is partially filled in while the others are empty, where’s the ambiguity?) Why do I have to read books that aren’t even true? Why don’t parents understand their children when they were once kids?
While these may have been legitimate questions, none were inspired by curiosity. Instead, they were a subtle form of judging and resisting whatever I didn’t understand and didn’t like. Rather than seeking answers, I just wanted to rebel.
We can see how protesting—using why questions to lament our situation without directly complaining—shows up in our adult lives. Why is there so much traffic? Why are houses so expensive? Why are people so rude? Why is that person such an idiot? Why are there so many potholes? Why are my taxes so high? Why does my phone battery drain so quickly?
Sometimes asking why is used to beat ourselves up and remind us of our failings and shortcomings. Why did I say that? Why did I send that email? Why was I late for the interview? Why didn’t I check to see that the lid was tightened? Why didn’t I study more for the exam? Why didn’t I intervene when I could have? Why didn’t I double-check my work? Why didn’t I listen to my intuition?
Asking why can be a form of arrogance. We can think we are above the situation or that creating the world in our image would eliminate all our problems. But if all the taxes were abolished, all the potholes were filled in, and all the idiots were executed, would you finally find the happiness you seek?
Meditation teacher, Anna Douglas, shares a humorous story in one of her talks about visiting India for the first time and asking her friend and guide so many why questions that at one point, he stopped her and, with exasperation, said, ‘Anna, I don’t know why things are the way they are in India. Stop asking me why.’ I guess she had forgotten what she had learned years earlier on a meditation retreat, that an even better, more powerful question exists than asking why.
What Is a Better Question Than Why
That question is, “What is this?” As in, what is this experience of riding a bicycle? Of touching a tree trunk? Of getting your teeth cleaned? Of listening to Bach? Of swimming in the water? Of driving a car? Of writing a term paper? Of walking in the woods? Of having sex? Of drinking a cup of coffee? Of feeling contented?
Asking what penetrates the ordinary and deepens our understanding of what is. It is a way of investigating life with curiosity and childlike awe and wonder, creating an intimate connection between us and the experience. An everyday event becomes dynamic and alive. Nuances and subtleties previously undetected reveal themselves. When we inquire deeply, it’s as if we’re experiencing something for the first time.
What are you sensing as you drink your morning coffee: tasting, smelling, touching, seeing, and hearing? What flavors can you detect? What scents are present? How does the coffee feel in your mouth? What does the coffee look like? Are there any sounds associated with drinking coffee?
More profoundly, asking what helps us be with difficult experiences and find freedom within them. What is this experience of driving in traffic? Of misplacing my phone? Of not being able to fall asleep? Of being dumped by a partner? Of losing money in the stock market? Of getting into arguments on social media? Of sitting in yet another boring meeting? Of standing in a customer service line for two hours? Of feeling so angry that I want to beat my co-worker over the head with a ream of paper?
The Power of What
Asking what creates agency, enabling us to choose how we respond to unpleasant situations. It liberates us, showing us what the experience is like so that next time, we don’t have to get hooked and entangled in painful emotions and create unnecessary drama and suffering for ourselves and others.
Asking what forces us to look deeply into the human condition. We often discover that whatever we are angered by, resistant to, or afraid of is not what we thought. Almost all emperors we have made into all-powerful beings aren’t wearing any clothes.
For example, I like to tell the story of loneliness. For most of my life, loneliness was the most painful emotion. Whenever it appeared, I would be filled with dread and think, “Not again.” And so I would resist and do whatever I could to avoid feeling the sorrow of loneliness.
One day, I felt lonely as I walked through my apartment. I thought, “Oh no, not loneliness.” But then I remembered what someone in my men’s group had reminded me of: “Feel the feeling.” So I stopped and said out loud, “Okay, fine, show me what loneliness feels like.” I stood quietly, waiting for emotional fireworks. But there were only crickets. “Is that all you got? Seriously, I want to know what loneliness looks and feels like. Come on, give me the fully monty.” Still crickets. “That’s it? This is what I’ve been running from my entire life? Just some gray-haired man behind the curtains pulling levers and scaring the crap out of me? Unbelievable.” To my amazement, I’ve only been visited by loneliness one or two times since over the past eight years.
Seeing Is Freeing
When we see things as they are, they are disarmed and no longer hold power over us. No longer are we imprisoned by what we imagined to be true. We have more control. When we sit with anger, we see that anger is just anger. Allowing ourselves to feel anger doesn’t mean we’ll lop someone’s head off. When we sit with the feelings associated with getting laid off from a job, we see that we aren’t our job and that a job is just a job. When we’re having a “bad day” where nothing seems to be going right, we see many things have actually gone right during the day.
In contrast, asking why is disempowering and victimizing. Though perhaps justified in my frustration, no amount of mental protesting will change my circumstances and get me out of this traffic. If you still indulge your rebelling mind, go ahead, but afterward, laugh at yourself and the ridiculousness of it all.
Asking what is a dependable question, always revealing the heart of the matter while never getting us into trouble. See for yourself in your own life how empowering it can be.
Just know that, in my experience, there is no universal freedom. Instead, freedom must be found in every difficult situation. Once you see something for what it is, you are forever free or significantly freer than before. When you see its limitation, you see the hook without getting hooked.
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