Lectio Poetica: What is the Question?


“Sometimes . . . you come to a place whose only task is to trouble you with tiny but frightening requests . . .” – David Whyte

Ten years ago, just three months after falling headlong into the most devastating existential crisis of my adult life, a crisis that swept away everything that made sense of the world, my first instinct was to gather others who were equally perplexed and explore—together—the big and little questions of life.

To that end, I founded an adult philosophical discussion group called the Socrates Café.

The name of the group, and the process we used, came from a book of that title by Christopher Phillips, an itinerant philosopher who traveled the country bringing Socratic inquiry down from the ivory towers of academia back to people in the streets, where it originated some 2500 years ago—curiously, around the same time as the Buddha began a different, but complementary type of inquiry into the human mind and heart, on the other side of the world.

The Socrates Café, where I spent the next three years, twice a month, drew an unusual bunch of people, who came together not around the answers—like most other organizations and religious groups to which I had belonged—but around the questions themselves.

We did as the poet Rilke advised: we “lived the questions.” It was exciting, frustrating, endlessly stimulating, and amazingly creative. We came to love the questions.

Sometimes, as poet David Whyte observes (in “Sometimes,” River Flow, 2007), if we’re still and quiet enough, we come to a unique place deep within ourselves—like a hidden glade in the forest, far from the noise of everyday life. There we can finally hear the almost imperceptible sound of the soul, our true nature, speaking. And what do we hear?

“Tiny but frightening requests,” as Whyte puts it. Requests that, normally, we don’t want to hear. Why? Because they’re seriously troubling. They could “make or unmake a life.” And that is a frightening prospect indeed.

Real change, for good or ill, often, if not always, begins with a question. A question which, at first, has no answer. A question that launches us on a journey of discovery, a quest for the answer. Nothing creative would ever happen if nothing ever threatened the status quo. A good question does just that.

For me, back in 2003, the question “What is the meaning of my life?” set me on a voyage that has never reached home. The truth is, no matter how maddening it is at times, I love the journey. I’ve visited so many exotic places I would never have seen before, had I remained plastered to a Barcalounger before the seductive hearth of my old ideas, and my old self.

My “self,” in fact, continues to evolve, finding no solid ground—curiously validating one of the Buddha’s insights into the fundamental nature of reality, that, to put it simply, nothing is permanent, including “me.”

How did the Buddha figure that out? Well, duh, he asked a question. He found the quiet place within, and asked a bold, existential question. Just like Socrates, who wandered the streets of Athens, barefoot, asking tough questions, seeking wisdom.

Philosophy—so denuded for centuries by sterile analysis and intellectual gymnastics that few of us even give it a thought—means, simply, “love of wisdom.” Everyone who longs for wisdom, who goes wholeheartedly in search of it—within, or without—is a philosopher.

For some, like Western Buddhist teacher Stephen Batchelor, even Buddhism is more of a philosophy, a form of ongoing inquiry, than a religion. The Buddha, like Socrates, was both a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, and, as we might say today, a psychologist—a student of the psyche, the soul, the mind, or whatever you want to call it.

The primary investigative of tool of philosophy—the doorway to ultimate wisdom—is The Question.

That’s why poet David Whyte suggests we open the door to our deepest questions. Those quiet but insistent requests, for example, to “stop what you are doing . . . and to stop what you are becoming while you do it . . . questions that have waited patiently for you, questions that have no right to go away.”

Yes, they could unmake your life as you know it. They could also lead you to a whole new life. One in which you are doing what you’re meant to do, and becoming who you’re meant to be. Fully your self, yet, paradoxically, changing from moment to moment. Not Socrates or the Buddha, but Socrates and the Buddha.

What, then, is the question that waits patiently for you? How can you become still and quiet enough to hear it? And where might it lead, if you take heed?

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