We are trained from an early age to answer questions. We spend years in school gaining knowledge and skills; there is a high value on getting the “right answer.” We prefer certainty, clarity, knowledge.
But the way of the Buddha values questions themselves, without the compulsion to get an answer. Our very existence poses big questions to us, which we can take up in our meditation. Who am I? Why are we here? Why is there suffering? What’s the meaning of life? What happens after we die? This path allows us to pour ourselves into our question, never resting on any answer. We may find confusion, not knowing, and provisional answers, and still, we keep going further.
In our tradition, we talk about being able to respond to a question, rather than answer it. Our response can be a living response, which is never fixed. To be able to really live into questions and responses is to cultivate what the poet Keats called “negative capability,”, the ability to be “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Once we find something we believe in, some certainty, we tend to abandon the original question. But for psychotherapists and other healers, the capacity for negative capability vastly expands the territory that is available to us, as well as our responsiveness. It’s one reason why I believe that Zen practice, and in particular koan practice, which is all about questions, is so helpful to us in our work (as well as the rest of life).
There are several opportunities this fall to take up your own burning questions. There will be a four-week Introduction to Meditation for Mental Health Professionals workshop in September (for more information, go here). We will also have a forty-day practice period beginning in October. Plus a day-long retreat and a five-day sesshin coming up as well. If you are interested in cultivating the field of question and response in a community of others on the same path, join us!
Megan Rundel is the resident teacher at the Crimson Gate Meditation Community in Oakland, CA..