As I wake up this morning, it takes a little while to remember where I am. I sit up in bed, pulling the quilt around me against the damp, and wait. Here it comes: the hills above Half Moon Bay. Old growth redwoods drip through the front window, and in the distance, fog rises off the Pacific. Wild geese, moving across the sky like a pack of barking dogs, are heading…where? What month is this? I wait again. Read more »
When you encounter a question that won’t go away, it keeps pestering you, tapping at your inner doors and waking you too early in the morning or keeping you from sleep at night. Sometimes, if you ignore it enough, your question will go underground. But eventually, unless you work very hard indeed, it will begin to call you to itself until, almost without your noticing, you will find yourself turning towards your question like a flower growing towards sunlight.
This is true throughout our lives, of course, the part about turning towards our questions. But somewhere in the intense busyness of raising children and finding or keeping a job and maybe a career and a marriage and remembering to have sex and keep up our friendships and get some exercise, the questions that seemed so pressing in our twenties—Who am I? What am doing here? Is there a life purpose that is calling me? What’s most important?— seem to molt. Like wild birds shedding their worn down feathers, our big questions may become flightless for decades, seeking a protected habitat in our unconscious.
But once we find ourselves living past midlife, our questions begin to poke up again. Just pin feathers at first, soft and tentative, they come in dreams and in our small wandering thoughts. Sprouting from what seemed to be bald or barren, full feathers of questions take shape as images or lines from poems or long forgotten memories that perplex us in unfamiliar ways. By the time we’ve passed sixty, new questions arrive to make us delve into what it means to be growing old now, at this time in history when so much in our world has been lost and so much is calling for a wisdom we haven’t yet found. Read more »
In the story I told last time, Meeting the Wise Elder, when a baker named Rose turned 50, she was awakened by a question that would not go away. In desperation, she journeyed to meet a Wise Elder but when Rose asked her question, the Elder smacked Rose hard and kicked her out of the house. Rose was outraged. It was not until later that she understood that questions don’t always have answers and what is more, that she was trying to give away her precious question for somebody else’s answer.
The first time I heard this story, I was about 50 myself and the conclusion felt like a knife slicing into my heart. Wasn’t I doing all the time what Rose had done? Looking in books, listening to teachers from many traditions, and asking my friends questions that really were mine to answer? The story stripped bare my efforts to find other people, in person or in books or on tape, who would answer the deepest questions of my soul. I was chagrined to discover how determined I had been to leave myself in order to find my own truth.
Over the years I’ve come to love the story of Rose and the Wise Elder. The shock of it has helped me to grow up. Or, more exactly, to find my way to trusting and following my own questions to their source in wisdom.
I wonder if we all need shocks like this to stop looking outside ourselves for wisdom. I don’t know. Maybe for you growing up happened gracefully, the scales dropping away from your eyes as you turned steadily to confront your own questions. My process for a long time seemed not the least bit graceful but punctuated by shocks and jolts and surprises. I couldn’t fathom what to do with my questions if I didn’t give them away.
I think that is true for many of us but for a long time we don’t notice that we are trying to give our questions away. Until finally we do. And there is something about turning 50, or maybe it’s 60, or even 65, that makes certain kinds of fundamental questions more disturbing, or perplexing, or just plain persistent, than they were when we were younger. And then some of us become as desperate as Rose was to find out how to be with the questions that will not go away.
I see the questions now like race horses, snorting and stamping their hooves in the starting paddock. We can’t keep them there forever, turning our backs on them as if they weren’t great beasts panting to take off. We are going to need to climb on, throw open the gates, and lean down close for the ride of our lives. We’ll need to breathe with them and feel into their rhythm and in the end, what we’ll need to do most is to love them, to love our big questions because, as the great inventor George Washington Carver said, whatever we love will open its secrets to us.