Let's start this week with a short list:
The most simple, seemingly silly questions are almost always the most profound.
Good questions must come from a sincere desire to learn, rather than as a veiled means of stating your own opinion.
Experts rarely ask good questions. Be a beginner, always.
Questions are an opportunity to be humbled. Asking good questions is indistinguishable from practicing humility.
Own up to what you don't know. It will set others free and you may end up coming closer to the shared truths which are a hallmark of honest conversation between peers.
Close listening and clear attention are preconditions for good questions.
A real master is the pupil in the eye of the world. Don't be afraid of letting others teach you; it does not degrade you, it uplifts you. The ego doesn't always acknowledge this simple truth.
Asking better questions is about process and practice. It's something you need to work on consciously. It is a skill, not an innate personality trait and it can be developed in much the same way that you can become better at coding, or cooking, or gardening.
This goes to the heart of the thinking methodology we're advocating here. If you're able to identify patterns of meaning by considering the complementary opposites implied by any idea you are presented with, you will naturally ask better, simpler, and more direct questions.
The starting point is to ask yourself, "What does this really mean?" It's not about "How can I use this?" or "Why is everyone else excited?" It's about whether you can understand the basic principles. If you can't, it's either because it's not a well-formed idea (in which case, move on!) or because you need to learn a new skill in order to understand its implications. Which implies, again, that you need to be willing to learn if you are to practice the art of asking better questions.
How do you develop a willingness to learn? It begins with clarity and honesty about what you don't know. As soon as you stop hiding behind all the ego's pretenses and claims to knowledge, you will realise how little each of us actually knows. Such honesty automatically makes you more incentivized to improve yourself, because no-one likes feeling inept (even though we all are).
In so doing, you can begin to experience the benefits of beginner's mind yourself, not conceptually, but in the actual course of your life. Beginner's mind is about starting now, trying for yourself, being frustrated by your lack of expertise, and letting your heart show your mind how to celebrate this fecund state of not-knowing - for therein lies both truth and liberation.
All of this echoes Rilke’s letters to a young poet in which he advises, “Have patience with everything unresolved and try to love the questions themselves.” I would add: “Try to love the questioners as well.”
Adventure with us
The walls around paradise and remaining within the question
Experience and reflection, learning from our mistakes, and developing understanding all provide nuance. A mechanic doesn't develop his ability to diagnose a problem solely from introspection. It is through the combination of knowledge and understanding that intuition arises. I've spent most of my life honing skills that give me broad and deep understanding for the specific purpose of being able to ask good questions in any context.
Or Justin B:
I feel that knowledge of the specific, e.g. computer science, translates directly into intuition around the general.
The mechanic or scientist's skill does grow more nuanced through acquisition of knowledge and skill by the exercise of discipline, and this does lead to more specific questions about utility. In this way, honing a skill leads to asking questions about that particular discipline, which is a good thing. So, let us add an 8th point:
8. Asking good questions requires a deep appreciation of context.
However, "beginner's mind" is not opposed to rational inquiry and the honing of skill: it is, in fact, the pinnacle of such discipline. Consider the Socratic method more closely:
Socratic Circles are based upon the interaction of peers. The focus is to explore multiple perspectives on a given issue or topic. Socratic questions are open-ended, focusing on broad, general ideas rather than specific, factual information. The technique emphasizes a level of questioning and thinking where there is no single right answer.
Rational inquiry demands a diagnosis; a solution; an end to a process which had its beginning in the mind. What can such a mind do in the face of "no single right answer"? It can develop negative capability, but even this is insufficient, because we're not after skillful intellectual understanding: we seek harmonious and clear ways of living. And life is not only rational.
Accepting honestly your own limitations and inability to understand everything that happens around you creates the space within for curiosity. From here, you can genuinely enjoy never knowing what's going to happen next, which leads to asking questions which come from the heart and go to the heart of the subject being questioned. It is, as Paul Myburgh says, perceptual rather than conceptual: simple knowledge of things-as-they-are.Listen¶
When the Stranger says: "What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?"
What will you answer? "We all dwell together
To make money from each other"? or "This is a community"?
And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.
O my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.