How Inquiry Can Solve Our Biggest Problems

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To solve our problems—large and small—we have to ask the right questions. When we do, we'll open the door to a creative process that can take us places we can’t yet imagine, says spiritual teacher Adyashanti.

By Adyashanti

Omega: Can you explain what you mean by the process of inquiry, one of your core practices? 

Adyashanti: Inquiry is a very particular kind of questioning. It's not just haphazard questioning right off the top of our head, because that usually gets us only superficial responses. Inquiry is a way of challenging whatever current view we have by asking direct questions about it. 

One of the most important things to know is inquiry is not necessarily about getting an answer. We often want a nice conceptual answer, we want the bow on the top tied perfectly and everything to be nice and clean. But inquiry will often open us to the experience of not knowing. 

Another important thing is to know how to frame the questions. There are questions that immediately disempower us, make us feel weak, and take us into a lot of unnecessary storytelling. These are usually “why” questions, like “Why is it this way?” or “Why did you do that?” Why questions are like an invitation for the sticky part of a story or narrative to come out.

Inquiry is a way of framing questions in a way that they introduce you to a mystery instead of creating more story. Examples are, “Who am I?” and “What is life?” Or we can even ask practical questions like, “What do we do about the amount of racial strife in this country right now?” At the top level of the mind, people will start talking and go on and on with an “answer,” but if you really feel into it when you ask the question, it really stops you.

We often look past that moment where questions stop us. If we had the answers for questions like what to do about the racial difficulties in our country, we wouldn't have the difficulty! So what a lot of us need to realize is we don't have answers. We need to admit we have ideas and opinions, but not answers. When we can drop into that “I don’t know” place—not as an endpoint, that wouldn’t be intelligent—but as a place to pause, it gets you in touch a little more with what you feel, with your intuition, and even your emotion around it. Then perhaps we see what would be a wise response in the moment. Not the final answer, but a wise response for what’s here now.

Omega: Is it practical to use this process in areas like business or politics?

Adyashanti: Right now in those areas, we see a lot of people giving answers off the top of their heads, and then we battle over them. Wouldn't it be interesting if we could get a bunch of leaders to sit around a table and say, “We have this real issue in our country, this real difficulty, and apparently we haven't found the right response yet,” and then stop and sit in the field of humility where you know you don’t have the answer. Then a whole new conversation can arise, a connected conversation where your words are connected with your heart, with clarity. 

When I listen to the news or read the newspaper it feels very disconnected to me, even if the person who is speaking seems to have an answer. It feels like this abstract, cerebral, often intelligent mind that’s disconnected from the heart, from our humanity. 

Slowing the whole process down a little bit is important so we actually have the inquiry. Let the question connect you to your body in a more quiet way, and then see what comes from that space. Right now we have all these factions each thinking they have the answer and then there's not much dialogue. But everyone’s only in their minds. I think we need to sit in inquiry together.

Omega: Inquiry also sounds like a way to access creative solutions to some of our bigger problems.

Adyashanti: Yes, inquiry is like entering into a creative process. Say you were going to sit down to write a poem. Most people have tried to write a poem or a story at some point in their life. Often, right from the beginning, you run into a wall. You have something you want to express, but you don't quite know how to do it. You can’t find the words. So what do you do? You sit there with pen and paper in hand and you just stop. Something's going on, and it takes patience to let that creativity bubble up from the unconscious. 

I once looked into what the difference was between being someone who is creative and being a creative genius. What they’ve found is creative geniuses have an ability to sustain creative tension—to sit in that unresolved period where they don't quite know how to create what they want to. They'll stay there as long as it takes for the creative door to open in them and to express itself. 

Your average creative person also knows how to sustain that creative tension, but they can't sustain it for long. Somebody who doesn't feel like they're creative can probably only sustain it for a very short time They may not even be able to sustain that creative tension for a second. They may be afraid of it. 

Whether we’re dealing with a poem or a big issue like racial tension or how people feel disenfranchised from their political system—if we had the answers we would have solved the problems. What we need to do is be able to sustain that creative tension so the answers can bubble up. We want that inner door of the collective to open. 

The same can be true about practical matters in your life, like having a difficult conversation with a friend or lover. So often when the speed of the conversation gets faster and faster, that’s an indication of an unwillingness to stay in the creative tension. Do we actually have the solution to what we’re talking about? Maybe we don’t. It takes a certain amount of emotional and intellectual vulnerability to say, “I’m not really sure. Maybe I don’t have the solution. Maybe my point of view is not the only right one.” That requires intimacy and vulnerability, and when things get difficult, that’s the first thing we throw away. 

The only way to get an answer is to enter into that creative tension, that state of vulnerability where you don’t know the answer. Then out of that space, all of a sudden, you’re surprised. It’s like, “Oh, I get what that’s going for!” And you could never have gotten there from a logical thinking process. You can’t access it from those means.