Living the Question: How We Emerge into Ourselves
Today I want to share the below quote from the poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke. It is something to ponder and get curious about. It also helped me to frame a recent experience that I had making peace with my deeper truth, which I want to share with you. Read on to learn more!
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”― Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet
In his quote, Rilke encourages a way of living that embraces the ever-emerging self. It calls for an unforced “being” with the present moment within a recognition of the unfolding future. It invites a curiosity towards the unknown, a courage to travel with all senses open in each moment, a calm walk towards the knowing that one desires for themselves.
This call is an antithesis to the fast-paced, frenetic, forced way of our over-culture, which wants all answers to be quick, to be now, to be easy. Living our questions as Rilke suggests allows us to gently enter into our future selves and by doing so, we resist the culture that rushes us toward a result we may not yet be ready for.
Living our questions imbues spaciousness and ease into our process of self-inquiry and discovery. It makes room for the possible to spring forth in its own time and it gives us time to come into awareness of our deepest longings.
Living our questions isn’t always simple or straightforward – we aren’t always aware of our questions, and we aren’t always ready to accept the answers. I realized this recently in a moment of reckoning where I had to live a question that held an answer that I wasn’t too fond of…
The Undesired Question
Until recently, for many months, I had been working on getting my massage services up and running. I felt very earnest about it, very sure that I was doing the “right” thing. I set about my work diligently, doing marketing, showing up for unfilled Yomassage classes every week – but the whole time something was off – something that I didn’t want to acknowledge. Even though I was making progress and getting things done there was a part of me that kept putting the breaks on… just enough to slow me down.
The breaks were a warning from my deeper self, from within my body, which began as a whisper…
I heard the whisper, but I didn’t like what it was saying, so I tuned it out repeatedly and forged ahead despite it.
It kept on whispering…
Until just a few weeks ago, when the whisper became a shriek in the form of physical pain – a pain strong enough to stop me in my tracks. It became impossible to ignore the message and I could do nothing other than respond. I could have heeded a whisper, but it took pain to finally get me to stop and listen…
…and acknowledge that I had been living this question:
Can I do this massage work without feeling pain? Can my Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, chronically ill body handle this work? Can this body weakened by having a second child and living a pandemic-driven, sedentary lifestyle handle this work?
The answer revealed was the whisper that I had been fervently avoiding – that tentative whisper which tried to “gradually, without noticing make itself known”:
no… no you can’t. not now, anyway…
While I was living the question, I did not love it, as Rilke urges. I didn’t love the question because I was afraid of it and even more so, afraid of the answer. Even though I could feel myself inhabiting the question every time I set out to do the work of massage and all of its related activities, I denied it. Deep down, I knew that if I turned to face the question with love and acceptance, I wouldn’t get the answer I wanted and I was terrified of that.
My fear of the question and its subsequent answer wasn’t enough to silence the rumbling truth. Living the question was inevitable. I was living the question, but it was also living me.
Once I was forced through pain (if only I’d heeded the whisper!) to finally become fully present with my question, more questions emerged…
“What do I do now? I have invested so much time and money in massage-related things. How can I possibly step away from it? People are going to think I’m a total loser, a flake (they already do…). I’m about to let them down (again). What do I tell them? Will I ever be able to do this work again? How will I make money (not that I am making much from massage right now anyway…)”
For a small moment, I felt the panic rise which I had been trying to avoid by ignoring the whispers. However, I knew that I had arrived at a truth that I could no longer deny and therefore, it was time to turn towards my fears – to love, accept, and release them.
The truth is, I chose to relicense as a massage therapist after an 8 year “retirement” out of fear and constriction. I didn’t believe I had better choices, so I ignored the fact that my physical limitations were a real barrier to my success. I convinced myself that I would be able to “work smarter, not harder” and that “this time it would be different” because I had developed self-awareness and boundaries. Unfortunately, the modality that I most recently trained in didn’t turn out to be the most suitable one for me. The other massage methods that I know aren’t working for my body as it exists in the present.
As I finally accepted the answer to my question – that I couldn’t do massage work without it hurting me (at least not right now) I began to feel new possibilities loom. All the energy that I had been forcing into massage-related endeavors was suddenly freed up and that energy then became available for endeavors that felt more aligned with my capabilities at the moment.
The timing of this development seems strangely synchronistic, despite my months-long resistance to the question and answer. When I initially returned to massage work, I lacked the confidence to exclusively seek opportunities as a somatic coach. However, by the time I was able to accept that massage wasn’t right for my body, my confidence in my coaching abilities had grown exponentially. Now, I feel complete confidence that I can make coaching my primary pursuit and be very successful at it. And I have the time, energy, and focus to make that happen because I’m not pursuing something that is draining and painful to my system.
It’s as Rilke says – “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.” I couldn’t fully live into the answer to my question until I was ready for a new state of being. By living my question, I emerged – more aligned, more honest with myself – and only then was I truly prepared to receive the answer. Through acceptance of the answer, I was liberated even as I faced grief, fear, and shame around my previous choices and the unknown future. I was able to become more present with what is, not with what was expected or desired, and there is so much more ease in that.
Creating Space for Living Our Questions
We are all living questions daily – some chosen, some unconscious, others avoided – sometimes loved, feared, or loathed. It is through these questions – “unsolved in [our hearts]” – with their eventual answers that we emerge into ourselves, ever changing, shifting, and adjusting into the next set of lived questions.
Living our questions isn’t so much a choice as it is simply a part of being alive. As in my story above, it is sometimes difficult to gracefully face the questions we are living because we fear what is showing up inside of us.
So, how can we make more room for our emergence into ourselves even when it’s difficult?
If I’d given myself the space to be still and quiet inside of my “unwanted question”, to love it, to sit with the fear that bubbled up as a whisper and gently listen without judgement or resistance, I could have spared myself and others some heartache. Unfortunately, I was too stuck in my fear-response to realize, until it was too late, that I had that option. I simply lacked the necessary self-awareness.
In living the question and avoiding its answer, I lived into that missing self-awareness. Because of this, I now have the opportunity to retroactively practice the skill of loving my question. This will enable me to have a better chance of receiving the answer before it has to hurt so much.
Here’s how that might look in a few simple steps:
- I find a quiet moment to be with myself and to explore the inner landscape of this event.
- With deep forgiveness and acceptance of my avoidance and resistance to my question, I move away from beating myself up for mucking it up. Instead, I move into learning from my folly.
- I begin to imagine what it would feel like to slow down and see what was right in front of me instead of turning away.
- As I do this, I feel tension show up in my chest, my eyes become wide with fear, and I get an impulse to turn and run. I feel my fight/flight system come on board, but I know that I am safe in this moment.
- Instead of allowing my body’s impulse to take over, I deepen my breath, become present in the moment by feeling and sensing myself in my space. Then I begin to listen for the message that my aligned mind-body wants to give me.
- I feel the message in sensations, thoughts, memories, and stories, which I receive with curiosity and gratitude. I allow these things to expand as much as I can as I hold myself in deep acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion.
- Once I complete this process, I nourish my body with a few more deep breaths before coming to the present moment.
- Before going about my day, I take a few moments to reflect upon what I have learned from this exercise. Then I make plans for any follow-up needed to further address the question at hand.
Slowing down and bringing awareness to our inner landscapes is one of the most gentle ways to live into the questions that take up residence within. Most of us live in a culture where slowing down is very challenging. Still, it is possible to find moments between our busyness to practice slowing down. In such moments, we can become still and listen for answers, without force, without seeking, but with wonder. And when we forget, we can bless ourselves with forgiveness, coming back to the practice as soon as we are able. With time, we get better at courageously listening to our whispers instead of having to come to attention via whacks of pain and discomfort. With practice we become more “patient toward all that is unsolved in [our hearts]” and learn to love our questions as they deliver us into the emergent selves that we are becoming.
Now a Small Practice…
I invite you to take a few moments to muse over Rilke’s quote. Ask yourself how the words land within you. How can you apply the quote to your life and experience?
If you need some help to slow down and ponder a bit, take a few deep breaths and notice how your body meets the surface that you are standing or sitting on – notice the support there, how you are being held. This breathing and noticing helps you come into the present moment. When we are truly present, we can more easily listen to our internal knowing.
Do you have any interesting insights? Let me know by contacting me here!