EXERCISES: The Magic Well: Letting the universe answer the questions (for a change)

Have you noticed asking questions of yourself, like, "Am I good enough," or, "Is this all useless," and then wondering why the answers are so elusive?

A colleague who traveled in Asia for a while once told me this story:

I was in Thailand, in the North where there was a lot of fogged in days, at least up in the mountains. My mood was really getting affected after a while. I was bummed out much of the day, and noticed myself walking around the forest thinking, 'Why can't I shake this malaise?' The question repeated over and over, and I'd struggle with it like a Zen koan, and just feel worse that I was apparently too stupid to figure out the answer.

Then one day, walking back from a dismal hike, coming through the gate of the village I was living in, I asked the question again, but for some reason it seemed to actually come out as a question. The difference was like, 'Hmm, I wonder what's keeping this in place?' Which may sound similar, but there was a part of me that came online, a rational, data-driven place that, when it showed up, backlit what had been going on. That I'd been actually saying, 'I'm miserable,' but in the cloak of a question. When the cloak dropped off, the answers came quickly and without a lot of struggle. Like, 'Oh, duh, it's been foggy and I always get low when there's not enough sunlight. And I'm eating poorly and am far from home. Oh!' And then the solutions came quickly and with that clarity I could actually take action. But it required getting clear what was a question, and what was me saying, 'Ow!'"

So, what's this about? Basically, perseveration and rumination are two of the forces that drive and support anxiety and depression. Like my colleague's question, they often take the form of asking questions that aren't really questions at all. These are sentences that do, indeed, seem to end with a question mark, and yet are not actually taken up as real questions, meaning, as inquiry which goes through a process towards either being answered, or being tossed out as illegitimate questions. That's how real questioning happened. The problem my colleague illustrated is when we think we're in that process, but are actually asking questions that in actuality are statements of feeling combined with a fear-based desire to find a little control.

These, then, are questions without answers, because they are not actual inquiry. And this is the dilemma, that when we forget what we're actually doing (stating a feeling and desire vs. practicing inquiry) is not questioning, then when we don't come up with an answer, it's taken as a sign of danger. Then we try "asking" again, trying to find a way to feel safety and control, and with no solid answer coming, we zip around the track yet again. And depending on the question, it's naturally going to be either depressing or anxiety provoking to not come up with an answer or solution.

There are a few ways out of this loop, and I'll offer an exercise below for one way, emphasizing acceptance and openness. I'm calling it the Magic Well, as it's a visualization involving...can you guess?

Closing your eyes, imagine you are in a safe, protected field of grass. It's sunny, mild, a pretty nice place to be. (Change the place if you need to, so long as the felt-sense is one of comfort and safety/peacefulness.)

Now, you see an old fashion well there a little bit in front of you. It has stones around the edge (you won't fall in). This is a magic well, but you have to read the plaque on the side to understand what kind of magic.

So, what you need to do is think of a question you want answered, and imagine it as having form, and resting in your upturned palms. Whatever feels like it's natural form, pretty or not so pretty, it's all fine.

Now, with your question formed, you walk up to the well and read the plaque: "This is a magic well, magic because it will answer your question. However, it answers on it's own schedule. Your job is to ask, and then step back with an open patience. It's job is to answer."

The well is deep, and you step forward and tip the question gently off your hands to drop down into the darkness. Now you step back and practice the patience of waiting, knowing that eventually, and appropriately, the answer will return to you.

Good work!

For some people, this exercise feels like a relief; for other, letting go of the question, giving it over to the universe, or a deeper part of ourselves (however one thinks about where it goes) causes anxiety. Any reaction is fine. This is an exercise in asking a question differently, and implicitly in developing trust that the answer is known already, in oneself, in the ether, in the Big Mind, in our nervous systems, and that openness will provide the information better than insistence.

Notice that, in the example of my colleague, his shift in questioning led to a more active problem solving stance. But it started with an openness of questioning, a real curiosity or wondering. The Magic Well is asking with a big openness, allowing something larger to do the answering.

So experiment with what approach seems to work with which question (radical openness, problem solving, etc.), but keep in mind that the starting point is opening to getting a real answer, and that you don't initially know what it will be, but trusting (more and more!) that it will be OK.