We ask ourselves and others questions all the time. Can we sort out the useful questions, the ones that will lead to greater clarity, from the useless ones?
I’m a long way from my 20’s, but I remember how confusing it was to try to figure out what I should be doing with my time. Several young relatives and friends remind me that it’s not easy to grow into our potential; there’s no guide that suits everyone; all the discovery work is original with each of us.
By the time we get to middle age we’ve met people we admire and people we don’t; we’ve read or otherwise taken in a lot of information about the world, and we’ve deduced some things about our opportunities. We may be more familiar with our strengths and our flaws.
Whatever stage of life we’re currently in, it is useful to be clear about what questions we’re working on finding answers to, both long and short term. Some of the questions will have to do with work or study, some with relationships, and some with who we are now. What are the principles we base our actions on? What is worthy of our concern and what isn’t?
One useful question is “What lens are we looking through?” Is our main focus on figuring out what we, as individuals, want and how to get it? Is it trying to please a parent or mentor or friend? Is it attempting to fit into a pattern of how we think things should be? Each of us is in a continuous process of developing our view of life and our place in the scheme of things.
The Buddha described four types of questions: “There are these four ways of answering questions. Which four? There are questions that should be answered categorically [straightforwardly yes, no, this, that]. There are questions that should be answered with an analytical (qualified) answer [defining or redefining the terms]. There are questions that should be answered with a counter-question. There are questions that should be put aside. These are the four ways of answering questions.” (from https://suttacentral.net/an4.42/en/thanissaro)
We can use this model in considering questions asked of us by others and also those we pose for ourselves. Is the question a yes/no one? Or more complicated? Is further investigation needed? Is it an unhelpful question, to be set aside?
We can spend our time on questions that will have no bearing on our words or actions, for example: “What happens to us after death?” or “Why does evil exist?”.
Closer to home, some practical questions might be: “Should we say yes or no to this specific request?”, “Is it time for us to speak or keep silent?”, “How can we find out more about X (person, situation, or choice)?”, and “Would the expected result of this (planned) action be beneficial or harmful (to ourselves or others or both)?”.
Throughout our lives, we have the power to direct our energies, using skilful questions.