Living the Questions: How vs. What

We’ve all had the feeling that we’re stuck at some point in our lives. It could be as small as the quiet, nagging thought creeping in during a hurried glance at our lives that wonders if this truly is It? It could be as big as working at job we feel drained by or feeling pulled in a million directions by all our obligations and all that we need to do or be.

We’ve also all experienced the opposite – that serendipitous moment when, for at least a brief second, everything seems right with the Universe and our needs and wants seem to line up and just fall into place without us having to work very hard for it. We shake our heads in wonder and think, “Wow! It’s like it was MEANT to be.” And because we are human, at that point, we usually become so surprised that we end up sabotaging ourselves. But that closing and then opening, that contraction and expansion, that stuckness and flow are a natural exchange. Watch anything growing and you’ll see the interplay of opposing forces. First a plant has to put down roots, then it needs sun for more energy, but then it needs to expand it’s root system to soak up more water to feed the larger plant – and in growing more roots it ends up needing more of the suns energy, so the plant gets bigger… you get the picture.

But just because a certain amount of this interplay is natural and healthy and completely out of our control, doesn’t mean we don’t have a choice about the approach we cultivate. I recently had an 8-month experience of feeling stuck. I was always able to satisfy my needs (roof or some sort over my head, food, employment) but none of it seemed to flow, none of it seemed to stick. I changed addresses five times in eight months. I cobbled together many part-time jobs. And I found myself, in quiet moments when feeling drained enough that the mask of ‘I’m doing fine’ fell away, wondering if this was truly It. The question I kept turning over in my mind was “How?” How was I going to find housing? How was I going to be able to afford it? How? How? How?

It all shifted for me when I changed the question to “What?” What wasn’t working? What boundaries did I need to set to feel happy and healthy? What was it I ACTUALLY wanted to be doing? “How” is a question that implies total control and also invites victimization – we expect exactly what we think we need and want to just show up and when that picture doesn’t come to fruition, we’re left feeling abandoned or just not knowing where to turn. “What” invites openness – it acknowledges that while we have a sense of where we want to go, we are not sure what shape the journey will take to get there. It allows us to see that often, it’s our beliefs about ourselves that hold us back. It acknowledges that we have some control over how we interact with our immediate circumstances. Just trying saying the two words. If your “How?” is anything like mine, it’s slightly conditional, it goes up at the end just a little – it has the hint of a whine. But the “What?” has a softness, a curiosity, and a humility – it knows that it just doesn’t always know.

So next time you feel stuck, notice – what question are you asking and is it empowering you to take action? Or is it stuck in survival mode, waiting for some answer to fall out of the sky and save you?