Inquiry as practice

The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.–Albert Einstein

→Ask questions.

I’d like to say this is the first present I received when visiting the Gimme Presence site to partake in its creator Kristen’s challenge. But I can’t.

When I hit upon this one, however, there was a definite resonance.

Earlier this year, as part of an Epiphany (“since Christmas was always a let down”) tradition that my friend has grown in her home, among family and friends, and in various parishes, I drew “the gift that I needed” for the year from a basket of paper rings or crowns, and it was curiosity. Smugly, admittedly, I was quite pleased with my gift–not recognizing that perhaps this meant I was lacking in said quality.

Curiosity, investigation, questioning: these are fundamental qualities for the spiritual life. From the unending question of  “Who am I?” or “What is consciousness?” (depending on your particular constitution) to the basic one of “What is this?”–when there’s a felt sense in the body of some unresolved emotion, or a more subtle defilement appearing in an unexpected way–these are incredible opportunities to welcome whatever we are experiencing, by wanting to understand, by being interested.

When I feel happy, when I feel confident, when I feel grounded, one of the qualities that I can consistently point to as being present is interest. If I can be interested in this experience, this happening right now, then whatever it is–it’s okay. There’s nowhere else to get to. Interest is a harbinger of wisdom. On the flip side, a lack of interest stems from a lack of confidence in how I’m practicing and how I’m being in the world.

As a child, I never took what was handed to me in school, from my parents, from whomever, as the gospel truth. There’s always been an understanding that concepts are just that, and they must not be clung to. An incessant inquirer I suppose. Knowledge which is purely intellectual is a kind of assumption, which is also code for delusion, but when it can be questioned and tested against one’s own experience then it can assume proper meaning in one’s own life. Direct experience coupled with wise reflection and you have the proper conditions for insight to arise.

Doubt, if it’s chronic, can be just another form of attachment (it’s also one of the five hindrances and seven fetters, in Pali: vicikiccha). But healthy doubt is critical for opening to and embracing the reality of uncertainty, of not knowing. And this is also a big part of interest and investigation. As Voltaire put it:

Doubt is uncomfortable, certainty is ridiculous.

This points to the difference between faith and belief, at least the way I relate to the terms. The former is necessary, embraces doubt, and allows for the kind of questioning which cultivates wisdom, whereas the second is due to a lack of understanding.

In the Buddha’s teaching, appropriate attention or wise reflection (yoniso manasikara) and the investigation of dhammas (dhamma vicaya) are critical aspects for the development of insight into the true nature of reality. When we are in formal or informal meditation, we must inquire into the causes and conditions for both wholesome and unwholesome states of mind, or in plain terms–we want to know when we feel alright and when we don’t, and to begin to understand why. It is through this process that confidence in the practice grows, and genuine contentment can emerge.

To me, asking questions in this life and this practice is a matter of being fully alive, of embracing all the gifts we are given, and ensuring that we are our own best teacher. It’s a critical skill and one that I will forever be developing (let’s hope)!

We also rely on spiritual friends to help encourage questioning amongst ourselves, and I am grateful to Kristen for developing the site Gimme Presence and for asking us to participate in its continued creation.

More Resources

Wise Reflection by Steve Weismann, Buddhist Publication Society, The Wheel Publication No. 463, 2006 (wonderful…)

“Practice as Process” in Sammasati: An Exposition of Right Mindfulness by P.A. Payutto, 1988 (for a more detailed explanation of the relationship between dhamma vicaya and yoniso manasikara)

James Baraz, Dhamma vicaya – Interest/Investigation, Dharma Seed, March 24, 2011, part of an eight-week series at the Insight Meditation Community of Berkeley (audio)

Ajahn Pasanno, Yoniso Manasikara – Attention Grounded in Dhamma, May 8, 2010 (audio)

Related Posts

Keep questioning! (written while I was on 7-month retreat)

Tagged w/ questioning @ it’s all dhamma.

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  1. I continually learn from the questions you ask in this space and others. Thank you for this, your participation means the world to me. Sending love to you across these many miles.

  2. I’m so glad to see you write about curiosity. This quality of mind seems to me essential to the spiritual life. Indeed, it may be the foundation for all that follows. Thank you!

    • Barry, thank you for this affirmation. I agree wholeheartedly. And thank you for continuing to be present in this space. Even if I’m not always commenting, I’m religiously reading your posts!

  3. Curiosity is my new favorite place to go to, in any uncertain, uncomfortable state. I had a biology professor who told me “what you know is not as important as the questions you ask.” I’ve always enjoyed seeking answers to my questions, but I’ve only recently begun to learn how to live in the question. Curiosity I suppose is the state of living in the question.

    I used to respond to uncertainty, discomfort defensively, emotionally close-fisted, frightened, annoyed, angry. With curiosity, the fists open up, the heart opens up,

    I love your clear-sighted questioning. I also like your differentiation of faith and belief. I’ve been working hard on my understanding of my own beliefs, but I think it is in the realm of faith, where there is room to ask questions, to be curious, that I need to do more exploration. Thank you! You’re amazing!

    • Martha (who’s known me my whole life), yes. What a wonderful “formula”: Curiosity as the go to…live the questions…openness. So happy to be able to share this kind of dialogue with you. You too are amazing my dear.

  4. The only teacher I’ve heard mention curiosity as a virtue and necessary was Lama Surya Das – in 2010 and this year – which struck me as odd, since I had already been practicing for 9 years the Buddhadharma and would have had no Buddhist practice at all if I were not already practicing curiosity !! Highly under-rated quality.

    How can we effectively ask “What am I?” without an intense, burning curiosity ?

    What a wonderful, thoughtful blog this is. And you get comments from MMR of Minddeep ? Wow !

    Have you seen through the self-delusion yet ? It is not nearly hard as we have been told it ‘s supposed to be- I can’t believe it took 10 plus years to see through such a simple thing . Oh well, everything just is, until it isn’t.

    Kind Regards,


    • Thank you Dominic for your kind comments and my apologies for not replying sooner. Yes, interest is very much a foundation for the practice and some might even say the whole of it. I am not the same person that I was, this moment or the next. If everything is always new then it is a perpetual awakening.

  1. Speaking of Inquiry – what have you discovered?
  2. Speaking of Inquiry – what have you discovered?

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