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Don’t Ask Why

November 7, 2013


snorkelerSamatha concentration [is like] immersing oneself into the cool water of a crystal clear lake in order to rest and relieve oneself of the oppressive heat of the afternoon sun. … Vipassanā concentration, on the other hand, is like immersing oneself in the same way, but having been relieved of the heat, instead of resting there, one goes on to explore the content of the lake: the plants, fishes, shells, rocks, pebbles, etc.  — Ven. Jotinanda — Reflection on the Dhamma

In general, Shamatha meditation comprises practices of resting and Vipashyana meditationcomprises practices of investigating.  Vipashyana engages with the world and wants to understand it.  Shamatha opens to the world and accepts whatever it experiences. Shamatha culminates in samadhi, a mind that is completely gathered and focused in the present moment. Vipashyana culminates in prajna, the wisdom that such a mind experiences. These two balance each other: accepting without understanding is a kind of dullness; understanding without resting is a kind of agitation. Ultimately, shamatha and vipashyana merge and are experienced as the active and receptive aspects of an awakened mind.

There are many methods that train the inquisitive, vipashyana aspect of mind (and thus develop wisdom.) In Buddhism, the foremost method for developing wisdom is be hearing, reflecting and meditating on the teachings of the Buddha – the Dharma. But, because the inquisitive aspect of mind is always active, we don’t need to restrict our training to formal contemplation.  Throughout our daily lives, we have endless opportunities for training in vipashyana: whenever we meet an experience, we can notice how we attempt to understand that experience. In particular, we can notice what kind of questions we ask (and what kind of questions we don’t ask!)

Our inquisitiveness should bring us closer to our immediate experience, more fully into the here and now. A good question should help dissolve the sense of separation between ourselves and others, and foster compassion and understanding.  And just as vipashyana is balanced by shamatha,  a good question should increase our ability to rest with our experience as we find it.

But when we pay attention to the kinds of questions that we tend to ask, we may notice that we don’t always use our questions to draw closer to our experience.  Often, we use our questions to create justifications for trying to distance ourselves from parts of our experience. In particular, we often use the question “why”  to push away our experience.  In fact, the Bad Lama says that we should not ask “why” at all.  “Well,” you might ask, “why not?” What’s wrong with the question ‘why’? Fair enough. Let’s look at how we use the question “why?” and how it can lead to problems.

Less complaining, more appreciating – the Bad Lama

The Complaining Why


The line on the right moves more quickly.

When something unpleasant happens to us we may groan, “Why me?” When we ask this question, we are not seeking to get closer to our experience; we are actually complaining about our experience.  “Why me?” usually means, “I don’t like what’s happening, and I’d prefer it to happen to someone else.”  This Complaining Why is aggressive toward our experience (which we’d like to get rid of) and toward others (on whom we would like to dump our experience.) So the question not only separates us from our experience, it also separates us from others around us.

The Complaining Why isn’t really a question at all, because it’s not really looking for an answer.  When we ask someone, “Why can’t you just keep your big mouth shut?” we’re not looking for the reasons for their talkativeness; we just want them to shut up.

If you’re not looking for an answer, don’t ask a question. If you’re angry, it would be better to express that directly rather than disguising the anger in the form of a question that you don’t really want answered.

Don’t wait in ambush – Atisha, The Seven Points of Mind Training

The Judgmental Why

Sometimes, when we ask “why,” we’re not open to all possible answers — there are some answers that we’re willing to accept and some that we are not.  For instance, if a friend is late for a lunch date with you, you might be willing to excuse them if their car broke down, but not excuse them if they simply forgot what time they were supposed to meet you.

mouse trap

The trap is set.

When we approach someone with a judgmental why, we’re setting a trap for that person. If they give the right response, they escape the trap, but if they give the wrong response – SNAP – the trap is sprung. If our friend admits that he simply spaced out and forgot to come to lunch on time, we spring the trap, and justify our anger with a storyline: “You’re so inconsiderate!  I’m very busy and my time is precious! If you really cared about me, you wouldn’t space out.”

This Judgmental Why is a way of seeking cover for our aggression or greed. It offers us a justification for perpetuating bad habits and toxic relationships: “Why is she abusing me?  I did something wrong, and deserve to be punished.” “Why am I committing adultery? Because nobody understands me like he does!” “Why am I drinking to excess? Because I had a hard week and need to blow off steam!”

When we try to meet our experience with the Judgmental Why, we don’t develop wisdom – instead we develop confusion based on the superfluous adjectives “justified” and “unjustified.” We can meet our experience in a more direct way without the Judgmental Why:  We can recognize that something that is helpful at this moment is helpful at this moment, regardless of its origins, and we can recognize that something that is harmful right now is harmful right now regardless of its origins.

Forgiveness means giving up all hope for a better past. – Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace

The Alternate Universe Why

Sometimes, when we ask why, we genuinely would like to work with our experience, but we search for insight in the wrong place. Instead of drawing closer to the present moment in order to develop insight about our experience, we try to find insight by drawing closer to the past. But we can’t actually examine the past; the past no longer exists. So instead, we create conceptual reconstructions of the past, and examine those reconstructions.  Our conceptual mind is endlessly creative; we can create myriad versions of fantasy-past and become completely lost there. We might even create false memories in our attempt to pin down an explanation of our present situation. When we do this, we lose contact with the here and now.

We may become obsessed with some injustice in the past, and try to find a way to fix it. But we can’t fix the past, because it’s gone. In our attempt to repair the past, we might pursue revenge and retribution.  Or we might mourn some unfortunate thing that we left undone, and become heartsick with the thought “if only…” Not only does this fail to repair the past, it causes damage in the present.

If we are experiencing a problem that we want to solve, it would be more profitable to inquire about what can be done here and now rather than trying to pin down the cause in the past.

 Q: What about when you recognize fear and try to figure out where it comes from?

A: You can do that, but it’s an endless process.  Analyzing the cause is not letting go.  It is going to arise again and again, and each time you’ll have to analyze the new causes. When insight is developed, you can see the fear and let go of it.  We don’t have to figure out the cause of our problems, we have to let go of them. — Joseph Goldstein, The Experience of Insight

The Problem-Solving Why


The answer was hidden in plain sight!

The question “why?” can represent a lot of intelligence.  It recognizes that we live in a world of cause and effect.  It proposes that if we understand the causes of a specific problem, we may be able to prevent that specific problem from arising again.  However, as Joseph Goldstein points out, in the quote above, there are myriad possible problems that can arise in the present moment. Understanding the cause of each problem is an endless process.

Even if we could understand the causes of all of our past discomfort, we couldn’t avoid all present discomfort, since each discomfort arises from its own unique causes. Moreover,the attempt to avoid discomfort creates its own effect – we become more and more anxious, more obsessive and hyper-vigilant as our attempts at discomfort-eradication fail.  The very attempt to avoid discomfort is itself a cause of discomfort.

As Goldstein points out, our work is not to analyze all the causes of our present problems, our work is to let go of our problems in the present moment.

If the inference from cause to effect is to be indubitable, it seems that cause can hardly stop short of the whole universe.  — Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World

The Over-Simplifying Why

Finally, the question “why” usually proceeds from a faulty premise.  When we ask “why” we’re usually seeking a simple answer – a single cause.  But all of our experiences arise out of a web of myriad causes and conditions.  Every event has endless antecedents. Buddhism recognizes this in the idea of “beginningless time.”  So trying to come up with a simple answer to a complex phenomenon is like trying to pour the ocean into a shoe.  It won’t fit.

After conversing with thousands of children, I’ve decided that [when they ask “why?”] what they really mean is, “That’s interesting to me. Let’s talk about that together. Tell me more, please?” Dr. Alan Greene  — Why Children Ask Why

The Childlike Why 

Child looks at sky

A good question opens up the conversation.

Three-year-olds may drive their parents crazy when they repeatedly ask “why?”  But as Dr. Greene points out above, the problem is that the parents are trying to answer a closed-ended reductionist “why”, but the children are asking an open ended, exploratory “why”. This open-ended, wondering kind of questioning is a good use of the question “why”.  This is how we can ask why, too: Whatever our experience, we can wonder about it, withholding judgment, like a child. We can ask questions that draw us closer to our experience: What is this situation like right now? How do all the parts fit together?

The Bad Lama suggests that there are two questions that we might choose to ask rather than “why”: “What can I learn?” and “How can I help?” When we ask, “What can I learn?” we draw closer to our experience.  Each experience can teach us something; no experience is without value. When we ask, “How can I help?” we develop friendly intentions toward our experience and to others who are involved in our experience. There is no experience and no person that we need meet with aggression.  When we ask these questions, we not only can develop wisdom, we can also develop the friendliness and non-aggression that will allow us to rest easily with all of our experiences.

One Comment leave one →
  1. msanjana permalink
    April 4, 2014 12:05 pm

    Thought provoking words!!

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