You know those rare moments when an idea, person, or experience moves you from a static place to a place of disorganization and discomfort, but ultimately, transformation?
One of those occurred for me in March of 2017. I was in the middle of a strength training session in the gym, casually listening to an On Being podcast episode which featured the poet, theologian, and social healer Padraig O’Tuama. His words hit me mid-pullup, echoing in the special way that signals things will never be the same.
“There’s a Buddhist concept,” says O’Tuama, “where if you’re asking a poor question—if a question is being asked, “Are you this or that?” Robert Pirsig says that you can answer, according to his telling of the Zen tradition, you can answer with the word mu, m-u, which means, “Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.” The question that’s asking is limiting, and you’ll get no good answer from anything. This question fails us, never mind subsequent answers.”
“I think that’s a really delightful way to understand the world. And I think questions about Jesus sometimes that are posed in our public rhetoric about Christianity: “What do we do here?” “What do we do there?” “Is this right?” “Is that right?” Am I allowed to be gay and Christian? for instance, was the question that plagued me for years.
And I think that in a certain sense, we’re being told by God, perhaps in silence in our prayers, “MU,” because there’s better questions to ask. And asking a wiser question might unfold us into asking even wiser questions, whereas certain kinds of questions just entrench fear.”
O’Tuama’s words stopped me in my tracks. (So often, movement terms apply to the evolution of ideas and understanding- and this is no accident.) The questions we ask and the way we frame them determine whether we move and grow and evolve throughout our lives. What’s more, the quality of our relationship with inquiry can change the course of our personal and collective histories. It forms the heart of our intellectual, emotional, and spiritual practice.
Our culture teaches us to be better at creating ourselves than we are at undoing ourselves (with thanks to O’Tuama for the language). What, exactly, does that mean? And how can we get better at the art of inquiry, and especially, at the undoing part?
How to spot a mu question.
When I encounter a new idea, there’s an exciting internal shakeup, a hint of revolution. As cool as this is, it also gives rise to existential anxiety. Often, my first reaction is to evaluate the novel information in relation to my old ways. I might wonder, “Does this mean I’ve been thinking about/doing things wrong?” or “Can this confirm I’ve been doing things right?” Or even, “What should I be doing about X?” In relationship conflict, a mu question often takes the form of “Am I right about X or Y?” or “He was wrong, wasn’t he?” The question frames itself so that the answer takes the form of a yes or no. In relation to our work, a mu question might be, “Should I leave my job?” or “What should I pursue next?”
These constitute mu questions—and ones I can un-ask, because there’s a better question to be asked.
As I’ve gotten to know my own question patterns, I can sometimes even “game the system” by asking a question that isn’t a yes or no, but tries to solicit a map of where to go from here.
Mu questions elicit answers in their own likeness. (That is to say, in our likeness). Their secret agenda: to affirm the status quo of our existing ideas, beliefs, and behaviors. To uphold self-esteem. To ensure emotional comfort.
How mu questions (and their subsequent answers) “fail” us.
It might seem like a paradox: Mu questions seek to confirm the path we’re on or choose a clear alternate. In this way, they increase our self-esteem. At the same time, mu questions don’t nourish the relationship we have with ourselves. In this way, they actually decrease self-compassion.
Although questions don’t exist in a good/bad binary, it might help to think of mu questions as the “opposite” of generative questions. While generative questions are open-ended, mu questions are closed: the more I ask them, the more binaries and the search for validation spread like a fungus and permeate everything else I do—often, without my noticing.
So why do we ask “closed” questions?
It may seem strange to relate the art of question asking to brain patterns and development. But they share a connection. Our brains have become adept at forecasting experience; scientists call this phenomenon predictive processing. And it happens with all our senses. Take our outer senses like vision or audition, for example. When we look at something, we don’t see it as it actually exists. Our visual system perceives part of it, our brain predicts part of it, and these perceptions and predictions reconcile over time.
The same predictive process applies to inner senses like interoception and proprioception. Immediate and predictive elements combine to create the sensations we feel. The older we get, the more our brains tend to rely on prediction. This can close off unexpected or unusual perceptions and ideas and relationships, and keep us fixed to the same path. In fact, illnesses like depression are thought to involve a high degree of prediction—often, inaccurate. Prediction errors can stress our mind-brain-body systems. Over time, they become more entrenched and rigid. They prevent novelty.
There’s also the social attitude toward mistakes. As adults, we have long been schooled in the need to be right, to avoid making errors. In the process, we can become allergic to phrases like “I don’t know” or “I’m sorry.” We may try not to look or feel awkward, especially in front of others. We may not want to “show our work,” particularly the messy or angst-ridden process of it. We may instead try to appear fluent and finished by showing only the product.
In addition, the continuing education business (read: industrial complex) fosters a consumptive knowledge framework. It encourages a “Learn a tool today, use it tomorrow” or “Learn a tool from someone, pretend you were born knowing it” approach. This typically means that we haven’t yet made the tool a key part of our practice. Sometimes that’s part of professional growth; and yet, it can also lead to a prescriptive approach to professional work, particularly in the realm of the body.
What inquiry can look like in the yoga + mindfulness + wellness fields.
This month marks two years since I’ve been teaching Masterclasses exploring the science, psychology, and social justice of well-being, and an additional fifteen years of leading trainings worldwide. I’ve noticed that I’m not alone in my patterns of questioning.
Mu questions often come in clever disguises or prefaced in unassuming ways. One of the most common: “I’m not asking you for a map, but…” or “I’m not asking for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer here, but…” Invariably, the next clause has a more sophisticated version of the previous questions. It seeks to reinforce a binary, or to affirm that the asker is doing something right—or wrong.
Some questions have reached the status of “question archetypes” because they get asked so often. One archetypal question goes something like this: “I’ve been teaching yoga [also insert somatics, fitness, mindful movement, yoga therapy, psychotherapy] for x years. I do x, y, and z with my clients. Is this enough, or is there something else I should be doing?” This question looks for confirmation that what we’re doing is progressive enough, and that we don’t need to grow or change too much. It prioritizes our comfort. It’s like cooking the same old dish with just a slight change in seasoning (the incorporation of something small).
As an alternative, we might ask: “What status quo am I trying to maintain?” And underneath that, “What might I be afraid of?”
Another archetype question, a “cousin” to the previous one, is: “I’ve been teaching _____________ [insert yoga, somatics, fitness, mindful movement, yoga therapy, or psychotherapy] for x years. How do I help people become more embodied?”
On the surface, this is a reasonable question—and one I have asked many times. (In fact, it took me a long time to realize that this was a yes-or-no questions in disguise.) Yet the question implies a hierarchy in which the person in power (teacher, therapist, coach) is embodied and the one asking for “help” (or minding their own business) is disembodied. It creates a closed system because it ignores the questioner’s bias about what embodiment “looks” or “acts” like in others. It jumps over the supervision work we need to do on ourselves. And it preserves a teacher-student hierarchy and renews the focus on the tools we offer others.
Instead, we might ask, “What has contributed to my idea of what embodiment is or looks like?” or “How can I expand my ideas of what embodiment looks like—and what might happen if I do?” “What am I missing in my own experience of embodiment?” (That’s always a scary question.)
What can our bodies teach us about inquiry?
Mu questions resemble psychological defenses. They protect us by design; they help us cope with uncertainty. But they also offer clues to what we’re afraid of and what we desire. To our relationship with the unknown and with possibility. And how we cultivate a non-linear sense of reality and of time.
I’ve taken on the practice of listening for mu questions in myself. Of asking what’s happening in my own direct experience when I encounter new ideas, experience discomfort, and fall into the gravitational momentum of asking them. When are these questions most strident? What do they serve to cover up? Ultimately, I tend to ask mu questions when I’m most insecure about where I am in my work or life or relationships—ironically, when I’m most in need of shaking things up.
I ask, “What am I feeling in my body right now as this question arises?” (The Check-Ins we do in Masterclasses and in the meditations on my website can be helpful to this process.) “Where do I experience ease in my body, and where is there discomfort?” I’ve learned that for me, right/wrong, yes/no, requests for maps or directives, and other closed questions are often accompanied by a physical sense of rigidity. An instability in my upper abdomen. The feeling that something is stuck in my throat. A buzzing in my head, a sort of vertigo, as though my thinking self is disconnected from my body. A free-floating anxiety that demands to be quieted by any means necessary.
Mu questions uphold a dominant culture outlook + social order.
Asking generative questions is critical not just to personal transformation, but to movement of all kinds—to social change. In today’s volatile and rapidly changing world, interrogating the “mu” in my questions and those of the people I train or consult with has become increasingly urgent.
The art of inquiry underpins our response to crises such as the racial reckonings taking in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Europe, and the cultural reckonings in the Western yoga world. Asking generative questions and the larger quest it supports determines whether we have movement in these areas or continue to stagnate.
Dominant culture (and within it, the ideologies of whiteness and white supremacy) subsist on a steady diet of denial. Like mu questions, whiteness continually remakes itself in its own likeness, superimposing its ideology onto new information and cutting off productive discomfort and generative inquiry.
One stubborn idea that persists in the yoga and wellness communities is that the yoga classroom or private yoga setting exists somehow independently of our social and political lives. (You can read some of my reflections on that here.) This idea is so compelling that it leads to a series of mu questions. One, for instance, might be, “What else should I add to my yoga practice?” or “It’s enough for me just to become more aware of social issues, right?”
Mu questions offer a birds-eye view into where and how people like me with compounded nodes of privilege struggle as we evolve our ideas and practices in yoga, wellness, and social justice initiatives—and how we can move with more fluidity.
What are the better questions we can ask?
As Pirsig and O’Tuama say, “Un-ask the question, because there’s a better question to be asked.” So what might that be? As an example, let’s take proprioception—the topic of a recent Masterclass. The status quo is to see proprioception as a “tool” we teach or do within the confines of a yoga class or private session, absent its social context. This indicates privilege, which we usually protect with a hard and brittle shell of avoidance or denial.
More generative lines of inquiry might be: “What (or who) has been missing from my approach?” “How might this new information uproot me?” “What does it ask me to give up?” “What does it ask me to take on?”
A generative inquiry might begin by asking, “How do we evolve to a proprioceptive [or interoceptive, or social justice] practice that moves from the confines of the classroom into public life?” Or “How can my teaching/professional work narrow the Grand Canyon-sized gap between embodiment as a tool and the real-life experience of being embodied in the key moments of our lives?”
One important caveat: the better question has no ready answer. It will, however, induct us into the uncomfortable process of change. Over time, we can use generative inquiry to expand our capacity to tolerate and even seek out productive discomfort.
“When I feel, truly feel, I leave the room for my identity to be unset, for how I grasp for and obtain power to be unset. And unsettled. Feeling is different than conjuring a set of sensations that reinforce who we would like to be. It is allowance and discovery. Listening. A dance with the unknown.”
Mu questions have a wonderful sense of timing. They often occur at the summit of discomfort, in the tension-filled moments just before breakthrough. And if we learn how to recognize and work with them, they can bring us onto the threshold of an exciting process. When we dismantle them, we create space for the beauty and creativity that lie beyond them.