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W is for Why

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Most of us, if we put our hand on a hot stove, would pull it away immediately. Most of us, if dipping a toe into a too hot bath, would recoil instantly. Most of us, when looking at a cast iron frying pan, would not pick it up and start beating ourselves over the head with it repeatedly.

And yet most of us will happily batter ourselves senseless with the three-letter equivalent of a frying pan: why.

Why is why a psychological frying pan?

Because we don’t know how to handle it with grace.

“If I can just work out why,” we say, “then I’ll be ok.”

IF I can work out

why he left me,

why my colleague got promoted over me,

why I’m so sad or stressed or perpetually broke,

why I don’t feel normal or fit in or speak out…

THEN I’ll be freed from feeling these feelings that are ruffling the state of perpetual equilibrium I believe I’m entitled to.

We unconsciously imbue why with magical powers, to keep us safe from suffering and on the home straight to happiness. So we hound it down, get it in a headlock and furiously pummel it in the hope it will offer up the insight we need.

“Why? Yeah but, why? Butwhybutwhybutwhhhhyyyy?”

The frying pan approach to spiritual awakening.

Both painful, and fruitless.

Because when it comes to our well-being, the key is to understand that why does not belong to mathematics but to poetry. Why’s job is not to reveal the answer to x + y =, but to help us to hear a whisper on the wind. Our lives aren’t puzzles that need solving, they’re stories that are perpetually re-writing themselves. We can’t control the ending, because the story doesn’t end until we do.

There is no ‘then’, no illusory place where OK is completed, banked. We’re ok and then we’re not. Just as waves lap the shore, life is gnarly, then it’s not, it’s joyful then challenging. Lobbing whys at the pain to make it stop is to miss the grace of the rhythm of the flux that is our life.

All pain has a gift for us. And, also, pain hurts. Few of us enjoy being in the gnarl. So a profoundly more useful question for us to deploy when we’re struggling is: what.

What needs to happen?

What is trying to get my attention here?

What am I not acknowledging?

What am I not seeing or doing?

What do I need?

What action, if any, might I take?

What choices are available to me right now?

What doesn’t piss about; it calls our bluff. It doesn’t let us wallow in perpetual why-ning, but says, fine, something’s up, what do you need? It invites us to turn our attention away from the out-there, happily-ever-after, magical thinking of if/then and brings us firmly into the present presence of our empowered selves. From this position, we don’t run away from our troubles but find a way to go through them. We don’t try to control the ending, but live into the story.

As for why, there is a secret for how to live well with why, which is: ask once. (And ask with a voice of curiosity and wonder.)

If the answer comes, we’re ready to hear it. If it doesn’t, it’s simply not time.

We need to walk away from the enquiry and live into it instead, remembering that we’re not entitled to an answer just because we’ve formed the question.

Not getting an answer to why isn’t cause for despair, but a positive invitation for us to be more with what is, rather than to find the quickest exit away from what is. (There are no secret shortcuts to be found; life isn’t Ikea.) Put another way, if we don’t know yet, we don’t know yet – so living into the experience is a way for us to gather more data in order that we can know. After all, wisdom is born from experience; all experience, not just the rosy bits.

What I’ve come to learn over time is that I only got an answer to a why when I no longer needed it; when I could receive it with curiosity, open to possibility and interpretation rather than being solid fact of proof. And each answer gently illuminated the space I was in, until I came to realise that the space I was in was glorious and luminous and there was nowhere to go because I was where I was supposed to be all along.

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