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Answers & Questions

In Jim Harrison's fine new novel, The Road Home, I came across this aphorism (which I'm paraphrasing from memory): Questions are mighty oaks; answers small hard acorns. I don't know what it means, but the image is very vivid and suggestive, and I'd like to offer a few of my own associations.

The oak tree stands open to the elements, the rain, and the wind, and sun. The acorn has a vital core, but it is enclosed within a hard shell. An old teacher said, "Not knowing is most intimate." Knowing puts a hard shell of explanation and judgement between us and the world. Questions ramify in endless directions; answers bring an end to possibility.

But the oak and the acorn do not exist apart from one another. The mature tree throws off thousands upon thousands of acorns, whose hard shells eventually break down and allow the seed within to grow. Questions naturally lead to answers, which give rise to more questions. To arrest the cycle at either point is death.

We all come to practice with questions, perhaps the most basic of which is "Why am I suffering?" And we also come to practice with our private  answers to that question, answers that involve blaming ourselves or others, or which catch us in endless cycles of hope and disappointment. These answers lie buried within our minds as grim unconscious beliefs, and within our bodies as hard knots of physical tension. While they lie buried, unexposed to the light and air of our attention, the seed of our vitality is trapped within their hard shells.

We must center our practice not on coming up with new answers to our questions, but on bringing to light the old answers we carry around inside us and which form the hard shell of Self that stands between us and Life. Therapy can help us unravel the history of our answers. Instead of taking our ingrained assumptions for granted, we learn to ask over and over, "Where did I get that idea? Paradoxically, longer we practice, the less we may be able to answer the basic questions that brought us to practice in the first place. But we are more able to endure their mystery.