Noticing “Why” Questions Can Help You Be More Present in Life

Nonjudgmental awareness is the goal of most meditation sessions and cultivating it is the goal of most meditators. Teachers will tell us to “just notice what’s there” instead of getting lost in our reactions. But, for us lawyers, this is not an easy feat. We are trained to judge, evaluate, and appraise. Clients pay us and specifically ask for our reactions. This means that our jobs incentivize us to automatically react to any situation we encounter.

If we could easily restrain this tendency to our work lives, we perhaps wouldn’t have any need for meditation. Most of us are not that fortunate, however, and we may find ourselves lost in judgments instead of present in our lives, whether in or outside of work. Even so, the habit of reacting to our experiences in life rather than experiencing life directly is deeply ingrained. How on earth can we start to undo it?

For most of us, this will be a gradual process and it won’t do much good to simply resolve to stop reacting so much. But, in my years of meditation practice, I have found one simple thing that has helped me: being watchful of “why” questions. You may have never thought about this before. Asking “why” questions as a kid probably helped make you the smart, talented person that you are. And, to be sure, a sense of curiosity is actually a good thing for most of us trying to make meditation a habit.

When I tell you to watch out for “why” questions, I’m not saying to dispense with your inclination to explore. I’m actually saying the opposite. I’m recommending that you notice how the “why” questions come up for you. In many cases, you may find that they aren’t questions at all, but instead are implicit judgments about your situation.

For example, if you can’t focus on your breath in meditation, you may ask yourself “why is this so hard for me?” Implicit in that question are several latent assumptions: (a) that meditation shouldn’t be hard; (b) that meditation shouldn’t be hard for you; (c) that things in general shouldn’t be hard for you; and (d) that failing to focus on the breath means you are doing something wrong in your meditation practice. With questions like this, the word “why” is an illusion that suggests that there is an easy answer out there that we are missing, but in most cases in life there isn’t one. When we notice this pattern of speech, it can help us see a pattern of our mind to judge.

Even when we are using “why” in the exploratory sense, paying attention to how it arises for us can help us uncover less obvious judgments. Let’s shift the example above to a less overtly judgmental question like “why do I do this?” That may seem fairly innocuous, but even here the question still implies that (a) the thing you keep doing is wrong or a problem to be solved; (b) the thing you are doing is part of a pattern with a singular cause; and (c) the solution to the problem can be discovered through logical reasoning. Sometimes things fit those descriptions, but often in life they don’t. When we narrow the focus of inquiry too much with a pointed “why” question, we can miss some of what life experience is trying to show us.

So, what’s the answer here? It is literally in the question. Once we have started to become aware of all the “why” questions we ask about our lives and our practices, we can then start to ask something more fundamental: what. Instead of asking ourselves “why” things are the way they are, we drill down on the facts of what is actually taking place. Much like refocusing our attention on the breath when the mind wanders, the “what” question brings our mind back to reality instead of getting lost in theories about causation.

My experience with this shift has produced a paradoxical result. The more I have learned to ask “what” in my life and meditation practice, the more that the “why” questions became irrelevant. When I focused with more intention, clarity, and precision on the facts and situation before me, I implicitly understood the “why” or realized that the “why” wasn’t as important as I had previously believed it to be.

Not only did becoming skeptical of “why” questions help me become aware of my judgments, it also helped me understand that I couldn’t take a short cut to get to understanding about myself or the world. Instead, the only way to get that understanding and all the peace and happiness that came with it was to stay rooted in the realities of what life and the world really was.

There isn’t a quick and easy way to become less judgmental in life. It’s a deeply ingrained habit for most of us and it will take time and practice to change. Even so, noticing how we use the word “why” may be one small thing we can do to bring awareness to our habits of judging and reacting to life. Training ourselves to ask “what” instead–even when we think we already know–may help us come back to presence with life exactly as it is.

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