Why?: The Big Unanswerable Question
Updated: May 10, 2019
My first post for my guidance column, Ask an Aspiring Yogini, does not fail to challenge my endeavor of responding to your wonderments. And, it's only appropriate that the first query be so very grand and come from my own revered and beloved yoga teacher. I humbly hope that the response meets the question with love, respect, and perhaps an inkling of insight -- for I am genuinely looking within for these responses.
Oh Dear Beloved Teacher,
I am so grateful for and honored by your question. I am aware that you have a 3 year-old and perhaps your inspiration to ask this particular question comes from hearing it asked all day long. But I have decided to answer you -- the adult.
Let me go ahead and confess: of course I can't answer that incredible, incessant question of WHY? Why are we here? Why does the universe exist?
I don't believe yoga, Buddhism, the eastern philosophies or any philosophy can definitively deliver an answer either. From my studies I can honestly say yoga never even promised me it would, despite my hope and yearning.
Deep down our religious friends may have found their answers to other questions but they are still wondering this one nagging thing -- they still ask God, "why?" And some end up saying, "he works in mysterious ways." Which bodes truth.
Our atheist friends have taken a cynical route and decided it's worthless to ask the question at all. They turn to nature with their questions. There's truth in this as well.
Neither of them are wrong in their approach. Both ways contain some truth. Both ways serve some people. Personally, I approach it from both these angles. I turn to the mystery of Spirit when I ask this question and I turn to nature because I understand, as most of us do, that it is the one question that will never be answered in my lifetime (perhaps eons of lifetimes?).
But, I believe unanswerable questions are worthy of our time. The trick is to accept the inevitable futility of the question while remaining curious. That state is magical indeed.
Starting with the Foundational Questions Posed by the Elements.
In this theory, each element poses a question to the self.
EARTH -- Who am I?
WATER -- How am I?
FIRE -- Where am I? (or where is my attention?)
AIR -- When do I let go and when do I attach?
SPACE -- What is my purpose?
And...that's where the questions stop. There is no posing of why in this theory.
Why might that be?
Drawing from my education, my own therapeutic insights and self exploration I use to say to my students, "we don't go into 'why' because it's so mysterious and so unanswerable." (A very similar response to both our religious and atheist buddies, eh?)
But let me attempt to explain in more detail rather than stopping there.
(Now I will go into ideas that you have taught me. Needless to say, this process has been very humbling. I would just like to note that I also write to the public and want to make sure they stay with us ;)
According to yoga, prakriti -- all energy that makes up the world, including our existence in it -- is divided by three main qualities or parts: static energy (tamas), active energy (rajas) and light energy (sattva). The five elements are a spectrum of qualities within static energy (tamas). The five elements allow sentient beings to manifest. They make us matter :)
The elements are our foundation of being statically this person at this point in time. And like any great path or practice it's wise to start with the foundation. This is why the teachings of the elements are so powerful.
So we first ask these elemental questions.
Who am I in this body?
Am I this body?
Am I this personality and/or mind?
Who is really behind these thoughts and behaviors?
Different philosophies, religions and sciences pose these questions about humanity everyday. Yoga invites this question every time we step on the mat.
Again, many studies and methods are driven by asking how we got here as a species etc., but I gravitate toward the individual's evolution.
How do I move in this body?
How do my genetics play out in my being?
And I perfer to ask this in a more immediate way: How am I going right now?
This is how people greet each other in Australia. They ask, "How are you going?" Converse to my American heritage whom ask, "How are you?"
What's the difference? The American way implies a stagnation of being. It infers: how you are is yourself. We reply, "I am..."
Whereas, the Australian way implies movement. How you are is the way your emotions are moving in the world currently. We respond, ,"I am going..." There is an implication that it will change.
I ask myself this everyday: How am I going through this moment, this world?
Feeling the answer as a metaphor of water really resonates with me :) It helps me feel less identified by my state of being and more of a witness, more of an entity experiencing being in the world.
Yoga teachers drill the adage: where your attention goes prana flows.
Which makes us ask: Where is my focus?
Where does my mind tend to wander?
Where am I spending my energy (prana)? On others? On myself? On my problems? On my gifts?
So in our yoga practice, it is a wise person that can reflect on where their attention is and then redirect that attention, thus energy, toward peace and love.
We practice this redirection of our attention and energy like warriors preparing for battle so that we may employ the skill during moments of confrontation -- when we are confronted with hate, anger, loss, pain etc. From our practice, we (eventually) have the ability to "control' the flow of prana toward peaceful and loving transformation even in the darkest of moments, the brutalest of battles.
However the very first step of the warrior processing this magical weapon of peace and love is for them to simply ask the question: where is my attention? Any great warrior realizes this question is the foundation of accumulating skill. Yoga is skill in action.
Now, I understand that many people will be turned off by the metaphor of war. And yet, one of the greatest text on spiritual existence -- the Bhagavad Gita -- uses such a metaphor for our existence. And who hasn't felt like being inside their mind is a battle? This is why the battlefield is a crucial metaphor for the mind. Not to say it is the only one.
There has been a substantial controversy happening within the yoga world for centuries. Is meditation/yoga a practice of detachment or attachment? The tantra way was a revolution of attaching to our earthly bodies while the aesthetics, including the famous Buddha himself, went to extraordinary links to detach from worldly experiences.
Most of us are householders. This means we maintain interaction with society. This means we are asked to live a middle way rather than dedicating our entire life to detachment. We must attach at times.
So if we must attach at times, if, in fact, it is healthy to attach to the body and to the identification of self (gender, race, societal roles) then when do we detach?
Discerning whether to detach and attach in any given moment is the dance of the human experience. This is a crucial question for the soul. And it's available to us every minute of every day.
It can be liberating to unveil all these sheaths making up who you are, liberating to let go of emotions in any given moment and liberating to know you are not your mind's habits and therefore can transform them.
Conversely, it can be grounding and therefore healing to identify with the current body and personality, healing to own your emotions, and grounding to occupy mental habits.
Attachment is harmful and detachment can be harmful. So what must we do? Well, first we must ask:
When is it helpful to attach to my gender?
When is it helpful to detach from being woman?
When is it helpful to attach to my husband?
When is it helpful to detach from my husband?
This reminds me of the great Gita verse: a wise man sees inaction in action and action in inaction.
On it's head this quote primarily advocates detachment. But I think it speaks directly to this quandary. There is great wisdom when you can detach yourself from your actions and know Spirit is behind it all.
When I love my husband, attaching to him with grace, Spirit is really loving my husband.
And yet, it takes great strength of action to attach to a discipline like yoga (or any other self-evolving discipline). Ironically a discipline teaching detachment.
When my husband is angry, sad, etc, employing my yoga discipline, detaching from him, is the best way to support his evolution and my own, resisting my need to act, to fix.
Lastly, many of us long to know what is our purpose here on this planet. Individually, some of us are lucky enough to have a calling that feels true. We find a profession. We attach to family roles. We say, this is my individual purpose.
Many of us need larger answers. What is the purpose of humanity? This question leads us to religion, strong political positions and/or specific professions as well.
This question, driven by the soul meeting spirit, can lead the individual to great satisfaction. Simply by asking we are driven to answer.
Not to say that the question can't produce anxiety, especially if the other foundational questions have not been addressed. And honestly, answering this question can also lead to harmful attachment -- one that can lead to fear, thus hate of others. In this case, there is such a strong belief in one's answer that if put back into question their identity would feel irrevocably unstable.
Most us will not fully understand the greater purpose of humanity and perhaps even of ourselves. This question eventually leads us to your big unanswerable question: WHY?
My Own Personal Journey with this Question
I feel drawn to share when and how my life points me toward this question of why.
Feel free to check out more details of my bio, as I will only refer to it briefly here.
I, like many, find myself in the throws of this question during my darkest times. For me this has involved past abuse and the effects of abuse. During my suffering from these unthinkable wrongs, I kneel on the ground and scream to the sky, "WHY?"
I even ask the taboo question: Why me? I believe this question is necessary for victims of abuse. And for too long we've been shamed for asking it. This question leads us to the necessary unraveling of the self. Abuse is so harmful because it shatters one's identity, especially as children when we are developing our psyche. Through the abuse we identify as wrong, dirty, uniquely doomed. And although unfair, it is the work of the victim to dismantle these beliefs.
The foundational questions of the elements helped me realize more truth, helped remove these identities and transform myself into someone I am proud to be on this planet. The questioning of "why" has been a direct communication with the Self (or Higher Self or Spirit or God/dess, etc).
All the questioning has been key. Not key to me surviving, for I've seen many "survivors" never get relief from their suffering, but it has led me to thriving. (Not to say I'm entirely free of suffering.)
I believe we have shirked the responsibility of asking the question: WHY? Why do these things happen? It is incredibly uncomfortable and, even worse, somewhat unanswerable and therefore we divert our attention from it.
This has some links to our current political climate today, where the innocent and vulnerable are easily and predominately preyed upon, where the majority of us feel as though we do not have the right to thrive in our society unless we are lucky, chosen or pay for it with our entire life force (prana).
For me, the question of "why" is critical to existence. Even if I don't have all or any answers, it is the questioning that has brought me peace.
And if I can find even a glimmer of peace from that incredible sickness forced on me, then I have evidence for hope in any situation.
Conclusion? Why is the Question for the Self.
So, the questions of the five elements are questions of matter and energy (prakriti). They are addressed to the self -- the one manifested here and now on planet earth.
Then, perhaps, the remaining question of WHY is the question of pure consciousness (purusha). It is addressed to the Self -- the one connected to all existence in eternity.
Maybe this is why we are driven to it in our darkest times? So that we may stay connected to existing.
Maybe this is why children ask it so much? Because they live in that innocent and connected state of simply and effortlessly existing.
Maybe this is the question of the Great Spirit?
Maybe Spirit is simply WHY?
But what do I know? I don't have the answers.
I do have a blessing, one you have taught me, dear teacher:
May we all be happy, healthy and free as we question.