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The Art of Questioning Together

Perhaps the most difficult thing for people to do, no matter what their cultural background, is to question together. It’s strange that such a natural action, which forms and forges the deepest and truest connection between human beings, is so rare. Given the parlous state of our world, that shouldn’t be a surprise. But it’s still perplexing, at least to me. Why is thinking together so uncommon and extraordinary?

No doubt a big part of it is that eroding traditions, and the fraying bonds of culture and religion still have a hold on the human mind and heart. After all, people have been conditioned for as long as there have been people, and these factors, as anachronistic as they’ve become, are the prime sources of conditioning. And people just don’t see another way.

Perhaps the vast majority of people have also simply never experienced the intrinsic joy of asking just the right question together, irrespective of personal or cultural background.

Inquiry is not a matter of agreement building on agreement, nor is it a function of knowledge, however erudite. Insight is always new, whereas knowledge, when put first, is always old. That’s not an epistemological claim; it’s a simple fact.

What is the essence of inquiry? It begins and is sustained by the feeling, ‘I don’t know.’ Inquiry is the shared intent to follow the thread of a mutual question to whatever insight it leads.

That’s very rare, especially in so-called educated people. Indeed, there are at least three kinds of ignorance—the ignorance of the poorly schooled, the ignorance of the willfully unaware, and the ignorance of the highly educated.

So the first thing is to have curiosity about things that people usually accept, and a refusal to accept spiritual or philosophical authority. Also, one has to stop echoing the tired refrains, ‘things have always been so;’ ‘there’s nothing new under the sun;’ and the ever popular, ‘it’s just human nature.’

For me, philosophy began in my teens with the question: Why does man generate disorder, when nature and the universe move in dynamic order, and humans evolved as part of nature?

Some religions would have us believe that we’re made in the image of God. But God must be a very small and miserable thing if that’s true.

No philosophy, Western or Eastern, provided an adequate explanation, and it took me 15 years of intensive inquiry to find out, and have an original insight. That was a quarter century ago, and it still has not received, in philosophical parlance, “a fair and sympathetic hearing.” But then I realized that the explanation, however accurate, would not change the explained—us.

Despite what man is doing to the earth and humanity, I still believe human beings have tremendous potential. That’s not an ideal, but something I’ve actually experienced. The thing that perplexes me is why there is so little drive for realizing our individual and collective potential, and so little urgency given that it’s being lost.

Is it because the vast majority of people are mediocre? Why do we set our sights so low? Is it because we’re conditioned by the impoverishment around us, whether physical or spiritual?

I feel questioning and igniting insight together is the way out of our collective morass. For what does it matter if one or two, here and there, are able to liberate themselves from the chains of obligation society uses to bind us, and the anvil of the past upon which the world pounds us and drags us down?

To truly think together is the highest action that people can perform together. Indeed, following a shared question is a greater achievement than an excellent symphony orchestra playing together.

Though questioning together has similarities with a group of musicians playing any good music together, enquiry is different in that there is no score. Questions and insights flow solely and completely out of the minds and hearts of a given group of people in the present.

In other words, context, in the usual sense of the word (the particularities of language, culture, and background) isn’t the predominant factor. The only ‘context’ is a question shared by people in the present.

And that points to another reason why thinking together is so rare (except to a limited degree in science, technology, and business of course). If you think that cultural contexts are primary, then you won’t really be able to think together with anyone, even a person with the same language, culture, and background.

You might ask, aren’t you just talking about Socratic dialogue?

Questioning was certainly at the heart of Socrates’ approach, but he didn’t give emphasis to shared questions, much less the intent to awaken insight together. Socrates’ approach was primarily to expose error, not ignite shared insight.

That points to another reason so few people question things, alone or with others. For as Socrates said, “When we first start facing truth, the process may be frightening, and many people run back to their old lives.”

As he also said however, “Once you’ve tasted the truth, you won’t ever want to go back to being ignorant.” One cannot have insight and have a mediocre mind, and vice versa.

In a sense, each generation, indeed each person, has to ‘reinvent the wheel’ spiritually and philosophically. Moreover, the technological metaphor is inaccurate, because spiritual and philosophical insight isn’t like technology or science at all.

It’s the capacity for insight in the present that matters, which is why religious or philosophical texts are secondary at best. Though I was good at traditional philosophical discourse, I discovered firsthand the truth of the maxim that ‘no advance in philosophy ever occurred within the walls of academia.’

In short, when inquiry is placed in the context of knowledge, explicitly or implicitly, it ceases to be inquiry. It is very difficult to hold the space, and keep hold our knowledge, opinions, and even prior insights in abeyance, and simply question and listen.

The right question has a certain sound to it, like a tuning fork vibrating at a given frequency. The key is to not train or be trained to give answers, but to listen for that sound, which is always of the moment.

Again, when put first, knowledge is an impediment to understanding. Sifting through living and dead philosophers (admittedly, living ones are often dead, and dead ones can still speak to us) does not lead to insight, much less wisdom, but rather to spiritual and intellectual sclerosis.

Therefore ‘received wisdom’ is worse than useless; it’s a great impediment to the awakening of insight. One might ask, then what need is there for religious teachers and philosophers? The best that the genuine article can do is point the way, as they themselves continue to question and non-accumulatively learn.

Can the written word convey insight? Are there authentic dialogues taking place in real time over the Net, even with video?

I don’t know, but ‘f2f’ (to use an unfortunate diminution of a primary social necessity) will always be preferable.

Having tried a number of times, I’ve come to feel that it’s probably impossible to initiate a movement of inquiry over the Net. Even the best correspondence between two friends that understand each other very well is essentially individually reflective, not a communion of insight and meaning.

Even so, the Net is producing new synergies. Hope springs eternal. Or is it infernal?

Martin LeFevre

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