The questions we ask ourselves determine not only what we think about, but also how we think. And our thoughts impact or decisions. And our decision impact our behavior. Over the course of our lives our behaviors impact our destiny. So way back along our journey we started with questions.
Today, you still ask yourself fundamental questions that have tremendous influence over you and your life. Do you know what they are?
When I first started thinking about this stuff (i.e. studying Tony Robbins and Buddhism) I had a hard time confronting my primary questions. I understood the concept and certainly agreed with the premise – but application was an issue.
Ideas from Buddha:
The mind is everything. What you think you become.
We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think.
We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.
Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.
To be clear I am not saying Tony Robbins and Buddha are comparable characters in the theatre of world history… just pointing out ideas they expressed that stuck with me. To be sure, there have been Rabbi’s, priests, ministers, and secular philosophers who have also come to this conclusion:
I am what I think.
I prefer this to Descartes’ “Cogito Ergo Sum”
I think therefore I am (exist)
Admittedly, Descartes was addressing a different context.
It works out to be a basic truth for all humanity. What and how we think determines our quality of life. Sure, it may not change the circumstances but it will determine how we deal with them and this is much more important in our life.
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
~ Viktor Frankl
So if you are in trapped in North Korea and life is a nightmare, your life circumstances won’t necessarily get better because you change your thoughts, BUT your attitude could change and therefore you could shift the horrific circumstances by infusing them with meaning. Remember Viktor Frankl wrote his work “Man Search For Meaning” after surviving and examining the lives and psychologies of his fellows in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. The ones who asked great question and found meaning behind the tragedy had a better existence and greater chance of survival than those who did not.
Hopefully no one reading this is experiencing the horrors like those in the concentration camps or North Korea. And let’s face it, if you are in America or a part of the world that has electricity, running water, and a drainage system – you are starting out much better off the billions of people today and all of humanity until just 150 years ago. We are blessed and forget it all the time.
So what about this primary question?
To give an example based on what I mentioned above: One prisoner in a Nazi camp could be primarily asking “Why is this happening to me?”. Now here is the thing with primary questions… we always find answers. Right or wrong we make up answers to satisfy our questions. How could someone answer “Why is this (bad thing) happening to me?” Possible answer: “Remember when you cheated on your final exam and you didn’t get caught so you lied about how hard you studied and your dad said how proud he was and bought you that nice gift. That’s why this bad thing is happening to you.”
So we need to be super-aware and hyper-sensitive about the questions we ask ourselves. Your brain will find an answer, and that answer will shape your personality, behavior, and destiny. It is what we do naturally, so we need to not let ourselves naturally fall into a rut, or make our lives more difficult than they actually are.
And remember that most of our thoughts are really just a series of questions and answers. So all I am suggesting is that you get more aware of your questions (thoughts), and understand how your answers (more thoughts) have brought you to where you are today. Everyone has a primary question. Interestingly many people have similar questions. But also interesting is the variegated answers people come up with to solve their questions.
So what is a primary question and…
How do you determine your primary question?
In general, your primary question is typically that question that keeps coming up or “naturally” being answered when you find yourself in a stressful situation. Or if not stressful perhaps unpleasant situation… as I know plenty of people who enjoy stress. But when they find themselves in an environment they are uncomfortable with and unsure of how to handle it… that is when they will be asking their primary question.
Since I don’t know what that stress or discomfort might be for you, I’ll give you some personal examples.
Many years ago when I was in my teenage and early adult years, and I found myself in a bad situation I would typically ask “What is the point of all this?” Now this is not necessarily a defeating question. If I was in a good mood, I might come up with good reasons. But if I was in a bad mood, you could not convince me there was any point. So how did this play out?
There were many things in my youth that I ended up just not caring about because I determined there was no point to it. I had a huge problem with authority and doing what I was told… especially if I did not see any point to it. There were many great opportunities I missed out on, because my bad attitude at that moment only offered me bad answers.
This primary question stuck with me for quite a while, but sometimes it would get replaced by another question. Broadly speaking this was a question of “Am I Enough?” So I would get caught up in tough situation asking myself “Am I good enough?” , “Am I smart enough?”, or “Am I strong enough?”. All those kinds of self doubting questions that are usually answered with a resounding “NO!”
Again, this too caused me to miss plenty of opportunities and quit things before I even began them. As much as I have done and tried to accomplish there was even more I wanted to do… But I convinced myself I wasn’t enough.
When your primary question gets answered… it really gets answered. I didn’t just ask “Am I enough?” and say “No, probably not.” It was more like “Am I enough?” and I would answer “Are you kidding? No. And everybody knows it. Here’s why…” When we answer our primary question, we usually follow up our thoughts with conformational questions which reinforce our decisions and behaviors.
So take some time and really think about what your question or questions are. You may have several questions that pop up depending on the situation. Learn what they are. They have been there the whole time. In fact you are probably asking one of them right now! These are the questions that have shaped your life up to this point and created most of your outcomes.
By the way, you might find some conflict between yourself and your questions. In other words, you might realize your questions presuppose things that right now you know are not true, nor any good for you. GREAT! Now you know. You know your questions and you know that you don’t always think rationally (remember your mind will always find answer to your question -even if its an irrational question.) For instance, a fairly common one I hear is “What if I fail?” Well this presupposes you could fail. But what if you truly believed that even when you don’t hit your target perfectly, and yet you still gained in practice, understanding, experience, or something… Then it’s not a failure. Plus, how is not even starting and trying any better than doing your best and not perfectly accomplishing the task? It makes no sense. Regardless, that’s the question and the made up answer is surely going to convince you to quit before you start.
The primary question is simply part of our human nature…
But you can use this part of your human nature to help your life rather than hinder it.
Ask Better Questions!
Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers. ~ Tony Robbins
Once you figure out your questions, ask yourself how you can improve them. Don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis trying to concoct the perfect question. Just work with you nature and make your questions better. Now that you know them you can keep reflecting on them, and then you can constantly and continually improve your questions as you develop and mature.
So for example, my old question “What’s the point?”, became “What good will this do?” For me this question, does a couple things. One, simply replacing the word ‘point’ with ‘good’ triggers my mind to be in a different state. Two, it makes me really try to find something good in all situations. And three, if there really is no good and instead there is something bad or evil that could arise from my actions then I know to avoid it. Before I could have still seen the point in behaving badly (i.e. excitement, fun, thrill, etc.) but I know that there is no goodness that comes from it. I cannot express in words how that question “What good will this do?” transformed my life in extraordinary ways.
My other old question, “Am I enough?” has been a tougher one for me. Initially, I battled it and lost every time because I was trying to either ignore the question or convince myself I somehow am enough.
Thank God for the Torah and Moses.
In the first parsha of Exodus “Shmot” we read about were Moses meets with God at the burning bush. Paraphrasing: God tells Moses, “You are going to go to Eqypt and free the slaves” and Moses basically says “What? Who am I to do such a thing?” God answers back, “Okay, I’ll be with you and will do all the heavy lifting.” Of course Moses is still not convinced and so God proves Himself and His power… but Moses’ doubts remain. So Moses complains “Look, I can’t even speak well enough to go and argue with Pharaoh and convince people to come with me.” “Fine” God says “I’ll speak for you.” Finally, Moses just pleads with God and says “I’m not the guy. Send someone else.” So now God is incensed with Moses and basically says, “You’re going. Your brother is going to help. And I will be with you both. Now go.”
So upon reading this the 341st time I finally realized that Moses is not all that different from me… and I’m not different from him. Moses was also probably vexed by the “Am I enough?” question. But God doesn’t care. Just go and do His will and what is right and good, and just don’t quit. I have no idea if I’m enough, and I don’t really care any more. All I know is that I have a moral obligation to God to do my best with every opportunity He gives me. That’s it. So my new question is “Will this glorify God?” It is a completely different question and keeps me out of the “enough” quagmire. Everything is from Him and my role is to do what is good and right in His eyes. He knew Moses was capable of more than what Moses himself believed. I’m sure the same is true for me… and YOU!
What people are capable of doing is extraordinary. It is what they are willing to do that so often disappointing. ~ Tony Robbins
It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it ~Rabbi Tarfon (Avot 2:21)
So now I simply try to focus on doing His will and as much good as possible, and that’s about it. I figure if I can do some good in the world and make it more holy… I did well.