Q & A Writing Prompt

As a Dharma-teacher-in-training, one of my weaknesses is knowing that I would not be much good at fielding Q & A sessions on the fly. I am not a quick thinker. I am a percolator. I need time to process – that’s why I’m a writer!

But as Q & A’s have a way of making their way into our retreat formats, I reckon I should muster up some skill in this regard. And by the way, it doesn’t help at all that for the most part, I tend to personally dislike Q & A sessions in general, simply as a member of the audience. So I see that my weakness on this front is operating at a further disadvantage because in truth, I have little interest in getting any better at it.

I’ve born witness to many a Q & A session while on retreats and it’s been rare that I’ve seen a truly well-crafted question being asked. And by well-crafted, I mean a question that isn’t looking for a quick-fix/straight-forward/tell-me-what-to-do-here sort of answer. No teacher can answer properly the sort of questions most people tend to ask. And by properly I mean in a way that the question asker feels a sense of satisfaction when all is said and done. It seems to me that the best hope one has as a teacher fielding the questions, is the chance to possibly benefit someone else in the audience with what they have to say. My sense is that Zen-based answers leave little to be desired for the people directly asking the questions.

Once in a while, a good question is presented. One that will benefit the whole of the community and isn’t vying for an answer to a question that only you yourself can unfold as you continue on the path of practice. Most questions simply speak to the newness of the practitioner doing the asking. I don’t mean to give new folks a hard time – and I’ve heard equally answerless-questions offered up by people who’ve been in the practice for a while, too – but I do wonder about the necessity of Q & A sessions during our retreats and how much benefit they offer our community.

It makes sense that new practitioners would have questions. But I think especially when we’re starting out, it might be better to simply invest our time and energy into doing the practice, verses talking about it.

Still, despite how I may feel about this topic, I would like to start working on honing my skills of being able to address the sort of questions that get asked in group Q & A sessions, so I thought I’d try my hand at one I just came across on Youtube with Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay).

I watched a video taken during a retreat where a woman asked Thay how to provide counsel to her friend who was suffering a lot from having a bipolar husband who cheats on her and refuses to take meds. She wanted to know if she should tell her friend to leave her husband or stick it out.

My first thought was: How can anyone answer that question for another person? Especially when it’s asked on behalf of a third party and you only have a snippet of info to go off of. My second thought was: Do you speak to the woman asking the question and address the topic of how to offer support to a friend whose struggling, or do you speak as though it were the woman with the bipolar cheating husband asking the question and address the topic of mental illness and marital infidelity? Clearly I wouldn’t want to weigh in on whether or not I thought the woman should leave her husband. So what would my angle be?

Here’s an attempt at my answer:

It’s always difficult when a loved one struggles with something. Part of us wants so badly to find immediate remedies and solutions and fix the situation for them, so they can feel better and stop suffering. But often underneath our desire for our friend/family member to feel better, is the desire for our self to feel better, too. So we must be careful about giving advice or offering solutions to our loved ones in times of struggle. Invoking the spirit of Avalokiteshvara, we know that simply by listening deeply – without prejudice or judgement or reactivity – we can alleviate a great deal of suffering. We must come to see and understand that our true presence is the greatest gift we have to offer someone else. To be there for your friend; to show up; to let them know you care and are able to sit and listen; this is not only enough, it is everything.

If I were to take a run at answering this question as though it had been asked directly from the woman with the bipolar husband, it would look something like this:

No one can tell you whether or not you should leave or stay with your husband. Only you can answer that from the heart of your own experience. What I will say is that when we learn and practice how to come into deep relationship with our self – when we learn and practice how to care well for our self – we will better understand how to discern which action to take in regards to whatever presents itself in our life when the time comes. When we are able to come back home to our self; rooted in our practice; in touch with the here and the now; we will discover for our self what is best to do. And sometimes we’ll find what is best to do is to wait until more calm and clarity can develop, before making any decisions.

It takes two people to be in a romantic partnership. And for a partnership to be strong, fruitful, healthy, well-balanced, and generate feelings of harmony and ease, both parties need to be active participants in co-creating the life they want to manifest together. There must be mutual accord in continuing on the path together, in whatever direction they’re moving in. If both people are not on the same path, if they don’t have the same foundational structure and values in which to build their life atop as a couple, the relationship they create will be shaky and unstable, full of hardship and strife.

Well, there you have it. That’s what I came up with. If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.




5 thoughts on “Q & A Writing Prompt

  1. “If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.”

    Well then, seeing that you asked. Modifying the language that you are using to fortify your dislike about Q & A may be a good place to begin. Would you be open to the idea of encouraging your querents to answer their own questions as well? Perhaps if you were to refocus your attention away from yourself and place it upon the edification of the other. Try and see if you can get them to understand the undercurrent that is motivating them to ask the question in the first place. In addition, make the assumption that the other is genuinely seeking clarity, rather than assume that they are ‘looking for a quick-fix/straight-forward/tell-me-what-to-do-here sort of answer.’ On the surface their communication may appear shallow and flimsy, but dare to go deeper into the impulses and drives behind their words. Learn to be ok with vulnerability, in that empty place of not knowing, where there is no witty or sophisticated comebacks, but long drawn out silences that most men would prefer to go to war rather than sit with. Anywho, this may be enough to get your raft unstuck and back into the stream.
    Love & light,

    • Thank you for posting Jason, I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts and input here. And I agree very much with the points you raised. I think part of what you’re mentioning here falls more in line in our tradition with the sort of exchange that takes place during the optional one-on-one consultations with Dharma teachers that we have during our retreats, where there is more time and an actual conversation taking place. These group Q & A sessions are not a back and forth exchange, which for me is part of the issue I have with them. I see little value in the Q & A sessions that involve someone asking a question in person in front of all the retreat goers, or writing it down and having it read aloud, and then having the teacher answer it on the spot. Perhaps, should I one day ordain as a Dharma teacher, I’ll have to come up with creative alternatives for the group held Q & A session, such as possibly nixing it all together! :)

      • I hear ya. Now you know how the Buddha felt when he questioned himself as to whether it would be worth the effort teaching the dharma to others. Humour is often a good failsafe, if you ever find yourself in need of it. Lots of love, J

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