The Beautiful Question
Two weeks ago, I wrote (again) of how important I think it is to build dedicated retreat time into our yearly and monthly schedule. (If you missed it, see it here.) And while it is wonderful to have time and resources to take a month off, or even a week, and travel to a hideaway conducive to meditation, reflection, and self study, that's not often possible. Still, once you become aware that retreat practice is important to your creative flourishing, and you make such a practice an intention (or even make a shy request to the universe for the possibility of retreat), you find Life organizes around that intention and begins to provide ways to address your desire. That happened to me last weekend, when I attended an incredible symposium that takes place in Winter Park every January and is hosted by GladdeningLight, an organization dedicated to exploring the intersection between spirituality and art. GladdeningLight is an unusual spiritual initiative whose mission is "to explore transcendent elements of art through hosted conferences, exhibits & public performance, cloistered retreat, and pilgrimage." For three days, participants in this symposium hear conversations and presentations by a single artist of note, and experience art as a means of inhabiting both our secular and spiritual lives more deeply.
The connections between art and spirituality are not unusual, but rarely have I had the extended opportunity to explore that inter-relatedness in such a provocative and stimulating fashion. Yoga scholar Richard Freeman says art offers "a connection through the heart to the very essence of one's being." And many art lovers know the experience of being brought into the present moment by a work of art, cut off from past regret or future yearning, and situated firmly in the clean and pure awareness of the now. Ancient wisdom traditions have long told us that this pure awareness of now is cultivated in stillness, meditation, and deep self-reflection. And further, A Course in Miracles says, "The stillness and the peace of now enfolds us in perfect gentleness. Everything is gone except the Truth." Through art, then, we can be led to Truth that is present for us in each and every moment of aliveness.
This year GladdeningLight's guest artists were Irish poet David Whyte and Irish singers Moley and Owen Ó Súilleabháin. The sweet interplay between the ancient Irish songs and Whyte's beautiful self-revelatory poems created a space for over 400 participants to retreat from the busy-ness and urgency of our normal lives. For three days we were immersed in Whyte's descriptions of his country, his stories of living connected to nature, and the "beautiful questions" that such living has roused in him. These questions became the framework for the music, the poems, the storytelling that filled the sessions. They led us into that sacred space where grace and gratitude fill the heart, where we recognize the preciousness of this life we get to experience, and where we are encouraged to re-frame our lives though a lens of love and compassion instead of fear and conflict.
I was fascinated with Whyte’s use of “beautiful questions.” Two writers have keenly shaped my own use of "the beautiful question" over the last few years, both in my life and in my work. Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyet is a Buddhist retreat leader whose first book is The Power of an Open Question. In it, she poses that we access our deepest intelligence through grappling with the big questions, and provides a process for productive questioning.
Warren Berger's stunning book has guided much of the work I do now with private and group coaching clients. It's called A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. He says, "the power of questioning can crack us open to a whole new way of thinking about what is possible for us, to whole new ways of approaching a deep yearning to create something new within ourselves." It's a wonderful book—and very challenging.
And now I add David Whyte to the list of teachers who have helped me explore "the beautiful questions." Riddled throughout his charming stories, told as only an Irishman can, were seven core "beautiful questions" that linked poems, music, and storytelling. All of these questions were designed to nudge us toward "becoming the core person we already are."
It would be hard for me to accurately relate the charm, the beauty, or the spirit of Whyte's poetry, his stories, his manner, or his presence. The whole symposium was a heightened experience for which words do small justice. Read his poems and you're sure to be moved by his artistry. But I can share with you a few of the big questions that he wove through it all. I found them provocative, disturbing, and enlivening all at once. As with all true art, Whyte's work offers us a way to approach these beautiful questions, and gives us the opportunity to explore parts of ourselves that we haven't previously known. Here they are:
• What is the conversation you need to stop having? • What is the gift that has already been given? • If you were offered your life, would you take it? • What could you do today that would influence your future best self? ("You are the ancestor of your future self.") • What parts of yourself have you not yet met? • Where are you not allowing vulnerability? ("Honesty stops when you close off vulnerability.") • How can you cultivate faith in what is inside of you?
If you are interested in grappling with questions like these, and others just as existentially alluring, I invite you to join an event or a coaching experience at LifeArt Studio for exploration of and conversation about writers and thinkers like Whyte, Berger, and Mattis-Namgyel. You will find yourself coming alive in joyful and creative ways as you respond to your own "more beautiful question."
We offer a no-cost Creative Momentum Session to introduce you to our process.