Yesterday, not for the first time, I was absorbed with unproductive questions about my life. These tend to be “why” and “what if” questions—about a certain relationship, work project, my relationship to money, and my love of writing.

Why is X the way it is? What if I did Y differently? Would Z really change things?

They are circular, dead-end questions that get me nowhere; and they remind me of something I once heard the Zen teacher John Tarrant say in response to someone who shared a similar semi-scolding inner dialogue:

Is it useful?

If we tell ourselves we are not good at something, when that something is important to us, is it useful? If we tell ourselves others are better than us; we should have done something differently; we need to be other than how we are right now—is that helpful?

Put another way: Are the stories we are telling about ourselves and others in this moment helpful ways to navigate and, more importantly, enjoy life?

It is one of those sword’s edge questions. Ask it—especially about the things you frequently think about—and you’ll immediately know the answer. And most often, in my experience, the answer is no.

Self-doubt is not helpful. Shame is not helpful. Harshness, with oneself or others, is not helpful. Timidity is not helpful. Worry is not helpful. Guilt is not helpful. A closed mind is not helpful. Thinking we know how things will turn out is not helpful.

Inquiry, on the other hand, is helpful. An open mind is helpful. Curiosity is helpful. Love, of course, is helpful. Kindness is helpful. Effort is helpful. And trust in the life journey—especially when we seem to be most in the dark—is helpful.

That’s the one I’m trying, above all, to learn now.

5 thoughts

  1. You’ve made such good points. i believe we often save the worst criticisms for ourselves and it nets us nothing of value. Also, for me, who doesn’t look at whether the glass is half full or half empty, but rather worries what someone put in the water, trust is a big issue. It’s one I continue to grapple with.


    1. Thanks so much, Judith. That’s exactly what I found so interesting about the question. Trust (or fill in the blank) may still be a big challenge. But asking “Does it help?” reveals what is a net zero.


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