I practice qi-gong and attend a meditation group on weekly basis. There is a Q&A session in which we ask questions such as “What is zen?” to a teacher. In the beginning, I used to think it was the answer that mattered so I listened carefully to what the teacher said but did not pay much attention to the original question. *
But recently I realized that good questions are as memorable as good answers. Answers and questions stay in my memory in different ways. (Good) answers get digested. I can take in the information and feel how it dissolves in my mind. On the other hand, (good) questions stay. Like a piece of gum, they hold fixed positions in my mind. I get mentally constipated.
Once a question sticks in my mind, I enter into an automatic search mode: I start picking information relevant to that question from all inputs (see, feel, listen) and also outputs (talk and write). A good example of the latter is my blog posts. Most of my blog posts start from a question that pops into my head: “Is iPad really designed for paying customers?” “Does confrontation lead to mutual understanding?”. I then start describing my question, and along the way, try to articulate my own answer to that question, borrowing quotes and putting links in. **
In the end,the majority of a blog post, especially the second half of it, gets constructed from scratch; it does not exist at all when I start writing a post. For the links and quotes, sometimes they are googled, and sometimes they re-emerge from my pool of memory (I call it my junkyard), as if attracted by a huge magnet plate temporarily energized by the original question.
In this sense, questions are mental antennas, or radio tuners, that catch useful information that comes through our heads. Questions allow us to tune into a specific topic or narrow the range of interest, sometimes even unconsciously. A good question lets us tune into the right mental frequency so that the music (the answer) is heard loud and clearly. If the question is bad (not tuned), the answer becomes murky as well.
Okay then, so what makes a question “good”?
I think the answer in the antenna analogy: Resonance.*** A good question vibrates inside our mind, letting us find resonating elements (answers). That also explains why asking a good question is hard, because resonance, or empathy, does not generate on its own. Empathy arises with regard to the context of communication, whether it is between two people, a group of people, or a person and an object (such as a book).
To generate a good question, we need to find both good content and a matching context. We can generate smart-ass questions out of nowhere (which I frequently do), but those usually aren’t good at all.
Recently I found out that the teacher gives different levels of answers to the same question, depending on the student. No wonder some answers did not register in my memory smoothly. It was another instance where I realized the context (question) is what matters, more than the content (answer).
** In this post’s case, only the first two paragraphs are what originally existed in my mind.
*** I got the keyword resonance from Nintendo’s mastermind, Shigeru Miyamoto (again). In his recent interview, he mentions that after 30 years of game design, he finally realized he has been making games that resonate with the audience, when he was forced to provide the reason why he rejected some seemingly good ideas while developing the latest Mario game.
(Miyamoto) Whether or not the game world resonates with you as you're playing the game is what's most important. For example, when you watch a big-budget movie, you may be amazed by all the pyrotechnics, but at the same time, something isn't quite striking home with you.
(Iwata) Because it's not resonating.
P.S. A Note from my editor, to which I should reply in a different post..
What about the unasked question? A few weeks ago my son bought a Jeep Grand Cherokee and now, suddenly, I see them everywhere. I suppose they were there before, but I never had the question..or is it not a question, but just something that generates a specific awareness, to which observation then provides “answers” (or some other kind of contextual response ?