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Answers are not the Answer

Have you ever had a great idea or solution come to you while out on a quiet walk or in the middle of a nice shower? Have you ever struggled coming up with an idea or solution to a problem only to have the answer reveal itself once you’ve let go and stopped trying so hard?

Most people, when faced with a challenge, respond in one of two ways: We either use our current knowledge to develop a solution, or we’re paralyzed by the fear of not finding an answer and screwing it up by making the wrong decision.

When our knowledge doesn’t provide us with an effective solution – we end up beating our head against the wall frustrated that nothing is working and blaming ourselves as a result. The problem with the first approach is that we think it’s our responsibility to search throughout the myriad of thoughts and select the right answer. When our minds are stuffed to the brim with what we already know, there’s no room for fresh ideas to come through us.

The other response is to become so filled with anxiety that we get lost in the chaotic frenzy of our minds, left feeling helpless. When our minds are spinning with thousands of ideas, each one claiming to be the truth, begging us to choose them and reprimanding us when we don’t – it’s nearly impossible to see a way out.

“But I need an answer!” we demand. “I’ll never figure this out!” we cry. And so, we continue our fight of pushing, pulling, coaxing, doing anything we can because certainly, it’s better than doing nothing, right? Here’s the thing, though:

In an already noisy mind, knowledge is not power. It’s more noise.

What if the solution you’re looking for is not found in piles of more and more answers? What if instead of doing anything you could to figure it all out, you did nothing? What if instead of being so full of knowledge and preconceived ideas you simply allowed yourself to become empty?

I am reminded of the anecdote by the Japanese master, Nan-in about a university professor who has come to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” said the professor. “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

We also have a teacher in our lives, but traveling to far away places for an invitation isn’t necessary. We only need to look within. The teacher I’m talking about here is not a Zen master, but our own innate wisdom, available to us any time the noise in our head quiets down enough for us to hear it. This is why a problem you’ve been struggling with can resolve itself while walking your dog and just as easily a brilliant business idea can reveal itself mid-shampoo.

Parallel to the story above, if we continue trying to jam more things into our already full minds, like the tea spilling onto the floor, we just end up with a mess of our own, albeit internally.

The answers we are desperately seeking are not themselves the answer. Continually looking for solutions inside of ideas that are not working and hoping for something new is both tiresome and futile. We must point ourselves towards the source of wisdom, from where all answers originate.

It’s only when we stop the search and look to nothing – there, in that moment,

the exact answer we need will present itself.