6 March 2022 | BY ANDJELKA JANKOVIC | Life
I was so happy just to be with you, I would have said anything at all
I quote David Whyte more than David Whyte quotes David Whyte.
Of all the things I love about David Whyte (and there are many, see below), I am most fond of the way he asks questions. Or as he calls them – invitational questions. Bold and thoughtful. Quiet and stirring. Courageous and refreshing, like throwing your face up to the wind and breathing in the breeze for a sweet moment. Beautiful questions that have enlarged my life.
I first came across the Irish-Yorkshireman poet and author David Whyte in 2014 when I launched The School of Life pop-up in Perth. David is a modern-day philosopher and his book, The Three Marriages (about how work, self and relationships are our three core commitments) was in our treasure trove bookstore and his poetry peppered throughout the classes teaching emotional intelligence and life skills to adults.
I recently dug up an old notebook to find one of the first things I wrote down from David Whyte – it comes from his poem Self Portrait: ‘I want to know if you know how to melt into the fierce heart of living, falling toward the centre of your longing.’ Audible wow.
If you are thinking, David who?
You can start with his popular conversation on The Conversational Nature of Reality with On Being’s Krista Tippett (which he says is ‘his chief theme’, in his own words). If you want something short, try this mediative story on how We Become The Places We Love – you won’t hear a more soothing voice today. There is of course his lauded TED Talk on A lyrical bridge between past, present and future (repeating lines is a poetic convention) or you could just pop on David reading his poem Sweet Darkness to you (the last sentence is my life mantra – anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you). My enduring favourite is The House of Belonging.
This is the temple of my adult aloneness and I belong to that aloneness as I belong to my life. There is no house like the house of belonging. — David Whyte
I really resonate with his entire oeuvre of work and gravitate towards his topics on courage, friendship, longing, and embracing the unknown as an edge that is beckoning us all. David’s words remind you that even in your deepest loneliness you are not alone.
Now to the question of questions.
Most of my life has been a series of pilgrimages and quests to answer questions. As Zora Neale Hurston wrote, ‘There are years that ask questions, and years that answer them.’ I am very versed in the former. I have been apprenticing myself to a word each year for some time now (current word: trusting). And to experience things first-hand, I have gone on many solo travels to places like Japan, Indonesia, Denmark (I had to visit Kierkegaard), Canada and the United States many times over.
Therefore, at any time of life, follow your own questions; don’t mistake other people’s questions for your own. — David Whyte
I tried for many years to attend one of David’s workshops in person when I travelled extensively for work but it never lined up.
Then I ‘met’ David Whyte without actually going anywhere.
At the beginning of 2020, I lived in New Mexico in an intentional community. As I was writing my yearly list ritual, I had this very clear thought that I wanted to “meet David Whyte”. Strangely, I didn’t write this down as one of my intentions for the year (but I did write down ‘join a drumming circle’). It seemed too wild and impossible but oh boy, did I want this deep in my bones.
We are more real in our simple wish to find a way, more than any destination we could ever reach. — David Whyte
I had dreamed for a long time of attending one of his walking and poetry tours on the West Coast of Ireland (those cliffs and cozy pubs!). I was shy about it now, and I didn’t know why. Next thing: cue global meltdown – and no one was going anywhere.
But when you want something in your heart of hearts, things tend to conspire for you.
In April of that year, I saw that David was offering a new way to study with him — in a Three Sundays live online talks from his home study on Whidbey Island, in the Pacific Northwest. This was second best and of course, I signed up.
I’ve been participating in David Whyte’s Three Sundays series for two years now. Sitting down every other month to absorb and jot down copious notes on David talking about everything from vulnerability, courage, bravery, parenting, friendship, love, mothers, despair, grief, and his poetry of course. Through this transmission of wisdom, and his warm laugh, spirited energy and many great Irish-isms (that make me nostalgic for a place I haven’t yet been); I felt enlivened, comforted, and equipped with a new kind of self-knowledge. This world doesn’t offer much peace, so you have to take it whenever you can — and I found it in his voice.
One brilliant idea that immediately jumped out to me is David’s idea of ‘a beautiful question’. I am a fast notetaker and wrote in fervour as many questions as I could that he asked me. Some of which are the most beautiful questions I’ve ever heard.
So, what makes a question beautiful?
This is something I am in the midst of understanding myself. A beautiful question is a gamechanger; a question that calls you to take notice. It opens a door to articulate your deepest longings and truths and wakes you up in a sea of how are yous? Bringing you to a frontier where deeper intimacy is possible with yourself, the person asking, and the world.
As David Whyte said in an interview:
You don’t ask a beautiful question with your strategic mind. That’s needed, but the last place it gets articulated. You ask it with your body. You ask it with your longing. And you can ask a beautiful question in complete silence with no verbalization whatsoever, just in the way you’re paying attention.
A beautiful question can be thought of as presence + vulnerability + making a real invitation. One that allows for a real conversation to happen.
David Whyte also explains:
The ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered. You just have to keep asking.
And before you know it, you will find yourself actually shaping a different life, meeting different people, finding conversations that are leading you in those directions that you wouldn’t even have seen before.
In this way, asking a beautiful question does not expect a perfect answer. It’s more like a knock on the door of someone’s soul to make a real invitation by asking a different kind of question. Hello, can I be real with you for a moment… and to ‘hear yourself saying something you didn’t know you know.’
A satisfying conversation is one which makes you say what you have never said before. — Theodore Zeldin
What is something you have never asked before?
There is a story that David Whyte tells that after his teenage daughter slams her bedroom door during a disagreement between them, he says: ‘I was just about to say that last, deeply satisfying unhelpful thing. But I caught myself and said, “David, this isn’t a real conversation. How do you make this a real conversation?” So he went and made them both a cup of tea and set them on a tray with cookies, then knocked on the door again and asked: “Charlotte, tell me one thing you’d like me to stop doing as a father. And tell me one thing you’d like me to do more of.” An invitation was made.
As soon as you trust yourself: you will know how to live. — Johann Wolfgang von Goeth
I am interested in the things we don’t allow ourselves to say. The real answers. And how to get past everything preventing us from the intimacy of real connection. To get to the possibility of a real conversation.
How do you make a conversation real?
I’ve been trying to put this into practice myself by asking more invitational questions, pausing before I speak next, and being more honest and available to the conversation that is actually happening (not the one I want to happen, or something in the future). I often find when I ask a better question, I get a refreshing answer back. Sometimes I ask a beautiful question, almost unexpectedly flowing out of me. It can take a few times. When I am not fully in the conversation, I often hear myself fumbling with a shallow response. I am learning to say, ‘Sorry, can you please repeat that? I was elsewhere for a moment.’
Part of walking the path is losing the path. — David Whyte
In his Three Sunday Series, David asks many noteworthy questions. Questions that nourish you, upend your beliefs, probe dormant parts of your thinking, and incite excitement and possibility. In a world of noise, these questions enlarge our conversations with space for pause and thought. As he says, the hope is to be an invitational human being – someone who in your presence, other people can come alive. Like how you might feel your aliveness being in your favourite place (for me, it’s any farmer’s market in the world), with your beloved or animal friends. You are just fully you.
Here are all the beautiful questions that David Whyte asked me:
- What helped you to get here that you need to give away?
- How can you become the ancestor of your future happiness?
- What is on your to-do list that was put together by the person you were yesterday?
- What small thing can you do today that your future self will come back and thank you for?
- Who are you when you are the best to yourself and the world around you?
- What is it – just by making contact – that brings me alive?
- What’s the question we don’t want to ask?
- What is the conversation we refuse to have?
- What’s on the other side of the question I’ve refused to ask?
- How do you make contact with the frontier of possibility?
- What is the beautiful question you have cradled through years of doubt? It is too precious to ask. The question which you are afraid the answer will come back as no?
No one tells us that it’s alright that you don’t know how to feel or what to do. — David Whyte
- What conversation could you set in motion that your future self would be grateful to you for having begun?
- What if all of your life’s experiences, even the most traumatic have been in preparation for the harvest of this moment?
- What might it mean to you to come back into your body?
- To ask yourself: what’s troubling you?
- How can you be friends with your longings? With what you want?
- Can you embrace the very physical qualities and often the pains of living in this human frame and allow yourself to feel any pain or heartbreak more fully?
- What would it be like to live in this body as a kind of threshold: the only real place actually, from which to answer life’s next invitation?
The opposite of coming home is distance – to admit you are bereft, a raw invitation to yourself that you are not living the life you want to live. — David Whyte
- What kind of silence would you have to engender in your life?
- What invitation are you making to people that they want to respond to?
- Will you allow yourself to go into the instrument, where you come alive into a bigger, generous, more yourself ‘you’?
- What would it be like to drink from a deeper well?
- Will you risk yourself now?
There wouldn’t be an edge without a centre. — David Whyte
- What is your next coming of age?
- Who would you be if you failed being yourself?
- What wants to be said from within?
- What promise did I make sincerely that I now need to let go of?
- What do I need to know in this time to be able to go on?
- What would it be like to have absolute faith in your intuitions?
- What is your simple wish to find the way?
- Will you come home to yourself? No matter how flawed that self might be?
To be human is to become visible while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others. — David Whyte
- What can you say with absolute certainty?
- What is my particular way of loving?
- What do you need to say no to in your life that is not an enormous yes?
- In whose presence do you come alive?
- Where do you go now that you have accomplished all your young person’s ambitions?
- Who are you when you are the best to yourself and the world around you?
- What is my particular way of loving? The way you are made and the way you give?
- What’s the language I need to learn to enter the next phase of my existence?
You cannot enter any world for which you do not have the language. — David Whyte
- Will you have confidence in knowing what is good for you? And living in the part of you that actually deserves it?
- What are you learning to love that you didn’t know you could love as you move into the next epoch of your existence?
- What is that question that, all along, you have almost dared not to ask?
- What long-held promise do you need to break in your life right now?
- What place would you need to step off from?
- Dropdown into the pilgrim at the centre of you. Ask them where they want to go? And what is stopping them?
- What if all your intuitions were true?
One way to come to love is to do without it for a very long time. – David Whyte, quoting someone he heard say it
Pick a question.
Ponder the beauty of what it is asking you.
What would it be like to have it answered?
David often says that there’s no sincere path that any human being can take without having their heart broken (I have it on my fridge). It is a worthy choice and a courageous one. I’m walking it now (free lesson: try fostering cats and then having to give them back) and as David says – it’s better to walk the path that you care about, despite the immediate losses, so that ‘you don’t have your heart broken over things you actually don’t care about.’
I believe that we are waiting – even yearning – for real questions, but no one has asked us yet. Or we haven’t asked ourselves.
Some of the best writing advice I’ve heard (yes, I collect those too) is from David. He says: ‘to write from that part of you that has not learnt to say anything yet. The part that is inviting you into your future. The part for which you have no articulation – that’s where the conversation lies.’
That is a good starting point for all of us.
Stop the conversation that’s been exhausting you – turn sideways to it.
Start with the part of you that doesn’t have the words yet.
Try a new way forward – be brave first. A little vulnerability goes a long way. This engenders intimacy and encourages it in the other. And then you can get to the juice of it all: to ask what you’ve always wanted to know and for you ‘to speak from the unknown in surprising ways.’
To drink from a deep well. For we’re almost always engaged with a conversation too small for us. — David Whyte
I have learnt so many things from David Whyte and will continue to. Currently, I am working with the idea of getting ready to be ready. To have deeper conversations with myself, and embrace the known, the unknown and the unknowable; trusting that all of my intuitions are true.
We don’t know how we will make the journey. It’s how you hold the conversation of life. — David Whyte
Just trying to find your way is beautiful.
To see that new horizon and walk towards it even though I have no idea where it will take me.
Getting ready, in the darkness, for the enormous yes; a real invitation I cannot refuse.
It’s all a bit scary but I’m with you.
What beautiful question are you asking the world?
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation. All the birds and creatures of the world are unutterably themselves. Everything is waiting for you. — David Whyte