Thursday, August 14, 2014

Ask Big Questions

-Outside the Desert Retreat House-

The other day I came across an article in the New York Times about a new initiative sweeping across college campuses all over the country.  Students from many different disciplines and backgrounds meet together in a public forum where they are invited to engage in dialogue to help deepen their understanding of themselves, other students and the world in general. 

In this new program called, "Ask Big Questions," students are invited to go deeper, exploring questions ike: 

For whom are we responsible?
What do we choose to ignore?
Where do you feel at home?
How does technology change us?
When do you conform and when do you take a stand?

Colleges and Universities across the country have reported that this program has been a great success and is catching on everywhere, suggesting that it has not only helped students grow into a deeper wisdom, but it has also given them a greater sense of empathy and solidarity with one another as they learn that all of us share in a common human condition.  

When I read the article the over day, I was also struck by the further observation that, other than these public meetings, there are no other places for students today to explore those deeper questions - it's kind of frightening to me.

Churches, temples, religious institutions are often places where the bigger questions are raised and probed in sermons or classes or discussion groups - but by and large college students and people in that generation don't go to church anymore, many have no religious affiliation whatsoever.  So religion is not an available venue for many students today to "ask the big questions," and to go deeper.   

In the past there was a much heavier emphasis on the study of the humanities in academic life, and when you take courses in art or music or literature, the "big questions" often surface and are explored; but the majority of today's college students major in business, economics, marketing and computer science. Courses in the humanities are less emphasized and often pushed to the background of academic life today.

So I guess it's probably true that unless there is a specially designed extracurricular forum for discussion and dialogue, those big, wisdom-inducing questions are often left untouched by a lot of students nowadays.

The problem is that many people today, not just college students, leave the "big questions" unexplored, and I think this may be part of the malaise and chaos that seems to have taken hold of popular culture in our own times.

The everyday questions asked by many people in everyday life are often pretty "small" and "self-centered" - questions about making money, getting the stuff you want, how to climb up the ladder of success. People rarely have opportunities to sit down and explore any deeper wisdom about the meaning of life, encountering transcendence, our connection to one another, social responsibilities, caring for those who are at the fringes of life.  

I see people everywhere just sort of skimming the surface rather than probing the depths; and when you only skim the surface of life with nothing to serve as an anchor, it's easy to slip into chaos. 

Maybe this is why I continue every day to write this little post on my blog. My little post is my way of asking big questions.   


  1. In many ways contemporary life is filled with hubris. How often to you see someone looking at their hand and pushing buttons as they walk? How much time is consumed with media as opposed to sitting and watching birds or ripples on the water?

    Your thought: "I see people everywhere just sort of skimming the surface rather than probing the depths; and when you only skim the surface of life with nothing to serve as an anchor, it's easy to slip into chaos." Immediately made me think of Henry Thoreau who mentioned fronting out the essential features of life.

    Contemporary lifestyles are lifestyles that have the innate ability to prevent any serious introspection because of all the various information inputs that enter our mind in the course of a day.

    I have a personal question. Are you familiar with the work of Alan Watts? I have gotten a lot of worthwhile perspectives from him.

    1. Thanks..Yes, nice.

      I am a big Thoreau fan also. I haven't read much of Alan Watts.Ill explore him further.

  2. One book by Watts is called "The Book: on the taboo against knowing who you are" It is available on line to read for free and it is available at book stores and of course at Amazon.He's a very effective teacher. Knowledgeable in Zen, Buddhism, and Taoism. Quite an interesting fellow. He was a Christian theologian among other things. He has a lot of material available on YouTube also.