Hearts of wood

THE THREE QUESTIONS: Question 1– What is (really) Happening?

I’m so excited to share The Three Questions with you all. Just three simple questions we can ask ourselves–even in the heat of the moment–to help stay more present, more loving and to make sure our decisions are coming from the right place. Asking myself these questions whenever I’m not sure what to do has significantly changed my life for the better.

Sign showing two directions

All day, every day–whether we realize it or not–we are constantly making micro-decisions. And not just “what to eat” or “what to wear” types of decisions, either. We are making choices about how to react, how to speak to someone, how to spend our free time. Someone unexpectedly inconveniences us. Someone hurts us. Plans change. Do we react with frustration and anger? Or do we choose compassion and love instead? We often only get one chance to choose how to react.

These three questions came to me in a complete package, all together. They downloaded into my brain from wherever ideas come from. I happened to be near a computer and wrote them down as a list in my notes app. Sometimes I think it’s possible to lose ideas when we don’t write them down. But thankfully, my notes app was open and I wrote the questions down. Here they are:

  1. What is (really) happening?
  2. Why am I reacting this way?
  3. How can I respond with love instead?

What. Why. How. Remember that.

Three Guideposts

Later, I went back to mull the questions over. They seemed to be almost like three guideposts leading sequentially down this road of gaining perspective in difficult situations and arriving at a compassionate response in the end.

Hands making a heart, the three questions come from Love and lead to Love

They quickly help me reframe difficult or tricky situations and come back at them with love instead of the autopilot–often misguided–assumptive reactions.

This practice has helped me live a happier and more fulfilling life—a life more focused on love, and I’m not talking about romantic love. I’m referring to intentions and actions coming from a place of authentic love, from a place of compassion and a desire for everyone around me to have peace and joy.

Putting Love into Stressful Situations

peace in the present moment, a girl holding flowers on her shoulder

I first wrote down and started practicing the three questions in 2013, over eight years ago. Back then I was the owner of a preschool and I can tell you–emotions ran high every single day. Someone would always be upset, always triggered, always coming with questions, complaints and/or cries–every single person–from the one year olds to the full grown adults. I had to make a lot of on-the-spot decisions about how to react and what to do.

There were plenty of good reasons for me to be looking for simple ways to respond to stressful situations. So many people depended on me to make the right decisions day after day after day, always have the right reactions, to come at everything with endless love and tireless compassion. I was looking for ways to be sure I was consistently making the best choices.

I also wanted to find a way to put into living practice this buddhist principal called Metta, which is the practice of sending out intentions for love, peace, and good will for all beings.

Give the Love Away

So, I decided to start living by and using The Three Questions in my daily work at the preschool and in my parenting at home. It was an experiment and the results were amazing. I started having better reactions with the children in the classroom and when dealing with difficult situations with staff or parents. I became a more present parent, business owner, and friend.

Asking myself these questions every time I didn’t know what to do has made a huge difference in my life. And even now, eight years later, I no longer own a preschool but still use them all the time. They guide me towards having a healthy mindset towards whatever comes my way. I ask these three questions when difficult situations arise or really just anytime I am wondering what is the best thing to do.

In this blog format, they will be broken up into three separate, successive articles. Later, Voices Rising Press will re-publish them all together in a short booklet form. We hope to raise the funds to publish The Three Questions so we can give away as many as possible and sell the rest at cost. The questions came to me freely and have been such a gift in my life. I hope they will be a gift in your life as well.

QUESTION ONE – What is (really) Happening?

man looking up, awakening to different ideas

Underlying all our assumptions is the truth. By taking a moment to pause and consider what our automatic assumptions are and what else might be going on instead, we are able to gain extremely valuable perspective.

Widening our perspective helps us shift into a different thought process. It changes our automatic reactions. I must stop and mention that in order for this to work you have to be willing to grow and change. You need the minimum skill of being able to admit you’re not always right if you want to proceed down this path. If you can’t question yourself and own up to the actual truth, the three questions won’t be of much use to you.

The reason for asking this first question is not to strengthen and validate our initial assumptions or even necessarily to find an answer. It’s to make us question our own reasoning and thought processes around what we think is happening.

I can assure you, most of the time what we assume is happening is not the truth and the reason we assume it’s happening is not accurate either.

A Story from My Past

To illustrate my point, I’d like to tell you a story. This is something that happened to me when I was a teenager but it forever changed my perspective. I was 16, almost 17-years-old, and I’ll admit to being a bit of a hotheaded driver. For example, I hated being cut off and would swerve around anyone who dared to do it, even if I had to drive dangerously or off the road to get around them. I had some seriously bad habits and needed to learn a lesson or two (and I did).

The three questions help while driving in traffic

One day I was driving down Main Street on my way to a high school function when a white Jeep Cherokee pulled out in front of me. It pulled right into my lane and was going very slow. Normally I would angrily swerve around them while honking loudly but my beloved, elderly principal from school, Mr. Gay, (yes, that was his real name) drove a white Jeep Cherokee of the exact same color and model. So I slowed down instead.

When it was safe to do so, I used my turn signal, passed the Jeep at a reasonable speed and looked in to see that it was not Mr. Gay after all. It was just some random lady and I had been patient with her for no reason!

Or had I?

My blood pressure was lower. I’d avoided being an unsafe driver and giving this lady a hard time (or possibly a heart attack). Both of our days were a bit kinder and a little bit better as a result of my wrong assumption.

So I started thinking. Yes, 16-year-old hotheaded me–started considering that by assuming the best about that person (that it was someone I loved and cared about who just didn’t drive all that great), I had made the better choice.

Because of this realization, I started driving with more kindness and more patience. I started trying to assume everyone on the road was either my grandma or my beloved principal, Mr. Gay, and I’d give the same level of care, respect and compassion to perfect strangers that I would give to them.

Don’t Take Things Personally

Don Miguel Ruiz's book The Four Agreements

Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements is a helpful book that made a big difference in my life when I read it in my young twenties. One of the four agreements he proposes is for us to stop taking things so personally.

The universe is impersonal and people care more about themselves than anything. You play only a very slight role in their reasoning or their actions. Don’t put yourself into such a great a place of importance in other people’s mind or in any situation, really. Whatever someone “did to you” it is usually not personal. Let it go.

Even when someone’s actions seem to be aimed at you, they are coming out of who that person is and all the small choices they’ve made along the way. People will let you down. They’ll act on misinformation and have bad reactions. Everyone faces unknown difficult circumstances in their own life at times. Ultimately you really won’t know why others do what they do. That’s their business and it usually it has nothing to do with you.

If You Must Assume, Assume the Best

The truth is, most people are struggling and unsure of themselves in a few areas (or in many). We all have different ways of hiding our insecurities and shortcomings. In the end, we are all human and we all make mistakes. No one is good at everything. Each person you meet struggles to make the best choice in certain situations. Sometimes we are also tired, hungry, overwhelmed, cranky or confused on top everything else going on.

Life is stressful, let’s give each other a break.

Child having an angry reaction

If someone is rude or inconsiderate, I have started to assume that perhaps they are just going through a rough time. Maybe they really are and maybe they aren’t, but my assumption costs me nothing. It does make me feel better, though. Instead of getting offended or angry, I am open to having compassion. Our perceptions and reactions can either add more kindness or they can put more reactivity and hurt into an already difficult situation.

By asking what is really happening, you might be able to realize the person stealing from you is actually trying to survive and doesn’t know how to ask for help. You might realize the child stomping on your foot is actually struggling to make sense of your new rules when there are none at home. That kid yelling at you and doing everything you asked them not to do is really testing your love–testing the boundaries of your willingness to love them. That “jerk” driving in front of you may actually be an elderly person, or a student driver. Someone who feels unsure and possibly can’t drive according to your expectations. It’s even possible that you are making them nervous and more likely to slow down thus inadvertently perpetuating your own frustration.

An Important Side Note

On the other hand–and this is an essential side note–you can assume the best in others but also not be naive. It’s healthy and important to hold firm boundaries and not put yourself into dangerous or soul-crushing situations. Assume the best of others but if someone has proven who they are. If who they are is unkind, unremorseful, or hurtful, it’s okay to both assume the best (hurt people hurt people, don’t you know?) and also create space away from them to protect yourself.

Assuming the best in others is a practice for increasing your personal joy and compassion, it does not mean you have to take anyone’s abuse.

Leave Room for the Unknown

Three questions leading to unknown answers

A very important piece of asking the first question and examining what is (really) happening is letting go of the idea that we know already or that we even can know. When asking this question remember to leave room for not coming up with any answer at all.

Be open to letting go of the assumption that you know what is up all the time. Get comfortable with not having all the answers.

Cultivate in yourself the ability to simply accept what is and letting go of the need for an explanation 100% of the time.

By taking a moment to pause and ask ourselves these three questions we are actually teaching our brain new ways to react to situations in life.

Read the next blog article: Question 2: Why Am I Reacting This Way?

Written by Sarah Caton

Photos by:
Cottonbro on Pexels.com
Lisa Reece, Roy N and Ben Kerckx from Pixabay


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