One of the best “real question” stories ever

As we have been discussing this topic of real question (my definition: “real questions point us toward a truth, which they expect us to see for ourselves, and which will cause us to perceive our situation very differently”) I have remembered what is surely one of the great real question stories of all time.

It came from author Arthur Koestler (1905-1983). During the Spanish Civil War he was accused of being a spy and was imprisoned in solitary confinement on sentence of death. Here is his fascinating account:

I was standing at the recessed window of cell No. 40 and with a piece of iron-spring that I had extracted from the wire mattress, was scratching mathematical formulae on the wall. Mathematics, in particular analytical geometry, had been the favorite hobby of my youth, neglected later on for many years. I was trying to remember how to derive the formula of the hyperbola, and was stumped; then I tried the ellipse and parabola, and to my delight succeeded. Next I went on to recall Euclid’s proof that the number of primes is infinite…

Since I had become acquainted with Euclid’s proof at school, it had always filled me with a deep satisfaction that was aesthetic rather than intellectual. Now, as I recalled the method and scratched the symbols on the wall, I felt the same enchantment.

And then, for the first time, I suddenly understood the reason for this enchantment: the scribbled symbols on the wall represented one of the rare cases where a meaningful and comprehensive statement about the infinite is arrived at by precise and finite means. The infinite is a mystical mass shrouded in a haze; and yet it was possible to gain some knowledge of it without losing oneself in treacly ambiguities. The significance of this swept over me like a wave. The wave had originated in an articulate verbal insight; but this evaporated at once, leaving in its wake only a wordless essence, a fragrance of eternity, a quiver of the arrow in the blue. I must have stood there for some minutes, entranced, with a wordless awareness that “this is perfect—perfect”; until I noticed some slight mental discomfort nagging at the back of my mind—some trivial circumstance that marred the perfection of the moment. Then I remembered the nature of that irrelevant annoyance: I was, of course, in prison and might be shot. But this was immediately answered by a feeling whose verbal translation would be: “So what? Is that all? Have you got nothing more serious to worry about?”—an answer so spontaneous, fresh and amused as if the intruding annoyance had been the loss of a collar-stud.

What’s so great about these three questions is that they make light of what would normally seem like an incredibly dire situation. They spark and represent Koestler’s realization of just how ultimately insignificant his circumstances really are. So what was the effect of these questions? His next line tells us:

Then I was floating on my back in a river of peace, under bridges of silence. It came from nowhere and flowed nowhere. Then there was no river and no I. The I had ceased to exist.

The questions, in other words, catapulted him into a mystical experience. It was clear that the experience was already coming over him, but the questions were the final catalyst. His mind was approaching the door, but the questions pushed it open. Here is what he says of the experience  and of its effect on his life:

The “I” ceases to exist because it has, by a kind of mental osmosis, established communication with, and been dissolved in, the universal pool. It is the process of dissolution and limitless expansion which is sensed as the “oceanic feeling,” as the draining of all tension, the absolute catharsis, the peace that passeth all understanding.

The coming-back to the lower order of reality I found to be gradual, like waking up from anaesthesia. There was the equation of the parabola scratched on the dirty wall, the iron bed and the iron table and the strip of blue Andalusian sky. But there was no unpleasant hangover as from other modes of intoxication. On the contrary: there remained a sustained and invigorating, serene and fear-dispelling after-effect that lasted for hours and days. It was as if a massive dose of vitamins had been injected into the veins. Or, to change the metaphor, I resumed my travels through my cell like an old car with its batteries freshly recharged.

Whether the experience had lasted for a few minutes or an hour, I never knew. In the beginning it occurred two or even three times a week, then the intervals became longer. It could never be voluntarily induced. After my liberation it recurred at even longer intervals, perhaps once or twice in a year. But by that time the groundwork for a change of personality was completed. I shall henceforth refer to these experiences as “the hours by the window.”

This story shows just how powerful real questions can be. It also provides us with some to use: “So what? Is that all? Have you got nothing more serious to worry about?” I’ve used these a great deal in the last year and highly recommend them. When something seems really heavy and awful, try pulling these questions out, and as you ask them, remember Koestler’s far more dire situation, along with the experience those questions opened up, even in the midst of that dire situation.