Isn't 'How are you?' supposed to be an easy question? (How to answer from the heart.)

How are you?

There are so many ways to answer that question.

I ask my patients this question every day. I ask my loved ones, my friends, and my neighbors.

How do you answer this question? Sometimes you say "Fine thanks. How are you?" but maybe you're not fine. Maybe things are really hard but do you tell this to someone in passing?

I learned in the hallway in acupuncture school one day that I should never ask this question unless I was really prepared for the answer. I asked a classmate in passing, kind of like I was saying hi. She started crying and told me she had just been in a car accident. I hadn't been prepared for this answer but I hope I was able to console her at the time. Since then, whenever I ask "How are you?" I mean it. If I don't want to know, I'll say "Hi."

A patient came to see me recently and when I asked her how she was, we had a conversation about how to answer that question. I put my iPad away and we just talked for a while. These are some of my suggestions and I hope you may find them useful.

The short answer

Sometimes you're in situations where you don't feel comfortable telling people the real answer from your heart. Maybe you're in the grocery store or passing someone on the street. In this case, give yourself a word or a symbol you can call up in your mind (maybe "It's been a really hard week and I'm exhausted" or "I Resist" or "Rebellions are Built on Hope") - something that indicates how you really are. Then give them a short answer like "Fine thanks." You've really answered the question for yourself but maybe you don't want to tell everyone.

The real answer with added realness

Find at least one person every day who you can be real with. Answer "How are you?" from the heart. Call, email, text, video chat with someone. Communication and connection are part of the Fire element in Chinese Medicine. For the Fire element to be healthy, it is SO important that we connect with people and be heard by them.

Ask yourself 'How am I?"

The following exercise is based on the idea of Focusing. You can learn more about it in Ann Weiser Cornell's book The Power of Focusing and download a PDF of chapter one here. To start, find a quiet place if you can and

  • Close your eyes.
  • Think of the question "How am I?" Feel it in your body. Maybe you feel a tightness in your chest. Maybe you sense a warm glowing light. Maybe you see an image in your mind's eye. Maybe you think the words "I'm not ok." Maybe you throw your hands up in the air and let out a scream. Maybe it's something else entirely. 
  • Sit with that feeling, image, word or gesture for a few minutes. Notice it. Does it change at all? 
  • Ask yourself what you need to be ok.
  • Thank your body for the wisdom and the information and open your eyes.
  • If you have time, you might want to journal about it, make art from it, or just keep the answer with you in your heart and mind.

A great thing about focusing is you can also do it with other people! You can guide a friend through the exercise and vice versa. I use this technique with my acupuncture patients before I look at their tongue and feel their pulse.

Answering the question "How are you?" can sometimes be simple. Sometimes it's more complex. You can answer it like you would "Hello" while calling up the real answer for yourself. You can be real and answer it from the heart with a friend or a loved one. Or you can ask yourself the question and see what you find.

Be well.