Being Curious, Feeling Free

“The constant happiness is curiosity”
Alice Munro

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I’m curious about curiosity again. A foundational component of the mindful way of being it’s not one of the 9 Attitudinal Foundations that my previous blogs have addressed – and yet underpins them all really. Can we have awareness without curiosity? It is however one of the 7 factors of enlightenment (in Theravada Buddhism) which along with mindfulness when developed and balanced free the mind and heart. Right from the beginning secular mindfulness guidance will invite bringing curiosity to our experience, and to ourselves. It is a crucial capacity to cultivate, and it can change everything. What does curiosity mean, and much more importantly what does it feel like? What happens when I’m curious? These reflections are an invitation for you to consider this quality, and how its development might enrich your life and of course your meditation.

Curiosity is an emotion, it has a feeling tone. When I’m curious I feel engaged, interested, plugged in. I notice I slow down (phew!) I feel awake, conscious. It feels good. It’s a kind of wonderment similar to a young child who discovers and marvels at the world around —very immediate, not lost in the future or in the past. I feel free, I can learn, I’m receptive, I feel connected and yet also quite peaceful. The pressure to solve, ‘get it right’, or perform is lifted. I have a sense of ‘contact-fullness’ (a word I recently heard teacher Martin Aylward use) of joyful presence, regardless of the object of my attention. Relating with curiosity feels like caring, and it turns out this chimes with the etymology as the word comes from the latin cūriōsitās, from cūriōsus “careful, diligent, curious”, akin to cura “care”. Martin Aylward describes awareness as innately curious and caring.

We might then describe each moment met mindfully as a moment of opening to the life that’s here with curiosity and care. We can really keep it that simple. This person we’re listening to, this bread we’re eating, this getting into bed, this sunset reflected in the puddles, and this sitting / lying / standing / moving …what’s happening, in the mind-heart, in the body? This is not so much trying to figure out but listening to your experience rather than dissecting it. Its not an intellectual inquiry, its more caring for each lived moment with all the tenderness that it deserves. I want to be clear as best I can, familiar as I am with how quickly we can turn these invitations into instructions, being mindful doesn’t necessarily mean we intend to appreciate everything – rather if we are curious about everything, then what happens? I heard Mark Williams reflect recently that most religions seem to have begun with discovery and become instructions – it’s a tendency we all share that’s good to look out for I find. And It’s happening to Mindfulness too.

Remember when you felt happily curious about something? Maybe it was today, or a while ago. I remember the curiosity I had for history many years ago, how much joy I felt immersed in the stories of the past, the uncovering of an emergent yet fluid picture of what happened – the recollection of the delight and absorption has stayed with me much more than the facts, of which I remember only a few. But I loved it – discovering, immersed, wanting to learn. The treasure of that feeling is worth unearthing wherever we might have buried it, under all the judgements and expectations of adulthood and ‘professionalising’. Science tells us too that learning keeps us young, and I think it’s the feel of it as much as anything. It’s liberating to recover the freedom of not knowing, of finding out instead of trying to seem expert or knowledgeable. It’s such a relief, and opens up a world of possibilities instead of certainties (of which there are few anyway of course).

My recent experience of completing MSC teacher certification brought me up close to the painful edges of vulnerability around learning, and I discovered how much I was getting in my own way with some idea that I ‘should’ know it all already – the irony of sharing an approach that prizes discovery over instruction wasn’t lost on me and made it all the more sticky for a while. There is an inherent competitiveness in the striving to know, and oppression in evaluation and comparison, and consequently some suffering. How much pain in the world comes from the thought ‘I don’t get it’ and all the judging and crippling self-criticism that comes from it? I worked for many years as a counsellor in higher education – I know it can literally be life threatening. Not knowing feels vulnerable. Turning towards this vulnerability in myself I’ve recognised how I have used learning as I expect many of us do, to gain status, authority and a sense of belonging. Which kind of works as long we get good grades – but knowledge is not valued in mindfulness or mindful self-compassion nearly as much as the willingness to learn and to embody this in all our teaching.

At a workshop last weekend on the Enquiry component of Mindful Self-Compassion (with Steve Hickman and Vanessa Hope) we explored the dimension of ‘asking rather than telling’ which underpins the empowering intention of our teaching. I don’t have to be an ‘expert’ on mindful self-compassion, but I am asked to be willing to turn up as the vulnerable human being I am and because of this meet myself and my students with loving connected presence. Which is of course hardest (and the most healing) when I’m threat activated – habitually triggered by not knowing and uncertainty. Ahh, the relief of aspiring to be a ‘compassionate mess’ as we share on the course. And it’s curiosity that softens my resistance to it all, because as Brene Brown writes “Choosing to be curious is choosing to be vulnerable because it requires us to surrender to uncertainty”. It’s a surrendering that actually gives me wings – to learn, discover, receive, respond and most essentially to resonate. When I’m curious it doesn’t matter if I don’t know, don’t get it ‘right’ or don’t know what to say. So it was wonderful to come away from the workshop curious, with as many questions as answers, interested, engaged – and so much more at ease as a result.

There is a wonderful simultaneous ease and aliveness that comes from curiosity in practice, what Martine Batchelor shares as the Korean Zen Koan ‘What is This?’. “This is a practice of questioning, not of answering. We are trying to develop a sensation of openness, of wonderment. As we throw out the question What is this? we are opening ourselves to the moment. There is no place we can rest. We are letting go of our need for knowledge and security, and our body and mind themselves become a question”

We can inquire into the mind/heart, into life itself, in any given moment we’re awake. Not analysing but opening to the immediacy of the moment, as deep as that goes. And it can go very deep. When we practice meeting our experience with curiosity and care more of the time, so wisdom and compassion grow. Isn’t that an interesting distinction – we don’t practice wisdom, they are the fruits born from curiosity. I think Einstein, who described being passionately curious as his real talent, recommended this too : “One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvellous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity”

Last but definitely not least, with curiosity is such a different way to meet our strong aversive emotions – asking yourself what’s happening, tracking the emotional weather as it moves through your body. To stay curious instead of pushing away, exploring what’s happening with tender interest instead of trying to manipulate or control. All of this is at the heart of mindful and self-compassion trainings – a whole new relationship to our experience and ourselves.

To be curious, to explore, to understand is an infinite capacity that we all have regardless of conditions or circumstances. May you give yourself, others and this amazing world the gift of your curiosity. It is a door to a freer heart and mind. It is in essence a deep unconditional listening, beautifully captured in this John Fox poem:

“When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup you’ve had since childhood
and watching it fill up with cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim, you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin, you are loved.
When someone deeply listens to you
the room where you stay starts a new life
and the place where you wrote your first poem
begins to glow in your mind’s eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!
When someone deeply listens to you
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.”

Just think you may never be bored again – I mean really boredom is just so boring! As the clever Dorothy Parker put it “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”

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