Cultivating Curiosity

My teacher has been emphasizing the importance of curiosity, both within meditation practice and life. At first, I had difficulty understanding what he meant. How could curiosity be used to enhance your experience? I’d grown accustomed to playing with the idea of acceptance, letting go of how I think things should be and simply be with what is, what I am experiencing at every moment without needing or hoping for it to be different. But when thinking about these two ideas in tandem, curiosity and acceptance, I felt that they were on opposite ends of the seesaw. Curiosity, to me, was a character trait attributed to explorers and scientists who set out to discover uncharted realms and on the opposite end sat acceptance—satisfied with things as they are, no need to go anywhere or do anything. The only way I could test this idea would be to put it to practice. I started to meditate on the feelings of curiosity and I began to see how these two seemingly separate ideas are deeply connected and can guide us into our natural flow. 

What does it mean to be curious? 

At its core, curiosity indicates the quality with which we approach something. For me, curiosity means to approach with an open mind and to listen deeply to what’s in front of you. Not necessarily listening with our ears or the little voice in our head but to the feelings of our heart and body. Curiosity is about imaginative exploration and being in a relatively neutral frame of reference so that any possibility could come into being, essentially, I don’t expect to know what’s coming next. When I am truly curious about something it’s as if my analytical mind takes the back seat and my creative mind guides me very similar to how I would play make-believe as a child. 

Did you play pretend as a child? Can you remember back to this time of your life? Before your attitudes and perceptions of the world developed from years of being told what’s important and what’s to be ignored, when you could seamlessly move from the pre-historic time of dinosaurs to the sci-fi future. Nothing was impossible. It was my curiosity is that guided me to imagine what it would feel like to be in those magical places. For many of us, this imaginative expression eventually fades away. As we go to school we are taught what’s important and what’s not and our doors of perception narrows, inhibiting us from questioning and investigating what’s around us, what we’re experiencing, and how that makes us feel. We’re told to focus our attention on a subject; math, science, band. But there can be no forced curiosity, it must come from a desire to know something more deeply. 

The feelings behind curiosity also include a great sense of wonder and awe. True curiosity contains that excitement to see what will happen next and the result is always unexpected, for if we find something we are expecting then we are not approaching it with true curiosity, we’re approaching it from a place of knowing or assumption. Curiosity gives rise to more curiosity as it builds and becomes a cycle of intrigue and appreciation. With each new discovery or insight comes wonder and gratitude. 

Even though some of us may have lost the desire to inquire in an imaginative way I bet that many of us have a hobby. It’s often in these hobbies that we feel our creative expression open and a sense of relaxation in the doing. This is when we may feel as if we are in the flow—when ideas or realizations are presented to us without any mental effort on our end. In meditation and yoga this curiosity allows us to truly listen to our experience and to allow that experience to guide us. In our daily life, curiosity can help us to connect with others in ways that might surprise us. With curiosity we become more empathetic to those around us instead of labeling them for who we think they are and what they’re capable of doing.

The unknown isn’t necessarily a comfortable place to be, which is another reason why we tend to ‘know’ things instead of being curious about them. The unknown scares us because our analytical mind likes to prepare for the worst possible scenario. We choose to label things that we don’t know and construct an idea of what it is before we’ve even experienced it so that we have a sense of control in our situation.

So how do we cultivate curiosity? As I said, curiosity can’t be forced, it must be genuine and even though it can’t be ‘put on’ it can be awakened. In meditation, you might begin to cultivate this curiosity by noticing when things are different and finding delight in those differences. Not expecting to find changes but just noticing any subtleties of experience that may distinguish this time from the last. In life, I find that curiosity grows when we learn about and practice an activity or thing we truly enjoy doing. Maybe you like making model cars or maybe it’s playing the violin or maybe you like baking. Let those activities pull you in and allow yourself to delight in the experience of doing or learning. It’s like dating. The only way you’ll know if you are compatible is if you ask some questions and get familiar with the thing.

We get to choose how we experience and interact with our world. We can choose to be stuck in the ordinary and mundane or we can see the underlying wonder in all things. We choose whether we live in a world of infinite possibilities or a strictly defined box. Get in touch with your creative expression and allow yourself to follow what interests you. Even if that little voice tells you it’s silly or a waste of time, follow the thread of curiosity and see where it leads. What do you have to lose? 

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