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? 

You Don’t Need to Go on a 10-Day Retreat to Learn How to Meditate

Anyone can learn to meditate and it doesn’t mean you have to go on a 10-Day silent retreat or become a monk in order for your practice to be fulfilling. Meditation takes time and all you really need is patience, self-compassion, and a few guiding principles. In fact, going on a retreat before having an established practice may be more of a disservice than a benefit. This isn’t a rule, as we all have different backgrounds and perspectives and for some, diving into the deep-end may be fine. But think of it this way – you wouldn’t enter a marathon without any proper training or experience, would you? Same goes for meditation.

When I first began to practice meditation formally I thought I had to sit on my meditation cushion with my legs crossed and an upright spine. I would sit for 20-30 minutes but after the first 5 minutes or so my body would begin to ache. My shoulders would tighten and my knees would feel sharp pains. My thoughts would become absorbed in these feelings of discomfort, but I would force myself to stay seated until the ending bell rang. I did this for months until finally, my knees began to suffer from the stress of having my legs crossed for so long every day. The only relief I felt in my practice was when I finished meditating and I could get up again. Luckily, I was soon introduced to my teacher who told me I didn’t need to sit cross-legged in order to meditate. In fact, I could do it on the couch – just like watching TV.

You see, my body was not prepared or flexible enough to sit in that ‘classic meditation posture’. And even more important was the realization that there was no correct posture. The ‘correct posture’ is one that we can maintain with little effort that provides us comfort and support. For me – and for many of us – that posture is not seated on the floor. The first principle we follow in meditation is that of non-resistance and this includes both physical resistance and mental. Anytime we are resisting something we are creating a struggle within ourselves. So I began to sit in a chair or on the couch and instantly my experience in meditation shifted. My mind was no longer absorbed in the physical sensations of pain in my body and instead could align with the feelings of comfort and support I now felt.

The purpose of our meditation practice is to experience more freedom in our day-to-day lives. What do I mean by freedom? In meditation, we cultivate the qualities of the mind that allow us to resonate and align more deeply with our true nature and desires. These qualities of mind allow us to experience greater resilience and adaptability to every event we experience in life. We come to realize that we have a choice (freedom) in how to view our circumstance and eventually we find ourselves gravitating towards viewpoints that offer us feelings of fulfillment and happiness. And this takes time. Just like anything, we need time to practice and integrate our experience. We will perceive this shift of perspective gradually and that’s fine. Meditation is a lifestyle practice, not an instant-salve.

Binge Watching Netflix is a Meditative State

For everyone who thinks they can’t meditate: have you ever watched Netflix? If the answer is yes, then you’ve most likely been in a meditative state. In fact, any time we become engrossed in something, whether we consider it work or play, we may enter into another state of consciousness. Our attention becomes absorbed in what we’re doing. Time moves more quickly or slowly than usual, and maybe, for a moment, we lose ourselves in the activity. We no longer form judgments and opinions about how we’re doing. In other words, we’re not thinking, we’re just doing and this is a meditative state.

Now, the absorption we feel when binge-watching the new season of Stranger Things is a state of meditation, it’s not the practice of meditation. In other words, you’re not residing in your own experience but the character’s on the screen. However, the principle is similar. In meditation, we intentionally tune into the feelings of the body and allow the thoughts to become background noise. Just as we allow our own internal monologue to become background noise when immersed in Eleven’s battle with the demogorgon.

There are many reasons meditation feels ‘hard’. Here are the three excuses that I hear most often from people who are interested in meditation but don’t have a consistent practice. ‘I can’t sit still for that long’ or ‘I don’t have time.’ ‘I can’t quiet my mind.’ ‘I don’t want to sit and observe my thoughts, I’m afraid of what I’ll find.’ I get it, it seems daunting, especially if we have this view that meditation is peaceful and bliss and calm. But it takes effort to start any new habit and develop a new skill, so let’s look at these three excuses more closely.

If you feel like you can’t sit still, are you the same person who is watching Netflix? Many of us sit for hours straight at work or while watching TV in the evening. You won’t form a meditation practice if you don’t really want to. Just like you won’t become good at the guitar if you never pick it up. For those who feel like they don’t have time, are you the same person who is watching Netflix? Many of us have the time, we just need to reevaluate and reallocate where we’re spending it. You also don’t need to start off sitting for 20-30 minutes. Because it’s a practice meant to be practiced throughout your life, you’ll have plenty of time to get there. Start with just 5-10 minutes and build gradually by adding a minute or two a month.

For those who say they can’t stop the mind, good news, you don’t have to! Meditation is not about becoming empty or free of thoughts. It’s about letting go of our desire to engage with them. Meditation is an art that has no end, not something to be achieved. I found that one of the hardest parts of meditation was not getting frustrated when thoughts arose during meditation. This is part of the practice too, we practice letting go of trying to manipulate a result and our expectations as a whole. Yes, it can be a long process, but the impacts of our meditation will start to show in our life much before we become ‘good’ at meditating.

Many people have adopted a Western Medicine view of meditation, that it’s like aspirin for a headache. So when these folks try to meditate, they’re barraged by all the stressful thoughts and feelings that are typically in the background but are brought to the foreground when as they tune into their experience of mind and body. This is more of a problem in expectation. As we start the process there will be a point in which we are very aware of our thoughts, and if those thoughts are self-deprecating then the experience may not be enjoyable. This is also part of the practice. To be self-compassionate and hold space for ourselves to be vulnerable. To know these thoughts do not determine the type of person we are or what we’re capable of.

One thing that I emphasize in teaching meditation is how important consistency is in practice. Meditation is a life practice that continuously evolves and impacts every area of how we operate and interact, but only if it’s part of our everyday routine. If you were to only go to the gym once a week you may feel good after going but your body won’t change all that much. Or, you may just be in pain because you’re not used to the physical activity! Meditation is the same, we won’t see long lasting results unless we practice every day, even if it’s for 5 minutes. In fact, it’s best to start small, with an easily manageable amount of time and to increase the length over time.

You can read all the books on meditation and attend talks with famed spiritual teachers but it won’t change a thing (except maybe your desire to start meditating!). Meditation is not an intellectual exercise and the knowledge that is found as a result doesn’t come through research or knowledge. It comes through direct experience and engagement with the practice. So, the next time you’re watching Netflix and the credits roll, you have a choice. To let the autoplay loop continue, or to turn off the TV and tune into your own experience.