Let’s Get Curious!
Although curiosity killed the cat it would appear that it is an essential quality for human development and learning.
It is also a primary aspect of mindfulness. Curiosity allows us to begin to turn toward the entirety of experience, moving us from avoidance to approach, including that which we don’t like. I would argue curiosity and kindness are the antidotes to judgment and other harsh evaluations we may direct toward ourselves or others and it is a quality that can be developed.
Curiosity can be used as a way to inquire into our experience—the joyful and painful alike. Curiosity may allow us to begin to level the playing field of our lives so we don’t have to excessively privilege one experience over another. It just takes some of the dys out of dysregulation, smoothing out our internal psychological rollercoaster as we are faced with moments that can take us to ecstatic heights and ones that may take us into an abyss. In the words of Martine Batchelor, a teacher and former Buddhist nun, we can begin to ask, “What is this?” We are not looking for a specific answer but rather using the question as a method of experiential investigation.
Mindfulness begins with awareness and the recognition or acknowledgment that something is here. It must include intention and the willingness to be with what is showing. Curiosity or interest can thus lead us to mindful investigation and exploration, coming to fully know experience as it is. Staying with whatever is happening, whether it is wanted or unwanted,can help us to accept what is, and enhance our capacity for compassion. Acceptance doesn’t require that we have to like what is going on but rather to be willing to have it. This doesn’t mean becoming a doormat to life but it does mean not having a temper tantrum when things don’t go according to plan. We can then move into skillfully responding, asking ourselves, “Does this need to be taken up, addressed or dealt with? Can I let it be or let it go? Or perhaps it’s time to practice intentional avoidance.” Avoidance, when deliberate, can be skillful or a moment of self-care.
Wisdom is the discernment to know when to pick the banana and when to leave it alone. Sometimes we just need to step away or take ourselves out of a difficult situation, such as escaping an abusive relationship. Sometimes acting on our curiosity can be deadly. In the words of Dr. M. Lee Freedman, a psychiatrist and colleague, “It is not the curiosity itself that is the problem but what we do next.” There is a reason we have childproofed wall sockets.
Mindfulness involves the bottom up investigation of experience versus the top down process of thinking about it. When we practice formally or informally we are enhancing our ability to engage in experiential self-referencing or being aware of our moment-to-moment body-mind experience as opposed to our usual narrative self-referencing (aka story telling, judgments, opinions, etc). We are increasing our emotional regulation using willingness to be with difficult states and enhancing our attention regulation by bringing curiosity online. Curiosity by necessity involves attention.
A study I often refer to, titled “Predicting the onset of Alzheimer’s disease with a behavioral task,” describes the relationships between attention and curiosity this way:
“Attention is important to the understanding of curiosity because it directly correlates with one’s abilities to selectively focus and concentrate on particular stimuli in the surrounding (and I would add internal) environment.”
Sounds a lot like mindfulness, don’t you think?
When we are inquiring or being curious about our lives, within the context of mindfulness, it is helpful to investigate by asking:
- To what am I attending? Thoughts (or beliefs)? Emotions? The senses or sensations?
- Where is my attention? Is it immersed in thinking and/or emotions? Is it in the body?
- When did my attention land wherever it is? Did the experience change or is it changing or persisting?
- How am I attending? Am I gripped by a looping thought or situation that I don’t like? Am I curious? Am I attending with intention or am I drifting, lost in a daydream or fantasy?
We don’t ask “why” when inquiring into our practice because mindfulness is something to be embodied, to be experienced rather than thought about and analyzed. I’m not suggesting that we do away with thinking, analysis, or intellectual pursuit. We are problem-solving creatures and this is an important part of being a sentient being. We would not have survived long without our intellects. But within the practice itself, learning and insights come out of being with each moment as it comes and goes.
Authors and mindfulness teachers John Teasdale and Michael Chaskason (Kulananda, 2011) in a lovely article write,
“Mindfulness allows the poetry of the moment by moment experience to re-write itself, to gracefully change its theme from one of suffering to one of ease and peace.”
So, there would actually appear to be a goal to all of this breathing. For me however, the goal is awareness. I’m happy if I get a few moments of peace now and again, but I don’t expect them. When I am working with mindfulness groups at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies I often say to participants, “I don’t care if you’re comfortable. I care that you are aware.” When we have awareness we have choice about our response to the ever-changing life events that we don’t get to control. And when the chips are down, curiosity is one of the essential tools that helps us through the good times and the bad. When practiced deliberately, curiosity helps us, I believe, to recover more quickly from reactivity. My favourite neuroscientist, Norman Farb (2010) found in a study comparing non-meditators and meditators and their response to the provocation of sadness that meditators feel their emotions as intensely as non-meditators, but they have less observable neural reactivity, less cognitive elaboration and get over them faster. This means that meditators emote as much as those who don’t meditate, but tend not to be so caught up in perpetuating difficult experiences by continuing to think about them or continually recycling the attendant emotions.
Mindfulness is disruptive. Teasdale and Chaskason note that it changes the habitual way we attend and also how we pay attention to experience. As soon as we get curious we have changed the way. We are consciously aware and interested. The how is the movement fromthinking about experience to being in the experience itself. We are no longer thinking, “How dare he talk to me like this!” but rather we can be curious about how anger is showing in our creased forehead, tight jaw, clenched fists and tight diaphragm. We can label the emotions. “Wow that’s interesting! Rage is here and thoughts about how I would like to…” (you can fill in the blanks).
We get interested in the entirety of any occurrence as opposed to ruminating about all of our personally experienced injustices, how things should or should not be, and the rehearsal of what we would like to say to the offending party. In the words of author and clinical psychiatrist Dan Siegel, when we get really distressed we, “flip our lids” and go offline. Curiosity helps us put the lid back on. Then we can consider what kind of response we wish to have, as opposed to engaging in one we might regret. Curiosity may in fact, stop us from killing the cat.
Techniques: Three Ways to Get Curious
Try these three strategies to disrupt or change your view, how you are processing an experience, or how you are reacting to an interaction:
1. Change the content of what is being processed (thoughts and/or emotions) by the age-old practice of bringing attention to bodily sensations or breath.
- *Try this. (Spoiler alert—this may be unpleasant). Think of a difficult experience (not the most difficult one you’ve ever had) or situation or worry. Bring it to mind.
- a) Notice the thoughts.
- b) Label the emotions if there are any (“Anger is here,” or “Anxiety is here”).
- c) Notice the bodily sensations.
- Now really shift the attention to any body sensations, particularly those that are strongest. What happens? Stay with these for at least 30 seconds (if you can). If necessary, and only if necessary, expand into them on an in-breath and soften on an out-breath. Perhaps even say to yourself, “It’s ok, I can feel this. I can be with this.”
- Now, move your attention to the sensations of breathing at the level of the belly for 30 seconds. When the attention moves somewhere else, just bring it back to the body breathing.
- Expand your attention to the entire body from head to toe, breathing for another 30 seconds.
- Now record the thoughts, emotions, body sensations you experienced during this practice and any reflections you have now after completing it.
You just practiced processing experience through the body versus thinking.
*Adapted from Zindel Segal et al. (3-minute Responsive Breathing Space, 2002, 2013)
2. Practice changing the quality of attention from autopilot, immersion or avoidance, to a stance of curiosity and approach.
If you are experiencing an unpleasant emotion or sensation, try examining it from all angles. Ask: How is it showing in the body-mind or in the relational space between you and another? In thinking? (Remember: not thinking about but rather noticing the quality of the thoughts, e.g., are the thoughts flat, or emotionally charged? Are they fast or slow? Can you see them as sensations of the mind, coming and going?). What are you experiencing emotionally or in the body? What happens when you get interested in an event, a food, an interaction, a sensation even if you don’t want it?
You’ve just practiced moving from immersion and a high affectively charged state to curiosity.
3. Try working with changing how you view each moment.
What happens when you move from a position of the personal (me, me, me) to the impersonal? You might think: “Shit happens.” What do you notice if you get curious about whatever is going on rather than looping through issues of fairness or resistance? What happens if we begin to really move from a place where the view is “I am always sad, in pain or sick” to a view interested and curious about sadness, its qualities, when it is present or absent, about pain and when it is more or less severe, or about illness and its changing nature?
You have just practiced the investigation of view.
Shifting from a stance of pushing away what is here to one of curiosity and interest may just bring us a little freedom.
Farb, N et al., Emotion © 2010 Minding One’s Emotions: Mindfulness Training Alters the Neural Expression of Sadness American Psychological Association, 2010, Vol. 10, No. 1, 25–33
Teasdale J.D & Michael Chaskalson (Kulananda) (2011): How does mindfulness transform suffering? II: the transformation of dukkha, Contemporary Buddhism, 12:01, 103-124.
– Patricia Rockman MD CCFP FCFP
This piece was originally published on Mindful.org as Let’s Get Curious
Patricia Rockman MD CCFP FCFP is an associate professor with the University of Toronto, department of family and community medicine; cross appointed to psychiatry. She is the past chair of the Ontario College of Family Physicians Collaborative Mental Health Network. She is a medical psychotherapist and leads leads MBCT groups. She has been educating healthcare providers in stress reduction, CBT and mindfulness-based practices for over 20 years. She is a founder and the Director of Education and Clinical Services at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies and the developer of the MBCT Core Facilitation Certificate Program.
Curiosity takes many forms. Most of them are good for us. But there is one that needs a lot of explanation, and that is scientific curiosity. I am not referring to people who are very curious about science, a noble pursuit to be sure, but I am talking about a noble pursuit that is very rare. I am talking about the pursuit of new scientific explanation. Usually it involves the pursuit of a new theory, a new paradigm, a model that makes sense of a multitude of previously inexplicable facts in such a way that new and useful facts come to light.
Why is scientific curiosity so rare? It has to do with the fact that, in order to come up with a new paradigm, (1) you have to have a lot of experience with the particular set of facts in need of an explanation, (2) you must have a truly passionate curiosity and desire to explain, and (3) a very keen sense of what constitutes a genuine scientific explanation. I propose that there is a pressing need to explain how Buddhist mindfulness meditation causes so many benefits discovered by various investigators who have studies the changes in people (mostly non-Buddhist people) who have taken courses such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). I respectfully suggest that the Buddhist practice of mindfulness meditation, based upon the Satipatthana Sutta, includes these specialized practices. And my experience with mindfulness meditation is with the Buddhist sort over the last 50 years. In order to be helpful in this strictly medical and psychological endeavor, I will start out with talking about the three qualifications listed above.
About having lots of experience with mindfulness meditation: The first thing that must be said about Buddhist literature is that almost all of it is instructive in nature, with a lack of explanation except the most vague sort. This, of course, is no problem in a Buddhist culture where children grow up with numerous accounts of how individuals in the community have achieved Enlightenment. In the West, we have a lot of people who are inspired to practice mindfulness meditation by charismatic gurus. In the cases of MBSR and MBCT, motivation is provided by scientific studies that have, beyond reasonable doubt, shown numerous benefits of the practice, but without providing an explanation. Needless to say, professional instructors of mindfulness meditation are unhappy with the lack of explanation, for good reason. For example, without a proper explanation, it is difficult to modify the practice to benefit special needs.
The pressing question is: How is it possible that the simple process of paying attention to the physical sensation of the breath (usually in the nose) every day for a half hour for two months will cause a very significant reduction of stress (or a variety of other medical conditions)? The benefit of having practiced mindfulness meditation for many years is that, in traditional Buddhist practice, there are various forms of the meditation that are closely related to mindfulness practice. Some of them are special states of insight that allow a person to experience unconscious mental processes that result in the formation of and liberation from karma.
For example, it is significant that feelings and emotions (whether wholesome or unwholesome) are not caused by intentional mental actions. Yet they almost always make sense in the sense that their occurrence is understandable given the situation and the fact that they cause an optimal (if sometimes disastrous) outcome. Some philosophers and psychologists call these mental events to be products of an unconsciously motivated action. In Buddhist psychology, feelings and emotions are mental actions. And there are states of mindfulness meditation in which the unconscious decision-making processes that select the “best” feeling or emotion. This is an unconscious part of the mind that determines our mental and bodily in terms of their value or importance. This part of the mind, for example, that defines our self-esteem or sense of self-worth. This part of the mind determines how a person is able to love and be loved. It is especially noteworthy that this state of mindfulness meditation allows us to trace backwards the historical causes of feelings and emotions. In general, wholesome feelings and emotions can be traced back our “core knowledge” as described by Elizabeth Spelke. Unwholesome or painful feelings and emotions are generally traceable to emotional abuse within the family along with events in previous life times.
Unfortunately, access to these histories is available to only a very advanced practitioner of mindfulness meditation. For the rest of us, we must pay attention to “the body in the body” as signals from our deeper intelligence. This “body in the body” has been rediscovered by Eugene Gendlin, as described in his book, Focusing.
Another important clue to understanding mindfulness meditation is the fact that young infants are in a state of mindfulness (except when they are under distress).
In other words, having experienced the full range of mindfulness meditation results in insights that can contribute to a scientific understanding of the meditation. Unfortunately, some of these special meditations require special abilities called the siddhis or so-called psychic powers. But even that may not be enough. How we use insight, even after Enlightenment, is determined by our karma. For some meditation teachers, being able to inspire mindfulness meditation is more important that being able to explain it. Scientific explanations tend to be very dry, unemotional, and (to some) unappealing.
But, for some people, scientific explanation has a special appeal. It comes from having immersed oneself in the special reasoning that can go into mathematical or logical structures from first learning about it in high school. For such a person, mathematics or physics can have a special beauty or blissful quality that may seem foolish for some people. Perhaps it is foolish in some ways because, although we can enjoy the beauty created by others, it is actually very difficult to create on our own. I can only say that, long before I took up the practice of mindfulness meditation, I was immersed in this very difficult pursuit of beauty.
Then there are the many years that go into understanding of what goes into an elegant scientific explanation. I call this acquiring philosophical maturity. It is a winding path full of thorns. For me it started with an appreciation of the axiomatic structure of geometry and then physics. But finding elegance in psychological explanation proved to be far more difficult. It did not seem to exist. I gradually came to realize that explaining the nature of human intelligence was the basis of an elegant explanation of the mind. Fortunately, I took a university course on the philosophy of human action. (Alvin Goldman was especially helpful.) But learning how to properly talk about an action did not contribute to the empirical study of mental action. I eventually discovered the Buddhist Abhidharma (often referred to as the “philosophy” of Buddhism) was an empirical study based upon insights acquired through advanced states of mindfulness meditation. In other words, the Buddha was a great genius that used his special powers to acquire special observations to develop a scientific paradigm. Fortunately for those of us who lack this special genius, he left a partial description of his scientific paradigm in the Abhidhamma. This view of the Abhidhamma as being a paradigm of an explanation of how the mind and everything else about Buddhist practice (including the practice of mindfulness meditation) is an uncommon belief, to say the least. In this way, I came to realize that the citta-vithi (process of consciousness) was the unconscious basis of all intelligent mental processes. Any mental process, conscious or unconscious, can be understood by first understanding the many citta-vithi involved contributed to the mental process in question. And how does this very specialized understanding contribute to a scientific explanation?
It turns out that looking for the underlying citta-vithi (which can number in the thousands) provides an understanding at every level of complexity. At the highest level, when any reference to an individual citta-vithi is remote, a conscious or unconscious mental process can be described in almost common-sense terms. It is this almost common-sense understanding that becomes a candidate for a working hypothesis that can be verified through statistical methods along with a good deal of ingenuity.
A scientific understanding of the citta-vithi is a long way off because it will require an understanding of the solution to the mind-body problem in terms of shadow matter, which has yet to be discovered by modern science, but can be observed in great detail through the siddhi called anima (the ESP of atoms).