Whenever I met with doubts or challenges in teaching the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, my mentor would gift me this timely reminder: "Erin, be curious. Curiosity will always get you out of trouble".
The cultivation of curiosity in mindfulness is an interesting practice to engage with. When was the last time you were truly curious about something? If you have observed a child figuring out the way the world works, you might notice the wonderment and spark in their eyes as they discover something new and interesting.
As a child, we were naturally curious and open about everything around us, and we simply wanted to explore. But as we grew up, fears, expectations and judgments set in, and we no longer approach things with genuine curiosity. We worry about the unknown or ambiguous, we reject repetition and avoid change, we seek concrete answers to the questions we ask, we tend to form biased perceptions, categorizing what we observe into stereotypes, and we almost always look to get something - usually a function or benefit - out of anything we see or come across.
Being curious about things is encouraged in mindfulness practice. In mindfulness, we practice a lot of acceptance towards the stresses and challenges in our life, but before we can even develop greater acceptance, we need to train the mind to see things just the way they are. We notice the prejudices and assumptions we tend to make, and learn to let go of preferences for things to go our way. When we are able to cultivate such genuine curiosity that is free from expectations and judgment, we usually experience remarkable changes to our relationship with the world around us.
- We notice less boredom: With genuine curiosity, we can see everything that comes our way from a fresh new perspective. We look at everything from the beginner's mind, instead of avoiding or resenting mundane, repetitive tasks. We also counter the fear of loneliness or isolation with more curiosity towards our experience. When we cultivate curiosity, we can notice how rich and amazing life can be.
- We notice fewer distractions: When we practice being curious, we open up our senses to the environment around us, thus allowing ourselves to rest in the present moment, instead of allowing the mind to wander off to ruminate about the past or worry about the future, which is the cause of much of our stress and unhappiness.
- We notice less striving: The late Vipassana meditation teacher S.N. Goenka explains that the practice of self-observation is akin to a scientist observing an experiment - s/he is simply observing what is happening, and is not attached to a specific outcome. When we cultivate curiosity during mindfulness practice, we pay more attention to the process, and learn to let go of attachments towards outcomes, such as the need to always achieve or benefit from something, or the preference for things to go the way we want.
- We notice less judgment: Curiosity helps us out of seeing things through coloured lens and making judgments about people or situations too quickly. We develop a more open and accepting attitude, and we're able to see things in totality and consider multiple perspectives.
- We notice less criticism: As we cultivate curiosity to let go of expectations and judgments, we usually become less critical of others; we are able to put ourselves in the shoes of others to empathize with what they are going through and better understand the underlying motivations behind their behaviours. We also become less critical of ourselves as we cultivate curiosity towards our own inner experience, noticing the judgmental thoughts about our perceived failures and the harsh, critical tone of voice we punish ourselves with; we learn to show more kindness and compassion towards ourselves.
Curiosity does not kill the cat. Instead, it can be your new best friend - a support you can depend on anytime, anywhere, and a gentle practice that invites you to approach life in an entirely different way. If you'd like to learn how to cultivate genuine mindful curiosity, do check out our 8-Week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program.