“If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?”
Dogen, 13th century Zen master
What a curious title – How to Be Curious. Isn’t curiosity inherent to being human and completely natural? Why do we need to learn how to be curious?
We are naturally curious from birth, striving to know, to understand, and to make sense of ourselves and the world. Consider babies captivated by their toes and children a few years older asking endless “why” questions.
Years ago, I was traveling in Nepal. I was in a remote village with some Nepali friends, and we were returning to Kathmandu with an 8-year-old boy who had never before ventured farther than the surrounding villages. We walked about a day and a half to reach a road where we would get the bus to Kathmandu. I will never forget the look of absolute awe and amazement on his face when he first saw a bus pulling up to the stop. A moving box with people in it!! How could that be? And when we arrived at the rented room that was our destination, he was enraptured by flicking the light switch on and off and watching the light appear.
Where would we be without curiosity? Every building, every scientific development, every system – everything man-made began with someone being curious to understand or to know how something works.
For many of us, especially those of you still reading this post, our favorite object of curiosity is ourselves. This is far from a new interest. The phrase, “Know thyself,” is etched into the ruins of a Greek temple that dates back 2400 years. But how to know thyself? It seems a lot easier to know how to send an astronaut to the moon than to understand ourselves.
We know ourselves by asking questions, and the first question that naturally arises is, “Why?” You might ask: why did I just do that…why can’t I find my life’s passion…why am I still afraid…why didn’t my parents love me.
What Do We Really Want to Know?
Although we ask why, what are we really wanting to know? If we take the why question to its essence, we see that what we actually want is happiness. What we are really asking is: how can I find an end to this pain…what do I need to do to be happy. Take a minute right now to check this out in your own experience to see if it is true. Knowing why a given emotion or situation is arising offers a clue to changing it, but will never bring you to peace.
No wonder we search so hard for happiness. Maybe we’re not asking the right questions.
I recently spoke with someone who admitted that he is easily irritated by other people and reacts by criticizing them. Asking why he is like this yielded answers such as: because I am under stress right now…because other people do irritating things…because I am angry at myself and am taking it out on those around me. These answers are informative – they quell anxiety to some degree – but they are never going to lead to complete relief.
The path to true happiness is to know our experience directly. The ultimate, real, enduring solution comes by inquiring into every aspect of our experience – thoughts, emotions, physical sensations. Answers to the why question might temporarily satisfy the mind, but consider these questions:
- What am I actually experiencing right now?
- Can I be with these physical sensations without distracting from them?
- Can I make space for these emotions to be as they are?
- Can I let go of struggling right now and see things as they are?
- Are these thoughts actually true?
- Is there anything else that wants to be seen?
This way of being curious about what is actually present is so delicious. We get to know the truth about our experience! It is elegant, simple and effortless – just being with what is as it is. When we turn our attention to what is actually happening in our inner world, our whole relationship to it changes. What was previously hidden and denied is now seen clearly. We know the source of our problems from the ground up, rather than trying to figure it out in our minds.
We Defend to Survive
Sounds easy, right? Well, simple, yes, but not necessarily easy. Besides curiosity, another human tendency is the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. It’s a survival strategy. When we begin to become aware of a difficult feeling or unpleasant physical sensation, the alarm bells go off, signaling the need to go on the defensive. It’s like the first shot fired that begins the inner war. There is an experience that occurs, e.g., a difficult feeling, an internal, “Uh-oh, something’s wrong here,” then the maneuvers to avoid that experience. Here is where the trouble begins.
Humans are infinitely creative in the ways they have devised to avoid being with experience as it is. We think, plan, reminisce, analyze, explain, become lost in our imagination, tell ourselves stories. We get busy, drink alcohol or coffee, sleep, pick up the phone, pick a fight. We will do anything but simply be with what is. Except if you really want to know the truth.
If what you want is to know thyself, knock the walls down, pull out all the stops, and be curious to get to know yourself all the way through. Start with what’s here right now – the sounds you hear, the sensations of your back against a chair. Then shine the searchlight of your attention into the inner nooks and crannies. What hidden feeling or contraction is lying there just waiting for your loving embrace?
The Road to Happiness in a Nutshell
These experiences we avoid are part of ourselves that were cut off from conscious awareness long ago because they were unwelcomed. What they need is love. When all of our experiences are met with love, there is no longer a need to avoid or defend. We reclaim our natural selves. Being with what is becomes effortless. The inner war ends with everyone and everything as the victor.
Say that you feel you haven’t met your potential in life, and the answer to your “why” question is that your parents didn’t love you enough. Possibly helpful, but let’s go further. When you have the thought, “My parents didn’t love me enough,” what is your actual experience? Maybe you feel heaviness in your chest and your energy sinks. Bring your loving attention to these experiences. They exist in you because you felt unloved in the first place. What they need is love, and you have the capacity to open your heart to these hurting places in yourself. Now the thought, “My parents didn’t love me enough” is far from an endpoint – it is a signal to open in love. Being with yourself in this way, over and over, is the true medicine for your problems.
Ramana Maharshi was an Indian sage who offered the possibility of eternal freedom by asking the question, “Who am I?” Try this out, and see what you discover. If who you really are is not your thoughts or emotions or perceptions or even your body, who are you, really? (Hint: This question cannot be answered with the mind.)
You might have heard the proverb, “curiosity killed the cat,” which is a warning against being too curious. This might apply in some situations, but if you want to truly know yourself, if you want to live in freedom, be completely curious and meet what you discover in love. The whole universe is patiently waiting for you.
“Live your questions now, and perhaps even without knowing it, you will live along some distant day into your answers.”
Rainer Maria Rilke