Antidotes for Afflictive Emotions Part III: Curiosity
In Part I of this series we explored Courage, Compassion & Wisdom and in Part II we explored Acceptance as ways of relating to ourselves, our experiences and others that can help us respond more skillfully and reduce suffering. In Part III we will discuss curiosity, which is the spirit of inquiry, an openness, and a “turning toward” in order to learn and know, that can be cultivated with practice.
Most human beings have a spirit of curiosity within us, although it may become stifled and obscured over time. Just think about the children in your life – how they are fascinated by the smallest and most mundane of things, taking little for granted and asking question after question with an endless thirst for understanding.
Although we are born with an innate curiosity, human beings are not omniscient (all knowing). The information we take in can be distorted by our mental filters. Our memories are flawed, our senses are limited, and we are prone to suggestion and biases. Our lives are short and consequently, our view of reality is short-sighted. We tend to act on our beliefs as if they were universal truths and we selectively take in information that supports our version of reality.
In US culture, we like things to be clear and we don’t have the time to take in the firehose blast of information coming at us every day. We are in a hurry or we don’t like ambiguity so we make snap judgments. We think we “already know” based on our assumptions and generalizations. We are encouraged to rely on our “gut instincts” and follow our “intuition”, even though there is much evidence to show that these faculties are quite flawed and error prone. When we decide about things before we see them as they really are in the moment, we miss out on much of the richness and complexity around us.
We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are. – Talmud
Knowing this, what would it be like to approach the world like a curious scientist gathering data? This would require us to be objective observers, suspending judgment. While we might listen to our gut and intuition, we would also systematically test the data we collect, making inquiries when we are unsure. We would test our theories by examining evidence that both supports and calls into question our theories so that our findings will not be biased. We would understand that our theories about life can never be proven, only supported or disproven.
Approaching life like a scientist does not mean that we have to be computer-like. Objective data gathering does not preclude spirituality. We now know there are elements in the universe that “exist”, but surpass our current ability to observe and measure them. An example of this is quantum mechanics. We can still develop theories about these unmeasurable, unobservable things, but we also must keep in mind they are only theories based largely on interpretation and may at any point be disproven.
Being open and curious, observing while suspending judgment allows us to learn and gain wisdom. When we engender an attitude of curiosity, we are naturally more mindful and present. We are paying attention, on purpose, to what is happening with a sense of wonder. When we are curious and attentive to what is around us or what it going on inside of us, it is a sign that we care. This attitude helps us relate better to ourselves, others and the world. When we assume and make snap judgments, it implies we do not have the time or interest to look deeper.
In order develop an attitude of curiosity we have to slow down, settle our minds, and learn to focus our attention. This can be cultivated through a regular meditation practice over time. We also have to be willing to face things that are aversive, ask questions, challenge ourselves, and step out of our comfort zones. This takes courage. Finally, we have to practice persistently if we wish it to become a new habit of mind. This requires patience and devotion. It may sound like a lot of hard work; however, the rewards are priceless. Practicing the cultivation of curiosity with courage and devotion increases compassion toward self and others and leads to greater equanimity (mental stability and composure) over the long run.
In the next and final post of this series, we will discuss the ways in which we are already equipped to relate effectively with the afflictive emotions and how we can empower ourselves to do so.