We often teach in our mindfulness classes that mindfulness supports the curious investigation of what’s arising in our awareness so we can see it more clearly and not just react to it habitually. What was big for me this year on retreat was the deeper understanding and clarity around what ‘investigation’ means and how important curiosity is in the practice of mindfulness.
For instance, during this week-long silent retreat, I was walking on a path under some apple trees. Suddenly something dropped down in front of me. My initial reaction was: ”Eww!”. What’s that?!! I realized it was a caterpillar, a strange looking caterpillar. My judging mind kicked in. I saw holes in some of the leaves and thought, “It’s damaging the tree!”
Then I began to look more closely with curiosity. “Wow…look at that!!!” It was maybe ¾ inch long, a gazillion legs, very fine green fur covered its body and 2 long antennae extended upward from his head way beyond its fur and the mouth had 2 amazing prehensile extensions moving back and forth. It was hanging by a thin thread. “Perhaps the wind had knocked him off a branch?” I stood there, amazed by this very small piece of nature & the thin thread that had caught him. I was moved by the awesome complexity of the life in this ¾ inch long caterpillar!
This pausing and noticing led to naturally feeling a sense of care and concern for his wellbeing.
“Had he been knocked down to the ground he could have been squished!”. So I carried him over and placed him on a branch of the tree. I felt deeply satisfied and somewhat parental as I watched him crawl slowly out of site.
I was struck, once again, by the realization that these kinds of events are going on around us all the time but because we’re preoccupied and lost in what happened before or what will happen next we miss it.
So this was a very different kind of being with my experience. I really appreciated at a deeper level what curiosity is and what investigation is. It’s not digging at all. It’s different than our habitual way of trying to understand what’s going on. We often bring a quality of investigation or exploration that’s hard edged, more like problem solving or analyzing. This type of curiosity is lighter, not prying or digging into or trying to get to the bottom of. Instead it’s, “What is this?” ”Isn’t that curious?”, with a sense of wonder and not needing answers and more comfortable with not knowing.
At another time during the retreat, I noticed while I was walking that I was having recurring thoughts about how I looked, how I was dressed, how I appeared. My typical response in the past would have been to judge myself as not nice, self centered, and to dismiss it with “Why am I thinking like that?” “What’s wrong with me?”
An interesting thing happened when I brought more curiosity to that kind of thinking, a curiosity which was open, friendly, lighter, spacious, just seeing what’s there. Quite spontaneously a question arose: “What happens in my experience when that thought comes up about what I’m wearing”?
So it’s not digging. It’s not trying to get to the bottom of anything. It’s just what happens. So I noticed I went from feeling open and spacious to feeling more tight and contracted and a little anxious. Then I noticed that I started to notice others around me. My feelings began to change from feeling a part of and warm and connected to feeling self conscious and uneasy. I noticed thoughts arising about how others viewed me and began to feel somewhat threatened and insecure. What was interesting was that I was able to see that not as a problem or the truth even, but just “Isn’t that an interesting reaction”. “Wow!” So when I get preoccupied with how I look, I start to get disconnected, anxious and feel separate from people. Isn’t that curious how quickly that happens in response to just a few thoughts about what I’m wearing and comparing myself to others and what others think about me.
When I was able to be curious, it wasn’t a problem. In that moment of appreciation there was spaciousness. It was really quite freeing to see that it was just thoughts and I could just let them go. As I was able to just allow them, my feelings of disconnection changed back to warmth and connection.
In this way curiosity was useful, empowering, clarifying. It helped me see and experience what was there without filters, so that I could experience life more fully, see other people freshly, move beyond separation to connection, with people, to all of life and its beauty and complexity.