Being curious

One of the most underrated, and yet underlying, aspects of contemplative practice is curiosity. It’s a motivation, an inclination, a method, and a quality. As is usual with practice, a bit of reflection on this one topic will reveal pretty much everything you need to know.

Curiosity comes up in various scriptural forms: from the Christian desire to know God, to the Buddhist factor of enlightenment that is vicaya, or investigation. I really want to stress this. It isn’t just an idle thing, lacking rationality or importance; it’s a documented part of awakening. Curiosity is what first made me pick up a book on Buddhism, choose phenomenology as a subject to study at university, go on retreat. It can be fired with the tiniest amount of information or even a complete misapprehension, and that is a great strength. The desire to know the truth of things doesn’t require you to be smart, moral, learned, or to get everything right. If you remain curious, you’ll keep learning.

Curiosity, aside from as that initial, naïve motivator, can be more or less informed. When it is fired with a little savvy that comes from a little guidance from a teacher, some initial reading, or even better sitting down and finding out what’s what for yourself, it takes on focus and becomes better described as investigation. This is the heart of vipassana and creates clarity regarding experience and perception. But even then, the life of investigation remains that felt curiosity. Without it, vipassana becomes extremely dry in my experience, and my motivation slackens in those situations. You can even become curious about your own curiosity as an object of meditation. What are the components of it? What does it feel like? How does it manifest? It is the ultimate antidote to boredom that I can easily fall into, given I’m part of a generation that is getting used to easy and immediate gratification on a scale never before known by humans. Want another practice suggestion? Train your curiosity on your boredom. Now that is a good ‘un.

I suggest that you become curious about your experience foremost, rather than your concepts. Analysis has its place in various traditions, but I am presuming that if you are reading this you no longer think satisfaction is going to come from setting your thoughts in order. Get into your experience. Don’t run from anything you find there. Dwell in your body and your environment. Bhante Bodhidhamma puts great emphasis on a curiosity that lacks sophistication and a habit of mental labelling, seeing things as they are without mediation of concepts. His metaphor is that of a small child who sees something new for the first time: the mouth drops open, and the question invariably is: what is this? ‘It’s the adult who spoils it by naming it and telling them to close their mouth,’ he says knowingly. The asking of the question ‘what is this?’ in a deep, contemplative way, is the focus on insight practice in at least one tradition, deliberately going for the most formless approach possible. Turning over and over that subjectless interest, open to whatever might emerge, insight arises. I’ve done similar practices myself, and it’s not a mechanistic result: there’s just something about producing that state of openness and readiness that allows some room for deeper understanding. Curiosity, even when more focused in the form of precise noting, breath meditation, or contemplation of a passage of scripture, is best when it is open. If you’re not open enough, you’ll never find an answer you don’t think you already know.

Developing that inclination to be interested is to start getting out of that egocentric habit of putting things in order, which means to put them in a subject-object relation. It knocks out that usual reaction of craving and aversion. Curiosity can be a positive emotion overlaying even the most complex or negative experience. I once went to a teacher on retreat completely ambivalent. I had become increasingly repulsed by a slowly dawning dread. I felt utterly wrong in my own skin, like a bundle of flesh and bones that was falling apart. My clothes felt dirty on me and the mere sensation of them was disgusting. But I wasn’t going anywhere. I was determined to carry on practicing despite my misery. What drove me on? I can’t really tell you what I was expecting to happen. With some evident excitement and desire to motivate me without providing hollow reassurances or consolation, he said to me ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’. The mystery of contemplative practice repels, and yet fascinates, at the same time, because it is the truth: but not necessarily the truth we want to hear. But there are also gentler ways of delicately poking into this stuff, and that kind of depth of horror has been limited for me to intensive retreat or the most intense of early peak breakthroughs. Cultivating positive, enjoyable curiosity remains a way of looking at the sensate in a way that is more manageable. It brings a certain amount of samadhi (crudely put, a state of calm concentration) to consciousness as the pleasant is soothing. If you can’t bring yourself to look at something rough that needs your attention, and it is just shredding your composure when you need to be stable at work or for your kids, you can investigate a pleasant object instead. Notice how much you want to look at the object, such as the warmth of your hands placed in your lap as something always readily available.

You will find this curiosity is not something than can be forced, but that you gently herd your faculties towards, in the same way that you cannot force yourself into a deep state of concentration without causing a large amount of agitation that comes back to bite you on the arse. But you will carve that channel deeper every time you manage it, and after a while the mind naturally goes towards that kind of composed, peaceable investigation. The hindrances as ever are there with the possibility of disappearing off into bliss or simply dozing off, but patience is as always a virtue. Disinterested interest is another paradox that the experience of solves.

Further practice suggestions

  • What does curiosity feel like? Can you resolve to be curious about everything?
  • Ask God to bring you closer to him, so that you may know him.
  • Look at something you look at every day. What really is this?