Category Archives: going deeper

Day 314 – The spirit of Inquiry

Not for the first time I’ve realized the danger of placing something like “practice curiosity” or “Inquiry journal” on my to-do list–it’s too easy to just do the activity mindlessly to be able to check it off. What I most appreciated at the end of my 10-day Inquiry challenge was that although I didn’t practice formal Inquiry very often at least I was noticing more quickly when I got into judgmental mode and was able to intentionally open up my mind somewhat.

This morning I was writing my usual entry in my Inquiry journal and I realized that I was doing it very much like an exercise in a language lab, automatically. That is the antithesis of Inquiry, which Senge & Co. define as listening to genuinely understand the other person’s thoughts and feelings. Right. Time that I pay attention to doing my Inquiry practice in the spirit of Inquiry.


Day 297 – A more nuanced picture

Warning–a long and fairly theory-rich post!

I found myself thinking about my tendency to see things in black and white terms–good/bad, desirable/undesirable, right/wrong. The funny thing is that I have always been able to see many sides to an issue, but I have also always known which side I came down on. And ultimately I reject the other side.

At the same time, I encourage my students and workshop participants to try to see actions or cultural dimensions in terms of advantages and disadvantages and preferences and priorities rather than good and bad, right and wrong.


Individualism (a cultural dimension)

A few advantages of individualism: personal freedom with all the associated advantages to that like living where you want to, studying what you want to, dressing the way you want to, and less responsibility to other people (like personally taking care of your aging parents).

A few disadvantages of individualism: a negative attitude to people who need support which can make it impossible for some people to reach a level where they can take care of themselves and their closest family members as well as an emphasis on doing everything yourself and taking care of yourself without help, which can lead to exhaustion, burnout, and failure.

Collectivism (another cultural dimension, the counterpart to individualism)

A few advantages of collectivism: community support for the individuals in the group–a belief in helping people up, a belief that you don’t have to be everything and do everything by yourself, and an acknowledgement of a person’s place in the group that does not end because the person’s usefulness is gone.

A few disadvantages of collectivism: a lack of freedom to determine your own life’s path, which means you may be expected to take over the family business whether or not you are interested in it, or to marry based on what fits with your family, or to contribute to community charities not necessarily based on your own personal interests.

When I talk about preferences and priorities I mean that groups (culture is always a group phenomenon) over the generations jointly build up a system of beliefs and values based on what works for the group. This system has at its core certain preferences and priorities. These preferences and priorities are handed on to new members through the process of socialization. Culture clash happens when these underlying preferences and priorities are not in agreement, like when my Austrian students–working from a collectivist standpoint in this situation–look at the fight against universal healthcare in the U.S.A.–in most things a strongly individualist culture–and simply cannot comprehend why anyone would not want to have something that in their eyes is so obviously humane and beneficial to everyone.

On a less theoretical, more fun note: I’ve been re-reading Alexander McCall Smith’s wonderful series set in Botswana, The Nr. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. The “traditional Botswana values” his heroine, Mma Ramotswe, keeps referring to are a beautiful example of collectivism, and the culture changes she sees–and disapproves of–are almost invariably individualistic.


This morning it struck me that practicing this simple shift of seeing advantages and disadvantages rather than right and wrong is an exercise in curiosity and may open up a more constructive way of interacting with other people and with situations (part of my hypothesis, if you remember).

Although I’ve been doing this kind of analysis in the classroom for a number of years, I don’t do it very often in “real life”. In the context of writing this blog, I can imagine using it more often as a form of curiosity practice.

One final note: I’m not sure I would have reached this point if I hadn’t been writing this blog. This is the kind of progress that I hoped the daily commitment to writing about living curiously would help me make and I am very happy about this today.

Day 210 – Learning to enjoy being stuck

Andrew Wiles is the Cambridge mathematician who gained international recognition for solving Fermat’s Last Theorem, a proof that took him seven years but which, until he solved it, had remained unsolved for 356. Years ago I saw an interview with him, which I sadly have never found again, in which he described what it was like to see the light after devoting every free moment to the proof for those seven years. He started to cry and then, being a very proper English academic, apologized for crying.

Here is what he said about doing mathematics at a high level: “What you have to handle is … accepting the state of being stuck … it’s part of the process, and you have to accept, you have to learn to enjoy that process. Yes, you don’t understand, but you have faith that you will understand and that you have to go through this. It’s like anything. It’s like training in sport. You want to run fast, you have to train.”

That willingness to stay with something even when you are stuck takes an awful lot of curiosity, if you ask me!

That quotation is from a presentation he made at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum:




Day 103 – Gratitude and curiosity

I have arrived safely as has my suitcase, so the cause for gratitude is clear. The connection to curiosity may need some explaining. I read about a really nice exercise on someone else’s blog. I’ve never found the post again, but I remember the general idea. You take one thing you are grateful about and trace it back to its origins, thanking each person or factor as you go.

In the example I read, the person was giving thanks for his or her breakfast bread. The baker who sold it to him was an easy step, but the person went through each step including the farmers who had grown the grain right down to the soil, sun, and rain. What would this look like for my trip? I will need a mega-dose of curiosity to think of even half the people and factors that made it possible.

To get a start: the pilots, flight attendants, ground support crew with a special mention of the baggage handlers, the Wright Brothers and Charles Lindbergh, the engineers who designed the plane, the people who built it, the people who created the materials like aluminum (are planes made of aluminum?), the earth for the metals and minerals, etc. OK– more on that later.

Day 057 – Going deeper into an experience

Rarely do I get an answer to a question so quickly. On Monday I wrote about getting beyond a superficial experience of something by being more curious, and on Tuesday I already had one idea.

When I did the Five Senses Exercise Tuesday morning, I became aware right on step one that I have a tendency to plant myself in one position and then focus on what is in front of me and easily visible to the left and to the right. Clearly if I simply turn around and look also at what is behind me, I get a deeper—or at least broader—experience of that moment.

In fact, I got so absorbed in trying this wraparound approach with all my senses, and was having such a good time with it, that my dog started to miss me and came running back as if to say, “Hey, what are you waiting for?”

Day 055 – Comparison as a starting point to curiosity

I was quite pleased yesterday when I found the expression “starting point,” as in the phrase “comparison as a starting point for exploring an experience.” At first I was thinking of words like “structure” or “framework,” but those all seemed too formal and stiff—and, in some ways, almost antithetical to the very idea of curiosity. “Starting point” also says more precisely what I wanted to say. That is, that we can start examining an experience by comparing it to something we already know and then move on to exploring the unique nature of the experience itself.

This morning when I stepped out into the semi-darkness of dawn I noticed first of all the chill in the air. What immediately struck me after that is that this chill is different from what I am used to in Vienna, and I started to explore the difference. The word that came to me was “acrid” and, after that, “harsh”. That is, the early morning air in Vienna as one slowly moves into winter can take on an almost metallic quality that isn’t entirely comfortable. It can taste and smell a little bitter and suggests to me pollution. What I experienced this morning in the country was a deeper chill but with a softness about it. The air smelt fresh and of (softer) organic matter—mainly leaves and wood.

The next trick, I think, is to see if I can genuinely use such a comparison to go deeper in my (curious ;-)) exploration of an experience.

Day 054 – The Fives Senses Exercise Revisited

One thing I find helpful in practicing curiosity is to compare things. How is this current experience like something else or different from it or like my expectations or different from them? It gives me a starting point for exploring the experience.

Something I’ve started to do, since I walk every day in the woods where I first did the Five Senses Exercise, is stop in the same place each day and go through the five steps. In this part of the world, it is worthwhile because there is a big difference between the beginning of September and the middle to end of October. In fact, there is enough difference each day to keep it interesting.

Changes I noticed this morning, compared to September?

  • I still saw a little bit of green but far more yellow. No sun dapples on this rainy autumn morning and instead of a path thickly covered with pine needles a path buried under the fallen leaves.
  • Rather than the hush of a summer afternoon I heard the drops of rain as they hit the remaining leaves and then dripped to earth, also the sound of my dog foraging in the woods, wading through the leaf cover.
  • No question about the chill in the air and the pervasive dampness without. My feet in particular noticed the difference. Within I felt, rather than peace, a kind of anticipation, invigoration, and a deep sense of gratitude at the beauty as well as at the fact it’s Sunday and therefore a day of rest for me.
  • Interesting was that I smelled the pine trees again after days of not smelling them. It was not as heady as in the summer but nonetheless distinct. It was joined by the slightly spicy scent of autumn.
  • Taste? Well, it was early and I hadn’t brushed my teeth yet so there was a sort of morning taste. Luckily not too strong. 😉