Sometimes the flow of conversation doesn’t make it easy to practice curiosity in an active way. That said, it can provide a forum for a gentle, ongoing kind of curiosity. Yesterday I spent a couple of hours talking with old friends (one of whom was the recipient of the somewhat failed birthday cake) in a lovely, rambling conversation, one topic leading to another. We listened to each other and asked questions in an unforced way. That, perhaps, too, counts as curiosity.
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.
AN INTERCULTURAL EXAMPLE
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.
THE POINT 😉
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.
If I had called this blog “A Year of Living Mindfully” I would have found it a lot easier to describe my progress and successes, but that isn’t the kind of curiosity I wanted to practice especially.
Similarly, my life would be easier if I had undertaken to practice just desire-to-learn curiosity. That one more or less takes care of itself.
But, no. When I think back I realize that what I most wanted to practice in this Year of Living Curiously was interpersonal curiosity and existential curiosity, the two I have the hardest time with.
First of all, interpersonal curiosity. I want to practice interpersonal curiosity, especially in the form of Inquiry–genuinely trying to understand how other people see the world. Partly this has simply become a challenge to me. I have tried so long to achieve this and have made so little progress. It is bringing out my cussedness. I also happen to see this kind of communication and interaction as essential to the future of the planet. The way I see it if we can’t learn to engage with openness and a desire to understand other ways and worldviews we will at some point simply self-destruct (not to put too fine a point on it).
Second of all, River or existential curiosity. This is for my own personal well-being. I’m aware that I create a great deal of stress for myself by trying to control things (like whether I am curious or not ;-)) rather than meeting life with anticipation and an openness to what comes.
At this point, I guess I have to say that thanks to the last 285 days at least I have worked out for myself that I see different kinds of curiosity. Now I can spend the the remaining 79 days concentrating on making at least a bit of progress on the two kinds of curiosity that I feel need work.
Our morning walk seems to be becoming a good place for me to practice curiosity. I should perhaps first mention that my dog has the ability to express more nuanced feelings than any of the animals I have had in my life before. When he is outdoors he often has a macho walk that is quite impressive in such a small dog (he weighs only 5 kgs or 11 lbs) and also is almost funny to watch. At home he can look like a complete cupcake. In the kitchen he does the best imitation of a dog who never gets anything to eat I have ever seen.
This morning I suddenly wondered what it would be like to be him, with his little macho walk. Now, I’ve tried out exploring the way he sniffs and checks things out and written about that here, but I’ve never really thought about how he experiences our walks and his world. Today I wanted to get a sense of that by trying to copy his strut.
There were a few moments when I thought I was getting it right, and it was really fun to feel that masculine pride and confidence. It will need some practice, though. The moments were very brief.
I should know better than to get into Facebook discussions on controversial topics. I always regret the time and emotional energy that goes into even just reading other people’s comments on what I have posted. (I usually recognize my mistake and stop following after a few.) Those dicussions never change my mind–nor anyone else’s I’m sure. There’s no curiosity to be had there on either side. Somehow the context and forum just aren’t conducive to it.
Today I was talking to a friend about affirmations and in the middle of the conversation realized how a sentence I repeat to myself numerous times per day may be helping me practice curiosity. About two months ago I identified feeling safe as one of the factors that helps me enjoy the journey, one form of curiosity. I can imagine that feeling safe also helps me engage with other people more openly. The sentence is “ich bin sicher”. I use the German form because it can mean both “I am safe” but also “I am secure” as in “I am secure in myself.” Having repeated this sentence countless times in the last few years it finally seems to be taking effect. I feel immediately calmer–and more open–when I say it.
One thing I find hard is keeping an open mind when someone proposes a workshop plan or timetable that doesn’t immediately make sense to me. I have a lot of experience myself, I have worked with a lot of different people and organizations so I have experienced many different ways of doing things, and I can usually make sense of someone else’s plan.
This afternoon I talked with a client whose draft plan didn’t look good to me. There were too many what I would call basic pedagogical weaknesses in it. (For example, it opened with 35 minutes of people talking from the front of the seminar room.) Still, in the interest of practicing curiosity I asked about the thoughts behind the timetable. And, as always, I learned something. Perhaps the main thing I learned was to respect other people’s approaches and assume there is a rationale behind their recommendations. We did break up those 35 minutes, but we kept other things and together put together a good plan.
One thing that helped? I knew the person was a well-trained and experienced trainer so I could make that last assumption–that there was a rationale behind the proposals–with some confidence.