Today was a holiday in Austria, and my dog and I went on a relatively long hike (a bit over 12 kms). What was special today was that it is in a part of town we almost never go to, an hour away from home. I also only briefly consulted the map at home and then followed the trail markers, which certainly at the beginning of the trail only showed up when we had to change direction. It was a little like practicing River or existential curiosity. We walked along without trying to control every step of the way, only responding to signposts as they turned up. A little practice, at least.
One idea that came out of my recent analysis of seven posts was: Consciously engage all five senses.
I have been trying that out to see if it helps me move through my day with greater curiosity. For my own benefit here is my definition of curiosity again: A state of experiencing a situation … with openness and a desire to see what happens and without feeling the need to influence the outcome. (It’s so easy for me to lose sight of that.)
What I have discovered so far:
- After sight, hearing is, hands down, the sense I use most frequently. That is easy. In this case I try to do “wraparound listening” (as described here) to get a wider sense of what is out there.
- In this context my sense of smell is next in frequency. That is also easy for me to do.
- I could more consciously check in on how I’m feeling, inside and out. Test the air, so to speak, which does still have a hint of winter in it.
- I could also more consciously check in on taste. As I have mentioned before, that is the biggest challenge for me. It is the least awake of my senses unless I am actually eating or drinking something.
- Spring is a good time to work on this aspect of curiosity because there are so many tempting things, especially to hear and smell—birds singing ecstatically and grass, flowers, and trees coming out.
- Having something so concrete to focus on (ironically, perhaps) does help me be curious. It also helps, I suspect, that sounds, smells, and weather are things I wouldn’t expect to have any influence over. 😉
Many people have already heard about the study that showed that London taxi drivers (the ones who had to learn to navigate without GPS) have larger hippocampuses than a control group. (The hippocampus is the part of the brain believed to be responsible for memory and navigation processes.) Now there is a study that suggests that using maps rather than GPS to navigate can be healthy for our brains, especially as we age, and not just good for our curiosity practice.
Read more here, if you are curious 😉 about the study: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2010-11-reliance-gps-hippocampus-function-age.html
A Huna principle states that energy goes where your attention is. I had barely written my post for yesterday when I found myself steering towards a local store that sells a different seasonal and themed series of goods every week. Really. One week in summer it might be everything you need to go camping (LED lanterns, bug spray, solar-powered rechargers for mobile phones, etc.) and at the moment it is, of course, in this Catholic country Christmas items (table runners in red and green, candles, aromatic oils in cinnamon and clove, etc.). In any case, I had only just expressed my desire to really practice curiosity and found myself gripped in it and on my way to satisfy myself—What is on sale this week? That, too, is curiosity and can bring the benefits I wish for. 🙂
Over the last 110 days I have worked on refining (and living) my definition of curiosity. It has occurred to me that it might be helpful to remind myself of my definition of practice, as in my tagline: A daily exploration of what it means to practice curiosity.
And yes, I do have a definition of practice to hand. I’m just that kind of person. What can I say?
For me, practice is:
Doing something regularly and figuring out how to do it better or, in other words, regular attention to improvement coupled with action, for example, trying things out.
Just wanted to clarify that and remind myself that nice as the philosophical musings are my reason for starting this blog was to be more intentional and active about being curious this year.
Actually, that is probably an unfair title to this post. Curiosity—in the sense of being open to and vividly aware of what is going on in one’s own body and, in partner exercises, between two bodies—is an essential part of tai chi. At the same time, that’s not the point I want to expand on today. In fact, I want to build on my post from yesterday.
You may well be asking yourself: Why work so hard at practicing and developing curiosity? Surely it is something that comes or doesn’t come. Right? I decided to focus more on developing curiosity in myself this year because it seemed such a fundamental part to other things I want in my life, including responsiveness. (Details listed in my hypothesis.)
Can we will ourselves to be curious? Can we build our capacity for curiosity through application the way we can, for example, learn to play the piano? I’m counting on it being possible or I wouldn’t be working on it in this way. There is actually precedence in my life. For over ten years I practiced tai chi (and I’m planning to go back to it next year). After a few years our class was talking about the benefits. I mentioned that, although I didn’t experience the centeredness quintessential to tai chi all the time (yes, I do tend to set pretty unattainable goals), I noticed that I had a much more reliable ability to enter that state and that it was a great feeling. My teacher said, “That is the point of practice. Almost no one is centered all the time, but if we work at it consciously we do get better at finding that state more regularly and at will.”
And so I carry on.
Speaking of exercises and practice, over a year ago a friend of mine challenged me to do what she called “mindful breathing”—that is, breathing with full awareness but without trying to influence the way in which one is breathing. She suggested I start my day by breathing mindfully five times. Since then I have done this pretty much every day although, perhaps, “tried to do” would be more accurate. What never fails to amaze me, even though I am no stranger to breathing exercises, is how hard it is. Quite often I get up to three and realize my mind is already all over the place or I’m trying intentionally to relax my jaw or breathe more deeply or affect the process in some other way. It will come as no surprise that I find it even harder to do when I’m under stress.
It’s breathing, for heaven’s sake. How can it be so difficult? You may need to try it yourself to find out. For me I suspect it’s partly that I have a long history of doing things with my breath. I started at around age 12 when my brother told me about what he called “yoga breathing,” have over the years practiced various forms of meditation based on breathing in a particular way, and trained as a classical singer (which one teacher described as being all about air and words). This means that paying attention without trying to influence the process in any way feels funny. Add to that the fact that I like to have control over things and mindful breathing seems almost like the ultimate exercise in curiosity. Even after a year I’m still learning how to let go and see what my breath does without any intervention from me. Still, I find the practice interesting, challenging, and peculiarly worthwhile so I’ll keep trying.