Pema Chödrön talks about the trait or activity of curiosity in Start Where You Are: A Guide to Compassionate Living (1994). There are lots of ways to be curious: one can be intensely curious about one subject or one person, widely curious about everything or many things, curious about new places and experiences, sexually curious, culinarily curious, curious about how machines work, and so on.
I think I am particularly curious about the way people think and behave, individually and in groups, and I’m also curious about the details of stories, the details of experiences that happen to other people, and the details of beings in the natural world — So I hear myself asking questions about what colour and shape things are, how many there are of each kind, exactly what it felt like, every item they wore, what they ate, what other people thought about what happened, how the factors were related, how they got from A to B, what happened in that small time period you skipped over in your narrative, and so on.
Here is some of what Pema says about curiosity:
She talks about “the burden of maintaining your own private happiness,” and suggests that we can “lighten up,” and one way to lighten up is to be curious: “When your aspiration is to lighten up, you begin to have a sense of humor. Things just keep popping your serious state of mind. In addition to a sense of humor, a basic support for a joyful mind is curiosity, paying attention, taking an interest in the world around you. You don’t actually have to be happy. But being curious without a heavy judgmental attitude helps. If you are judgmental, you can even be curious about that.”
Later she speaks of a Zen master who, asked what enlightenment was, answered” ‘Lots of space, nothing holy.’ Holiness harks back to the sacred, which is what sacrifice creates — it “makes sacred.” By contrast, for me, curiosity, and taking an interest, and making friends with oneself and others — the elements of compassion — seems very light and spacious, something I can do, something I would love to be in the midst of others doing, and I can see how it can help relieve us from rivalry; there is no urge to be ‘holier than thou’ (or more profane than thou) when there is no holy. And if I see that I am envious of you, or resentful of you, or you of me, I can be curious about it, look at it, consider it, without making it so personal and burdensome that I get entangled in it.
Pema speaks of this idea of working with our experience. She says, “We may so take for granted the multitude of daily minor irritations that we don’t even think of them as something to work on. To some degree they are the hardest obstacles to work with, because they don’t reveal themselves. The only way to know that these are arising is that you feel righteous indignation. Let righteous indignation be your guide that someone is holding on to themselves, and that someone is probably you. Later, she talks about the slogan, ‘Always meditate on whatever provokes resentment.’ She says, “instead of the resentment being an obstacle, it’s a reminder. Feeling irritated, restless, afraid and hopeless is a reminder to listen more carefully. … Resentment becomes a reminder not to feel bad about ourselves but to open further to the pain and to the awkwardness. If we really want to communicate, we have to give up knowing what to do.”
She also talks about using curiosity to ward off resentment (although she doesn’t put it that way). One of the (many) slogans is ‘Don’t expect thanks.’ I love this one, because so much resentment seems to come from this specific expectation. I think it’s related to our yearning to be seen as helpers, as givers, that I talked about in my last post. When we’re not thanked, we lack reassurance of our identity as a giver or helper, and we feel insecure about our role. Anyway, Pema expands on it: “More than to expect thanks, it would be helpful just to expect the unexpected; then you might be curious and inquisitive about what comes in the door.”
She addresses our desire to be givers and helpers by widening the often one-way street to a two-way road: “We work on ourselves in order to help others, but we also help others in order to work on ourselves. … [The] tendency to refer back to ourselves, to try to protect ourselves, is so strong and all-pervasive. A simple way of turning it around is to develop our curiosity and our inquisitiveness about everything. This is another way of talking about helping others, but of course the process also helps us. The whole path seems to be about developing curiosity, about looking out and taking an interest in all the details of our lives and in our immediate environment.”