A Curiosity Oriented Approach for Enhanced Living

woman reading in nature

I have been a therapist, and working in the field of eating disorders, since the early 2000s. During this time, I have learned so much about myself and about others; spending a lot of time listening, learning, unlearning, and trying to understand.  I am grateful for this journey, and learning, and owe a lot of my success in life (and in my career) to curiosity.

I have come to believe that curiosity is one of the most integral components to the therapy process (for providers and for patients). Curiosity is what sparks our thinking process and creates needed space to assess, inquire, question, discover, hone, and create. Curiosity has the capacity to upend what we know, how we learn, how we relate, and what we can change. It is a foundational tool to lead us back to ourselves, to rejuvenation, to hope, to inspiration, and to creativity. It is through this lens that I write to you today. 

Table of Contents

    Curiosity Defined

    What exactly does it mean to be curious? If we go by the standard dictionary definition, curiosity is simply wanting to know more about something, a desire to seek out new knowledge or to engage in unfamiliar experiences.  While this simple definition is a useful starting point, curiosity is a deeper, more complex phenomenon that plays a critical role in the pursuit of a meaningful life.

    In the study of curiosity, it is hard to delve very far without coming across the work of Todd Kashdan, an American psychologist and director of the well-being research lab at George Mason University. Kashdan has become a leading voice in the study of curiosity and is a leading authority on well-being, curiosity, psychological flexibility, and resilience.

    Through the lens of Kashdan, curiosity contains 5 dimensions —

    • Joyous exploration (wonder and awe about the world)
    • Deprivation sensitivity (an itch to understand what we do not already understand)
    • Social curiosity (genuine interest to learn about others)
    • Stress tolerance (approaching ambiguity and managing discomfort in embarking on the novel and unknown)
    • Thrill-seeking (being willing to incur risk in the face of learning/development).

    For our purposes here, I want to emphasize curiosity as a mindset. Curiosity involves an intentional willingness to engage with complex, unfamiliar, and challenging concepts or endeavors. It’s not about whether we pay attention but rather how we pay attention to what is happening in the present moment and how we relate to our thoughts and feelings.

    Benefits of Adopting Curiosity

    There are many benefits to paying attention to curiosity, and these benefits are available to all of us, regardless of who we are. This is important, because curiosity is a simple concept, and free to utilize and to build, but also has great potential to heavily influence and enhance the quality of our lives.

    Curiosity is the missing ingredient to a fulfilling life. Being curious opens the door to more than simply striving for happiness. It is a powerful trait that is often overlooked on the road to finding purpose and meaning in life. If we are interested in producing a population of critical thinkers armed with courage, resilience, and a love of learning and discovery, then we must recognize, harness, and cultivate curiosity.

    Todd Kashdan

    I also love these words by Ian Leslie (a British journalist, speaker, and author on human behavior):

    A society that values order above all else will seek to suppress curiosity. But a society that believes in progress, innovation, and creativity will cultivate it, recognizing that the inquiring minds of its people constitute its most valuable asset.

    Ian Leslie

    Curiosity is the most effective state of mind to enable us to make changes and to reframe negative mental and emotional states. Implementing curiosity into treatment helps to prime our brains for learning and aids in establishing motivation for the journey itself rather than being fixed on specific end goals (learning for learning’s sake).  Curiosity can serve as an “on switch” to begin drawing attention to the world around us and within us.

    Although most curiosity research centers on the role of curiosity in academic learning, in my opinion, curiosity can influence any learning (whether academic, emotional, relational, behavioral, etc). Curiosity is not just about exploring the vast landscape of the external world—physical and intellectual frontiers—but also in the nooks and crannies of our own personal, internal psyches.  Emotional awareness, interpersonal development, and adaptive skill building are all expansions of knowledge, perspective, and growth.

    It may seem like common sense, but when we are more curious about and interested in what we are doing, it’s easier to get involved, put effort in, and do well. When we are interested and engaged, we also are often more willing to invest our time, energy, attention, and resources. It’s easier to learn and to remember information when we really dedicate our attention to it.

    In addition, curiosity facilitates persistence in our goals. When we experience curiosity, we learn in deeper and more meaningful ways, with better retention, devote greater levels of concentration, and persist until we meet our goals. Curiosity has a significant positive impact on emotional intelligence, improved decision-making, and intrinsic motivation, and it makes our minds active instead of passive.

    Curiosity allows access to empathy and enhances relational intimacy. You cannot form and maintain satisfying relationships without an attitude of openness and curiosity. There is no more effective manner to learn about the world than by dissecting the experiences and knowledge of other people, and everyone enjoys feeling acknowledged, validated and understood.

    Social curiosity is a gateway to the reservoir of knowledge and experiences held by people with diverse experiences, views, and perspectives. We practice empathic curiosity when we try to put ourselves in the shoes and the mind of the person we are talking to to see things from their perspective.

    When we are curious about others and talk to people outside our usual social circle, we become better able to understand those with lives, experiences, and worldviews different than our own. We broaden our perspectives about the world and find similarities and connections amidst differences.

    A relational orientation driven by curiosity lends a wide range of adaptive behaviors, including greater tolerance of anxiety and uncertainty, positive emotional expressiveness, initiation of humor and playfulness, unconventional thinking, and a non-defensive, noncritical, nonjudgmental attitude. While navigating the ebbs and flows of change in relationships, curiosity is a powerful tool for approaching conflict, deepening communication, and fostering connection.  When we come from a place of curiosity, we can have a deeper understanding of others, and tend to feel more understood, leading to greater openness, receptivity and less defensiveness when threatened.

    Although the available research on curiosity centers on the significant relationships we build with external others, I believe curiosity also enhances a more effective, compassionate relationship with ourselves. An attitude of curiosity allows us to become positive friends and allies with ourselves and engages the parts and experiences of ourselves we may want to shun, avoid, repress, or numb (holding the shadow and the light and allowing both to be present).

    One of the most important benefits of enhancing curiosity in our lives is its impact on moving us towards meaning, purpose, and possibility, a secret sauce in living a happy, fulfilling life. Research links curiosity with higher levels of positive emotions, lower levels of anxiety, more general satisfaction with life, and greater psychological well-being. Without curiosity, living can feel more stagnant and devoid of inspiration and hope, going through the motions but not really engaging in a rich, invigorating life.

    Curiosity can be harnessed to transform mundane, unsatisfying tasks in everyday life into something surprising, genuinely interesting and enjoyable. These “interest enhancing” strategies allow us to intentionally find and sculpt wonder, intrigue, and play out of the everyday events that confront us. Once our interest is aroused, curiosity plays a role in ensuring that these moments endure over time.

    When we make the conscious decision to explore both our inner world and the world around us, feelings of boredom and monotony will likely be replaced with fascination and inspiration. This isn’t to say that everything we uncover about ourselves and others will be positive and motivating, but it is nevertheless an engaging journey.

    As an example…A rock can be just a rock, or… we can choose to pick it up and see what is underneath it. We can challenge ourselves by seeing how many times we can skip it across the water. We can grab it and turn it into a collection. We can use it as a paperweight or a decoration.

    We can paint it and turn it into something beautiful, or we can use it to create something new and share it with a friend. If this can be true for a rock, something of minimal importance, how much more significant could our findings be for things we truly value?

    Curiosity opens the door to greater resiliency and hope, not just priming our brains to learn new information but also priming our brains for inspiration and seeking solutions to the difficulties that trouble us. By being curious, we are able to see new worlds and possibilities, possibilities that are often hidden behind the surface of normal, mundane life. In my reading about curiosity, the idea of resiliency kept coming up in response to hopelessness, failure and difficulty.

    Curiosity seems to keep the door open to continuing the path of discovery when things do not work out as planned when slips happen, and when failure or disappointment arises. Thomas Edison modeled this concept in his relentless pursuit of discovery with the lightbulb and stated, “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this. You haven’t.”

    Although it took him 10,000 unsuccessful trials to meet his end goal, he notoriously stated that he never once faced failure in his life, just a greater understanding of what did not work.  It is not easy to keep going when we feel like we are out of options or following perceived failure or disappointment, but attempting to hold curiosity might just lead to remarkable discoveries that we never anticipated, and although at times painful, the path to these discoveries may hold interesting and memorable experiences along the way in the journey.

    In my personal experience, when I can practice curiosity about my thoughts, feelings, reactions, and experiences, rather than feeling embattled by them, an emotional distancing happens that then allows me to broaden my perspective and feel less encumbered. I can essentially practice being an observer of my experience instead of getting lost in the experience or flooded by it (which secondarily allows me to respond more adaptively rather than react).

    Curiosity leads me away from my “stuckness” towards a land where new possibilities emerge and hope replaces fear. It also provides space to hold compassion or interest in my unique experience of what I am sensing, feeling, or experiencing. Curiosity also shifts my perspective that whatever discomfort I am experiencing in this present moment could have something to teach me or provide information to me about what I value or find significant.

    Implementing curiosity in our lives has the potential to promote personal growth and open the door to greater magic by sparking creativity and innovation— a tool to rediscover creativity through art, movement, and music, becoming more resilient in the face of adversity, gaining better self-understanding and self-worth, developing better comfortability with uncertainty and better responses over anxiety.

    Roald Dahl is a British novelist, poet, and screenwriter named “one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century.” You may know him best by his works, such as James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and BFG.  Dahl writes,

    And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.

    Roald Dahl

    In my opinion, curiosity allows us to stumble into magic and discover many unexpected adventures.  Oftentimes, practicing curiosity reveals a hidden beauty and order to the world that is sometimes hard to see behind the negativity we all face at different times in our lives.

    One final benefit of curiosity that I would like to share is the power of curiosity to engender freedom and autonomy, namely, the freedom to make personal, independent, autonomous choices.  Curiosity isn’t just a great tool for improving our own life and happiness, our ability to establish a great job, or our ability to sustain meaningful relationships.

    Curiosity is also the key to the things we say we value most in the modern world: independence, self-determination, self-government, self-improvement, and the path to freedom itself. Curiosity allows us to ask questions of ourselves and others: questioning authority, questioning why things are the way they are, questioning why and how others are in charge, questioning what we believe and why, questioning whether we are willing to accept things as they are as well as how we contribute or can influence how things are.

    Curiosity is a form of power, and also a form of courage. Among the things that curiosity puts into motion are questioning, inquiring about things, experimentation, visualization, skepticism, evaluation, identification of different patterns, imaginative thought, logical reasoning, prediction, inference, and so on. Curiosity leads to observations that then allow us to recognize issues or problems before making decisions. Curiosity provides us with more choices.

    woman in sunset holding a dandelion

    Impediments to Curiosity

    Beyond any physical or health-related factors that can dampen our curiosity, such as stress, dementia, or drugs, research leads to four major factors that impede or diminish curiosity in humans:

    • Fear
    • Assumptions
    • Judgments
    • Technology
    • Environment.

    Fear and Anxiety: Whereas anxiety drives fear, curiosity invites wonder. Fear, at its core, is a reluctance to delve into the unknown. The reasons for our fear can range from the sublimely ridiculous to the deadly serious.

    Common fears include fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of making life altering mistakes, fear of looking ignorant or being humiliated, and even fear of re-experiencing something negative from our childhood. Any fear, however ridiculous it seems, is capable of impeding our curiosity and innovation. Our fear overtakes our courage and curiosity.

    The more curious we are, the more we come to know, and the more we know, the less fearful we become. The inverse of that is also true. The less we know, the more fearful we are, and the more fearful we are, the less we come to know.

    It is impossible to live life without a certain adaptive level of fear, and we need some fear for our safety. In that regard, it is important for fear and curiosity to partner together to dance in unison with one other. When we are in unknown territory, leaning toward exploring instead of avoiding is the key to a rich, meaningful life.

    If fear is absent, we may go beyond the limits of what’s safe for ourselves and those around us. Absent of real danger, when we don’t act on our curiosity, we are left with painful regrets of what our lives might have been. If an external stimulus is too low, there will be no motivation to explore it.

    If a stimulus is too high, it will result in anxiety (almost paralysis). If it’s just right, it will result in the desired exploratory behavior. According to research, we are motivated only when the stimulus seems reasonable and attainable.

    Like Goldilocks and the 3 bears, if curiosity is too low, we are not interested. If it is too high, we are scared off. However, if it is just right, we are motivated to act on it.

    Do not shrink back from fear or allow fear to shut down curiosity. Instead, we need to try to embrace our fears, become curious about them, examine them, study their origins, and learn what the unknown provokes and why. A hyperfocus on seeking security, avoiding distress, and sticking to a comfortable routine lessons our curiosity and, in turn, lessens our satisfaction and meaning in life.

    Individuals high in curiosity embrace the uncertain aspects of life. One of the biggest, and most common fears, outside of failure, is the fear of the unknown/uncertainty. Our external environment often pushes us toward a narrow and certain view of things, and despite momentary comfort, there are costs to working hard to feel safe, secure, and confident.

    We often end up shutting down our search for information too early in the process. Kashdan wisely offers the following sentiment in response to uncertainty:

    The need for certainty narrows them. Curiosity creates energy; the need for certainty depletes. Curiosity results in exploration; the need for certainty creates closure. Curiosity creates movement; the need for certainty is about replaying events, curiosity creates relationships; the needs to certainty creates defensiveness, curiosity is about discovery; the need for certainty is about being right.

    Todd Kashdan

    As we grow and develop as humans, we are taught many things that enhance our intellect and physical well-being. However, it seems intentional learning about mental and/or emotional well-being is often neglected.

    When emotion arises and the only tools at our disposal are to flight (run away, avoid, escape), fight (argue or rebel), freeze (shut down or dissociate), or fawn (comply or seek being “good”), we find ourselves causing and enduring unnecessary suffering (instinctually reacting to our triggers and stressors vs being able to respond to them).

    Most people are unconsciously reacting to emotion with no awareness that it is even occurring. The good news is that we are able to learn emotional intelligence and grow in our abilities to mindfully respond and adaptively process emotion. How do we gain awareness of our emotions and learn to process emotion in ways that foster health, connection, and growth?

    It all starts with curiosity. Curiosity implies that we remain open to the experience of emotion without judgment. While many find this concept easy to mentally grasp, it is often more difficult to integrate/practice into daily life.

    It can be challenging to remember to turn toward emotions with warmth, compassion, and curious when sensations are intense, uncomfortable, painful, or feel inconvenient.  Neural connections/pathways in the brain strengthen over time, and so practice, as unglamorous as it can be, is imperative in creating change. A good way to start building up a new way of responding to emotion is to start getting curious about less intense emotional responses.

    If we wait until we are feeling overwhelmed to try and implement this approach, it will likely be very challenging. If instead, we are more aware of less intense emotions throughout our day, search for the important information they convey about our needs, and work on getting those needs met, we will slowly build up a way of responding that, with enough practice, will be easier to access even in the face of very intense emotional reactions.

    Holding a Performance Orientation:  People with a performance orientation tend to engage tasks and ask questions for achievement or productivity sake. In performance mode, we are more likely to avoid situations where failure is possible; aligning identities with how successful or unsuccessful we are based on our actions or our outcomes.

    When we are focused on getting to a specific desired result, we are less willing to experiment or take risks (which may also cause us to stop prematurely before the gold can be mined).  In contrast, when we are operating from a learning or curiosity orientation, we ask questions or engage in tasks simply to learn, to expose new ideas, or to attain new experiences. Those holding greater curiosity are compelled to learn beyond the parameters of perceived abilities.

    When failures are shared openly and viewed through the lens of a discovery opportunity, we can begin to understand that there is value in the learning process and not only in the performance outcomes. Overused as it may be, when it comes down to it, it’s a simple platitude that many seekers of meaning have found to be true: “Stop and smell the roses,” “Life is about the journey; not the destination,” and the “process is more rewarding than the product/outcome.”

    Rich, meaningful, abundant, quality living (thriving) happens in the unfolding and in the process; not going through the motions, checking off boxes, getting things done, finishing the to-do list. The destination matters, and it is important to have some goals to strive for, but the journey makes it all worthwhile. Mistakes/failures are inevitable in our goals (at least if we are dreaming big enough or living large enough).

    It is through the faux paus that we learn and grow, and it is also through the challenges that we find empathy and connection. As Pema Chodron encourages, “Fail. Fail Again. Fail Better.” Although failure is not fun by any means, and can definitely bruise and sting our egos, learning to fail well greatly enhances the quality and fulfillment of our lives much more than playing it safe.

    Judgments: Implementing more curiosity into our lives isn’t always easy because people are inherently judgmental. Part of the process of fostering curiosity is noticing and challenging the critical thoughts that arise toward ourselves and others.

    Humans reflexively label and categorize things. For instance, other people get categorized as our friends and perhaps inner circle, or they are outsiders whom we tolerate, ignore, or shun. We form lasting impressions in mere seconds about whether we like or dislike something, whether something tastes good or bad, or whether tasks are boring or interesting.

    We label or judge feelings (sadness, anxiety, fear, anger, jealousy) as desirable or undesirable, good or bad, convenient or inconvenient, acceptable or unacceptable.  Depending on our judgments, we decide to accept and work with our feelings, or we struggle to avoid or change them.

    Humans also constantly compare themselves to standards (internally and externally): “My ideas sound so stupid,” “How can someone say something so insensitive,” “If I am not funny, no one will like me,” and so on. Although it would be nice if our brains stopped their constant chattering, this inner dialogue is part of being human.

    Lack of curiosity is a breeding ground for stereotyping and discrimination. In the extreme, lack of curiosity paves the way to hatred and violence, inflated confidence, poor decisions, dogmatism, rigid thinking, and  psychological inflexibility. Curiosity motivates us to be open to viewing the world, other people, and ourselves from multiple perspectives.

    When we judge others, we become closed to understanding them and therefore reject them based on their choices. In contrast, when we become curious, we choose to understand others, become open to new perspectives, find common ground upon which we can build agreement, and accept that there is not just one way to do anything or to think about something.

    If we want to have respectful conversations that support collaboration, innovation, understanding, and strong relationships, then we must be curious about the perspectives of others. It is quite difficult to be judgmental and curious at the same time.  

    Assumptions, Expectations, and Attachment to Outcome: The more we become fixed in what we know, or think we know, the more limited we are in discovering new solutions.  Curiosity keeps the door open for new realities, new discoveries, new possibilities, and hope for a different outcome than what we anticipated.  As the familiar adage states, “Assumptions make an ass out of you and out of me.”

    It’s far too easy to prejudge an activity because we think we have seen it before, or avoid an activity entirely because we expect it to be unpleasurable or unfavorable. Have you ever attempted to not do something, go somewhere, eat something, play something, etc., because you thought you already knew how it would end up?

    We are taught that the best predictor for future behavior is through the lens of past behavior, but even if that is somewhat true in terms of our actions, does this have to be true for our feelings, experiences, or even preferences? When we try on curiosity, we invite the element of surprise to the mundane; the possibility of the unexpected to emerge.

    We assume we do not like things for a variety of reasons. It may seem odd, it may sound boring, no one we know has experienced it, or just because we have never done it that way before. Try to ditch the assumptions and revisit something again that was previously discarded.

    We very well might discover that we actually like a food we have always said we disliked or discover that spending time with that person who annoys us is actually more enjoyable than we anticipated. Erin Chatters, an American writer, pens the following: “Travelling through life with curiosity rather than judgement is how one finds the magic in each moment.”  

    Technological Advancement:  Almost everything we want to know is at the tips of our fingers and just a quick Google search away.  Technology has definitely made it easier to access information; bringing us a false sense of certainty, and squelching curiosity. With technological access, we often avoid asking the bigger, more ambiguous questions because they are shrouded in uncertainty.

    Safety and comfort are preferable to uncertainty, even if it makes us unhappy and complacent. The answers to life’s most profound questions cannot be searched on Google.  How do we sustain our desire to ask questions in a world more and more dominated by answers?

    Aging: Anyone who has spent time around kids knows that their young minds are powered by curiosity. Children are wide open to new experiences and unaware, and therefore unafraid, of the potential consequences. By the time we reach adulthood, we have experienced many more of those consequences, so we become more guarded, and more conservative, in what we are willing to explore or not explore.

    Being open to new experiences, taking an interest in learning new things, and being able to adapt to new situations decline substantially in middle-to-late adulthood.  We can reclaim the lost pleasures of uncertainty, discovery, and play from our youth.

    Outside of childhood, our innate curiosity does not come as easily or naturally, but these obstacles can be acknowledged, confronted, and ultimately, overcome. We can cultivate curiosity to shape our lives closer toward the direction of where we want to be. Realizing our potential depends on it.

    Environment: Social pressures and influences can stifle our natural instincts to be curious. Children are born with boundless curiosity, but something happens to this innocent and courageous exploration. Society gets in the way. We are given an endless series of rules and obligations that keep our curiosity in check.

    Rather than being encouraged to learn about ourselves and our interests, we are more often taught how to make decisions about what to do with our lives as early as possible so we won’t waste time achieving our goals (i.e., picking an academic major, choosing a career, starting a family, making something of one’s self, etc).  We also live in a climate of fear, with headline news reports bombarding us and warning us of what we should be wary of (i.e., terrorism, kidnappings, credit card and internet scams, sexual predators, school shootings, plane crashes, store recalls, etc).

    As a result, we do everything in our power to stay out of harm’s way. But there’s a risk with playing it safe. Our actions are dictated by what we don’t want instead of what we do want. Most people overestimate risk, failure, and danger and underestimate the value of being curious.

    Are we governed by fear and need for safety, or are we willing to accept a bit of risk and anxiety in the pursuit of satisfaction, growth, and meaning?  Living a life of curiosity is not about ignoring potential risk and anxiety, but rather, being willing to do what one values, even in the face of risk and anxiety. Curiosity serves as a gateway to what we value and cherish the most.

    woman on a tree swing at sunset

    Practical Ways to Implement Curiosity

    Now that we have identified the inhibitors of curiosity let’s identify how we can enhance curiosity in our lives.

    Openness. Keeping an open, receptive mind is essential if we are to have a curious mind, and this means keeping an open mind to learn, to unlearn, to relearn, and to change our minds. We can use an open mind by trying to dig a little deeper beneath the surface of what we see or experience; being open to learning something new, unlearning something old, being surprised, and having a different outcome than expected.

    The idea is to suspend judgment and to observe the situation with greater flexibility and curiosity. Quantum physicist David Bohm observed the connection between openness and creativity in writing,

    One prerequisite for originality is clearly that a person shall not be inclined to impose his preconceptions on the fact as he sees them. Rather, he must be able to learn something new, even if this means that the ideas and notions that are comfortable or dear to him may be overturned.

    David Bohm

    Albert Einstein cautions us by saying “Most people stop looking when they find the proverbial needle in the haystack. I would continue looking to see if there were other needles.” We often make the fatal mistake of thinking growth opportunities come to an end when something or someone becomes part of our daily routine.

    When things become familiar and predictable, we tend to become mindless drones and operate more from autopilot mode. We tune out. As soon as we think we understand something, we stop paying attention. Novelty is different. We often pay attention to the unfamiliar and listen to new people because they grab our attention.

    There is much to learn from both the unfamiliar and the familiar. No two hugs are ever exactly the same, no two conversations are ever the same even on the same topic, no group is every the same even with the same material presented, no 2 ice cream parlors or coffee shops make ice cream or coffee the exact same way. We enhance curiosity by recognizing novelty and seizing the pleasures and meaning they offer us.

    By being open and curious in our moments, we can improve even the most mundane aspects of our daily routine. As an example, picture yourself walking down the supermarket aisle, a fairly mundane task. First, envision yourself with an agenda to get in and out quickly, tend to your list, and get the task done.

    Now picture yourself walking in the store with curious interest.  If we are open to unplanned opportunities, we may intentionally seek out interesting items in the store, observe new products or new employees, notice an interesting product in someone else’s cart that we have not seen or tried before, see someone wearing a t-shirt of a band we like and stop to have an interesting conversation, etc.

    There is something enjoyable about being unsure of what to expect and being willing to seek out discoveries and act on opportunities as they arise.  These moments often require us to slow down enough to have open space to let treasured, unexpected moments take form. If we are too scheduled or stuck to a specific agenda, there is no wiggle room for adventure.

    Mindfulness: Curiosity can be enhanced by adopting mindfulness.  Mindfulness is really just the simple stance of paying attention in the here-and-now moment to notice what is going on around and within us. When we are mindful, we maintain an inquisitive nature about the thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and events experienced in the present moment.

    With a mindfulness approach, we are encouraged to slow down and become an observer of experiences as they unfold. This is not natural for most of us. Mostly we have learned to problem-solve, analyze, or figure it all out.

    We can get farther, and often faster, by creating an environment in which we can slow down enough to observe not only our thoughts but, just as importantly, our emotions, our reactions, and our body. I heard a quote once saying “The slower you go, the quicker you’ll get there,” and this has stuck with me since hearing it. When we live primarily in our head, we often get out of touch with what our body is telling us.

    And when we are out of touch with our body, we miss enormous clues and information about the source of our emotional pain, as well as awareness of our strengths and internal and external resources. Diane Ackerman, a beloved American non-fiction author and poet, writes this beautiful sentiment: “We can’t enchant the world, which makes its own magic, but we can enchant ourselves by paying deep attention.”

    Beginners Mind: Zen Buddhism teaches a concept of “Shoshin”, as a positive attribute that refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would. Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki  states, “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.

    In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” In beginner’s mind, it is as though we are seeing the world through the eyes of a child; without predisposed judgments, opinions, or biases. A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.

    This beginner’s mind dynamic is reminiscent of a Zen parable: A student comes to a famous Zen master and asks for instruction in the way of Zen Buddhism. The master begins to discuss several topics of Buddhism like emptiness and meditation. But the student interrupts the master in an attempt to impress him and says, “Oh, I already know that.”

    The master then invites the student to have some tea. When the tea is ready, the master pours the tea into a teacup, filling it to the brim, spilling tea over the sides of the cup and onto the table. The student exclaims, “Stop! You can’t pour tea into a full cup.” The master replies, “Return to me when your cup is empty.”

    When we are too distracted by what we already know, there’s no room to learn anything new. The “I know” syndrome plagues us, hindering the impulse for curiosity. The solution to the “I know” pattern—the mind of the so-called expert—is to adopt a beginners mind. Picture self as an empty cup that’s open and receptive to being filled with fresh perspectives.

    Experiment with how beginner’s mind may impact mundane experiences, attempting to take things in as if they were the first time you have every experienced it— the beauty of the sunrise, the warm, velvety taste of morning coffee, the loving tone of a trusted friend or partner, hearing the sound of a familiar song. In these moments, see if there is something new you have not noticed before.

    Stay Away From the Expert Role. Continue to recognize that no matter how much we learn about something, or someone, there is always more to learn. Practice being a beginner in everything. Open your mind to being surprised. We lose our desire for curiosity by attempting to be right, to have certainty, or to have expertise.

    Asking Questions: The theme of questions was the beginning puzzle piece that started my journey to learn more about the topic of curiosity. This quote by Rilke says it the best and has intrigued me for several years:

    I want to beg you…as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they are locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

    Rainer Maria Rilke

    In my understanding, questions lead us straight into the heart of curiosity. The questions we ask ourselves are windows unto our soul. They shine a light on the things we think about as well as how we think about them.

    Rachel Naomi Ramen states, “The secret of living well is not answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.” Let go of the quest for the answer and simply allow the question to be. The infamous Mr. Rogers said,  

    “Our society is much more interested in information than wonder, in noise rather than silence…and I feel that we need a lot more wonder and a lot more silence in our lives. It’s good to be curious about many things. In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”

    Journalists call “the five Ws and the H” a curious person’s best friend. These include who, what, when, where, why, and how. Other questions might include: What if? What else? Or Why not?

    If struggling to find curiosity, try one of these questions on for size. Ask questions relentlessly. Asking questions is a sure way to dig deeper beneath the surface of everyday living and tap into the heart of what we long for, what we need, what we believe, what we value, and what is begging our attention.

    Trying New Things: Therapy offers many opportunities to step into unknown territory and to challenge fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. When fear comes knocking, try to get curious about it—try to set the fear aside long enough to start asking questions (or, more aptly, if fear will not let up, hold it alongside curiosity.  The highest level of anxiety we feel is always during the anticipation of something new.

    Stick it out, and we often see that the anxiety is more manageable than once thought and can even be enjoyable. There may be safety and security in the familiar, but the unfamiliar path often leads to greater satisfaction, fulfillment, and less regret.

    Practice stepping into new territory with things of little risk, and this practice primes us to transition into other forms of uncertainty that may bear more discomfort.  There are endless opportunities to try new things. Make space for new things, and we grow our sense of adventure.

    Looking Beyond Our Symptoms: Processing urges and behaviors is a familiar part of recovery work and curiosity is an essential ingredient to approach these symptoms with lessened shame and the space to learn. Rather than taking an action like overeating, purging, or starving, at face value, patients are encouraged to wonder about their feelings, their reactions, their behavior; infusing curiosity to ask what might be going on underneath the surface, asking about potential triggers, asking about potential needs or longings, etc.

    Becoming curious about what is driving the symptoms helps create space to connect and understand what is going on at a deeper level. It can also lead to holding compassion and empathy over judgment and frustration. Human Connection Specialist and host of the Create The Love podcast Mark Groves states, “When you get reactive, get curious. You have a wound that is asking to be healed.”

    Giving Self and Others the Benefit of Doubt: When confidence-zapping fears like being judged or disliked arise, try empathic curiosity on for size. Empathic curiosity is being curious about the thoughts and feelings of others, and it can help us challenge the sweeping generalizations anxiety brings.

    Instead of telling yourself that your friend is mad, use empathic curiosity and ask yourself: “I wonder what’s going on for my friend today?” Anxiety can spin false narratives.  Many times, the mudslide of conflict starts with a simple misunderstanding of intent or content.

    Create a culture of curiosity by simply asking questions or engaging statements like, “I don’t think I understand. Can you tell me more about that so I can understand better?” In a similar way, we can also utilize self-compassion and empathic curiosity towards our own selves in times of stress.

    Aspects of ourselves that we don’t like or believe are shameful become feared parts of ourselves that have to be avoided or sanitized. Like the idea of the monster under the bed, often understandable thoughts, behaviors and emotions become magnified and terrifying. Try this simple experiment—remember the last time you felt self-judgment.

    Take a moment to move to curiosity mode and ask yourself: What was going on for me? What did I expect of myself? What did I feel? Did this experience remind me of other times in my life? If so, what were those experiences like for me? Can I just sit with the feelings that come up for me now and not try to change?

    Reframe boring: We all experience boring situations, but any event can be turned into something meaningful. Sharpening our observation skills can hone our attention to something we might ordinarily miss. Once we take a closer look, we discover that what’s boring actually can be quite fascinating.

    According to artist and composer John Cage, “if something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually, one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

    Don’t label something as boring. Whenever we label something as boring, we close one more door of possibility. Make friends with boredom. On the other side, if we stick with the sensation long enough, is creativity.

    Wonder-Spotting, or Awe-Spotting: This is a simple activity that involves grabbing a camera, or phone camera, and looking at the world through a different lens. As you observe your surroundings, ask yourself: ‘What’s beautiful or interesting about this moment?’ When the mind peers through the window of wonder, we can focus on the journey instead of the destination.

    During your wonder-spotting session, snap a photo of whatever catches your eye. For instance, you might spot a heart-shaped rock or notice that a blade of grass is a slightly different shade of green than the one next to it.


    Infusing curiosity into our daily lives is indeed a secret sauce to living with intention, inspiration, intrigue, and without abandon.  A little risk can go a long way.  May we learn to ignite curiosity in our lives, learn together, and remember that we are all on this journey together (doing the best we can and also having much, much more to learn). Furthermore, may we never stop learning. Life has many adventures yet to see if we only say “Yes.”

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    About Crystal Bowlby, PhD, HSP, CEDS-C

    Crystal Bowlby, Ph.D., HSP, CEDS-C, is a clinical psychologist (Health Service Psychologist) serving patients and staff in the adult eating disorders program at Laureate Eating Disorders Program in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Crystal has specialized in the education and treatment of eating disorders since 2002 (and has been at Laureate since 2014). Working from a strong relational framework, Crystal approaches her work from a human-to-human stance, whereby the therapist is both a learner and a teacher, an observer/witness and a co-traveler. Crystal’s passion and curiosity to grow, to learn, and to relate to others engenders her work. She is drawn to depth/Jungian perspectives, transpersonal psychology, positive psychology, embodiment, and soul care. Research interests surround therapist's use of self in the therapeutic process, the role of gratitude to enhance quality of life, self-abandonment, qualitative features of recovery, and the themes of hope, curiosity, and surrender.