Curiosity as a Spiritual Practice

A few weeks ago in Adult Faith Forum Dan & Judy Johnson led us on an exercise about telling one’s spiritual stories. They had us think of six events in our lives—not the extreme highs or lows of life, but just six events that remained “interesting” in our minds—and had us write down a few words about each event. Then we went around the room and read our lines, one by one.

I was astounded at how interested I became. “The summer I moved to London.” “Getting lost in Northern Ireland.” “Is burning curiosity a good enough reason?” The captions invited imagination, begged for more information. I wanted to soak in the vivid details of my companions’ lives. We got to do so when we broke into small groups. My friend Jenny told the story about getting lost in Northern Ireland on a wild-goose chase to locate unwarned ancient relatives in an old town called Cove, ending finally through the assistance of an old farmer in stained vest and cap. As we listened, the group of us laughed, utterly transported to that quiet old landscape thousands of miles away across the ocean. When we came back to ourselves, we were refreshed, somehow more ready to face ourselves and the day.

The experience got me thinking about curiosity—not the morbid, addicted variety, but the wide-open, enormously interested kind. When I approach something with curiosity, I have no judgments about it; I am not experiencing fear or irritation or boredom; in fact I’m not experiencing my own inner chatter much at all. Instead, there’s a kindly and vast inner space, uncluttered with expectations, yearning to become acquainted with someone or something new. After immersing myself in curiosity of this kind for a while, I find my inner orientation has softened. I’ve become good-humored, easy, ready for anything. When I deliberately try on curiosity as a substitute for irritation—say, when my 3-year old is dawdling instead of doing what I want her to do—I find out all kinds of amazing things. Why is she dawdling? Why, because she’s in the middle of packing a bag to have an “adventure in the spaceship” in the backyard, a reality quite as vivid and important to her as getting into the car and going to the grocery store is to me. Curiosity also helps when talking to one’s spouse, I’ve noticed. The temptation is to tune each other out—to borrow a line from Tolkien, you think you know what your spouse is going to say on any given topic without the bother of asking him or her about it—but every once in a while, I find out my preconceived notion about this person I spend so much time with is dead wrong. That I can be surprised. That life is much bigger, wilder and more delightful—or more ferocious—than the humdrum chatter in my mind makes it out to be.

Curiosity can also lighten the downward pull of judgment. The other day I was in a group of fiercely committed and passionate Christians, each of whom had his or her own perspective on what the group should do. From time to time I found myself full of judgments. “He’s defensive again.” “She’s as sensitive as a bulldog.” Had I remembered it, I could have recalled the stance of curiosity: I wonder what is really bothering her? I wonder what the history of this conversation is? I wonder what matters most about this to him? Converting judgment to curiosity lightens the air, releases tension, and opens the possibility for communication and compassion again.

Buddhists, of course, are all over this concept. They call it “beginner’s mind.” Unattached, unhurried, interested, even delighted—anchored completely and only in the present moment—they teach this stance as the beginning of the road to enlightenment. But what does this practice have to do with the Christian tradition? You might say our “wondering” conversations at St. Matthew’s spring from the same willingness to be radically open and interested in the movement of the Holy Spirit among and within us. Think of Moses and the burning bush—what drew him, exiled and shepherding alone on the mountain far from his people, to approach the burning bush? Vast curiosity, of course. Curiosity which drew him out of himself long enough, perhaps, for him to forget his resistance, his judgments, and his boredom, and become open to the powerful voice and leading of God. May God grant us the ability to cultivate curiosity as a spiritual practice, at home, at church, among each of you fascinating people at St. Matthew’s and elsewhere. May we see familiar things—the liturgy, for example, the neighbor in the house next door, the weight in the droop of his shoulders, the insight in her comment during Faith Forum—with fresh eyes, open heart, and uncluttered mind.

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