At a recent meeting of my writing class, one of my classmates had brought an elaborate sewing project with her. She writes about crafts and wanted to show us some of her work. With great interest, we examined the colors, textures, and patterns in the fabrics she had used and asked questions about how she constructed this beautiful piece. We were expressing friendly curiosity.
Mindfulness experts often say that we should observe the present moment with friendly curiosity, but what does this mean? Friendly curiosity toward other people is a common experience, especially when we’re genuinely interested in something about them. We watch or listen closely and ask questions. The tone is congenial; the attitude is open-minded and nonjudgmental.
Friendly curiosity is less commonly applied to the inner world of thoughts and feelings, especially when they’re unpleasant. If you have a headache, for example, the natural tendency is to ignore it or try to get rid of it. Rarely do we take a friendly, curious stance toward a headache. “I’ve had headaches before, I know what they’re like,” we’re probably thinking. “I don’t need to pay attention to this one. I just want it to go away.”
This attitude may be work well enough if you’re able to ignore your headache or get rid of it easily. But sometimes ignoring a mild headache leads to a severe headache. And a mindless approach might cause you to treat the headache ineffectively, such as by taking a painkiller when the real problem is dehydration, hunger, or poor posture.
A friendly, curious attitude helps to clarify what’s really happening and prevents harmful reactions, like getting angry and frustrated about having a headache, which only increases the levels of tension and pain. So even though you’d rather not have a headache, remind yourself to be friendly and curious, as best you can. “OK, a headache is here,” you might say. “Let me take a closer look and see what I can learn.” You might observe that you’re hungry, thirsty, or slouching at your computer. Or you might see that you need medication, rest, or both.
Friendly curiosity also helps with negative emotions. If you’re feeling angry, sad, anxious, or lonely, look at the feelings with interest. Greet them politely, as if they were visitors. You may not like them, but they probably have important reasons for coming to see you. Perhaps they’re trying to tell you something: you need to take better care of yourself, your life is out of balance, or you’re in a difficult situation and need support. If you’re friendly and curious, rather than ignoring the feelings or trying to kick them out, you’re more likely to hear their messages and do something constructive.
The word “curious” is related to the Latin “cura” meaning “care.” Caring requires interest and compassion. Adopting a mindful attitude of friendly curiosity means that you’re caring for yourself in a kind, helpful, supportive way by paying attention to your present-moment experiences, whether you like them or not. Experiment with taking this stance toward yourself, especially when you’re upset or in pain. You’ll probably find that it’s more effective than being unfriendly or uninterested.
Some of this material was adapted from The Practicing Happiness Workbook with permission of the publisher, New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2014 Ruth Baer. Published in the United Kingdom as Practising Happiness, Constable and Robinson, 2014. For more information see www.ruthbaer.com.