Is Curiosity the Greatest Virtue?

We often don’t just experience, but react to that which is experienced.  This reaction can take many forms.  There’s resistance, questioning, trying to figure out what it means, re-interpretation and more.

This reaction often causes suffering.  For instance, if I’m insulted, my suffering arises from my reaction to the insult.  In fact, it’s my reaction that makes it an insult.  Once I decide it’s an insult, I wonder how anyone can dare speak to me that way, or wonder if maybe I deserved the insult, or even fantasize about what I should have said to the insult.

Violated expectations cause these kinds of reactions to experience. For instance, I expect to be treated with respect, to people speaking a certain way, etc… This expectation is so strong, that I may cling to it, even when reality has shown me time and again that it will not fulfill that expectation.

When you try to improve your life through inner work, you’ll find that many of the paths realize the problem of expectation and try to address it in various ways.  However, some of these paths create their own sets of expectations, thus generating their own set of problems.

Take Buddhism.  Buddhism teaches the impermanence of things, the goal of Nirvana and has many stories about people on the path.  Also, Buddhism started in the East a long time ago, and arrived in the West relatively recently.  If you’re a Westerner, this makes it a path from a long time ago and a place far away. Given how cultural accretions attach to anything, this means there’s much in Buddhism that Westerners may not recognize as a cultural accretion.

How does this affect expectations? Well, if I follow the Buddhist path, I may look at some of the stories to provide models for how I should behave.  I may use these stories as feedback for how I’m progressing.  But if some of these stories include cultural trappings that are irrelevant to Buddhism, then how many unnecessary expectations have I set?  The more expectations I have, the more I will suffer.

If you’ve done any kind of Eastern practice in a group setting, you’ve seen this.  People who start to say “Namaste” instead of “Hi”, or who set up their own rock gardens, get a lotus tattoo, etc… Perhaps some like the aesthetics, but how many are aping the superficial features of the path and have thus missed the point?  How many are measuring themselves by irrelevant criteria, and setting up irrelevant expectations?

But not all expectations are created equal.  Some expectations are less painful than others, when thwarted.  So if I ended up swapping one set of expectations for another, less painful set, then I’ve made some real improvements.  But perhaps I want to go further, I want to make more improvements?

Let’s say I decide to transcend all these images and -isms I encounter.  I isolate the useful core of Buddhist practice and I ruthlessly prune every image, icon, and cultural accretion from it.  I even go so far as to meditate in a straight-backed chair because I decide meditation cushions are a cultural accretion.  Am I free of expectations now?

Not necessarily, for even there I have expectations, for even the relevant aspects of the path can set their own expectations.  For instance, once I adopt the view of impermanence, I may expect to experience things as fleeting and ephemeral.  What if I don’t have that experience?  Do I now suffer because my consciousness has not been transformed as I expected?

Furthermore, there is another source of expectations waiting for me: the past.  Let’s say I meditate one day, feel anger and manage to just watch it.  I don’t try to dismiss it or go with it, I simply view it as if it were happening to someone else. Now I find this separation between me and the anger, and this separation itself gives me a sense of selflessness. It’s a pretty big deal for me.  Well, the next time I meditate, I feel anger arise again.  I watch it, but this time I don’t feel the separation.  Why?  Maybe because I’m not accepting it.  Maybe because I remembered that separation that I felt last time, and I’m trying to transform the experience.  However, that separation happened precisely because I wasn’t trying to transform the experience!

This can be a vicious circle.  I may get angrier because my anger hasn’t vanished, and so on.

It seems that there’s a Catch-22 here.

This sort of thing is quite well understood, and there are various ways of dealing with it.  One method I’ve seen used is to claim there is no goal, but I believe that’s counter-productive.  For starters, there obviously is a goal.  If I wasn’t going to get anything out of Buddhism, I wouldn’t practice.  Plus, we need some feedback to know if we’re doing things right.  Yes, there’s a goal and there is a right, and claims otherwise are either well-meaning semantic games (designed to try to get out of the expectation trap) or the teachings of people who don’t understand what it’s about.

But isn’t having a goal and expecting progress an expectation?  Yes, but there are long-term and short term expectations.  Short-term, I don’t know how any meditation session will go, and expecting them to go a certain way causes problems.  Long-term though, I do expect to be happier, and may expect certain behavioral tendencies, like less impatience, more gentle speech, fewer complaints, and so on.

How can I manage this?  Well, the problem with expectations is that they may get thwarted.  When they do, I suffer.  Even the possibility of them getting thwarted can cause suffering thanks to worry.  So, maybe one solution is to find an expectation that will always be fulfilled?

How about curiosity?

When I am curious about something, my motive is to learn more about it, which I cannot help but do. After all, whatever arises in relation to that thing is something I will learn and thus my motivation is satisfied and I know it will be satisfied.  I don’t expect any specific thing to happen, just that I will learn something, and I always do.  Even if what I experience is the same as last time, I noticed a bit of regularity.  Will it occur next time?  Let’s see.   My only question when in the curious attitude is “what next” and that question is always satisfied for there is always a next.

This curiosity must be open-minded.  It can’t be the faux-curiosity that tries to discover if a pet theory or worldview is true. It is not the kind of curiosity that tries to learn so one can accumulate knowledge and thus become “smarter” than the next person.  The right kind of curiosity is akin to the “Beginner’s Mind” in Zen.

Think of a time when you learned something new, when you were a beginner and just had your eyes opened to some wondrous new subject.  Now what happened the next time you encountered this subject?  Were you indifferent?  Did you think you were a subject matter expert and had some expectations about your performance?  Did you manage to retain your open curiosity?

So curiosity is an attitude to bring to your experience.  Could you perhaps work on your ability to become curious, to cultivate curiosity as a habit? If so, how?

What if we get into the habit of learning for its own sake, with no eye towards whether what we have learned is useful or even true? Here, we learn simply to satisfy our own curiosity.  Maybe we do take that turn when we’re walking or driving for no other reason than to see what’s around the bend? Or maybe I attend to even the most mundane of experience, to see what I can learn.

In a way, I’m talking about incorporating an intellectual path into my inner one.  In fact, I believe an intellectual path is a type of inner path and one can have a “spirituality” defined purely in terms of an intellectual pursuit.

At some point, I may find that I’m habitually curious and may automatically attend to even unpleasant aspects of my experience with curiosity.  Now instead of trying to achieve non-attachment or let go, I may naturally let go by the simple fact that I’m studying experience rather than clinging to it or reacting to it.

The world is full of things to learn.  Even the things we’re most intimately associated with can surprise and delight us.  For instance, maybe I learn more about my language and talking takes on a new dimension?  Perhaps I learn something about human behavior and look at people differently.  Maybe I learn about math and start to see mathematical order in things.

This also has the advantage that instead of running away from something (which is a danger for the unwary who practice mindfulness), I’m heading TO something.  Non-attachment comes easy with the former.

Now I’m coming to a generalized love of knowledge or wisdom, which is technically the meaning of “philosophy”.  And yes, the original philosophers had a broad range of interests.  And the reports of the lives of many show behaviors that seem curiously like those of the Buddhist sages.  Tranquility, insight, a resilience to the slings of fortune.

Jack Kornfeld’s page has an interesting take on the “Beginner’s Mind”, relating it to Buddhism’s warning about clinging to views.  This passage in particular is notable:

When we are free from views, we are willing to learn. What we know for sure in this great turning universe is actually very limited. Seung Sahn, a Korean Zen master, tells us to value this “don’t know mind.” He would ask his students questions such as “What is love? What is consciousness? Where did your life come from? What is going to happen tomorrow?” Each time, the students would answer, “I don’t know.” “Good,” Seung Sahn replied. “Keep this ‘don’t know mind.’ It is an open mind, a clear mind.”

Seung Sahn’s method sounds similar to Socrates’ method, in which he would ask people questions about things they thought they knew.  In his case, rather than instructing them to say “I don’t know”, he’d show them they didn’t know by questioning them until they came to an intellectual cul-de-sac.  Socrates himself claimed he knew nothing, and he reportedly embodied some of the same attributes we’d expect to see of someone who has cultivated the inner path, such as his great tranquility even as he was being executed.

At this point, it’s necessary to re-iterate the value of genuine curiosity.  We’re not trying to be subject matter experts.  If anything, like Socrates, we know that we don’t know, and in learning, we not only learn, but become aware of just how much we don’t know.

Could philosophy and meditation seek the same ends?  At first glance, this may not seem so.  Eastern paths are rife with criticisms about discursive thought, and philosophy seems discursive to its core.  However, what if it isn’t discursive thought, but a type of discursive thought that’s the problem?  What if the problem is egocentric patterns of discursive thought, patterns of thought associated with gain, loss, self-aggrandizement, worry and revisiting old wounds? Perhaps there is no incompatibility with those paths?  Perhaps those paths reinforce each other?



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