Curiosity First: Reactive to Creative
A few years ago, while journaling, I realized that reactive and creative are the same word. The “c” just moves. My friend Rebecca (a very creative person) asked “What does the ‘c’ stand for?” Good question.
I thought it was consciousness, but now I think it’s curiosity (which helps with consciousness, cultivation, contemplation, clarity, connection…).I recently returned from a 7–week silent meditation retreat (which is why you have not heard from me in a while and why you’ll be getting two newsletters this month — so look out for Waking Up Wisely: Positive Critical Thinking in a couple of weeks). Those of you who have done retreats know that it is possible for the mind to become quite still and spacious. Or not… This retreat I experienced quite a lot of agitation and anxiety. All sorts of things were coming up for me, including this random lol cat youtube memory (which also happens to be an apt visual metaphor for my failed attempts to cultivate a still mind those first few weeks).Our usual strategies for any kind of discomfort is to move away from it, discredit it, or get rid of it. If I’m bored or anxious, I find something to distract me. If I don’t like something you say, I condemn it. If I don’t like something I see, I shut my eyes. But on retreat there’s nowhere to go, no one to blame, and your eyes are already shut. You could sit there all day every day with your blabbering, deluded mind going on and on. But the only real possibility for creative response and for transformation is to get curious.
Mindfulness (sati) has many aspects to it. These days, the most well known and most widely cultivated aspect is the attentional quality. A very useful capacity — especially when your mind is wandering to cat videos (even if that’s not the worst thing it could be wandering towards). It’s been proven in studies, a wandering mind is an unhappy mind; but mindfulness is so much more than paying attention. Mindfulness is ultimately about learning to relate to our experiences with more wisdom and compassion; because a reactive mind is also an unhappy mind. And curiosity is a crucial component of lessening our reactivity.
But how do you cultivate curiosity when you are frustrated, anxious, angry, sad? How do we meet any moment with creativity instead of reactivity?
We open to our experience.
John Paul Lederach describes the haiku attitude — the state of mind/heart needed for creative expression — as the “capacity to be touched by beauty.” As I struggled on my retreat, I remembered this poetic guideline and took refuge in the glory all around me — wild flowers, dragonflies, bees, chipmunks — allowing myself to be touched by summer’s beauty. But as I reflected on the whole phrase, I realized I was emphasizing the wrong part. It’s not beauty that’s the point, it’s the capacity to be touched. Summer’s beauty is glorious. As are cat videos (well, to some of us). And anything, when used to avoid experience, diminishes our capacity to be touched.
So I rationed my chipmunk intake, returned to the cushion, and allowed myself to be touched by what, in a recent talk, my teacher Kittisaro called the wakeful, sensitive, interested, curious silence filled with listening. And there, I met things I had not wanted to touch — pain, fear, loss, grief. I met them with curiosity and kindness and the intention to give them as much time as needed.
And, in time, the stillness I had strived for in the beginning as a way to get away from the anxiety and agitation, it appeared as the spacious awareness holding it all. Awareness holding the tension, pain and fear. Awareness holding the ease, joy, and love.
And all of it is beauty.