THE POWER OF CURIOSITY
By Carolyn Hobbs, LMFT
Author of FREE YOURSELF: 10 Life-Changing Powers of your Wise Heart
Few of us realize the secret wisdom at our fingertips inside curiosity.
But over the years, my clients have taught me how easy it is to access our deep heart wisdom by focusing directly on those annoying symptoms and getting curious. For instance, by time Frank came to see me for therapy, he long ago tired of popping painkillers to deal with his chronic backache. Though skeptical at first that talking to this pain was possible, let alone useful, he reluctantly agreed. Frank closed his eyes, focused his attention directly on his back pain and gingerly asked, “What are you trying to tell me?”
At first, nothing came. Frank immediately grew discouraged. But when he asked again, an image of himself lying on the couch resting popped into his awareness. “Along with a clear picture of me on the couch, a most loving voice deep inside whispered, ‘Let me rest. Let my back rest more.’ I’ll never admit to the guys at work that I’m now conversing with my back pain,” he chuckled, “they’d laugh me out of the building. But if resting and paying attention makes it disappear, I’m on board.”
Once we view pain and symptoms as our wise heart trying to gain our attention, we can relate differently to it. Instead of angrily wishing symptoms would disappear, we can focus directly on it and listen for the loving message our pain is delivering. As we give ourselves what the symptom forces us to do, the symptom is free to leave. Curiosity helps us hear th unorthodox wisdom of the heart.
When Karen turned seventy, she had already had two knee replacement surgeries and the doctor was scheduling a hip surgery. A tomboy all her life, with all her relatives touting a “buck up” attitude, she laughed when I spoke about “listening to her body symptoms.” “I don’t want to wind up in a wheelchair my last ten years,” she said, “But I’m not a touchy-feely sort. I hate sharing feelings.”
“Humor me,” I pleaded. “Focus on your hip pain, ask what it’s saying to you.”
“Only if it helps me avoid wasting time on that post-surgery PT rubbish,” she said. Once focused on her hip pain, she said, “When I close my eyes, I see myself swimming, which I haven’t done in decades. Before I fell in love with running in my thirties and forties, I loved to swim as a teenager. I just never thought of it.”
Karen still dodges feelings. But she’s enjoying a new affair with swimming. For myself, I love curiosity. I love how it disappears worry, guilt, despair, and fear whenever I ask, “What story am I telling myself now?” The instant I ask, I chuckle at ego’s silly story hijacking my attention. Free of scolding, the question returns me instantly to the present, to what my eyes are seeing and ears are hearing. Its sister version, “Am I here now?” also reminds us that, on the deep level of conscious awareness, everything is story—those fears about money or finding love or losing love or health or displeasing someone.
I admit I don’t welcome the physical symptoms that come with aging. For three weeks recently, I suffered from nausea more days than not. I tried antacids, peppermint tea, kefir, ginger, and acupuncture to alleviate it. When nausea returned, my chiropractor adjusted my digestive valves, which usually works. But still the nausea persisted, tugging at my shirtsleeve to say, “Psssst. I need to interrupt your routine. Something very, very wrong needs your immediate attention now.”
Finally I carved a morning out of my busy schedule to focus directly on the nausea. I breathed deeply into my diaphragm, asking, “What can I not stomach? What am I having trouble digesting?” Immediately, tears poured out. Images of the ponderosa pine forest behind my home flooded my awareness. But instead of picturing the elk herd, mama bears and cubs, coyote, and deer I have shared the animal trails with for fifteen years, I saw dead oak bushes and pine trees strewn in every direction. In two days, a giant bulldozer had destroyed what nature had taken decades to perfect. Mitigation, the term for wildfire prevention measures, had struck my sanctuary. I cried for the deer, who lost their shade in oak bushes on hot days, and for the elk who sleep under pine trees on cold, wintry nights. And then I wept for the world’s rain forests, changed forever by bulldozers.
Persistent symptoms bring unconscious feelings to our awareness.
Curiosity Calls Feelings into Awareness
Feelings below our awareness trigger much more of our behavior than we might think. Curiosity is our get-out-of-jail-free card for ending angry outbursts and sullen silences. It helps us identify which unconscious feelings are fueling our strong reactions. Since the body cannot lie, it is forced to act out any feelings we fail to name and verbalize. The body has no choice, but we do.
When we ask ourselves, “Which feeling is fueling this incessant story in my head?” we release the body from having to act out feelings. And when our wise heart calls the hurt, fear, sadness or anger into our awareness, our relationships change.
For instance, though Mark promised himself each morning, “I won’t dump my anger on my lover today,” he inevitably would, and then would feel ashamed and discouraged for failing. A smart and successful man, his inability to stop pushing Teresa away with anger perplexed him.
In therapy, Mark closed his eyes and asked his heart, “Which feeling feeds my anger?” He focused on his breath, listening patiently for an image or feeling sense. Finally a picture arose of himself at age seven by his mother’s bedside. “Mom was depressed again and refused to take me to my baseball game as she’d promised. Enraged, I threw my glove on the floor and stormed out, declaring that women aren’t trustworthy. It protected my heart from future disappointment from Mom,” Mark admitted. “But now, I can’t hear Teresa because I believe I can’t trust her.”
Curiosity offers a safe, nonjudgmental way to stick our big toe in the yet-unexplored waters of the unconscious—those waters we were taught to avoid. It gently invites us to ask, “Which feeling is fueling my story now?” Just as naming thoughts “thinking” releases us back into the present, identifying feelings underneath stories gives us conscious choice. We can choose to set down ego’s reaction and ask, “How would I like to respond in this moment?” to whatever is troubling us. When we ask directly, the answer is usually obvious. Most of us, once we realize we have a choice, prefer reassuring ourselves for two seconds than spending hours lost in fear or guilt or shame. Most fears stem from two basic sources:
Fear of losing what we have and Fear of not getting what we want.
For example, Sandy found herself drinking too much wine while preparing the family dinner. Like her father before her, she dismissed all feelings as “silly.” By forty-seven, this ignoring habit kept her clueless about her feelings and needs. When she read about curiosity, she set down the second glass of wine and asked herself, “What am I feeling?” Inside she seethed with resentment below the surface.
In therapy, Sandy said, “I had no idea I was drowning such resentment with wine. My father’s needs always felt more important than my little-kid needs. But he was lousy at asking for help. Between his depression and his anger, we kids had to avoid him or figure out by ourselves what he needed. Now I’m doing it too.”
“Have you asked your teenage son for help?” I inquired.
Sandy burst into tears. “No. I have a million rationales for putting his needs first. But between running my business and taxiing them both to soccer practice and all it takes to run a household as a single mom, I’m exhausted.”
“Sandy, if you dropped the judgment that your feelings and needs are silly,” I asked, ”how would you like to respond to your need for help?”
“I’d like to ask my son for help, but I’m really afraid.”
“So make an intention. ‘I’m willing to ask my son for __________.’ State your fear by adding ‘and I’m afraid.’ If we verbalize fear, we don’t have to act it out.”
“I’m willing to voice my needs to my son and I’m afraid,” she grinned.
Whether lost in despair, worry, jealousy, guilt, or anger, one simple question, such as “How would I like to respond now?” changes our whole experience. Since our bodies cannot lie, stating feelings and needs directly stops forcing our bodies to act them out again and again in old, unconscious ways.
Curiosity & Awareness Improve our Relationships
Curiosity transformed my therapy work. In my practice, I have clients stand up and move around the office, exaggerating a current fear, hurt, or anger by naming its “story” out loud. This helps them realize that who they are is much bigger and wiser than their story, and that they have a choice how to respond. Then curiosity helps them dig even deeper: “How is this feeling familiar to you? What happened in your world the first time you felt this way?” As clients identify the original situation where they felt hurt, scared, or angry as children, they are free to heal the root trauma from their original wound. Once this initial injury receives the focus, expression, and love it needs, we stop overreacting in similar adult situations.
This new ability to bring the wisdom culled by curiosity to loved ones changes our relationships. Rather than acting out anger, hurt, rejection, and disappointment for the thousandth time, our curious heart witnesses our reactions, feelings, and stories—giving ourselves the option to describe rather than act out our inner process to loved ones. This stops our unconscious habit of blaming and projecting personal reactions onto loved ones, replacing distance with closeness.
For instance, Sara and Jim hit a stalemate in their relationship. After a passionate honeymoon phase discovering how much they loved nature, backpacking, lovemaking, and travel, their communication filled with hopeless disappointment. Sara responded to Jim’s angry outbursts and anxiety by holding him while he cried, sometimes for hours, but his outbursts continued.
In desperation, Sara invited Jim to witness his anxiety rather than dump anger on her. One night, paralyzed with fear, Jim lay on their bed describing his body’s experience of the anxiety to Sara. “My chest feels so tight, it could explode. If I try to move at all, I feel like I’ll disappear. If I don’t explode in anger, I feel like I’ll never stop crying.”
Sara, filled with compassion for his pain, held Jim as he wept the tears of growing up with an alcoholic mother. Once released, his outbursts disappeared.
Curiosity spells freedom. By shining a spotlight on old unconscious reactions, and by recognizing that we always have a choice to respond differently, curiosity opens countless doors of new possibility. The more we respond to ourselves differently, the more curiosity nudges us to remove ego’s blinders and see loved ones, and strangers, with compassion.
Living Life in Expanded Curiosity
Too often, when feeling overwhelmed, we look for strength in habits that actually weaken us: compulsive drinking, eating, smoking, working, exercising, reading, or “keeping ourselves busy.” Curiosity cuts through these compulsions. It invites us to experience feelings, and life, directly. It returns that juicy spark of spontaneity that has been missing far too long in our relationship.
Cultivating curiosity is a shortcut to happiness available to everyone. It opens the golden gateway to our deep heart wisdom. It keeps us from sleepwalking through our lives indulging ego’s incessant habits. Curiosity brings an inner peace and joy few of us have ever known. It allows us to welcome all of life, the good and bad, the pleasant and painful, equally.
Carolyn Hobbs’ new book, FREE YOURSELF: 10 Life-Changing Powers of your Wise Heart (Wisdom) is available on Amazon.com. For information, life coaching, videos & Radio Interviews on the subject, click on http://www.carolyn-hobbs.com