Sometimes I imagine what it would be like for an adult to behave like my 8 month old. For example, when he’s crying, howling at the top of his lungs, tears pouring down his cheeks, I imagine an adult doing the exact same thing. I’m immediately struck by the level of intensity. I can’t even imagine just how bad a situation would have to be for an adult to cry that hard. It would take an absolute tragedy for me to howl and cry uncontrollably like that. This thought experiment helps me get a sense of just how intense and raw his emotions might feel to him.
Now, crying is a striking example. But I recently tried the same thing for my son Oliver’s curiosity. Put anything new in front of him, and he will investigate it with a fiery passion. Whatever object his attention wanders toward, he wants to inspect it, examine it, feel its nooks and crannies, and of course, put it in his mouth. Even when he was only 2 months old - before his arms and hands coordinated at all - you could see the curiosity in his eyes. And to this day, his penetrating gaze is instinctually drawn to novelty; just ask the neighbours he stares down in our building’s elevator every day.
In our adult lives, how often do we inspect, examine, and investigate with intense curiosity? I have come to believe that your answer to that question has a lot to do with your life satisfaction. One of the keys to staying engaged with this complex world is to maintain that child-like curiosity.
Doesn’t matter what the subject. You could be passionately curious about a musical instrument, or movies, or books, or relationships. Or perhaps you’re curious about science, politics, the attention economy, or the meaning of life. But it doesn’t have to be so grandiose. Maybe you wonder about all the unexpected things your pets do. Or maybe you have intense interest in paint colours, craft beer, or a specific TV show.
But I’m not talking can’t-wait-for-the-next-episode levels of curiosity. I’m talking about a powerful curiosity that rivals that moment when Oliver sees my wife’s keys. Just as he gets lost in the jingle-jangle of the keys rattling, the subtle reflection of light, and the hard metallic edges, you’re immersed in the world of this TV show. You want to understand and experience it fully. You want to catch every detail, and ponder the storytelling, the characters, and the significance.
As enjoyable as they may be, I personally have a hard time getting that curious about movies and TV shows like I used to. But there are lots of other things I remain intensely curious about, and that’s the point. As we age, it’s easy to fall into a routine, leaning on your habits day in and day out. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it can lead to a deeply-rooted sense that there’s nothing new under the sun. We get skeptical and jaded, falling into this illusion that we’ve seen it all before. We become the proverbial know-it-all, losing what Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki called “Beginner’s Mind”.
I find those who maintain a lust for life tend to have the light of inquiry in their eyes. A certain topic comes up in conversation and they come alive. A calm passion animates their body as they investigate and observe, asking deep questions and following through. They do their best to drop preconceptions and open themselves up to novelty. Does anyone in particular come to mind? To me, whatever those people are doing to keep that fire burning seems essential to a good life.
I’ve found mindfulness meditation to be an exercise in training the raw skill of curiosity. You learn and strengthen your fundamental ability to be curious. You practice being curious about experience itself. You don’t need a specific subject matter or topic to focus on. You get curious about the movies in your head. You listen to the music all around you. You take in the art of the sky. You obsess over every episode of this incessant, cryptic, glitchy podcast called ‘thinking’.
You can practice curiosity with whatever you experience. This letter is case in point: I’ve even become curious about the experience of curiosity itself. I was on a walk this morning and I thought, “wow, that leaf is really green.” If you think that seems like a pointless thought, you’re right, it was. But the experience that directly preceded that thought was not pointless at all. It was a spark of curious engagement with the world. It was a glimpse of that same infinite curiosity that Oliver exhibits in every moment. And there I was, experiencing it as a grown man staring at a leaf in downtown Toronto.