The theme this month at the Unitarian Church (a non-doctrinal, inter-faith community with a long history) I go to is curiosity. I like this: curiosity sounds like such a positive, life-affirming, even playful state of being to me. It’s also essential to learning. Curiosity demands that we arrive with openness, with presence, and that we leave what we think we already know aside and be prepared for something new, maybe even something unexpected. Maybe even something wondrous. Curiosity demands that we be engaged in the moment, attending to whatever presents itself.
This type of curiosity is akin to listening, and I think true listening is something that we can never do too much of. When a friend visits and I ask how she is, I am being curious in a good way: I want to know her more deeply. I am ready to listen. I do my best to leave aside what I might think I already know about her to be truly open to her story.
Yesterday I brought a book to the two appointments I had at two different hospitals: Joan Halifax’s Being with Dying, which had been recommended to me by a couple of people. I always appreciate Buddhist teachings, and in these days of uncertain future I need especially to hone my practice of being in the moment. In her introduction, Halifax writes of “not-knowing.” This tenet, she says, “invites us to give up fixed ideas about others and ourselves and to open the spontaneous mind of the beginner.” This sounds a lot like the state of curiosity to me. Halifax notes that
Our attitude of openness and inclusiveness is essential as a basis for working with the dying, death, caring, and grieving. The only way to develop openness to situations as they are is by practicing the partners of presence and acceptance. We give our best to experience everything as totally as we can, not withdrawing from the vividness of any experience, no matter how scary it seems initially.
Openness, presence, acceptance. These are what we need to live fully in the moment. We can bring this sort of curiosity to our everyday lives. We can also bring it to our contemplation of death.
In my last post I wrote about the role of imagination in confronting our mortality. While curiosity seems like another good strategy against the avoidance and fear of death, it might, as my new assistant Lauren (who is also my son’s very smart and lovely girlfriend) suggests, actually be a first step towards imagining. She notes that “we’re all curious about death (to varying degrees, of course), so we’re already partway there. I guess it’s about not letting the fear get in the way of exploring that curiosity.”
So which aspects of death are you perhaps already curious about? And which are uncomfortable for you? Would it be possible to let yourself be curious about those instead?
Maybe it’s time to let your morbid curiosity loose!