Community Drop In Group 4/1/20
Today we are looking at the quality of curiosity as inspired by the Unwinding Anxiety app. This is a beautiful app for very practical mindfulness based skills for working with anxiety that can make a big difference.
One of the first steps named on the app is learning to catch when we are getting hooked by our anxiety—and therefore doing all of those things that in the long run are just compounding the situation, driving us deeper into an anxiety vortex—and instead, finding that beautiful witnessing possibility that allows us to step back, unhook, begin to patiently learn a different freer possibility.
A key to this new step is curiosity. Judson Brewer, the lead author of the app, says it this way:
Inviting curiosity allows us to hack into our brain’s natural reward system in a way that actually feels good.
I love this observation—curiosity feels intrinsically good. Think about this for yourself. An example he uses is tasting something that is really good and being curious about the flavors, ingredients that are making it be so good. We can notice how that curiosity engages us more directly with the enjoyment of the food. It brings an enlivening quality to the experience.
This is easy to see in an example like that, but what is hugely noteworthy is that same possibility for the good feeling—or maybe better would be the helpful feeling of curiosity—exists right with our difficult moments and challenges. To bring curiosity to what is hard is very useful!
Years ago when I was a Family Practice MD, I experienced first hand the power of a nonjudgmental curiosity in effecting major change in a life. I was working in a rural health care clinic in North Carolina mountains, and I had one patient who in particular made enormous changes in her life despite deep challenges. When I first met her, she was overweight, had limited income with a poor paying, dead-end job and an abusive unemployed boyfriend. But one thing she did have was key—that was a determination coupled with an unusual curiosity to learn and understand for her self why things were so hard for her. With time that evolved into a much more loving, self-respect, and a knowing that she really was doing the best she could with each step and that each step just took time.
When she first came to me, she was in a lost place, depressed, lots of crying—really confused about what she was feeling. It came out in one of our early meetings that she had had an episode of sexual abuse growing up that she had never spoken of. I got her with one of the therapists in our clinic and, by her request, started her on a mild antidepressant. She quickly stopped seeing the therapist and stopped taking the antidepressant, but she kept coming to see me.
Over 3 years I saw her often, sometimes every week, because she said it helped. This was before I really understood much about mindfulness, and I often felt a little lost as to what I had to offer her. Once in a blue moon, I gave her a practical suggestion—see one of our therapists, exercise, see the nutritionist. She would do some of these, but never went back to a therapist no matter how many times I suggested it. But she was always so clear that it helped to just come and check in regularly that we kept on making a next appointment however often she wanted to come. She taught me to just listened, which I did, often in awe, to how bit by bit she determinedly changed her life.
By the time I left the clinic, about 3 years after that first meeting, she had long left the boyfriend, lost a significant amount of weight, was back in school at the community college and already had a new job in her new field. She was seeing me only about once every other month by then. She had deeply transformed her life.
When I think about what I saw her do, some pieces really stand out. One was the curiosity with which she asked really good questions to herself, questions that were incisive but in a way that was unusually non-judging. For example with the boyfriend, she honestly wondered, “Why do I stay with him?”, not in a way that was berating, but an honest trying to figure it out. And in a way that had a deep element of self-care.
When she finally got that she stayed with him because she was lonely, and therefore, scared to let him go, I remember this long period where she was very understanding of herself for just how scary it was to image herself without him. Then one day she came to see me, and he was gone. Easy and clear. She was just done with him and he now was gone.
Ultimately, I think because she had this respect for how hard all of these changes were, she never got stuck in how hard things were. She developed over time a sort of way of being with herself that was fiercely determined, but also soft and loving—a sort of protective guardian for herself and her own sense of confusion. In writing this, I worry I make it sound too perfect. It wasn’t, it was messy, imperfect, but full of a willingness to keep at it, just as it was.
In terms of her determination and tenderness, I think we are much more comfortable however with the idea of the determination that deep change often requires, and much less comfortable, even comprehending of, the tenderness side. I often hear people in class say they don’t really connect with what it means to offer kindness to themselves in a meditation, that they have no idea where to go with a hazy concept of self-kindness.
We can make this really simple—just a phrase like, “I really care that this hurts, so I am determined to do my best to be with this in a way that opens healing up for me.” Then we intentionally offer the phrase again and again as we walk ourselves into understanding a wiser, kinder relationship with ourselves.
Also, at the time, I didn’t really think I had much to do with her change—mostly I just sat back in awe and witnessed her process. But what I see now, is that actually I did a lot. My awe (which is respect and wonder for the miraculous mystery in which we find ourselves) and simple witnessing was external mindfulness. I was providing for her a safe container, where she could simply connect to.
I listened to many, but I didn’t have anyone else make the depth of change that I saw her do. So the safe container matched with that inner determination, curiosity and tenderness made for a powerful combo.
We need the support of others. We are not meant to do this work alone, and we also need to learn that we can be that safe container for ourselves as well. This is the heart of mindfulness practice, learning to be a resource of safety for our own selves as we meet the challenges of life. Learning to reach out for support as she did, and learning how to make that support the most useful by supporting ourselves.
So here are some questions for contemplation for you:
Think about your day today—what are likely triggers for you that you might meet today? What kinds of habit reactivity takes you “down the rabbit hole”?
What would it be like to intentionally explore being a safe container for yourself, to shift to curiosity and tenderness for meeting this in a new way? What kind of patience and determination is called for in this journey for you?
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you