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How Curiosity Can Help Us Heal from Pain and Grow

“Curiosity is one of the great secrets of happiness.” ~Bryant H. McGil

I don’t think I’d be alive if it weren’t for my curiosity.

Is that a dramatized statement? Maybe.

For me, curiosity has brought a curious kind of “fun” and “enchantment” to an otherwise bleak, painful, and seemingly hopeless period in my life.

Diagnosed with “burn-out” (a.k.a. adrenal fatigue) in 2009, my life quickly unraveled in front of me. I lost my job, my health, and my social life.

From what seemed like one moment to the next (but in fact was a shift happening over numerous weeks) I lost the ability to read or concentrate on pretty much anything for longer than a short instant.

Did I have it coming? Apparently.

Did I see it coming? Not really, no.

So, there I was. I could only manage one task a day. Making a simple phone call was a task.

It was difficult to accept, and it was frightening.

I’d always assumed that, whatever happened, I could rebuild my life. I could go and get a job somewhere else and start over, I could make things work.

Now, it seemed I couldn’t make anything work.

In setting up my positive life attitude beforehand, I had completely overlooked the possibility that I might one day lose my health and be unable to provide for myself.

Try starting over then. And yet, I did.

I started rebuilding my life not by getting a job somewhere else, but by making myself into my job. I decided to get really curious about what was going on.

I do think curiosity is a part of our soul. That, the ability to connect to our curiosity about anything that is happening to us, has the power to see us through.

I do believe that, in some strange way, this is why we allow ourselves to get caught up in all kinds of messes in the first place.

No matter how painful it may be, there is a kind of curiosity we have, a wanting to know what it’s like.

I had some pretty serious arguments with my curiosity.

Me: I don’t think I can stand one more minute of this debilitating migraine!

Curiosity: Ooooooh, that is so exciting, and interesting, and wow…it seems like, when you press your scalp there, the pain is a little different. Did you notice that? Amazing! Try it again! do! do!

Me: shut up!

In a strange way, curiosity is able to exist in a place devoid of pleasure. It is stronger than pleasure, more fundamental. It is a magnetic interest, a fascination with things that pulls our attention into places where pleasure is absent.

Ultimately, curiosity is what allows us to become knowledgeable about aspects of ourselves that hold little other rewards for visiting.

Welcome to misery madam, please leave pleasure, passion, trust and yes, even faith at the door. Just put them next to your shoes. Yes, thank you.

Curiosity? No, you can keep that. Go right ahead, madam.

Curiosity became my guide. I started to understand how important it was to ask the right questions.

That, “Why is this happening to me?!” is a useless question while “What do I need to know in order to improve my health?” is a useful one.

Curiosity taught me things I’d been wanting to learn.

I’d been wanting to attend a local vipassana retreat for a while, but always got put off by the institutionalized lack of sleep (6 hours, and that included the time it took to fall asleep), the lack of food after 4pm (that’s when I seriously start getting hungry!) and just being toe to ear (or something like that) with a lot of people.

Now, in my new, joyless, activity free, strange unraveling life, some kind of vipassana improvisation was the only thing I could do. I spent lots of hours “staring” at my mind, as my thoughts (the same ones) kept orbiting.

Those thoughts almost had faces after a while: they became so familiar that I decided not to pay attention to them unless a new and interesting one popped up. To cut a long thoughts-with-faces ramble short, the only kind of activity I could manage was meditation.

My own mind became my own entertainment channel. I was watching it. Mostly bored, sometimes amused, at times shocked. It was a typical TV night alright.

In some ways, this was the best thing to happen to me. I started to see that, as long as I could keep my curiosity engaged, I would be able to find a way out of the mess I was in.

I’d learned to meditate the hard way, what was next?

Curiosity prompted me to explore avenues I hadn’t seriously considered before.

I dove into a whole range of healing modalities, with a healthy dose of scepticism. At one point, my curiosity and skepticism teamed up, to find the best possible answers. I became curious beyond what generally seemed to be questioned.

Whenever I was confronted with a limitation, or a depressing diagnosis, I focused on my curiosity. What was happening and how could I use that to find my way? I became very curious about my experience, my interpretation of it, and the interpretations made by others.

More often than not, I found there were multiple ways to look at any given situation.

I also realized that I got to choose the story I stuck to, and that any story had a role in defining possible outcomes.

I became curious about a lot of things: the taboo around chronic illness, the way big parts of society seem structured around workaholism in many ways, the way medicine often seems to conveniently confuse “labeling” with “providing a helpful diagnosis.” The way anything unexplainable tends to be branded as “depression”.

It’s an odd little place to be in: that armpit of society. It also says a lot about how we are collectively raised: our values, beliefs, attitudes–the things we believe are and aren’t possible. It says a lot about who I used to be, and what I used to believe in, and how confining and even arrogant that was at times.

Most importantly, my curiosity, that desire to keep questioning, to keep finding something new, an opening, a possibility, kept my eye on positive change.

As Socrates knew, you can keep questioning anything, to the point of driving anyone insane. Yet, that “never knowing for sure” is what keeps you moving. It’s what allows a new life to unfold.

Curiosity allowed me to question all the things I’d assumed would make me happy, or keep me safe. When my life was completely upended, and I felt that I literally had no ground to stand on, curiosity kept the possibility of a new, stronger kind of happiness alive.

Curiosity prompted me to ask the right kind of questions. It prompted me to really get to know myself (and it still does).

I discovered that there is no such thing as forcing happiness. The things that are right for you light you up from the inside.

It takes curiosity to find that personal magic.

Curiosity killed the cat? It saved me.

Are there parts of your life that would benefit from some curiosity?

Photo by eschipul

Avatar of Caroline van Kimmenade

About Caroline van Kimmenade

Caroline van Kimmenade runs the Happy Sensitive Project. She is an HSP (Happy Sensitive Person) & an empath. Formerly a university teacher, she now uses her educational skills to teach HSP's how to be happy & sensitive. Read her articles and/or join her program test-team over at thehappysensitive.com.

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  • http://hanofharmony.com/ The Vizier

     Hi Caroline,

    I think that curiosity is an amazing thing.  If I were not curious, I would not bother to learn and grow.  As a huge history buff, I am always looking for new information about my favourite empires.  I prefer the Byzantines, Ottomans, Mongols and bascially Eastern cultures.  

    Curiosity has also helped my personal development.  When I first began my spiritual journey, there was so much information out there.  It was difficult to find a path that suited me.  So I just read as much as I could about the things that interested me.  The more I learned, the clearer it became to me which path I should follow.

    Without curiosity, I would not be able to find creative solutions to problems.  I would not be able to look at things from different angles.  It pays to be curious.  

    Thank you for sharing this lovely article!

    Irving the Vizier

  • Lv2terp

    This is FABULOUS! Thank you for sharing your perspective and learning with us!  I also question things our of curiosity to see the different perspectives and find it extremely helpful!!  I love how you wrote this and the humor added in! :)

  • http://twitter.com/IDSensitivity CarolinevanKimmenade

    Hi Irving,

    My pleasure & I totally agree that the more you learn, the clearer it becomes what your own path is. I am also much clearer on what works for me and what doesn’t than I was several years ago, due to just trying and being open to lots of things! And yes, curiosity is so fundamental to learning and creativity overall!

    best wishes,
    Caroline

  • http://twitter.com/IDSensitivity CarolinevanKimmenade

    Lv2terp I’m glad you enjoyed it! Yes, it’s great to give up on that elusive primary school dream of “knowing the answers” isn’t it? & Humor is definitely another lifesaver ;)

  • http://honeybtemple2.blogspot.com/ Melissa

    Thanks for this, TB has such a knack for featuring articles that exactly speak to my current experience! I’m going through a dark time right now, and this article reminded me that I know I’m not doing well when I lose my sense of curiosity about things and can only cower in pain. Thanks for reminding me that things are always more complex (and interesting) than my mind might make them seem. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Penny-Howe/571817058 Penny Howe

    there’s another part to the cat saying. Curiosity killed the cat, but the satisfaction brought him back.

  • http://twitter.com/IDSensitivity CarolinevanKimmenade

    Hi Melissa, our brain has a way of taking over when it comes to pain, telling us what we are experiencing. It helps to get really curious about the pain itself, dive into it, describe it in new words. The pain itself is often not what we experience it to be through the labels that the brain applies.

  • Pravin

    Very insightful, Caroline . I have never heard curiosity mentioned as a pain reliever; but I have used the same technique on at least one occasion. I was suffering from a miserable sore throat cold (which is the worst disease known! ). I was feeling miserable, but then I recalled that focusing on physical pain can help reduce the perception of it. So I focused on my throat pain analytically and it did help me handle it at least for a minute. Does not seem to work for chronic crippling pain like knee inflammation though. Maybe because I was completely broken by then. 

    I’l try and apply the curiosity principle on mental pain as well..

  • MaLa SaHan

    thank you for sharing this enlightening account of your life.  My interpretation would be that curiosity cannot exist without a sense of hope within ourselves.  Perhaps we are describing the same driving motivator by using different words.  Keep well.  MaLa SaHan

  • Akilah

    Beautifully written, Caroline! I completely relate to your curiosity conversations.  I have them all the time, and I’m learning how to actually let my curiosity lead me toward more engaging life experiences.  It also serves me as a parent, because my daughters (ages 8 and 6) and I can be in each other’s worlds without me forcing too many expectations upon them at this stage of their lives.

  • Vicky Frederiksen

    Hi Caroline 

    I so agree with you …I believe curiosity is my motivation. It keeps me from getting stuck in my self pity , fear, expectations etc. I find that curiosity is one of the most useful qualities for enriching and expanding my life!
    Thank you for your input and I hope you continue on your journey of curiosity!

    Blessings,

    Vicky

  • http://twitter.com/IDSensitivity CarolinevanKimmenade

     Hi Mala,

    I agree in the sense that, I think for there to be any sense of curiosity there needs to be hope. It’s impossible to be curious if you don’t assume that there will be something better to gain.

  • http://twitter.com/IDSensitivity CarolinevanKimmenade

    Hi Pravin,

    This is tricky territory. There are different kinds of pain. Some of
    them require acute medical attention, others require long-term medication and others don’t show up on medical tests at all.

    It’s important to get the necessary medical care when needed.

    Apart from that, when we can stay open to explore what is happening, then we’ll often find there are many layers to our experience of things. Curiosity can stop us from fleeing into our head and believing that we already know everything there is to know, it helps us see new options.

    (I don’t mean to say that curiosity is necessarily a pain reliever. It might be in certain cases, it all depends.)

    Thanks for adding to the discussion!

  • Jo-Anne

    Thank you for a great post.

    I too am curious and I then obsessively read and devour all the information I can and then with or without the questions the insights flow to me but only after I stop the inflow and the obsession.

    Sometimes I keep getting the answer and then I have to find the question I didn’t know I was asking.

  • Mari

    Hi Caroline!! :)

    I loved reading this post!! I shared it with my sister, we both have chronic illnesses. I also had to change my job and create a new rutine; she had to change the way she eats and rests, and I really believe that without curiosity wouldn´t have work the way it did. 
    Thank you for sharing this with all of us, sometimes when there is pain in the middle of everything thinking in a positive way it’s so hard, but knowing that there are some many possibilities to improve whatever we are going through, keeps me going on.

    Mari

  • http://twitter.com/AlannahRose Alannah Rose

    Just read through your site for a bit, and I love it!  As an HSP I really appreciated your writing & I’ll be back!  I’m so glad your piece was featured here!  Best to you. :)

  • http://twitter.com/IDSensitivity CarolinevanKimmenade

    Hi Alannah Rose, thank you! Glad you enjoyed it!

  • http://twitter.com/IDSensitivity CarolinevanKimmenade

    Hi Mari,

    Thanks for your comment (and sorry for the late reply!). Yes having to change routines can be incredibly difficult and stressful. In many ways, our routines make us feel at home with ourselves, so when we need to change them we often feel uprooted. There are always possibilities! Take care.

  • http://twitter.com/IDSensitivity CarolinevanKimmenade

    Hi Jo-Anne, my pleasure and what you share about needing the stop the inflow is so true! & yes, it’s awesome when we discover we were getting answers all along, but they don’t make sense until we become aware of the question we were asking :)

  • http://twitter.com/IDSensitivity CarolinevanKimmenade

    thank you!