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

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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