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What does it take to make friends with who we are - to receive ourselves with an open heart? First we need to know whom are we befriending. That might seem obvious. We think we know who we are. But it may not be as obvious as we think. We are each a moving target. We do not stay the same from moment to moment, much less from year to year.

Every encounter we have with life changes us. Every experience rewires a part of our brains. We are always changing. To truly befriend ourselves - to be open to who and what we are – we can practice the willingness to discover ourselves anew. As we grow and change through our lives, we have continuous opportunities to learn more about and deepen our welcome for ourselves.

What do we actually know about ourselves? We have all manner and means of information and theories about human development at our disposal. We have “experts” who will tell us what is “right” with us and what is “wrong” with us. We have “standards” that we are “supposed” to meet against which other people will measure us. We have competitions we can enter that will allow us to “win” and to “lose.”

But what does all of that tell us? That tells us how we “measure up.” That tells us a lot about the way other people measure us and how we respond to their measurements but it doesn’t tell us much about ourselves.

To discover ourselves requires us to look at who we are without theories and without judgments. It requires us not to measure, not to compete. It requires us to receive ourselves with welcome and the willingness to know. This is receptive curiosity. Receptive curiosity is the willingness to discover ourselves just as we are. Receptive curiosity arises naturally from the kindness of an open heart.

When we think about curiosity we might think about it as being anything but kind. We might imagine it to be intrusive or mean-spirited, as a demand to know. We might think of curiosity as seeking information with which we can judge – a means to measure ourselves. Maybe we imagine we will use what we discover as a means to feel superior or celebrate someone else’s misfortune. Receptive curiosity is not judgment. It is not a demand. Receptive curiosity is an open-hearted welcome.

We are born with this open-hearted curiosity. When a baby explores her life, the first thing she does is explore herself. What are these thing attached to my hand? What is this shape that I will later call a finger? Can it put it my mouth? Can I waive it around?

A baby explores with open delight, with softness, with gentleness towards herself, with kindness. She does not push away what she discovers. She receives it - all of it, the comfortable and the painful, the joyful and the distressing. She explores and she discovers worlds within worlds. Nothing in her discoveries will be shut out. Nothing she does as she explores herself will be unkind.

As we grow to be adults we are taught to curtail our curiosity. We learn to stop looking, or look only on a very selective basis. We learn to judge and to compete and to be in a hurry. We jump ahead in our minds and hearts to later, to tomorrow, to next week, to next year. We don’t remember how to be open to what we can discover beyond the surface. We forget how to welcome ourselves, in all our marvelous detail. We learn to push ourselves away. We learn to be unkind.

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Maybe that seems like a necessary adaptation for the pace of modern life. After all we are in an information overload society. We can’t possibly know all there is to know even about the daily news stories. We may not be able to take in a fraction of that external information and make sense of it. But external information and internal information are not the same. We can curtail our curiosity and block out a great deal of external information. In fact we must in order to manage. But when we forget how to be curious about ourselves, when we block ourselves out, we forget how to discover the gifts of our own lives.

This practice of not knowing becomes a major liability when our lives change suddenly. When we have practiced ignoring ourselves, when we have practiced judging ourselves, when we have practiced living in our imagined future and not noticing what is happening to us right now, what do we do? When it comes time to heal or start anew and we don’t practice open-hearted curiosity, we are at a loss for information. All of a sudden we are injured and cannot walk. Now what?

The good news is that we can return to the practice of receptive curiosity at any moment. After many years of shutting ourselves out, turning toward ourselves may be unfamiliar and even uncomfortable at first, but if we stick with it, not pushing any part of our experience away, we remember how. Think of the baby. The capacity for receptive curiosity is born in us.

A gifted teacher and psychologist named Ange Stephens teaches a way to practice receptive curiosity in our day to day lives. She gives a simple instruction. Pay attention to your breath, be curious about it, and practice simply receiving it. Have you ever tried to do this? Try it. Pay attention to your breathing. Do you receive it? Or do you judge it and try to change it? If you look, you may see how we have a tendency to begin to direct the breath, and not receive it just as it is. “Oh it’s too fast, I have to slow it down.” “Oh, I should breathe more deeply.” “Oh, I better breathe into my chest.” Etc. etc. Watch the judgments about how you are “supposed” to breathe. Can you simply be curious and receive yourself?

Just receiving, with open-hearted kindness, whatever your breath does and being curious about it is a wonderful practice. Fortunately this opportunity to practice is available every day. If we practice befriending ourselves now – opening our hearts in receptive curiosity to whatever we discover about who we are in this moment –we will be more ready to take on the major challenges of our lives when they happen.

About the Author

Alison Bonds Shapiro

Alison Bonds Shapiro, M.B.A., works with stroke survivors and their families, and is the author of Healing into Possibility: the Transformational Lessons of a Stroke.

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