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The Unsung Benefit of a Mind at Ease: Exploratory Range

Anxiety crowds out curiosity. Curiosity cures anxiety.

Key points

  • When we're anxious, we can't afford to be curious about ourselves and our world for fear that we'll stumble upon something distressing.
  • We are often told that the cure for anxiety is selfless equanimity.
  • There's a virtuous cycle to enter: The less anxious we are the more curious we become; the more curious we become the less anxious we are.
  • "Anthro-introspeculation" is an under-appreciated approach to mindfulness, recognizing ourselves for what we are, mammals with words.

This guy’s exhausting! It’s all about him and his deeds of daring-do. He can’t stop talking about himself. No matter where I try to turn the conversation, he always bends it back to his hunger for affirmation. He broadcasts constantly, casting about in every direction for proof that he’s exceptional.

And wow, is he touchy! If I don’t humor him, he bites my head off. So many don’t-go-there’s! He takes everything so personally. The more he tries to impress me, the less impressed I am. So petty. So small-minded. No curiosity! It’s suffocating! Let me out of here!

We’re often told to get over ourselves. Drop your ego, become mindful, stop the voices in your head, transcend thought. That’s the path to equanimity.

Eastern spirituality lends credibility to this formula. At the extreme, we hear that the ego is an illusion that causes anxiety. Recognize that the self isn’t real and you won’t just be relieved of suffering, you’ll approach perfect peace – even enlightenment!

As such, the prescription is both a cure for what ails you and the path beyond normalcy to an ideal state – from inadequacy to a superhuman ideal of perfect peace and tranquility.

I get it. When, in my youth, I was most afraid that I was subnormal, I craved not just normalcy but enlightenment – perfect peace of mind.

With time and the luck of finding a good enough use for myself, I stopped being so distractingly anxious. Still, by now I regard enlightenment’s ideal of perfect peace as something anxiety craves, not something I’d want.

Enlightenment is an OK goal so long as you recognize that no one achieves it. No one. We’re humans, not gods. Holding anyone as having arrived at perfection is dangerous. No matter who it is – a spiritual, religious, philosophical, or political leader – once you assume they have transcended error, you're one foot into the lifestyle of an authoritarian follower.

Seeking enlightenment is a manifestation of robo-envy, a wish to escape anxiety into a state of robotic perfection. No thank you. I’ll take being a human instead even though it entails anxiety. The closest I want to be to perfect peace is being mildly anxious about opposite options. For example, am I too assertive or not assertive enough for my situation? So long as I’m roughly equally doubtful about opposite responses, I’m as contented as I deserve to be.

There were times in my life when I beat myself up pretty relentlessly. I lived in fear that I was mis-made, a wrong fit for this world. In those times, that – who knows? – could return, I wanted my mind to stop chattering. Turn off the spigot of self-awareness; become one with the world.

That’s not what happened for me. I ended up engaged in something I’ll call anthro-introspeculation. That’s a mouthful I know.

By introspeculation, I mean speculative introspection. I don’t believe I can know my authentic self. I don’t trust people who speak with authority about who they are. Such self-reported self-flattery is dubious. I try to have a red flag go up anytime I declare anything about my nature, for example just now when I say “I try to have a red flag go up.”

Do I really? In a way, I’d be the first to know myself since I’m intimate with myself. In another way, I’d be the last to know since I’m biased in my own favor. Introspection is not self-knowing so much as biased self-guessing. That’s why I’d call it introspeculation.

The anthro- refers to anthropology, the recognition that I am one in a large population of midsized mammals who recently acquired language, an ungainly cumbersome competence that makes us humans more visionary and delusional, more anxious and denialist than any other creatures.

We humans are the rare elements in the universe that can speculate about the whole ball of wax and us in it. I’ve come to believe that the way to get over ourselves is through the curiosity that only we humans among all earthly creatures are capable of exercising.

To be self-obsessed is like walking into the most spectacular store on earth and not looking around, instead picking at the lint on your clothes.

Look around. The circumstances that by happenstance you landed in are astonishing. Don’t just look with awe like a goat seeing fireworks for the first time. Look around like the human you are. Get curious. It’s the alternative to anxiety, a different use for your busy chattering mind.

There’s a virtuous cycle to be found: When you get more curious, anxiety subsides; when anxiety subsides you get more curious. A return of childlike curiosity is the under-appreciated reward granted to a mind at ease.

Anxiety dampens inquiry. The more don't-go-there's we're juggling for fear of discovering something scary about ourselves, the smaller our exploratory range. When anxious, we can’t afford to think about anything sensitive because we’re so busy keeping ourselves uplifted. Self-obsession crowds out curiosity. One can end up with tunnel vision.

Why become mindful? Why get your ego and anxiety out of the way? There are many advantages but one that rarely gets mentioned is a return to child-like curiosity about the world beyond oneself. Science can be an antidote to anxiety and the best scientists are often the least anxious. Having less to prove about themselves, they are more curious about the world beyond themselves.