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An Attitude of Curiosity

An attitude of curiosity invites us to observe, explore, and grow.

Did curiosity really kill the cat? Is it truly dangerous to want to learn, to move yourself toward knowing something more?

Or does it allow us to explore—to change, in small ways as well as large?

I don’t typically write here about myself—even though “back in the day” web logs were all about oneself—but that was eons before tweets and selfies took over. Still, here’s a true story, to illustrate the point.

A bit over a year ago, I decided to take a drawing class. I’ve been interested and involved in the visual arts throughout my life in a variety of ways. This time I had a different goal: I wanted to see if I could understand how it is that with a single line—the essence of two-dimensionality—an artist can convey three dimensions, figures in space. While I may set the bar pretty high sometimes, I didn’t want to compete with Picasso or Matisse. I just wanted to figure out how they could do this sleight of hand (and eye).

How was I going to figure it out? The most direct way might be by taking a drawing class myself. Well, it took a year to free my schedule up enough to make space for a class. Item one accomplished.

It turned out there were any number of further obstacles yet to be overcome.

Like: What equipment do I need for the class?

The instructor supplies an illustrated list of items to be purchased. I walk into an art supply store, list in hand. What could be so difficult? All I need is paper and pencils—and a few other things. But I’m…overwhelmed. It turns out there are options for everything. Possibilities. Take pencils, for example: wooden pencils, woodless graphite pencils, a seemingly infinite variety of types and gradations. H’s and B’s and HB’s and….

If this example seems a bit abstract to you, imagine that you want to purchase some paper. Somebody thrusts a Staples catalogue in your hand (or on your screen). Where do you start? What are the parameters? What’s important? What differentiates multipurpose paper from color copy paper from specialty paper from…? If you’ve been around different types and grades of paper for a while, the answer may seem simple. But if you haven’t…. We take a lot of what we know for granted.

So here I am, looking around….I can’t even figure out where the pencil section is. My natural tendency is to believe that I should know everything already. You name it, and I should know it—whether I have any experience or not. The good news: I recognize this absurd belief when it shows up. And this time, I see it coming from miles away.

The truth is: I don’t know. I could, of course, prowl the store, hunting for the pencils, seeing if I can scope out one from another…from another…from another….

Instead, I decide to be curious. To see what I can understand and learn.

There’s another thing: An attitude of curiosity allows me to observe. To pay attention to the most elemental things. Paper, pencils. Things that are around us all the time—that we don’t notice.

Happily, a clerk—who does know—is quite willing to walk me through the aisles with my list, helping to differentiate one object from another.

Loaded up with my new supplies, I go to the first class. And of course I have a choice about how to approach it: I can pay attention to all the differences between me and the other students. I can make comparisons—and it’s a guarantee that many will be self-critical. I can worry about how the instructor will “grade” me—even if I’m not taking the course for a grade.

Or: I can approach the class with curiosity. I can be open to what I will learn.

Although I need to keep reminding myself of this spirit of inquiry, I’m able to do so. I’m aided and abetted by two aspects: immersion in paying attention and the attitude of the instructor. As with any creative process (see, for example, a blog I wrote about the process of writing), the only way it works is by being open and non-judgmental first…the critical voice will have plenty of time later. In class, I work at “just” seeing, “just” putting hand to paper. And the instructor (fortunately!) is very clear in encouraging us to just notice, not to judge.

Does this sound like mindfulness? Well, it should. My colleague Rezvan Ameli recently commented that mindfulness has “several overlapping and interrelated features…including attention, present moment orientation, non-judgment, letting go, the so-called beginner’s mind, and acceptance.”

And what a pay-off this has for me, not only in learning to draw but also in truly paying attention to what I see. Later the same week, I visit the Phillips Collection in Washington DC. At an exhibit on Neo-Impressionism, I look at the ways that pointillist painters constructed a sense of volume out of

small shards of color. I visit Renoir’s famous Luncheon of the Boating Party, observing these nearly life-size friends in conversation. Instead of standing right in front of the painting, when I stand to the left of the painting suddenly it’s as if a place has been laid for me to sit at the table with the boating party. I have no doubt that that’s what Renoir intended—but I’ve never before really seen this painting in this way.

A couple of years ago, I wrote here about having an “attitude of gratitude” at Thanksgiving. Here’s another attitude we can cultivate: an attitude of curiosity.

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