Is your mind inclined toward judgment or did you develop an observing, curious mind?
Somehow, when I think about an observing, curious mind, I think about my childhood home on a cul-de-sac. I grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, in a large neighborhood, on a cul-de-sac. This was probably akin to today’s vinyl villages; only vinyl wasn’t a thing you built houses with then (even the three pigs knew that). My particular childhood cul-de-sac was a street that led to a stop sign, where you could either turn left or right to leave the neighborhood or continue forward to the other side of the same street, only to find yourself at another cul-de-sac. So, essentially, you could circle my street as many times as you wanted without ever leaving the neighborhood, just pausing to cross the street that could actually take you somewhere new.
Bear with me, this does relate to an observing, curious mind. As a parent, I can appreciate that cul-de-sacs are great for safety. There is rarely unexpected traffic because unless you live on that street, there is nowhere to go, except back from where you came. The neighbors who travel down the street can likely predict which houses may have a little fella chasing a ball into the street, or the three little girls speeding in and out of driveways, pretending to be Charlie’s Angels on their bikes (flashback, sorry). This makes a cul-de-sac much safer than a road that allows for new and unexpected traffic.
Cul-de-sac THINKING, however, is not so safe. When you have one way of thinking that leads to the same dead end, you will always end up in the same place. You cannot expand your mind without allowing in new information. Unfortunately, the illusion of safety that comes with cul-de-sac thinking makes it very tempting to lean into judgment, rather than observation. Judgment says, “I know.” Observation says, “I’m curious.” Observation allows us to take in new information, to notice things in new ways, and to consider changing our thinking about our understanding of things. The key is to develop an observing, curious mind.
Judgment is choosing to go straight at the stop sign, leading you right back to another cul-de-sac. Judgment, or the stories we make up, keeps us closed to new information.
For many, the pain of what we know feels safer than the illusion of pain that accompanies the unknown. For example, many people stay stuck in unsatisfying jobs, relationships, friendships, houses, cities, etc… because they fear they will not find something better; or worse yet, that they aren’t worthy of more. This is an example of a judgment that keeps people stuck. This is what people in pain do. They engage in cul-de-sac thinking. They think the same thoughts over and over, convincing themselves that their pain is unchangeable. How do we know what we don’t know? How do we know that there are no more rewarding jobs (or occupations, for that matter) that can support us well, or ways to improve our relationships, or our location, etc? We don’t. We just convince ourselves we do.
What would happen if you turned left or right at the middle of those two cul-de-sacs, and actually left the neighborhood? (Go left and you’ll head toward my best friend Kirsten’s childhood home, go right and you will find the YMCA – both very healthy choices). Choosing a new direction requires you to ask yourself a different question. Instead of viewing your pain as a permanent situation, you receive it as it is intended – as a signal that something must change for you to find relief. You do not pre-judge what needs to change; you simply open your mind to the possibilities.
- Notice what brings you pain. (“I hate my job.”) Pain is the signal from our self, to our self, that something needs our attention. It is wise to be grateful for our pain because it offers us the contrast needed to know what it is we desire. Pain is not the focus though, it is the signal that tells us where to point our attention.
- Identify your desire, which is always the opposite of your pain: (“I love my job.”) You start with what it is you desire. If what bring us pain is, “I hate my job.” Relief is found in the opposite of this. The goal on the opposite side of, “I hate my job,” is, “I love my job.”
- Lastly, find a question that directs your brain toward positive problem solving: (“How can I love my job?”) You will notice that this question is not, “How can I find a new and better job,” or “How can I get great benefits.” This question is OPEN. The question does not presume anything, it simply asks about the ultimate desire – to love my job. This question can only be found by turning left or right at the stop sign in the middle of the cul-de-sac.
There are so many thoughts to think all of the time. (Nope, that is not a Winnie the Pooh quote). The beautiful thing about thoughts is, we actually get to decide what we think. Try it. You don’t have to think what your mind is thinking about. You don’t stop the thoughts you have, you simply choose something else to think about. What questions are you asking yourself? Do they direct you down a road that ends in a cul-de-sac, or does it open you up for new information and new answers? Staying open to new information is an essential relationship skill (read more here about healthy relationship goals).
Last week, I was teaching this concept of thinking with an “observing mind,” rather than cul-de-sac thinking, to the staff of Cass and Company, a progressive hair salon in Avon that invests in the happiness and well-being of their stylists and staff! (Amazing, right?) In my session with them this month, we were discussing the importance of “building an observing mind.” While discussing how observation is power and judgment is a weakness, one of the stylists shared a story about a time in her life when all she did was observe. The stylist, Lina, came to the United States from Lithuania many years ago. She shared that when she first came to the United States, all she did was observe. Her whole goal was to learn and understand the American culture. She had no assumptions about anything. In fact, she said, she was more inclined to believe she knew nothing, so she was 100% open to everything. Jokingly, she said, “Now that I’ve been here for so many years, I know everything.”
Wouldn’t it be interesting to approach every situation we are in with the curiosity of a visitor to a new country? How would we see people, places, and things differently if we assumed nothing, judged nothing, focused on the facts, and stayed in the moment? That is what an observing mind does.
I’ve always heard, Knowledge is Power, but it seems to me, Curiosity is the real power. Whatever you do, be open to taking a left or a right if you find yourself headed toward a cul-de-sac.