Curiosity—my new favorite modality for mental health

I was sitting on my mat in yoga last week at the beginning of a vinyasa class. The instructor was walking around the room getting the music and lights adjusted, and I thought, She and I are doing the same job.  I’m a psychiatric PA.  My main role is medication management, deciding which meds will be most helpful for patients and prescribing them.  So my work day looks a lot different from a yoga instructor’s, but we are both trying to help our patients/clients find better physical, emotional and mental health.  We just work in different modalities.  

As I’ve been working on restoring my own sense of wellbeing and purpose, I’ve explored lots of new modalities (acupuncture, weight training, psychotherapy, surfing, writing, life coaching).  I’ve also come into some old ones in a new way that made them quite a different experience (hiking, travel, yoga, spiritual study, walking, prayer and another kind of prayer, piano, dancing in my kitchen).   I think it’s helpful to recognize all of these things as modalities for wellness (I’m actually surprised by how many things are on my list—and I wonder what’s on your list!).  

But even with all of these things, I feel a heaviness creep back in.  Actually heaviness has been a companion of mine for YEARS.  I asked my sister last week, “Why is there so much heaviness?  I wasn’t like this as a kid was I?”  She assured me that I was the silliest kid in the family.  But somehow I’ve acquired this Handmaiden’s-Tale-post-apocalyptic weight that comes crashing down on my shoulders.  Seems unnecessary, yet—there it is.     

And one of the benefits of my newly found consciousness is that I notice when it’s on me now.  And I’m thinking, Enough already with the heaviness!  Sometimes I try to just shake it out (think Florence + The Machine).  This works but it’s usually temporary and sometimes it simply won’t shake out!  

Then I read a bunch of Glennon Doyle and she teaches that pain is a traveling professor and we should invite it to stay as long as it takes us to learn what we need to learn.  So sometimes I try to just to hang in there with it and bear it.  This feels emotionally brave and I have learned a lot by being willing to face my pain.  Still, life has to ebb and flow and I can’t bear the heaviness with a good ebb every now and then.  

Thankfully in my desperate moment, I found curiosity.  Curiosity came highly recommended to me by my life coach, but I struggled to understand how to apply it.  I think that is partly because, before I could become curious in a helpful way, I had to become observant.  This meant that I had to become conscious of my automatic thoughts and conscious of my feelings.  Then I had to learn to withhold judgment of those things—like, deeply, in my heart.  This took (is still taking) practice.  I’ve been working on this for over a year now—and will be forever, probably.

Then I heard Elizabeth Gilbert explain curiosity in contrast to passion.  And I’ve started to wonder if the heaviness I feel is really passion.  Or maybe black and white thinking can masquerade as passion.  I’m not sure about all of this yet, but I love her thoughts on this topic.

“Curiosity is such a gentler, kinder, more welcoming, more humane instinct than passion.  And it’s so much more accessible.  Passion is this really intimidating, grand concept.  It really is the burning tower of flame in the desert and it can be hard to see that on a random Tuesday when you’re feeling blue.  And passion, the other thing about passion is that it’s demanding, it’s greedy, it insists that it take everything out of you.  Those are the terms of passion.  Passion says, Throw it all in the pot. Risk it all. You want to make an impact?  You’ve gotta make the huge change.  You’ve gotta get divorced, shave your head, change your name, move to Nepal, open up an orphanage.  And maybe not everyone needs to do that this week!” 

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Flight of the Hummingbird: The Curiosity Driven Life

I realized that passion, because it demands everything, may travel with black and white thinking.  Saying, There is only one way, one right way, to do this thing. She goes on:

“…And the reason I’m staying all this is because in contrast.  Curiosity doesn’t do that to you.  Curiosity will never strip your life bare.  Curiosity will never make outrageous demands upon you. Curiosity will never take.  Curiosity only does one thing and that is to give.  And what it gives you are clues on the incredible scavenger hunt of your life, every single day.…And the only thing that curiosity will ever ask is that you bother to turn your head a quarter of an inch and just look a little closer at one of those clues.  And it might be nothing.  You might follow it for a few inches and be like, Oh no, that wasn’t a thing.  And it’s fine because you didn’t burn your whole life to go do it, you just looked.”

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Flight of the Hummingbird: The Curiosity Driven Life

I got curious about curiosity.  I let my head turn a quarter of an inch.  And as Gilbert promised, it dials back the stakes of everything. The heaviness lifts.  

Curiosity breaks things down into digestible increments.  Curiosity says, 

  • I wonder what it would feel like?
  • Maybe that’s not the reason.
  • I could just try it.
  • Maybe it’s okay.
  • Maybe it’s right.
  • I wonder if that’s really true.
  • I might be wrong about this.
  • Let’s see how this goes.
  • How would that even work?
  • Is there something small I could do now? 
  • Maybe I shouldn’t ignore that desire.
  • Isn’t life interesting?
  • The stakes are low!
  • You can always change course.
  • Let’s try this and see how it feels.
  • I’ll do it for a week and re-evaluate.

So I’m turning my head a quarter of an inch to consider curiosity as a mental health modality.  And if you’re curious about it, maybe you should too.  I don’t know…I’m just curious. 🙂 Namaste.

What are your favorite mental health modalities?