Sustained engagements and entanglements with the activities of massage therapy, counselling, arts therapy and teaching have taught me a lot about the potency of presence in the phenomena of healing, learning, creativity and renewal. There’s a particular quality of presence – both of a person and a process of encounter – that makes a difference. Such a presence, in my experience, is a mediation of a number of influences and practices, one of them being attentive curiosity. Attentive curiosity could be considered a methodology of presence.
Attentive curiosity is a disposition towards experience. It arises from an appreciation that human knowing, wonderful as it is, is partial and incomplete, and that any experience is an unfolding, dynamic phenomenon, making alteration, alternation and change most likely, with inconstancy prevailing. As a practice, it is the redirection of attention away from what we know, or think we know, and toward the possibilities of discovery. It is the withdrawal of projections, the suspension of narratives, and the demotion of assumptions in order to better cultivate a receptive expectation toward the unexpected. It is training for welcoming surprise.
Talk of murderous curiosity and its cat-killing sometimes provokes fear: that being drawn by the unknown could harm us, that we are unequal to the unexpected or the new. This fear might tempt us to maintain a cordon at the threshold of the heretofore unseen or unimagined, and we might want to stay within familiar territories. There are times when such caution and reticence is wise, but if this becomes a fixed response we can lose something important: the capacity for wonder.
Attentive curiosity is characterised by questioning, rather than by answering. Yet, as a disposition, it is not inquisitiveness so much as wonder, in the sense of both awe and contemplation. And like wonder, it enlarges, it expands.
Attentive curiosity is the practice of being open to participation in life’s events, and responsive to what emerges from that engagement. It expands our field of awareness, loosening our identification with well-rehearsed narratives about the way things are and what is and isn’t possible, making the familiar strange and more suggestive. Attentive curiosity denotes a hospitality toward the emergent, through a suspension of the desire to interrogate and interpret. Attentive curiosity opens space adequate to the complexity of life.
My experience has been that within this space, this expanded field of awareness, there’s an increasing likelihood of a more fulsome articulating or embodying of experience and therefore of a more skillful, sufficient responding. Within this space there’s room for more than logic and rationality, analytical causality and the hypnotism of repetition; there’s room for sense-perception, intuition, imagination, critical synthesis, and surprise. Room for confession and conjecture, definition and dedication, precision and mystery. Room so we can see the wood and the trees.
Attentive curiosity subverts simplistic, reductive binaries and the subsequent privileging of particular ways of knowledge. Power is experienced as the sense of aliveness that comes from a flirtation or confrontation with emergent knowledge. This aliveness kindles agency by giving us a different experience of ourselves and each other, which in turn illuminates different resources and suggests different possibilities.
To be attentively curious is to exercise an active interest in the particularity and inherent dignity of each person’s being, including our own, and to develop an eye for the inextinguishable, quivering flame of their-our aliveness. Giving this form through language, movement, or art-making generates life and health. This kind of attentiveness, and this kind of regarding and rendering, as far as I’m aware, cannot be willed. It must be opened to, and cultivated through practice. And given its process-orientation, attentive curiosity is more capably cultivated when there is time given to doing so; when we can slow ourselves so we’re better able to tune into what’s arriving and how to hospitably respond in ways that further justice and kindness and freedom, that keep us sensitised to the wildness of wonder.
Philippa Ranby: Philippa currently teaches and supervises students undertaking the Master of Arts in Arts Therapy degree offered by Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design, and the Master of Counselling degree offered by the University of Canterbury. Prior to these involvements she practiced as an arts therapist, counsellor and massage therapist. She lives in Christchurch, close to the sea.