'There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy' Hamlet
There’s a new comet in the sky. Interestingly, it’s called ‘Neowise’. This actually stands for ‘Near Earth Object (discovered by the) Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer’. But I prefer the idea it suggests of ‘new wisdom’ or ‘new knowledge’. It’s not new of course - presumably it’s been around for billions of years; it’s just not paid us a visit in the centuries that people on Earth have recorded these things. How do I know this, and more, about Neowise? I look it up online of course. In days gone by we relied on the public library, newspapers, books, and before that hearsay and gossip, the local shaman perhaps, so any new comet could easily be interpreted as a harbinger of doom, as they usually were. And let’s be honest, that would match many of our experiences of 2020 so far, so you can see how such thoughts arise.
This week in our Mindfulness group we have been looking at raisins. The ‘raisin exercise’ is a practice common to all Mindfulness classes and is designed to make us think about how we can give attentiveness, or pay close attention to, an everyday object, an activity with its roots in curiosity. We may be curious about a comet that suddenly appears in the sky and we may want to discover as much as we can about it—and we can do the same with a raisin.
The root of the word ‘curious’ comes from the Latin ‘cura’ which also means ‘to care’. So we could say that attentiveness is investigating something with care. Curiosity is part of our makeup - we crave knowledge and tend to dislike, often fear, the unknown; so we enquire and explore until we are able to find some new understanding and restore a balance. Sometimes when there is not a stimulus to excite our curiosity we look around until we find something to be curious about. Toddlers are a good example of this - if they are bored they wander around until they find some new object to study, and we do the same. You could call it idle curiosity. Something that’s easily gratified these days with our phones and TV. We might be feeling completely relaxed of an evening and yet we say ‘let’s switch on the news and find out what’s going on’. And then we wish we hadn’t. We may find out something useful but often it only makes us feel upset or anxious just before we go to bed.
Some are more curious than others. If we come across a cave on a walk, most of us will give it a glance and walk on, but some will want to go in to see what it contains, despite the risks. I have friends who are potholers and disappear through waterfilled sumps to explore some previously unexplored shaft, knowing that they may not be able to get back. Not for me. If we were all excessively curious then we would not have survived as a species—we need the people who stay behind to keep the home fires burning while the adventurous ones go off and find new habitats or food sources.
But if we lose curiosity we can end up thinking the world is dull and flat and our lives can become colourless and hum-drum. If we are not careful we can slide into losing our sense of meaning and purpose.
In our raisin exercise what we are trying to do is cultivate our attention, to train our minds to focus with curiosity on the everyday. It might seem like it has no direct or obvious use, but it can help reconnect us with the wider world.
And I have to say that, while examining the minute ridges and crevasses of my raisin, I was reminded of the surface of an asteroid… or a tiny comet perhaps.