The Path to Curiosity

self and other

©2008 Wayne C. Allen

The Path to Curiosity

Conflict is not real

In the past, I’ve said that emotions are like thermostats. They let us know that something is “up” for us (metaphorically, that “our temperature is rising.”) So, really, no matter what arises, the point of the feeling is to get us to pay attention.

Where we go off the rails is that we look for the cause of the feeling. Typically, it’s “Hmm. I’m angry… I wonder why? Oh! It’s YOU again! You MADE me angry!”

The reason we do this is that we make ourselves uncomfortable over certain of our emotions. Perversely, we often, for example, hate our anger, and feel quite bad about expressing it. But if we can find someone to blame, it becomes ‘justifiable anger,’ and then we feel all hot and bothered, and convince ourselves that we are taking the right path.

Conflict indicates a disconnect

All we really ever talk about here is paying attention. Someone recently was explaining his emotions, and how they were getting in his way. He was quite articulate about which emotions, and what they felt like, and how they interfered with his life. He said he could trace them back to his childhood.

I suggested that there is no childhood in this present moment, and that what he feels is always what he feels now. It’s a physical signal that something is up. In Buddhism, there are three locations: 1) self, 2) other, and 3) our definitions. So, an emotion is a signal that something is ‘wrong’–out of alignment–in one or more of the loci. However, it is always out of alignment in your self–otherwise, you wouldn’t be feeling anything.

Conflict is an issue of definition

There are no ‘natural’ conflicts. A conflict is always the aftermath of judging. A situation happens, and a feeling arises. If we do not notice the feeling, the mind races in to bring it to our attention, by assigning blame. The feeling moves from “tightness in my stomach” to an interpretation / judgement– “You made me angry!” Had I noticed the feeling as it occurred, I could have made another choice.

Yup, it’s all about choice.

Clients tell me that they do not notice what’s going on until the feeling has escalated into a judgement, and their mouths are already moving. Or, they are torturing the hell out of themselves. And all I can recommend is that they get better at noticing.

Darbella and I have been working on this for 26 years, and occasionally we get caught. I can only let you in on what happens for me. I suspect I almost always get hooked (when I get hooked) by something Dar says. Clearly, when this happens, I have already decided what she ‘should’ say, and her words are not matching my pre-conceived notions.

If you think about it, this is arrogance 101, and most people are quite guilty of it. There’s the assumption that those we love “should,” a) know the right (read:my) answer, and b) should want to do what I want them to, out of love, respect, etc.

My physical reaction is tightness in my chest and throat. Our feelings are always physical–in this case, tightness. Most of the time, as I feel this, I have a big, big breath, and shut up, as I listen.

Listening is key

Now, at the same time I make the conscious decision to listen, my ego is involved, and is nattering in my head: “She should do it your way, agree with you, be who you want her to be. She must not love you!” Here’s the important part: If I did not notice the warning from the feeling (tightness) my ego gets a head start on me, and I might even be tricked into believing it.

If that happens, (and it has, 2 or 3 times in 26 years–we’re good at this…) I start saying really stupid, hurtful things. In an unaware way, I am defending my ego’s fear of being unloved and disrespected.

I think most of you can relate to this path, as you trod it regularly. It’s precisely the way you get into fighting, arguing, and feeling hard done by.

Pay attention!

I’d rather write about what works. My attention is on me–on what I am feeling, primarily, because my ego stories are seldom helpful. I’ve learned to pay attention to my stomach and neck, for tightness and discomfort. If I feel something, I have learned to screech to a halt, stop talking, and listen harder.


Most of the time, if you can hold back on jumping in with both guns blazing, you’ll find that you are jumping to conclusions. So, you can ask for clarification, for your partner’s perspective–for a window into your partner’s world and mind. No one thinks like you, no one has had your life experience, and no one has nothing better to do than put you first. Once you get this, you’ll see that the feeling arose as a reaction to not immediately getting your way.

Curiosity gets you two things 1) a better perspective on your partner’s world (filtered by you, of course!) and 2) breathing room to start thinking as opposed to reacting.

Dropping the need to be right

No one is right, no one is wrong. What there always is, is a difference of perspective. Things, for you, are always and precisely as you see them. And that same thing is also how your partner sees it. The “Who’s right?” question is irrelevant and unanswerable. Peace of mind and elegant relating requires shifting to: “Given our different perspectives, how shall we choose to resolve this?”

Listening to your partner with respect and curiosity, gets you more information, and a chance to slow the game down.

Getting mad accomplishes nothing

Emotions arise out of your interpretation of a feeling. The emotion is not right or true. It’s just what you picked after hearing what your ego had to say about how hard done by you are. Now, once we get, for example, to the point of anger, you may need to go pound a mattress, or go scream in the car, in order to ‘clear the emotion.’ But the emotion was not caused by the other person, nor by the situation. You created it, you’re providing its fuel, and you need to deal with it safely and expeditiously.

Now, about you

The more interesting question, for me, is “Why am I setting myself off over this, and what about me am I not accepting?” I think I’ll devote next week’s column to this, but here’s the short version.

You are not set off by things. I hope this is obvious to you by now, even if part of you still wants to blame someone. I see clients let their partners off the hook, then blame mom and dad for “Not teaching me this stuff,” or “For being a bad example.” It’s not their fault either. They did the best they could given what they knew. This is a hard lesson for you, reading this, and was hard for them, too.

Noticing is about self-discipline and courage.

The courage part is your willingness to look at yourself and see what you are doing–how you are playing the game. It’s noticing all of your bodily sensations, how and where they arise, without criticism. If you refuse to notice, it’s impossible to break the cycle of being blocked and acting stupidly.

To notice is to feel and own your feelings, and then to own and accept your ego-interpretations. Your ego is there until you die, so no point getting mad at it. It’s just trying to keep you safe by making you one big hard-done-by victim. It’s scared, and working out of fear.

To notice is to watch your physical feelings be interpreted by the ego into “the story you tell yourself.” “My partner is a jerk! My father was abusive. I’m a victim. I’m not sexual! Or only in the right way!” On and on. The judgement leads to the emotion you’ve assigned to it: sadness, grief, anger, whatever.

To notice is to see the emotion arise out of the nothingness of your ego and it’s stories, and to, as I said above, deal with them as they arise, directly, physically, and safely. The emotion is NEVER directed at another person. It can be directed at a pillow, or into the air.

To notice is to own all of you–your feelings (all of them!) your judgements (all of them!) and your emotional reactions (all of them!) At each level, we can own who we are, right now, and make choices as to how to work through what we are creating.

And we can share all of this with our partners.

Does this make sense to you? Do any of you have issues or emotions that you think are external to you? Feel free to share anything you choose to.

Make Contact!

So, how does this week’s article sit with you? What questions do you have? Leave a comment or question!

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

2 thoughts on “The Path to Curiosity”

  1. I think the hardest thing is to drop the need “to be right”. Why is that? It seems to be such a strong emotion…being right…and when you are, you feel great..and when you’re feel bad.Chili\San Diego

    • There’s having knowledge, and being right. I like getting questions “right” — have vague recollections of university / degrees and the joy of “A’s.”
      Being right, in my usage, is the process of proving another wrong, or better, is “rightness” directed at another to get to a one-up position. This simply leads to conflict, no matter the fleeting “feeling good.” It tends to divide people as opposed to bringing them together — which is one goal of curiosity.


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