Practicing curiosity and a beginner’s mind for successful relationships
Most of us have heard the metaphor of an onion used to describe a person; the multitude of personality layers being pulled back to reveal others below. Personally, I love onions, but it feels like there must be a more appetizing and less divisive layered food we could use to describe something as beautiful as the human spirit.
Unfortunately, upon further research, it seems the only other foods that have layers are cabbage, shallots, leeks, and brussel sprouts.
At first, I was disappointed there wasn’t a colorful, sweet, decadent food to insert in place of an onion, but after thinking about it I realized how perfect it is that all of the layered foods have strong tastes, can be smelly, and are in a word; pungent. That actually feels like the best way to describe the human spirit. All of those foods have a distinct flavor and can really make or break the taste of a dish. Hell, an onion can even make you cry.
So, let’s dig into the metaphor further and the fact that a person is a multi-layered creature. Many times I have found myself becoming bored or losing interest in someone I was once enamored with. My fuse has shortened for the parts of them I find irritating, I bristle at the way they pronounce a certain word incorrectly, tell the same story for the 100th time. It seems they no longer excite or surprise me, giving me that hit of dopamine. I have heard this same story in both my work as a therapist and coach and in my conversations with friends. It’s as if we think we know everything about the other person, and for many that becomes boring. But I challenge you on the thinking that you can ever really know every single thing about a person…
Where I believe the onion metaphor falls short is that there is an innermost layer of an onion. You can actually reach the center, the last of the layers. Humans have infinite layers. Recognizing that you will never know everything about your partner, or your best friend, or your parent will help you stay curious. When there is curiosity, inquiry, or questioning, our attention is intensified. And when our attention is intensified the other person feels important, heard, seen, and appreciated.
What if, instead of tuning out that story we’ve heard 100 times, sighing and rolling our eyes, we challenge ourselves to listen closely, to pay attention? Not listen with the intent of responding, but listen simply for the sake of listening. To notice the way they annunciate a certain word in the story, or to lean into the emotion in their voice when they reference a certain person. I wonder if we can learn something new, even a small piece, of the story we think we know so well.
There is a book of teachings by Shunryu Suzuki called, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind that was eye-opening for me when I first read it. The teachings can be broadly summarized in this one quote:
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
You don’t have to be a Buddhist Monk or Zen Master to appreciate the takeaway of these teachings. It is as simple as this: If you go into any interaction thinking you already know; know the outcome, know what the person is thinking/feeling, know better than the person, then you have limited the possible experience that you could have. You are no longer present. The connection to that other person is lost through our assumption that we already know, through the assumption we have peeled back all the layers of the onion. There is a real danger in thinking we know. We stop seeing the magical parts of them that once made our hearts flutter, or helped us feel deeply connected.
Approaching our interactions with loved ones, friends, and colleagues with a beginner’s mind means to pay attention and listen. It means to practice being truly present. It means noticing when your inner dialogue is telling you you “already know.” No you don’t. None of us do. We are not that person and have not had their experiences, so how can we say we know? Being present is a muscle that must be built and worked out continually. Noticing your judgments and when your mind drifts. And, when you catch those thoughts, choosing instead to put away the phone, practice presence, show attention, and be curious.