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What is this? What if that?
On Curiosity, Husbands and Cats
October 2008


By Joanne Sales

I grew up in an old Victorian farmhouse, built from a Sears build-a-house kit around 1913. Somehow over the course of years, a question mark got attached to the porch support beam, where house numbers should have been. At that time, my husband was a teenage boy from the right side of the railroad tracks. When he saw the question mark on the front porch, he thought, “This family is totally crazy. I’m moving in.”

That’s the same way that stray cats find homes. They wander around until something like a question mark on the porch draws their attention. A few bowls of soup or tuna fish later, and you have a new cat or a husband.

In fact, we do have a new kitten! We put out the signals – we need a cat! We talked about it so much that a kitten found its way to our friend’s woodshed, and then into our mudroom, and then into our living room, and now into our hearts.

When our kitten first arrived, I was concerned that she would be bored. (How is that for projection?) That kitten is anything but bored. She can play with a string, chase shadows, swat at flower petals, dance with cobwebs. A kitten does not get stuck in the stale place of having figured everything out. A cat is curious.

We live across the street from a Tibetan Buddhist temple in Coombs (where you are always welcome.) At a recent teaching, I was overjoyed to hear that CURIOSITY was one of the 7 supreme qualities of mind essential for a full and successful life here on Planet Earth. Curiosity. Openness – having one’s eyes, ears, heart and mind in a receptive mode. Not closed. Learning from the world around you all the time.

It reminded me of a visit I had with a friend last winter. I hadn’t seen her since her marriage, business and health had fallen apart a few years before - like dominos. She was doing fine now. In the “Beginner’s Mind,” she said. Once upon a time, she had had it all figured out. And it all crashed. Now, no longer thinking that she knows it all, she can see much more clearly and is happier than ever. And she looks great. All the heaviness of her “everything-is-going-according-to-plan” years is gone. There is a freshness in her face. An older body, younger mind.

She put a question mark on her porch beam, and suddenly life became exciting and new. Although I had heard the phrase “Beginner’s Mind” before, having seen my friend transformed by it brought it to life for me.

An abbess in a Zen monastery described the Beginner’s mind like this:
“ It is the mind that is innocent of preconceptions and expectations, judgments and prejudices. Beginner's mind is just present to explore and observe… that faces life like a small child, full of curiosity and wonder and amazement. ‘I wonder what this is? I wonder what this means?’"

Another curiosity question to ask is “What if?” It is useful in situations from car repair to life repair. While it can be used for conjuring catastrophes, (“What if the sky should fall?”) it can also be used to find solutions, climb out of musty basements, and open the door to the infinite possibilities that arise with each moment.

What if I go for walks on the beach? What if I go back to school or eat hemp protein? What if I forgive him? What if I just sit here?

Curiosity killed the cat is a catchy phrase, but curiosity also made the cat’s life worth living and found it a home.

Cats don’t ask, what’s that long, dangling thing? What if I pulled on it? Curiosity is their nature. But most of us have been dulled down by repetition, nightmares, and stuffy closets, so conscious questions are useful for us.
The combination of questions serves us well. “What’s that? A question mark on the front porch? What if I moved in?”
It sounds like the right questions may be more important than the right answers. What if that is true?


*Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman.
*For those who are curious, here is a ridiculously oversimplified list of the 7 supreme qualities: Faith. Ethics (Harmlessness.) Generosity. Curiosity. A tamed mind. Respect. Humility.