Seeing Curiosity Through the Lens of Beth Knowles

Beth is a new Partner of The Curiosity Bureau and has kick started 2016 with her reflections on the elements that have challenged her perception of curiosity and how looking back has helped her move forward.

WHAT IN THE WORLD?

Looking through a collection of photography which captured 2015’s key events, it struck me there were no positive images. Where were the collective moments of joy or togetherness from around the globe this year? The world does not always smell of roses for all of us, but there are usually glimmers of light, a great scientific achievement, a successful Olympics, a Eurovision devoid of block votes… a moment we can all gather around and realise how small we are, but how powerful and harmonious we choose to be when we come together. This year seemed particularly absent in those moments of humanity, the year of terrorism on the streets of Paris, refugee crises on levels not seen for over 70 years and the start of World War Three over the skies of Syria. Sometimes the most reasonable explanations for a deluge of unfortunate events seemed to be astrological, Mercury sitting in retrograde, the planets not aligning and doing as they are told.

After a most odd year myself, I decided to try and understand what may have caused my personal chain of events beyond Mercury’s positioning and lifted the lid on various points throughout my year, reflecting on each. This was especially important as I left a stable full-time job and long term relationship, became self-employed, started my own business, flew around the world several times, started my first full year as a Councillor in Manchester’s city centre, attempted to manage a small charity and its quite large projects, tried to help my political party win an election and (refreshingly in and amongst all the noise of 2015) became a partner at The Bureau. Little did I know the blind confidence I needed to do this all at the same time - it stopped me reflecting properly on my actions.

UNDERSTANDING CURIOSITY

As a new partner in The Curiosity Bureau, I thought I had a good grasp of the importance of curiosity; never being satisfied with an answer, and rather than just accepting things I always search for reasons and ask why things are the way they are? However, I had never really thought about the importance of understanding yourself and being curious about why we are the way we are, or are doing what we are doing. By this I don’t mean escaping our daily lives to find ourselves, I mean constantly being curious about our understanding of the world, reflecting on why we are in our current situation and how this understanding can move us forward and allow us to understand others and our relation to the world.

BEING INQUISITIVE

Self reflection has always existed; meditation and mindfulness are other words for taking time to reflect, but the busier we get and more keen we are to head towards our individual enlightenment or happiness, the easier we forget where we really wanted to go and what we really need around us. This year I discovered the hard way that when we eventually reach a silver lining, we are less likely to look backwards at darker times than forwards to bright ones, but it is underneath these clouds where the best lessons often lay.

In his book, ‘The World Beyond Your Head’, Matthew Crawford highlights the importance of taking the time to give real attention to the world:

“We’re not very articulate about making a claim for our own attention as a finite resource, but we need to be. Because when you talk about attention, you’re talking about the faculty by which you encounter the world.”

And what is attention, if not allowing time and headspace for curiosity about your surroundings and yourself? Crawford talks about our constant capitalist consumptions being the greatest risk to attention (and humanity). I wonder if curiosity can be our antidote to consuming in this respect and if we were all a little more curious about ourselves and the world around us, would we crave the consumption of goods, information and distractions?

WELCOMING SERENDIPITY

This summer I wandered the Himalayas and I happened upon a Buddhist teaching whilst trying to attend an early morning meditation session up a mountain somewhere. Little did we know our meditation would be replaced by an apparently well-renowned Tibetan teacher’s lectures (which more than a few westerners had paid large sums of money attend!!). Making the most out of the journey, my friend and I snuck into the back of the lecture and onto some beanbags. At the time, I had no idea how this little slice of serendipity and comfy seating would shift my perspective.

The core of the session revolved around anger, or more precisely, nothing good ever coming out of anger or being angry. For me, not only did a new understanding of forgiveness spiral off from this core teaching, but also curiosity about what drives me as a social activist - wondering if I should be angry at injustice, especially when there seemed so much of it filling 2015.

After a very angry period post-UK General Election, I thought back to the exiled monk up the mountain somewhere who had probably meditated on a thing or two more than me and wondered what came after forgiveness, if fighting injustices doesn’t drive you, what can? The answer I found was at first not as simple as it appears now - for if the opposite of a negative is a positive, perhaps driving towards and developing positive social outcomes rather than just shouting about the wrongs might be more fruitful. Long may this continue to work for me and those I am having the pleasure to work with.

Sometimes it's a good idea to reflect before you head over the edge of the cliff. [Photo: Beth Knowles]

DISRUPTIVE ACTION

In the latter part of the year I was lucky enough to attend the With One Voice exchange to Brazil, since then I have begun developing new policies to work with Manchester’s homeless population through the arts and service co-design. I have also worked with my community to install rooftop gardens, which, rather than focusing all our energy on the ground fighting for parks, we began training community groups and activists and started to look at how we can open up Devolution to the Greater Manchester population (Demo-lution…). This replaced simply criticising the process and the red tape that currently exists. After one of the most difficult years of my life, I have had some of the best months achieving real, positive disruption, and championing the change others and I want to see.

By being reflective rather than reactive, far from being angry or apathetic at the current state of the world, maybe instead we can be curious about our part in positive change and what impact we can have on our communities, no matter how big or small.

I found a place this year in my favourite spot on the planet - Berlin - where people with this philosophy in mind can come together. The aptly named Agora Collective, allows people the space and time to come together to be curious and collaborate, a little more than just a co-working space, it is a laboratory for social and artistic experimentation and discussion. I hope to go on an inquisitive expedition this year to learn more. However, in the mean time if you know of any other spaces where this is happening anywhere in the world, do get in touch. I believe we all need a little more of this kind of space to focus on what happens when our curiosities bump into one another.

So I am looking forward to the New Year with excitement and a curious mind. I will also be reminding myself to be curious and attentive about where I am now; before bed, on the train, in an art gallery, on the couch, even on a plane…

This year you will find me being curious about homeless organisations and exploring the opportunities to merge those affected by homelessness with the arts, digital and creative industries as well as challenging innovation in homeless policy. If you can help, want to talk, or are just curious, do get in touch with me.