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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

Curiosity, Beginners' Mind, Flow, Butterflies and Well-being. Friston Forrest 04.08.21

and a few Bumblebees, Hoverflies, and Moths

Red Admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta, on Bramble

Being curious opens the door to more than simply striving for happiness. It is a powerful trait that is often overlooked on the road to finding purpose and meaning in life. If we are interested in producing a population of critical thinkers armed with courage, resilience, and a love of learning and discovery, then we must recognize, harness, and cultivate curiosity. Todd Kashdan, What does curiosity have to with well-being?, Accessed 06.08.21

Comma butterfly, Polygonia c-album, on Bramble

The Japanese Zen term shoshin translates as ‘beginner’s mind’ and refers to a paradox: the more you know about a subject, the more likely you are to close your mind to further learning. As the Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki put it in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1970): ‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.’ Christian Jarret, How to foster How to foster ‘shoshin’, Psyche, 18 May 2020, Accessed 06.08.21

Gatekeeper butterfly, Pyronia tithonus, on Bramble.

Flow: “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Happiness

Buff-tailed Bumblebee (worker), Bombus terrestris, on Spear Thistle

On Wednesday my friend suggested that we look for Butterflies in Friston Forest. This appealed to me. I spend much of my time when I am outside in nature looking at birds and bumblebees. I am very far from being an expert ornithologist or entomologists; but I roughly know what species of birds and bumblebees I am likely to see at the places I typically visit, according to the nature of their habitats and the time of year. When I see something new to me, or something that I have seen before but is scarce in that location, I am excited. However, if I see something that I am familiar with and that is common, I can sometimes not really engage with the species seen meaningfully, perhaps because I feel slightly "bored" with seeing the same thing again, or because of a lack of intellectual humility: "I already know about ...".

Gatekeeper butterfly, Pyronia tithonus, on Bramble.

A lack of intellectual humility leads us to having closed minds and hinders the acquisition of new knowledge; finding little interest in things you have seen before leads to lower well being (and complete disinterest in area of previous interest is a marker of depression).

Red-tailed Bumblebee (worker) Bombus lapidarius, on Spear Thistle

In the psychology of well-being and learning the role of curiosity is seen as very important to wellbeing and cognitive development. Curiosity is key to the zen concept of "Beginners Mind" (and is part of having a "growth mindset" (Carol Dweck, 2006 Mindset: The New Psychology of Success)); and maintaining curiosity is a component of maintaining flow experiences.

Common Carder bumblebee (worker), Bombus pascuorum. One of four Carders on Spear Thistles in flower-rich border of a path

There are structured exercises that you can do to develop curiosity and beginners' mind, see but I think walking in nature in a location that offers a range of novel (to you) species, and focussing your attention on a particular group of new species, with no expectations of what this will result in, is a good way to foster curiosity, beginners mind, flow and well-being. For me, being with someone else, who knows more than I about the focus of your nature walk, helps to maintain curiosity and flow; I find learing from others pleasurable

Marbled White butterfly, Melanargia galathea, on Field Scabius

Six-spot Burnet Moth, Zygaena filipendulae on Field Scabious

I walked through Friston Forest with my fiend and we looked at every butterfly we could (and any insect that we could see). When I saw a butterfly I looked at it carefully, noting it's physical properties (size, shape, colour) and it's behaviour (what was it's style of flight, what was it foraging on) etc. I only really knew the names of two butterflies - Red Admirals and Cabbage Whites (now called Small Whites), as they were pointed out to me by my Grandfather when we were gardening; thus most of the butterflies we saw were unknown to me. Being unknown, I had no preconceptions of their commonness or scarcity; there was no particular frisson of excitement when I thought I had seen something rare; but also no disappointment that I had "only" seen something common; each butterfly was interesting in its own right, in terms of its properties and its behaviour. My friend, with more knowledge, told me the names of the butterflies we saw, and we checked out identifications in a field guide, looking at shape, size, colouration, preferred habitat and geographical range.

Because I was an actual beginner - as I had little knowledge of butterflies - I enjoyed looking carefully at the butterflies, and learning their names, and information about their typical behaviours, preferred habitats and range from the field guide, with "beginners mind". I found this immensely enjoyable, as I was fascinated by novel insects, and thus had no difficulty in focussing my attention on them; I was fully absorbed in them. I was in a state of flow (and I was thus was not thinking about the many anxieties that can pop into my head, partly because on my OCD, and partly because the world is in reality very troubling, as a result of huge socio-economic inequality, the nature of the covid-19 pandemic, and the enormity of the climate change and habitat loss). I knew I had acquired new knowledge; which I find very enjoyable.

Two Rhingia campestris, a type of hoverfly, on Field Scabious.

I think the well-being-enhancing experience of beginners mind, curiosity and flow though actually being a beginner in the world of butterflies (i.e. seeing, to me, novel ), can be achieved even with known and often-seen aspects if nature.

Long Hoverfly, Sphaerophoria scripta on Hawk's-beard

Another Buff-tailed Bumblebee (worker), Bombus terrestris, on Spear Thistle

A Sarcophaga, probably Sarcophaga carnaria (European species of flesh fly) on

Hedge Parsley

Small White, Pieris rapae, on Bramble (this photo was from Cuckmere Haven,

an extension to our walk to Friston Forrest

The following day, I looked into my garden and saw (as I do daily) House Sparrows feeding in our bird feeders. I know quite a lot about House Sparrows, and I know my back garden well! But I decided to focus my attention on what the Sparrows were doing, rather than just glance quickly and count them (for my BTO Garden Bird Watch record). I have noted before that fledgling House Sparrows often shake their wings quickly; not really flapping them, just vibrate them close to their body. I had thought before that this so form of muscle tone building; a necessary for being able to fly (and that may be the case), but I noted today that this behaviour occurred before a parent fed them and during feeding; so I pondered whether the vibrating of wings was a signal to the parent birds that a fledgling wanted food and/or a signal that being fed was "pleasurable" or "needed". I do not now whether these explanations of their behaviours is correct; but noting them through sustained attention and curiosity, acknowledging that there were things I didn't know, brought me pleasure through flow and the use of beginners' mind; I experienced high wellbeing, without thinking about my level of well-being at the time, though being engaged; observing a common animal (well not that common in some areas of the UK) that I had seen many times before, in a very familiar place, but observing something new about the behaviour of fledgling and adult sparrows, through sustained attention. My hypotheses, that wing vibrating is a signal for food needed, might be confirmed or negated through further observations; sustained observations often lead to an interest in further sustained observation of the same species.

Free resources for identifying butterflies:



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