Connecting Through Curiosity

By Lisa Kruss

Eight years ago, I had an experience that forever changed the course of my life.

One moment I was jumping and playing, and the next I was collapsed into the fetal position and crying from excruciating pain. I’d just had my first debilitating sports injury.

Even though my knee was swollen and throbbing, I did what I thought I should do, and what I had always done.

I got back up.

My years of training in competitive sports had helped me develop an extremely high tolerance to physical discomfort. Like many other athletes, I was coached hard, and learned to push well past my body's natural signs of strain, fatigue, overuse, and exhaustion. And if there was something I knew how to do well, it was pushing through.

It wasn’t until a few days later during a visit to the orthopedic doctor that I learned the severity of my condition. After reconstructive surgery, my life became a blur of grueling physical therapy sessions alternated with bed rest. The injury and the 5-month rehabilitation period that followed forced me to a complete stop. I spent many contemplative hours, days, and weeks on the couch with my leg propped up in a brace. I felt frustrated with my inability to walk, run, work out, or even work.

Both my family and the American Midwestern culture in which I was raised had high regard for ambition, education, career, and perseverance. I became accustomed to long hours of service and responsibilities to others from a young age. I’d already started working a part-time job while still a teenager attending high school, and this self-imposed rigorous schedule continued throughout my days in college, where I’d elected to enroll in an overload of courses and attend classes year round while also working part-time. As a result of this focused commitment, I earned my Bachelor’s Degree with University Honors in only three years, and graduated at the age of 19.

It feels incredible to hike on majestic mountains. I feel grounded by their solidity and strength, and the rise in elevation always provides new perspective. Yoho National Park, British Columbia Rockies, Canada.

After graduation, I continued my goal-driven enthusiasm and spent the next two decades as a dedicated entrepreneur, founding several small businesses that demanded near 60-hour work weeks. All the while, I was still playing sports and pursuing such a wide variety of interests and activities that I barely left myself enough time to sleep six hours a night. I was used to a fast-paced life with numerous outlets for expressing my highly creative mental and physical energies, and I deeply identified with my primary roles as a businesswoman and an athlete.

So here I was, a woman who had been in nonstop “go mode” most of her life, now lying immobile. I realized then that my life of constant doing had depleted me emotionally, harmed me physically, and robbed me of precious limited energy. Though I was considered extremely successful by societal standards, it was clear that my health, wellbeing, and relationships were suffering.

I asked myself some important questions in that quiet post-surgery stillness. And in the absence of the usual barrage of external demands, distractions, and to-do lists, I listened for the answers. In my haste to achieve and accomplish, I’d completely neglected to nurture my physical and emotional sensitivity. If I was going to improve my life, my health, and my relationships, I’d need to start paying attention to what was happening inside my body and within my heart. As it turned out, being forced to take time off to heal my injury also provided a period of uninterrupted time for healing my soul.

I was ready to step away from a life of habitually doing — and instead create a life of intentionally being.

Exploring outdoors is always a new adventure. I get giddy each time I find more of nature's magnificent creations. From left to right: an enormous polypore mushroom in New Zealand; an organic zucchini nearly as big as my leg in central United States; a rainbow eucalyptus in the Pacific islands.

The first step was to slow down and tune into the desires of my heart. I knew that I wanted to be a kinder, more compassionate, and more generous woman. And considering the state of our globalized economy, growing populations, and rapidly changing environment, it seemed imperative to learn about our natural resources, ways to reduce consumption and waste, tools for regenerating the land, and methods for increasing localized food production.

I also recognized that my metropolitan upbringing and formal education structures had severely limited my awareness of potential possibilities to a very narrow spectrum. I had inadvertently subscribed to an array of limiting beliefs, and was eager to expand myself far beyond what I could have even understood at the time.

Going forward, I would seek out wise mentors and community support for what I aspired to achieve. I would become curious about everything I didn’t already know and my new educational model would feature all of the world’s inhabitants as my trusted teachers.

I decided to create a vision book. I contemplated and then designed the life I wanted to embrace going forward. Each page displayed vibrant images and descriptive text outlining specific aspects of my preferred diet, climate, community, home, garden, passions, ambitions, career, contribution, education, environment, activities, emotions, and relationships. This book would serve as my roadmap for making future decisions and ensure that they remained closely aligned with my goals.

And then, as soon as I was physically able, I left the country where I was raised with just a backpack, a tent, and a pair of sandals. I wanted to purposely detach from the system that had so successfully distracted me from myself, my connection to others, and my connection to the land.

My sojourns initially started with visits to off-grid intentional communities, organic farms, and permaculture education centers. These excursions often brought me to remote tropical islands and subtropical regions where I met others who were on similar journeys. I walked, bicycled, hiked, and camped under the stars. I ate food fresh from the land.

I witnessed how others were using their time, skills, and initiative to grow food, create meaningful relationships, and barter their services to do more while buying less. And it became clear that the less time, energy, and money I spent in a cosmopolitan, consumer-driven, performance-rewarding culture, the more time, interest, and energy I had to cultivate a deeper connection with myself.

I feel most aware and alive when I'm hiking outdoors, immersed in nature, and exploring my surroundings.

I spent considerable time living outdoors, and my body learned to naturally wake with the sun and prepare for sleep after it became dark. The more I immersed myself in the rhythms of nature, the more in tune I became with my own individual energy rhythms. I learned to recognize the times when I preferred to be most active physically and when I felt more alert mentally. Instead of eating three meals a day at culturally-appropriate times, I was finally allowing my body to dictate how and when it wanted hydration, and whether it needed simple fruits or more dense nourishment. I paid attention to the foods I chose to ingest and how they affected my body, my digestion, and my physical and emotional states. I continued to refine my diet, increasing the amount of fresh, locally grown, organic whole foods and reducing my consumption of refined sugars, gluten, and processed and packaged foods.

The more I nourished my body with natural foods, the more my physiology shifted. I felt my senses coming alive, I felt my heart opening, and I fell deeply in love with life, humanity, and the natural world.

As a nomadic traveler in perpetual motion, nature became my one constant companion. I became increasingly fascinated by the enormous variety of the plants and trees in each new region I visited, and was captivated by the smallest of details. I listened to birdsongs, watched insects, and inspected flowers. I caressed the edges of feathers and admired their important function, opened up milkweed pods and watched in amazement as their soft aerodynamic seeds were carried up into the wind for dispersal, and walked barefoot on the sand to feel the unique textures representing each region. Nature never ceases to amaze me with its infinite designs and varied colors, patterns, textures, scents, shapes, sizes, and intricately intertwined relationships.

I loved the physical and mental challenge of this steep solo scramble up large granite rock faces of Mt. Amos in Freycinet National Park, Tasmania. Every moment and movement required intention and attention in order to reach the summit safely. This image shows the view over Wineglass Bay.

My self-directed experiential education continued. If I was going live on this planet, I needed to understand more about this beautiful place I called home. I watched documentaries on our oceans, our forests, and our plant, animal, and fungi kingdoms. I went on rainforest hikes and wild edible plant walks. I began to study ecology and mycology, and learn more about the incredibly complex and widespread interconnectedness of nature. I formed adventure and hiking clubs, and organized hundreds of free events worldwide to connect small communities of nature-loving people to each other and the land. Through research and observation, I became profoundly aware of the ways that human interference and damage to even one seemingly small aspect of nature will invariably alter and affect the entire system — often in irreparable ways.

Public libraries became a favorite resource to further my education. I started studying the industrial and chemical revolutions. I informed myself about the history of exploration, exploitation, and colonization by dominant cultures in various regions of the world, and read stories of the affected Indigenous peoples from their perspective.

I visited regional and international cultural and natural history museums. I enrolled in Permaculture Design Courses and learned about earth sciences, natural building, seed saving, renewable energy technologies, and localized community resiliency. I visited community gardens, biodynamic farms, and herbal nurseries, and went on ethnobotanic plant tours. I attended bioregional herbal conferences where people gather to share wisdom and education about the healing powers of plants.

I devoured books, movies, websites, and blogs on nutrition, health, and natural healing, and became passionate about embracing my own personal growth. I traveled to workshops near and far to learn from people who had much more education and life experience than I did. I was seeking out and teaching myself everything that I wished had been part of my foundational education and, in the process, becoming more conscientious about all of my choices.

I became particularly intrigued about human relationships. Indulging my curiosity, I’d often start casually interviewing inspiring couples I met, asking a myriad of questions and gaining deeper insights into their authentic relating style. Patterns of human communication and behavior started to become more and more apparent. I attended workshops to learn about compassionate communication, sociocracy, convergent facilitation, and other processes for cohesive group decision making. I was introduced to ways in which privilege, prejudice, and power roles affect language, group dynamics, and communication. I opened myself up to hearing different perspectives, and instead of viewing interpersonal challenges as conflicts, I would come to appreciate them as opportunities for finding common ground and creating more empathy, understanding, trust, and collaboration.

During these ongoing travels, I met and talked with a wide array of people in a wide variety of circumstances and places. These strangers I met around the globe generously shared their stories with me, and often even let me stay as a guest in their homes. The more deeply nourishing and positive interactions I experienced, the more conviction I felt about the innate goodness of people everywhere. I was enjoying my new daily practice of being open, sharing authentically, and transitioning strangers into friends.

Even though I was on my own and had left everything and everyone I knew behind, the world was starting to feel like a very kind place. I was gleaning new gems of wisdom, and felt supported in my journey. Every new authentic conversation and genuine human interaction gave me increasing confidence and tools for tapping into and expressing my own vulnerability.

And while I felt empowered by the ever-increasing knowledge and personal growth that was occurring on a day-to-day basis, the reality was that these interactions were fleeting — and being a nomadic solo world traveler was becoming a very lonely endeavor. I missed the richness that comes from long-term trusted relationships, sharing experiences, and creating memories together over time. Even when I did stay longer in some locations, eventually I’d uproot from those newly familiar friends and communities and start out solo all over again.

The ocean is both a powerful force and a peaceful presence. Secret Beach, Kaua'i.

By 2013, I’d arrived with my backpack on a small, remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where I knew no one. I was so eager for deep human connections that I sat at a beachside café, handwrote questions on small index cards, and invited strangers to choose a question to answer.

Although most people walked politely by, some actually stopped to chat. Those who did seemed happy to be asked about their unique life experiences, awarenesses, and views. And even though I had only asked them to answer one question, the conversations often naturally evolved far beyond the initial topic — and sometimes we even found ourselves talking for long periods of time. Asking a single question had opened up a way for me to access their wealth of wisdom and unique life experiences. And responding to the question allowed each of those people to feel seen, heard, and appreciated.

I loved these impactful connections, and wanted more! It was exciting to know that every new human interaction had the potential to turn into an adventure of discovery. Everybody has stories to share, but I wouldn’t get to hear them unless I asked.

Newly inspired, I continued to write hundreds of conversation-starting questions on cards over the next several years. These cards were carried with me in my travels throughout the United States, Hawai'i, Canada, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand — and became the tool that introduced me to groups of people at parties, created intriguing dialogue with other hikers during multi-day treks, and turned cross-country road trips with new friends into story-sharing adventures.

I became increasingly comfortable starting conversations with strangers, as each interaction held the promise of untapped potential for learning through others’ stories and experiences. And I wasn’t the only one inspired by the potency and beauty of these impactful connections. These interactions were also inspiring the people I was speaking with to become more comfortable starting their own conversations with the people in their lives, learning more about themselves and each other in the process. Together, we were finding more ways to create unity, community, and connection. And fostering more of this connection became my new passion.

I used these conversation-starting questions to create a mobile app for iOS called Curiosity Chats, which is available for access at the App Store. You can play Curiosity Chats with anyone you’d like to create more connection and closeness with — friends, family, partners, and even people you’ve just met!

One of my favorite hikes leads to this absolutely gorgeous and wise old banyan tree. Pipiwai Trail, Haleakala National Park, Maui.

These educational and enriching years of semi-nomadic global travel have helped shape me into the person that I am today. As a result of continually removing myself from the familiar and running towards the unknown, I’ve developed a deep trust in my feelings, in the intelligence of my body, and in the infinite wisdom of nature. I’ve seen the results of humanity’s mass pollution and ongoing destruction of our planet, its longest-lived cultures, and its varied ecosystems. And I’ve witnessed and experienced the incredible generosity and the innate goodness of people everywhere. I’ve come to accept that our human existence is often fraught with dualities that challenge even the most humble among us — and that we’re all just trying to do the best with what we have at any given time.

Rather than pushing through pain, I’ve learned to mostly prevent pain in the first place by gently honoring my body’s ever-changing needs. Instead of neglecting my emotions, I examine each feeling as it arises, and follow it thoroughly to its source until I’m able to identify which of my basic human needs is calling out for more nurturing. My preference nowadays is to notice and act on even the most subtle changes in my environment, my diet, and my relationships in order to quickly restore balance and harmony.

In some ways, the magnitude of these vast and varied experiences makes me feel like I’ve already lived several lifetimes, and in other ways it feels like my journey towards knowing myself, others, and the world around me has just begun.

And while there are still many lessons to be learned and mysteries yet to unfold, I do know that I’ve developed a much deeper appreciation for being grounded in the present moment, for the preciousness of all life on this planet, and for my need for creating and inspiring deep, connected relationships.

And I will continue to let curiosity be my guide.

Lisa Kruss is a world nomad, easy-going entrepreneur, and playful polymath who loves spontaneous outdoor adventures, performing improvisational theater, and creating connected conversations. She has a penchant for dark chocolate, photographing forest fungi, and visiting big old trees. Her favorite sunsets are the ones which turn the sky a blazing pink.

Lisa enjoys learning about the long-established connection between herbs and human health, and is currently enrolled in David Crow’s Medicinal Plants and Spiritual Evolution Intensive. Her recently-released app Curiosity Chats is available for access here or from the App Store.


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This article appears in: 2018 Catalyst, Issue 4: Inspiring Women With Soul