It sounds odd, doesn’t it? See what you’re seeing…
But we don’t. We do see, but we don’t see what we’re seeing.
I’d better explain my terms, here, before it becomes an exercise in Zen paradox – which I want to avoid. There are not only two, but three phases in our act of seeing. The first is the actual biological receiving of the light waves/particles by our eye’s receptors. The second is the rapid conversion into ‘object of interest’ by our brains – based entirely on what we have seen before.
The third is the intervention of our own consciousness to examine what we are looking at; and it’s that last one that make the difference when we are trying live more ‘mindful’ lives.
Habit makes us see superficially. The brain is programmed to cut down the volume, so, essentially, we see what we’ve always seen, and in particular what we saw the last time we were in ‘this situation’. This situation may be an event, such as a confrontation or it may simply be a something seen along a footpath or road,
Nothing illustrates this better than the process of writing a blog post. You start with an idea, then maybe create an outline of what you want to say – particularly how you want to end. You then have to shift mindset from that high-level exercise to one of beginning the detail, usually with a line that will generate enough interest to carry the reader through the post. The length of the blog is critical; people lead busy lives and you can help those who support you by being succinct.
You use this stage to flesh out the post, ensuring that you include all the notes you made before beginning to write the draft.
Then a different phase begins: you begin to turn the piece into a ‘whole’ by reading it back as a single entity, noticing that the flow between certain paragraphs feels good or not so good – usually because the latter feels ‘forced’. You may be able to modify this, or may have to delete the whole paragraph… sometimes because you’ve spotted that a neighbouring one can be expanded in an economic way to include that key idea.
And so on… Until you reach the finished post and can press ‘Schedule’.
But many wise bloggers have noticed that another review, some time later – or possibly the following morning, just before publication time – can throw up a whole field of errors you must have read twenty or more times… but not seen.
That last act of checking with a different head on removes us from the initial process of ‘constructing and seeing’ together. It forces us to focus on an entirely different aspect of our written piece: its structure rather than its content…or, to use a metaphysical concept, its form rather than its force.
If you have a trade or hobby in which ‘critical seeing’ is essential, then you are likely to have developed the skill of deconstructing the image of what’s in front of you. Photographers have to do this all the time. To use our terms above, their minds have been trained, usually over many years, to see good force; knowing that it will take accumulated skill to employ the techniques of composition and image finishing to deliver that forceful form to the viewer of the image. The force gives it life; the form lets it endure.
Our minds work in similar ways, and vision is the dominant component of the input to consciousness. We can approach the mindful – the spiritual – by a simple act of deconstructing the act of seeing.
When we encounter a natural scene that affects us, emotionally, we should stop the normal process of intellectual perception by refusing to let the mind think. Thinking contains all the value judgements: the likes and dislikes that distort what we see and shroud it (an appropriate word!) in our history. We don’t want the accumulated history of seeing similar objects, we want to see the now, expressed in the beauty of nature.
Having stopped the constant voice of habitual thought )and this is not trivial, but the struggle, itself, is so instructive) we then sense a different kind of seeing, one that usually contains a degree of calm emotion. If the emotion begins to contain value judgements, such as like or dislike, then we should gently nudge it back to simply seeing and not reacting. We are aiming to get a sense of presence, with a calm and sweet quality to it. You will know it when it happens… and never want to lose it, again.
©Stephen Tanham 2021
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.