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Seeing instead of just looking

When we look at something we don’t realise that we are bringing all sorts of assumptions to bear on it. So that what we see is already shaped and coloured by what we believe about it. Because of this, more often than not, we don’t see what is actually there.

A well-known artist asked me to teach meditation at a workshop he was conducting one weekend and so I chose the topic of learning to see first instead of just looking. I talked about how a true artist has the ability to see openly and clearly. To open the eyes and see what is there – the light, the colours, the shapes.

Why most people don’t do this is because they name something the minute they look at it. You say to yourself, “There’s the cafe, let’s sit down and have a coffee together” – and the conversation continues. And so you stop looking – and often this means that you haven’t really seen the cafe at all. How many times have you driven home from work and not really seen anything much on the way?

Learning to See

So the key to learning to be an artist is to learn to see – just resting your eyes on something, letting the light, colour, patterns and sensations pass through your body without jumping to conclusions about it. Not trying to work out what it is or understand it. Just letting it be.

This, of course, takes trust, because we have to give up the feeling of wanting to control what we are doing and become receptive to our senses – letting them be completely open to what is.

I explained to the participants that this is what meditation is for, and then showed them some meditation techniques for doing this. The artist himself was very excited and told everyone that this is exactly what he had been getting at while giving them the initial art exercises for the weekend.

Seeing Through Your Eyes Rather Than Your Stories

The first exercise he gave was to paint the huge, old tree at the gate of the property, and then the next morning they were asked to paint it over with black paint, in fact, to destroy it. The shock to everyone’s system was so great after all the careful effort they had taken the day before, that one of the participants absolutely refused to destroy the painting.

However, it gave the participants the actual experience of letting go of the way they would habitually look at things so that they could actually start to see. It was a dramatic way to open the senses, to give up trying to control their painting, and allow their eyes, rather than their habitual perceptions, to shape their painting. They discovered, in a very direct and dramatic way, the difference between seeing with their eyes, and seeing through their stories and thoughts.

Letting go of assumptions

When we look at something we don’t realise that we are bringing all sorts of assumptions to bear on it. So that what we see is already shaped and coloured by what we believe about it. Because of this, more often than not, we don’t see what is actually there.

This can have very surprising and sometimes utterly disastrous consequences for us – especially in our relationships. If we just look at people without really seeing them we can quite simply be just confirming our prejudices about them – the stories we have heard or which we believe. And then we find that we can run into disappointments, difficulties and enemies where we least expected them.

It means too that, like in this art workshop, we discover that what we thought we had seen had nothing or very little to do with what was there. Once the participants had destroyed their first effort at painting and been introduced to the experience of seeing without bringing their habitual points of view and assumptions along with them, they discovered that painting was a completely different experience. The transformation was incredible as they saw their paintings coming to life.

When you look at something, notice what actually happens. You’ll find that the first thing that happens is your mind jumps to its name. You are having a conversation with yourself about it. When you notice a friend, you’ll hear the conversation start straight away if you listen – “That’s Chris – looking really good; I wonder how my new haircut looks? – how about the great time we had at that party? – is there time for a drink?” and so on.

Whenever you look at something familiar you’ll find yourself dismissing it once you have said to yourself, “There’s that tree again”. From there it’s a short step to, “It’s very ordinary – they’re so common”, and then to “God, it gets boring around here, what’s happening next?” All this happens because you stopped actually seeing it a long time ago and are relating to the pictures and ideas in your head.

This is exactly what happened at the art workshop when the participants painted the gum tree at the entrance gate. It was extraordinary how flat and stilted so many of the paintings were. And then on the second day they started to see the streaks of blue, green, ochre and white in the trunk, the incredible variety of shapes in the trunk and the branches, and its enormous size. The tree came to life.

Seeing with your whole body

To do this you actually see with your body. You let the colours, the light and the shapes soak into your eyes without trying to work them out in your mind. You let yourself feel your body’s response to the light, and to its size. You touch it. You’ll find that you are literally feeling it through your whole body. And then you start to see the tree.

The purpose of meditation is to give the tools to be able to live like this. Your body responds all the time to everything around you. Your senses are aware all the time. And yet, because we live so much in our stories we shut this response out of our awareness – and then don’t really feel much until the stimulus is so strong we can’t ignore it. We have literally become desensitised.

So to reclaim our senses we need to learn to see with our eyes – not with our assumptions and beliefs – to feel all of our senses and realise that our whole body is alive all of the time. And this of course is the starting point.

Dr Graham Williams
Director, Lifeflow 

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