Kealaikahiki Point, Kaho‘olawe, HI 1994

CULTIVATING THE ART OF SEEING: Why must we learn to see? Can we learn to open the gates of perception?

We have lost something very special: the ability to engage life richly and fully through a concentrated, directed awareness. I believe that the one of the most dangerous elements of modern life and of our contemporary educational system is found in the rapidly decreasing attention span in our selves and our children. We indulge and promote inattentiveness: no worries, we say; that’s cool — no matter what it is, we soothe and placate. The media — journalists, novelists, and storytellers — rather than assisting in the development of our powers of observation and attention, encourages an ever escalating reliance on the sound-bite mentality, on the readily digestible concept, and on rapidly shifting scenarios, changing in a heartbeat, before the viewer can adequately examine, digest, or contemplate anything. It is a reductive mentality, where we bring the entire world — big ideas, complex issues, subtle interactions — down to a superficial level, to the lowest common denominator.

The fact is we train our minds and hearts by staying in front of ambiguity, exploring the question, and turning something over in the mind—again and again. There is a knowing of the mind, an intelligence of the feelings, and a resonant form of understanding available through the body. The beginning of knowledge is the recognition of how much we don’t know. The societal emphasis on understanding strictly through the rational side of our brain, which constitutes a small portion of our native intelligence, is misguided at best, arrogant at worst. We are not conscious beings, not yet. Our great potential is found in the search for consciousness, in the striving towards deeper forms of knowing.

Our minds and our senses are designed to be educated, to be used and developed—and this means much more than the rote gathering of facts, or the highly-distracted seeing of the world through the screen of the newest, lusted-after digital device. In losing an eye, I directly experienced the neuroplasticity of the brain and its remarkable ability—over a short six months—to forge new connections in the act of perception based on monocular vision, inner sensations, and sound. The yearning for vision of itself opens the door to new neural and cellular connections. We need to look far, look wide, look inward while looking outward, and to question and scrutinize, examine, seek out and take in all of those impressions that reach our senses from a large variety of sources. We need to resist passive forms of perception and the quick judgments of formulaic thinking. What will it be for us now, and for the future? Growth, development and evolution, or passivity, entropy and the gradual withering of the great perceptual capacities that we now enjoy, that are distinctly human?

Poet Theodore Roethke writes: “I wish I could find an event which meant as much as simple seeing.” What could this mean for us today, in the midst of our busy and demanding lives? Are we awake to our capacity for sight and all that it implies? Do we know how to see . . . really?

From birth to death, we use our eyes constantly and unceasingly. For the most part, this is an automatic activity. As we grow from childhood to adulthood, the process of socialization and the development of our personalities is based chiefly on the acquisition of knowledge and the development of our unique talents or worldly skills. We learn the labels of things, how to read the world through vision, how to navigate through space and through our lives, but we do not fully address what happens at the point of intersection of receiving an impression. Moreover, this impression taken in through vision may be received only in part through our eyes. It may be an impression that is initiated through the eyes, and is realized through feeling, empathy, or intuitive insight. Or, it may be an impression of ourselves in the midst of our lives — self-observation. The gift of observation, of the inner and outer worlds and their profound relationship, can be cultivated — indeed, must be — if we wish to live full and authentic lives, sensitively receiving and richly giving to ourselves and others.

To see implies conscious intent — the ability to direct our attention, to focus our gaze, and to concentrate our energies in a desired direction. We know and sense, from rumblings deep within and confirmed by our life experience, that this full, enveloping quality of concentration is the paradoxical heart of what brings us into a deeper relationship with ourselves and the world around us. It is paradoxical because this single-pointed concentration is like an hourglass; as we focus intensely on a single factor, something widens, opens, and deepens. The world is revealed in a single shape, a single gesture. Walt Whitman reminds us of this: I believe that a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars, and the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand . . . And the tree-toad is a chef d’oeuvre for the highest …

An active involvement with the arts or literature, athletics, any type of craft, our relationships with others, and our daily work teaches us that concentration and attention can be developed, can be challenged to grow, and can be deeply engaged when a real need is present. We are called toward awareness by the conditions of our lives: the tears of a child, respect for the needs of others, the rigorous requirements of our occupations, and the increasingly complex daily tasks of our lives. From time to time, another voice is heard — the call from within, or the growing recognition of our lack of attention and real care, our lack of a full relationship with self and others, and our wish for this to be different — our wish to be.

What can we gain through cultivating awareness? If we could truly open the windows of perception, our lives would be infinitely richer, finer, truer to the possibilities of the soul. We would become considerably wiser, in understanding and in action. We could occupy the moment more fully, and employ more of our latent capacities. We might begin to genuinely respond to life and to others, not just react. And our lives would not fleetingly descend in a slumbering stupor of hazy half-awareness from birth to the moment of death.

The senses would become instruments of delight and discovery, the feelings would become a refined way of knowing: weighing, evaluating, tasting the nature and substance of what stands before us. And the mind would be immeasurably enriched through the questions raised and the material gleaned through direct perception.  The energies of life could pass through us, transformed by a resonant awareness into effortless action and generous kindness.

We could approach truth, not our subjective notions based on verbal concepts and mere opinions, but an unclouded apprehension of the always radiant and sometimes sobering facts of existence. States of heightened awareness, non-ordinary perception, where we directly perceive the energies behind phenomenal manifestation, could be voluntarily induced and may well become a consistent feature of our experience. We could simultaneously develop the capacity for sight that we share with all others and discover our own perceptual gifts, unique to our individuality.

We would deeply experience the outer flow of life through the senses, and we could directly observe the myriad and changing states of our inner world through the mind’s witness. Our strengths and limitations, our sympathies and antipathies, our potential wholeness as well as our many contradictions would emerge under the lamp of impartial insight, engendering a humility that in its wake breeds compassion and empathy. We would gain a relational awareness, where we could perceive directly the interdependent unity, the one taste of life. The world would give way to our attention, and everything would be seen for what it is, in all its depth and simplicity. The moment would slow down, its inherent magnificence would be revealed in a single glance, and the world would be seen as different branches of the same stream, the everflowing infusion of spirit into form.

If we wish to make sense of the world we inhabit, if we wish to assist in meeting the collective challenges of the modern world, if we wish to be responsible toward ourselves and each other, and if we wish to attain the great aim of self-knowledge, then we must develop the courage to see what is, ignoring neither its intrinsic complexity or its radiant beauty. The voice of conscience often reveals that the world and others need our deepest attention and care — our real seeing — as well as the actions that arise genuinely through moments of direct observation.

It is my sincere hope that the challenge I am presenting — to see deeply, keenly, and clearly — will be undertaken by all who travel these pages with me.

The phrase, “seeing practice,” resonates with my view of the dual nature of our relationship with vision: that we can strive toward a more complete experience of our perceptions as they interact within us — and that seeing itself is a way of understanding, a direct form of knowing about ourselves and the world. It implies that an effort is required and it correlates seeing to a traditional discipline. Seeing is both an art and a science. Here I wish to emphasize the art of seeing, the creative movement toward deepening our perceptions and striving toward a full, in-depth contact with the multi-dimensional richness of our lives — a seeing practice. Ask questions — do not attempt to draw conclusions. Let your experiences unfold. Learn. Let your seeing grow, evolve, and inform you in ways, that at this time, you cannot yet imagine.

We have only just begun to see.

—From the Introduction to Longing for Light: Into the Heart of Vision, by David Ulrich