Many believe the purpose of attending Art School is to learn art history and hone one’s art-making techniques. You know how the thinking goes; learn to paint, draw, sculpt, and all the rest, plus absorb the history, and you’re an artist.
Regrettably, it isn’t, and you’re not.
In my fourth year of college, a lecturer and practicing artist shared a shocking but liberating observation. It went something like this:
“We don’t expect students to create any original or inspired work during the first three years here. Those years are all about undoing your conditioning and teaching you to see differently. It’s only when you free yourself from limited ways of seeing that you can explore the world with clarity.
If, however, you can’t move past your conditioning, at best you’ll simply continue creating limited and derivative work.
Real art is never solely about painting or techniques. Instead, it’s about seeing clearly, then responding passionately and authentically to what you see.”
Years later, that same advice, wrapped in unfamiliar words, surfaced in my meditation studies. In that context, the advice urged one to move beyond the trap of the conditioned mind. Its single purpose was to inspire one to see the world as it truly is.
To embrace the possibility of seeing with an unconditioned eye, one must first develop an awareness of one’s prevailing conditioning and acknowledge how deeply it runs.
Perhaps, but there’s no need to sit cross-legged or perform complicated rituals. The only requirement is a willingness to observe.
To begin, spend some time with trees. It could be in the wild woods or in a city park. Location doesn’t matter. You simply need a place where you can look at trees undisturbed. When you’ve found such a place and you feel at ease, pick one tree and gently focus your attention.
What’s your mind’s response?
Do you immediately start documenting the type of tree you are looking at? Do you begin calculating how old the tree might be or pass value judgements on its perceived beauty? Or perhaps your gaze wanders away as you count how many other trees you can see.
While gathering this information is useful in certain contexts, it doesn’t help you see the tree as it is in this present moment. Mind chatter will always lead you away from clear, insightful observation.
What? Surely knowing if it’s a maple tree helps me understand it?
At best this only pigeon-holes the tree and allows you to give it a label. Once you successfully label an object, your mind’s attention will wander elsewhere in a never-ending quest to catalog everything.
The process goes something like this:
- Something is seen.
- The first silent question: Is it safe or a threat?
- The second silent question: What is it?
- One or two responses usually follow.
- Oh, I recognize that, it’s “a label“.
- I’ve never seen that before, but it sure reminds me of “a label“.
- With a label in place, the mind experiences a moment of brief satisfaction.
- Then it’s off again, questing for the next thing to label.
The result of this endless mind chattering is it lays a heavy shroud over everything observed, effectively removing any chance of clarity.
You can’t force quiet on the mind
The mind’s nature is to think compulsively. Trying to stop it with your will is futile. In fact, the mind can become thoroughly agitated when denied the freedom to label, notate, assess, or collate.
Why not test it out for yourself right now?
Try to stop thinking. Use your will. Grit your teeth if needed.
You couldn’t do it, could you? In fact, the longer you tried to curb your thoughts, the more uncomfortable you became. Try to do it heroically for five straight minutes and you’ll have beads of sweat on your forehead and a stomach roiling in anguish. There’s no sweet bliss in that.
Nevertheless, a powerful will might allow you to persist for days or even weeks. Such willfulness, though, stresses the mind and progressively dulls it.
Some even call such methods meditation. I don’t think so.
To see clearly
Yet to see a tree clearly, and to feel its essence, one needs a mind free of compulsive labeling. And as you’ve proved to yourself, quietness can’t be forced.
Let’s try it again
Return your gentle focus to your tree of choice and relax your vision. Allow your gaze to caress lovingly the extraordinary texture of the tree’s branches. That acute turn in the limb’s angle and the rougher area of bark, how does that make you feel?
No, don’t describe it, just let the feelings wash over you. You can reach out gently with your awareness, but grasping only hinders you.
Notice the silhouette of the leaves behind that top branch? There is a certain type of energy in shadows found nowhere else. Can you sense the shadows’ uniqueness? If you indulge your senses without insisting on drawing any quick conclusions, you’ll find that the shadow energy is tangibly different from the energy of a trunk or branch.
Or is your mind notating all of this so you might have something to write about later in your journal? Let that go, too.
Again, observe the edges and silhouette of the tree. Everything about the tree is communicating volumes without the need of a single word.
The tree embodies quiet passion, beauty, mystery, extraordinary tree-ness, and so much more. Can you understand what the tree is saying without the need to hear words? Can you bypass your chatty mind and open yourself to something greater?
Relax into it. There is nothing you need to grasp. Let the tree’s wisdom flow to you, into you, and on through you. Be open. Be receptive. Clutch at nothing.
Relax again, and yet again.
Might you now be sensing the possibility of seeing entirely differently?
How to proceed?
You cannot rush this or give it a timetable. You can only patiently observe, giving all your attention to both the tree and your responses.
Persist with these experiments, but never strain. Always observe with relaxed eyes. The tree’s textures and shadows are but starting points. Mother earth provides uncountable learning opportunities. Use your intuition to choose your next focused learning experience.
As your sensitivities grow, so does the flexibility of your heart and mind. And naturally, effortlessly, your awareness expands, prompting you to make wiser life decisions. It’s through wise choices that you create spaces in which miracles can blossom.
Seeing clearly is an art, and choosing to cultivate that art and making it a priority is the ultimate life changer. It’s nothing less than a monumental step towards healing yourself and healing our planet.
The world needs this deeper way of seeing.