The Art of Seeing
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 then you’re an artist.
It isn’t and you’re not.
In my fourth year of college, a lecturer and practicing artist shared a shocking but ultimately liberating observation. It went something like this:
“We don’t expect you students to do 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 your conditioned ways of seeing that you have any chance of exploring the world with a fresh, clear vision. If the conditioning stays intact you’ll continue to create, at best, limited and derivative work. Real art is never about painting or techniques. Instead it is all about seeing clearly and then responding passionately and authentically to what you see.”
Years later that same advice, although wrapped in different words, surfaced in my meditation studies. In that context the advice urged the mediator to move beyond the trap of the conditioned mind and open to the world as it truly is.
To embrace the possibility of seeing with an unconditioned eye, one must first become aware of one’s prevailing conditioning and acknowledge how deeply it runs.
Perhaps, but there is no need to sit cross legged or engage in complicated rituals. All that’s required is a willingness to observe.
Go out and spend some time with trees. It could be either in the wild woods or in a city park. Location doesn’t matter. Just find a place, and some time, where you can look at trees undisturbed. When you’ve found such a place and you feel comfortable and at ease, pick one tree and gently focus your attention.
What is your mind’s response? Does it immediately start documenting the type of tree you are looking at? Does it start calculating how old the tree might be or if it’s beautiful or ugly? Or perhaps you begin looking around and counting how many other trees you can see. There are endless variations to this mind activity.
While this information is useful at certain times and in certain contexts, it in no way helps you see the tree as it is in this present moment.
What? Surely knowing it is a maple tree helps me understand it?
Sorry. 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 dart somewhere else in a never ending quest to catalog everything. Watch your mind’s interaction with the world and see how it works for yourself.
The process goes something like this:
- Something is seen.
- First silent question: Is it a threat or is it safe?
- Second silent question: What is it? (with one of two usual responses).
- Oh, I recognize it, it’s a “insert label here”.
- Or, I’ve never seen this before, but it is very much like a “insert label here”.
- Having found the correct label, the mind feels a brief moment of satisfaction.
- Then without much of a pause, the gaze moves on, scanning for the next thing to briefly engage with, label, and dismiss.
Now ask yourself this: where in all of this mind activity might a doorway to deeper understanding be hidden? The truth is chattering mind-talk lays a heavy shroud over everything observed, effectively removing most chances of clarity.
You can’t force quiet on the mind
Attempting to use force of will to stop the mind labeling everything is the ultimate exercise in futility and frustration. The mind’s nature is to think compulsively. In fact the mind can become thoroughly agitated when denied the freedom to label, notate, assess, or collate. 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, with a strong will you might manage to persist with the effort for days or even weeks. The inevitable result of such willfulness, though, is a stressed out mind that gets progressively duller and less sensitive by the day.
Some have even labeled such methods as meditation. I don’t think so.
To see clearly
Yet to see a tree clearly, and to genuinely feel its essence, one needs a mind free of conditioned and compulsive labeling. And as you’ve just proven to yourself, there is no forcing that quiet on the mind. Given a choice between quietness or noisiness, the mind always chooses the latter.
Let’s try it again
Return your gentle focus to your tree of choice and relax your vision. Allow your gaze to lovingly caress the extraordinary texture of the tree’s branches. There, that acute turn in the limb’s angle and the slightly rougher area of bark, how does that make you feel?
No, don’t describe it to me or to yourself, just let the feelings wash over you and pass on through. You can reach out gently with your awareness, but grasping doesn’t help.
Notice the silhouette of the leaves behind that high 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 anything spoken? Can you bypass your chatty mind and open yourself to something greater?
Relax into it. There is still nothing you need to grasp. Let the tree’s wisdom flow to you, into you, and on through you. Be open and receptive. Clutch at nothing.
Relax again, and yet again.
Might you now be sensing the possibility of seeing in an entirely different way?
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. Persevere with all manner of observation, but always 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.
And no matter where you are, take the time to look, relax, and allow your perceptions to naturally expand. The world is in extraordinary need of this deeper way of seeing.
As your sensitivities grow, so do the capacities of your heart and mind. And naturally, effortlessly, your awareness expands, prompting you to make wiser life decisions. It’s through wise choices that the space is created in which miracles can blossom.
Choosing to cultivate the art of seeing and making it a priority in your life is an extraordinary step towards healing yourself and healing our planet.