When was the last time you saw something ‘as if’ for the first time? Have you ever thought about how ‘attentive’ you are as a person? Even if you consider yourself to be fairly attentive, you would possibly have experienced instances when say, you have walked down a hall and ‘seen’ an object [maybe a painting on a wall] you’d never noticed before, but which had always been there.
When running an errand for his wife, a man asks her the address of their dry-cleaners. “Just adjacent to your favourite shirt shop, darling. It’s the shop in front of which you always park your car,” she replies. Sounds familiar?
Do you also have your own version of the dry cleaners?
When you realise it, are you genuinely surprised at your oversight? Do you feel that you should have noticed the dry-cleaners, or do you brush away the omission thinking, ‘No one can possibly see everything’?
Technically speaking, you have seen the dry-cleaners countless times. You must have—it has always been there. Only, you were not aware of its existence until someone brought it to your notice. This means you saw it without really ‘seeing’ it.
Notice, don’t just see
We ‘see’ many things without really ‘seeing’ them. In the earlier example, the location of the dry-cleaners’ shop failed to register in the man’s mind. But sometimes we believe we have ‘seen’ something, when in truth, we fail to appreciate what we have seen because it never enters our conscious mind. The following example may throw some light on the whys and hows of it.
Everyday on his way to work Mr X walked past a tree that stood outside his apartment block. One windy morning, however, as he walked beneath it, a few colourful autumn leaves fell upon him. He raised his hand to brush them off his shoulder and head. For some strange reason, he grabbed them and looked at the leaves before throwing them on the pavement.
The beauty of each leaf—its colour, pattern and texture—caught his eye. Connecting the leaves to the tree, he gazed up and saw many more such leaves, almost ready to drop. X was filled with wonder at the many branches of the towering tree. “How majestic,” he thought, “and how beautiful it looks in autumn”.
X had seen the tree many times before, but that morning, he felt he was seeing it ‘as if’ for the first time. Describing his experience to a friend, he said he felt as though earlier, the tree had just slipped in and out of focus of his eyes. So while, biologically speaking, he ‘saw’ the tree, his ‘sight’ was limited to his interpretation of the sensory data—it’s only an inconsequential tree. But ‘seeing,’ as X experienced, is actually much more than mere sensory perception.
Bring the world in
When X truly ‘saw’ the tree as if for the first time [and we should add, without the help of another person], it was as though he had adopted what a Buddhist might describe as an attitude of mindfulness [vis-à-vis his earlier state of mindlessness]. X’s seeing the tree involved his full attention, or called him to live completely in the present moment, that is, in the fullness of time. Having paid the tree the attention it deserved, X became aware of that much more beauty around him.
If you think about this, there may be so many things crying out to add meaning [and beauty and much more] to your life-world, if only you would allow them to—by just acknowledging their presence.
Don’t limit your sight
But sadly, we largely live in a state of pre-reflective seeing. We see things and interpret them based on our corporeal being’s [physical self] general involvement with the world. This approach limits our sight. Relating this to X’s example, whenever he registered the tree earlier, he didn’t reflect on it as his mind would automatically [pre-reflectively] brush it aside as an inconsequential tree [as that was the extent of his involvement/relation with the tree].
In Persoon en wereld [Person and world,1953] Van den Berg describes an incident where a man from a remote jungle was suddenly brought into bustling Singapore. The man ‘saw’ planes flying overhead, many shops, skyscrapers, trains and vehicles of all kinds. But later in the day, when the man was asked what had amazed him most, he expressed his wonder on a single person being able to carry so many bananas. The man had ‘seen’ a street vendor pushing a cartful of bananas.
Van den Berg explains that the man [like all of us] really and meaningfully ‘saw’ what belonged and made sense in his personal life-world. The modernity of the city was irrelevant to his world, hence, says Van den Berg, he did not really ‘see’ it.
See things differently
Life would be so much more meaningful if we could enjoy more magical moments of sight. But this in turn, depends on our extending the possibility of our deriving meaning from the world surrounding us. So, what prevents us from doing so?
Psychologists explain that humans largely harbour a mistaken sense of agency that places the ‘seer’ over and above a ‘seen’ [object]. This means that we believe that we [the seer] choose what to see [the seen object] and invariably, one could add, end up seeing very little. In other words, we believe that it is us and not the seen objects that initiate our process of sight. A Dutch professor of psychology Van Lennep has described this as a belief that the seen [object] would [only] passively and unmoved undergo something like attention.
If instead, we could accept the possibility of connecting on an equal footing with the myriad forms of life surrounding us—indeed even supposedly non-living objects like rock formations—our understanding of the process of seeing may change.
See and be seen
Seeing is a two-way process. X might believe that the tree prompted him to pay attention to it, by sending down its leaves. In other words, the tree introduced itself to X. This would amount to X accepting that the tree—the seen object—is capable of connecting, engaging, and conversing with him.
The moment of truly seeing the tree then becomes, as John Berger, a Marxist writer on art expounded in his book Ways of Seeing, “a moment of choosing to look and at the same time a moment of being chosen.” But this can only happen, he further explains, “soon after we can see [the other side]” as “we are [then] aware that we can also be seen.” Until that magical moment transpires, we erroneously and somewhat egoistically believe we are the only seers.
Experience the magic of sight
Children naturally possess a quality that enables them to look for enjoyment in the most mundane of circumstances and objects. A child’s mindset is not rushed. Children are always in the mood to experience newness. Hence, they are able to gape and gawk at what we adults take ‘for granted’—things that neither add nor have the potential to add meaning to our world.
A child’s joie de vive involves being alive [read open] to the possibility of newness, and to accept every morning that the world is changing [not static] and hence full of immense opportunities. This innate belief is what enhances their power of sight, and their ability to constantly add new dimensions to their world.
As an adult, you too can encourage yourself to enhance your power of sight. At least, you will make a conscious effort to do so, if and only if you now see how blind you may have been lately, and determine to use your power of sight in its entirety in future. To quote physicist-philosopher Heinz von Foerster, “If I don’t see I am blind, I am blind; but if I see I am blind, I see.”
Inner sight and innovation
In The Leader’s Edge: Six Creative Competencies for Navigating Complex Challenges, authors Chuck Palus and David Horth emphasise that you need to be able to ‘see with new eyes’ in order to find innovation. Apparently, they explain, we become habituated to seeing things around us with the same eyes, applying the same logic to analyse what we’ve seen and hence, end up creating the same perceptions.
At the workplace too, most managers adopt this short-cut approach which sees them ‘acting on what they expect to see’ [pre-reflectively] instead of actually taking the trouble to analyse what they’ve seen and form a conclusion. As long as manager do not change this attitude, they’re unlikely to use their power of inner sight [imagination] to come up with different possibilities [innovative solutions] every time they see an object or situation. If you’re a manager at work, do you also walk around as though blind-folded, or do you think afresh?