Seeing Deeply: How Much of What You See Actually Registers?
I was recently watching a medical drama that featured a boy who was about to have his cancerous eyes permanently removed, thus rendering him sightless for the rest of his life. As one might expect, he was trying to cram as many visual experiences as possible into his last sighted day. As the time came for the medical staff to wheel him down for his surgery, he stared intently at the face of his father and then his mother. No dialogue ruined the scene, as we all realized that the boy was focusing on implanting their images permanently in his brain.
As someone who has been immersed in the field of grief, specifically among those who have lost loved ones, I could not help but notice the parallels. Worlds are forever changed in both circumstances, as we rely so much on the physicality of life and what we perceive with our physical senses. Losing sight, a sense that helps to create our reality, thrusts us into a new unknown world of which we have no desire to enter. When a loved one dies we are also catapulted into a new existence, and our physical senses are of no help in recapturing what we once had. Of course, for those who believe in non-physical realms of existence, there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
Watching the intense focus of the boy in the drama set me off on some serious contemplation. How many of us really see? Medical science tells us the mechanism by which vision occurs in the human body and how our reality is created by what the brain interprets. However, we also know that science has not been able to tell us how electrochemical processes in the brain result in subjective experiences. In other words, how does the materialist explanation account for love, compassion, colors, or the appreciation of music, art, and nature?
As we make our way through everyday existence we use our sight and other senses as navigating tools. These sensory tools are most often automatic and superficial processes that are devoid of meaning. We operate by rote, much like repeating the empty greeting of “how are you?” when we could not care less. We take what we see for granted, the images merely props in a play. After watching this TV drama I decided to do my own thought experiment.
As I went through the day I imagined that everything I visually saw would be for the last time. It was not an easy task, as the mundane sights such as desks and computer screens did not lend themselves to deep contemplation. On the other hand, as I watered my plants I noticed the vibrancy and patterns of the colors and the intricate design of the veins that provided sustenance. I closed my eyes to set the image in my consciousness. I watched the long necked birds in the lake as they suddenly exploded from beneath the water with a catch in their beaks, and I marveled at their beauty and efficiency. It was an image that I could easily always remember. The elegant symmetry of the trees was astounding, as were the palms dancing to the rhythm of the wind. I watched the enormous osprey that perched about 100 feet away and laughed as it flapped its broad wings, seemingly knowing when my attention was sent in its direction. I gazed at my wife, my partner of forty five years, and took some time to study the contours of her face that have changed through the years but retained its beauty. I looked into the eyes of my grandson and watched them dance and sparkle as he thought of something new.
I felt as if for the first time I was truly seeing deeply, an experience that has nothing to do with the known physical senses, and in the process uncovered one of the true purposes of life. If we can get in the habit of looking at things as if it was the last time we would see them, we can simply appreciate them for what they are, with no interpretation or judgment, and in the process transcend time. No need to pick up a smart phone to try to capture the perfect photo, and no reason to Google the images to try to learn more. Doing such things seemed so silly, as why would anyone ruin the moment by exiting a state of awe? I realized that living in the moment, the simple act of pure perception, is the very thing that binds us to those who came before us, are with us now, and will always remain. Perhaps this is what Jung meant by cosmic consciousness, the process by which we all contribute to a greater awareness that becomes the fabric of our lives. When we each see deeply we contribute to this exquisite web in a way that unifies past, present and future.
There is also a more practical side to seeing between the dots as we navigate our lives in the physical world. We rely more on appreciation for the wonders that are put before us, and less on the material possessions that are meaningless in the big picture. This has the potential to foster greater happiness, joy and understanding in a chaotic world that can sometimes seem oppressive. Personally, I have not yet learned to see deeply consistently, but I am grateful for what I have learned thus far.