Winter Campfire 6

by Carl Strang

Winter is a time when we slow down and become introspective. Sitting and staring into the fire, we ponder the big questions. If you have been following this blog, you know that the focus here is science, science that can be done simply in outdoor settings. But we are more than scientists, and science has well defined limitations that need to be understood by everyone who does science or studies its findings. This winter I am using one post per week to develop my own viewpoint and biases, in particular sharing my take on the relationship between science and spirituality. In part this defines for me what these two realms of human experience are all about, and also develops the separate methods used for inquiry in each realm. I plan to place this paragraph in front of each entry in this series, so that those who are interested only in natural history or in scientific practice can skip these posts.

Advanced Awareness: Seeing Purely

Seeing purely is the single awareness technique I value most. The idea is to postpone labeling, naming, making critical evaluations, even recognizing, what you perceive. Turn off your sensory filters and take it all in. See a thing or event for what it is, see all that it is, let it define itself through its own particulars. Prolonging the arrival of the moment of recognition allows more detail to be absorbed. When you look at a bird or a squirrel, do you simply see “bird” or “squirrel,” or can you remove the labels and see every hair and feather, the uniqueness of that being?

Most people who have spent much time outdoors have experienced seeing purely in at least one way. Imagine that it is night, and you are gazing at a beautiful starry sky. Suddenly, unexpectedly, a streak of light zips across your field of view and is gone. Because you could not anticipate it, because it caught you totally by surprise and happened so quickly, there was a moment in which you saw it purely, before your brain caught up and attached the label/concept “meteor.” What did you feel in that moment of purity? Here is a comment on a similar common experience by Rumi, the Sufi poet: “Lightning, your presence from ground to sky. No one knows what becomes of me, when you take me so quickly.”

As a deliberate technique, seeing purely is not easy to learn. The first step is to understand that it can be done and to set it as a goal. The Taoist concept of the 10,000 Things is helpful in this regard. For me, it first happened as I walked across a winter corn field with all the stalks knocked down. I looked at the ground and suddenly that entire little scene filled my visual field. I saw the beauty and particulars of each bit of each cornstalk. At the same time I absorbed the spatial relationships of all those bits, all those cornstalks, and that was beautiful, too. The sense of beauty did not come in the instant of seeing purely, but in the next instant, as the first critical thought. It came automatically. So by having heard about the possibility, and wanting to experience it, I had set myself up for its eventually taking place.

My favorite objects of seeing purely are broad-leafed trees. Each one has its own shape, its own individuality, which best can be appreciated by applying this method. Instead of seeing the tree as a whole, see the leaves, all of them, each of them, and the twigs and branches, all of them, each of them with its particular twists and turns. Do so in wide angle vision, so that you are seeing them all at once. If you can pop out of the tree concept and see the tree purely, you will know it immediately, through the wonderful feeling and the sense of insight. Seeing the tree purely, especially in winter with its leaves off, allows a form of comprehension of the tree’s life-dance that gave it this shape. Typically you’ll see it purely for a portion of a second, then pop out of that perceptual mode with an insight or focal point that summarizes or represents some aspect of the tree.

The initial result is to achieve pure vision for only a moment at a time. That’s OK; it is common to see purely for a moment, to register some insightful profit‑taking, then to dive back into seeing purely, and continue alternating between the two states. I have the greatest difficulty with faces.  There is too much going on, too much social cogitating, for it to be easy. The feeling outcome is identical, though, underlining our equivalence to all else in nature. Additional technique is needed. You need the courage to be yourself in the presence of the other person, to be unafraid of hurting the person or being hurt by them. Then, you must be able to look at the person in the same way you do, say, a tree you are seeing purely. You must allow that person to be himself or herself, free of any conclusions you may have drawn about him or her. As with the tree, you will come out of the pure seeing with some focal clue or feature to build on.

Seeing purely allows us to absorb the details of a scene but not simultaneously to interpret its meaning. And even when we begin to conceptualize what is before us after seeing purely, we do not comprehend it totally. You may look into a patch of brush and see a hidden rabbit, having learned to recognize the end of its ear, but you may fail to notice the clues as to which runway it used to reach that position. You may not know how to read the biographies of the different shrubs surrounding the rabbit, biographies recorded in the plants’ structure. You might miss the toad sitting a couple of feet to the right of the rabbit, the moth resting on the leaf above it, etc. But I have found that with practice and experience, and by diving back into pure vision repeatedly to glean all I can from a scene, I obtain more and more from each experience.

Another application of seeing purely is to use it when watching a person, or group of people, or an animal in motion. This even works with TV: sporting events or dance performances are especially good. Again, watch without labeling or worrying about what they are doing or why they are doing it. As you begin to succeed you will notice more detail, because when you are not being impeded by the processes of filtering and labeling, you are seeing it all. When watching a bird in flight and seeing purely, my mind can register the detail of each wingbeat, each little turn of head and tail. Once I was watching Olympics pairs skaters performing, and spent as much time as possible seeing them purely. I found I identified one pair as being in love. They proved to be the only ones who kissed when their program ended. Once I spent an enraptured 5 minutes in a barn in front of a naked light bulb. The dance of the dust particles, viewed in pure vision, had me entranced.  Now I understand infants when they are doing the same.

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