A gifted dharma teacher I know recently made an eye-opening comment about the difference between “looking” and “seeing.” Here’s how I’d describe the two: When we “look” at something, we take it in with intention and focus, often screening out the other things around it. In this sense, then “looking” is limiting — we restrict the sensory data we pick up in a self-selecting way. Sometimes this leads us to see only the familiar and the expected. When we “see,” however, we are not so constrained. Our eyes and mind are fully opened — we are more alive to everything around us and we scan and take in our environment more expansively.
What a promising concept for us and our work! As writers and creatives, it’s important that we have the ability to focus, to concentrate fully and screen out extraneous information during certain phases of our writing. But it seems equally important than we have periods of total receptivity, when we open our minds, eyes, and hearts to everything around us. During these phases, our artistic antennae are up and we are in a hyper-absorptive state. We are taking in sensations, slender threads of ideas, the world we live and move and breathe in, with all its glory and confusion. Who knows what frail reed might turn into a song that we can sing? What flotsam and jetsam might float to the shore of our mind and find a home in a story of ours at some point in time?
Just today, while walking a very familiar route to the running track I trot around two days I week, I gave myself a little mission: Instead of looking, I wanted to be seeing — to take more in than I usually would.
What did this little experiment yield? By seeing, I noticed two bushes, glorious with flowers, that I hadn’t seen before. I saw all the colors of a tulip, ablush with pink, and yellow, and pale green. I saw a morning glory, one among many, but had to stop and marvel at its stripes of red and white, so precisely alternated. It made me think of a gay red-and-white striped umbrella turned upside down to catch the rain like a cup.
I saw a lovely house with a wonderful façade that I had never noticed before, because I usually focus on the cheerful white picket fence that spans the part of the sidewalk where I stroll by. I noticed a gorgeous bowed window in another house and then saw that just above it was a smaller scale window of precisely the same design — one mimicking the other to create a very pleasing sense of harmony. And then, the jackpot! As I was walking home, seeing as I strolled, I spied a small plastic bottle — like one of those miniature liquor bottles you find get on a place. It was empty of liquor but rich with label drama.
The label was orange. Etched in black was the word “Fireball”and below it, in tiny letters, “Cinnamon Whiskey” — what a creative mix! The logo was even better: A little red sprite breathing flames with his hair on fire jumping up and down. Cinnamon Whiskey. Mmmm: What about inventing a fiery brand of mead for my historical fantasy? Intriguing. I’m going to save that little bottle to remind me of the benefits of “seeing” vs. “looking.”
How about you? Why not expand your artistic horizons by shifting from “looking” to “seeing? Who knows what you might discover? Write on!