Monday, August 22, 2011

Availability: Seeing as Letting Go

The last post was about how truly "seeing" is a matter of staring. In a way, I think of seeing in this manner as a kind of intense "holding on." You become intimate with what you are observing by holding tight to what you see with great perseverance. But, in order to really see in a way that makes you available, I think it is not quite that simple. Instead, seeing, it turns out, is paradoxical.

I remember a long time ago I heard a story from a Native American named Jamake Highwater (a genuinely controversial figure as it turned out, though I was unaware of that at the time.) He told a story about being raised originally as a Blackfoot Indian, but then adopted by an Anglo family. His adopted father was out walking with him in the tidal rivers when suddenly they were surprised by a bird flying out from the brush. Highwater exclaimed, "Meksikatsi!" But his father corrected him by saying, "No, no. That is a duck." For Highwater, his exclamation had meant "pink-colored feet"--which seemed to him to be an accurate description of what he had just seen. The point is this--as soon as I attach language--words--to describe what I see I only see a part of what I am looking at. Highwater saw the bird's feet; his Anglo father saw the bird's actions (see illustrations below).

The whole idea of "seeing" is just so complicated; and yet we know that it is crucial to practicing being available. Pause a moment in your reading and, just for fun, here is a link to one of my favorite set of videos testing out observations skills. See if you can pass the "tests" and then think about what this means for complicating our ideas of "seeing" even more.

But there is another way of seeing that involves NOT naming what you see. My friend Jane gave a book about the creative life of the California artist Robert Irwin entitled, Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. The title is a quote from the French poet and philosopher Paul Valery. Language, it turns out, is a prompt that dictates what we see and don't see. It behaves just like the instructions you were given before you watched the video.

If we are to fully be in the present and available to the moment, do we have to forget the name of what we are looking at in order to fully "see" it? In contrast to holding on tightly-- "Stare. Pry, listen, eavesdrop"-- we need to let go lightly of what we think we see.

For me, the person who understands this idea better than anyone is Annie Dillard. I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when it came out my senior year in college and immediately became a convert to a whole new way of looking at the world. In a chapter called "Seeing," Dillard makes a distinction between two different kinds of observation. The first way is very much like the one we described in the previous post--it is about prying, probing, analyzing, naming the thing we see. As she says, "Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won't see it."

But then she explores a different kind of seeing, one that "involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without a camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment's light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way I am above all an unscrupulous observer." This kind of seeing more like something that comes as a gift, a surprise--it something you can't turn on and off. Perhaps you can prepare to see this way, but you cannot control when it is going to happen. Later in the book, she puts it in a slightly different way, "Experiencing the present purely is being emptied and hollow; you catch grace as a man fills his cup under a waterfall."

This is a really difficult concept, and I have struggled with it for decades. Here is one way I have come to understand it.

In my own experience as a soccer player, it was similar to holding the tension between imposing one's will on the game and simultaneously letting the game come to you. The first way of seeing the game was "holding on tightly" and analyzing everything that was happening; the second was "letting go lightly" and seeing that the game had a life of its own that I did not control but I could understand if I were patient and listened to what it was saying. I had to stop talking and start listening. There are people who can do that on a genius level in all fields--one is pictured below.

My friends who are musicians, painters, writers, actors describe a similar kind of tension that exists if they are to be fully present and fully available to what was happening in their particular fields. The mystics--East and West--seem to understand this idea as well. If I embrace the paradox of seeing--that you have to simultaneously hold on tightly and let go lightly--then it seems I am more available.

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