Monday, February 11, 2013

Seeing Without Observing; Hearing Without Listening

Maria Konnikova is the author of a new book on mindfulness: Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes. In it she explores, among other things, the apparent paradox contained in the title of this piece. Just how is it possible to see (and not make note); to hear (and not absorb any of what's being said)? Easier than you'd think! Ms. K. (in an excerpt from her book available at the link below) begins with a seminal quote from a Conan Doyle mystery wherein the long-suffering Watson is embarrassed yet again with Holmes pointing out something that Watson himself had 'seen' hundreds of times -- but had never 'registered'; something elementary, my dear Watson, in Holmes' oft repeated put down of his bright, loyal, well-educated partner in crime solution. Something that was right under his nose, yet never noticed.

At the very core of mindfulness practice is a cultivation of the observer self. This rather elusive aspect is very often overshadowed and out-muscled by his mindless sibling, the sensorially-deprived, participant self. The latter laddie, this would be Watson, quite blissfully, sometimes judgmentally, and most often obliviously engages in his daily routines, quite 'insensible' to what's going on in the present moment. He finds himself being carried along on long trains of thought, leap frogging free-associatively from one experience, opinion, plan, anxiety, regret, or fear to the next -- generally missing the immediate (and obvious, to Sherlock) content of the right now.

My wife and I had occasion to join my daughter and her partner for a Sunday brunch in London this past weekend. On the three-block walk from apartment to restaurant, pausing at a traffic signal, we all noticed the week's old lab puppy, none too patiently waiting across the intersection -- but fortunately held in check by his owner's leash. Light changes and we all proceed. In that brief crossing, I watched as the puppy was greeted and scratched by my daughter, sniffed at the pant leg of another pedestrian, attacked and subdued an errant piece of ice in the roadway, and was surprised by a puddle forming in gutter. I noticed as well that, each of these 'events' were followed by a gentle tug from the owner's lead, pulling our puppy back to present focus -- getting safely across the street in the time allowed by the signal.

I could readily see the 'participant puppy' (although at perhaps 8 weeks of age, he might be forgiven) being swept along by a sequence of, to him, random events, streaming into and out of his consciousness at mind-boggling speed. The tugs on his leash pulling him back (for the moment), before being carried off yet again. Noted meditation teacher and writer, Jack Kornfield devotes a section of his book, A Path With Heart, to training the puppy as follows:

Meditation is very much like training a puppy. You put the puppy down and say 'stay'. It gets up and runs away. You sit the puppy back down again. 'Stay'. And the puppy runs away over and over again. Sometimes it jumps up, runs over and pees in the corner. Our minds are much the same as the puppy, only they (can) create even bigger messes.

For me, a second case in point occurred this past weekend -- on one of those rare, sunny winter days. A mid-morning trip to a nearby town, took me across a dam near my home in Stratford where I noticed several ice fisherman and their shelters scattered across the frozen surface of the adjacent lake. And made a mental note to return late in the day when the sun's angle would provide better photographic light. The sun held sway and I was back out with camera in hand. I've travelled that ten-kilometer stretch between home and lake hundred's of times -- in 'seeing but not observing' mode -- typically (near always) on 'my way somewhere'. Maybe it was 'a trick of the light' or the presence of the camera on the seat beside me, but this time, on the return trip, I 'observed' things -- a long-disused windmill, kids playing road hockey in an alleyway (on 'hockey day in Canada!) that I can safely say would have just  been part of peripheral events, seen but not noted on any other day.

Mindfulness practice is just that -- a practice. We are, in the words of Mark Muesse, another meditation teacher and lecturer, typically in a default mode of mindlessness. Most of us, cruising along in participant mode, rarely have the 'Sherlock experience' of seeing what is before us. If we cultivate a regular practice, train the puppy, we have the capacity to become Sherlocks, to truly live mindfully.

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