Ruth Richards – USA
A chapter for a book with seven chapters
2—LOOKING AGAIN: Seeing Vastly More
Even now, what we see is definitely less than what we get. Let us look again at something we have already noticed. With conscious awareness, we can unveil ever more of the invisible. The depth and detail, richness, and sometimes beauty, of things we dismiss with little more than a name or a label. Noticing only what it takes for our action or goal.
An example: Norm is at a friend’s house and they are all going to the movies. The friend’s son is loading the dishwasher and the mom points out some plates and the mugs on the counter. Off the dishes go into the dishwasher, a little roughly, actually; the boy could have broken one. Later, he probably couldn’t have described any of them; they were just things that needed moving, plates, glasses, and mugs, remembered only by their names. There was a special “mug” in there, but no one noticed at that time.
Turns out Norm had made this mug the year before, when his friend was diagnosed with cancer, and when it wasn’t clear if she’d even make it. Norm made the mug at a pottery place where people can come and glaze, paint, and fire ceramics. Norm picked a large unfinished mug of clay, solid, but not too heavy, nipped in the middle, large handle, bowed out lip—easy to lift and drink from. He glazed it light tan to go with the clay, and put lavender colored flowers for healing, actually more like abstract purple blobs, around the top, with a few accents of white and green--Norm knew drawing flowers was not his forte. Finally he wrote “Be Well” on the side in white paint. Norm’s friend really loved the mug—and she cherished every bit of his work, and all it meant at this precarious time.
How do we relate to things around us (never mind to each other)? The “mug” as named object, to the son, went right into the dishwasher—just a label, linked to an action. That’s the first way. Contrast the second, involving the “mug” during its manufacture by Norm the year before, rich and multidimensional, seen in loving awareness, its ceramic structure, its colors, weight, materials, what it might be like to lift it and sip from it. Furthermore, through associations and emotional lines of connection, there was an essential link to a loved person, a serious illness, and even to fears of immanent loss. The mug was a symbol of love and healing.
How often we deal with simple names of things for utilitarian reasons. Yet the reality of everything around us is vastly richer.
One can see this in one’s own life. Just take a few minutes and try the following:
Find an object that is special to you and again set aside 3-5 minutes. Turn the object over, around, upside down, weigh it, smell it, learn about it in every way. Spend most of the time on what it is like. At the end you can also bring in associations this object may have in your life. Note how much is new to you, that you hadn’t appreciated before.
What happened for you? It is striking how we get trapped, not only by whether we notice something at all, but then by how we see it. Did you have new discoveries with your object when you looked further? Any big surprises? What parts of your experience depended on your emotional connection to the object or to another person? Were strands of association emotionally tinged? Remember, this is the content of our own minds, our own unique take on the world, often in connection with our own lives. Perceptions, sensations, and linked thoughts and feelings. Ours are like nobody else’s. And if you keep looking, they can go deeper and deeper.
Do you remember Question #3 about whether you had labeled something like a “car” and related only to that? Is it large, small, bright red? What do we care?—can’t the driver see the light just turned green?! And Question #4 about discovering the depth and richness of something beyond the name. What made the difference for you that time?
It is worth remembering that our usual utilitarian focus is not some “fault” of ours; we are designed this way for a reason. To cut down the total distraction of “too much information,” so we can get something specific done. The automatic filters do have a purpose. We want to keep some around. Yet creative observers may want much more flexible control over this, and to circumvent the system more frequently. The world can open up.
Noticing attributes and associations. Two further comments are useful about attributes and our associations to an object. (In Chapter 3, we shall deal with the implications of having a concept of “object” to begin with.) First, in encountering an object through one aspect—container with handle—and attaching a label, the rest of it can go invisible. A “mug” is something to put in the dishwasher. Bye bye “mug.” Here is a different example in the spirit of psychologist Ellen Langer, who writes about mindful learning, and not being trapped by conceptual categories and “functional fixedness”.
A roomful of people are on an ocean liner, out at sea, not unlike Titanic. The ships hits the rocks and begins to sink. Disaster. The people are far from shore, too far to swim, the lifeboats are gone, and what are they going to do? Life preservers? None to be found. All anyone can see are the fabulous furnishings of a Victorian dining room. The ship starts to tilt. Are they lost?
Suddenly, one person spots a large wooden door. It looks like it could be detached. What if, she wonders, it could be used for a raft? In minutes the “door,” or broad wooden surface, is taken down and is afloat on the water, now serving as a “raft.” Two relieved people are on board. Other people who see this, and cognitively reframe their own conceptions of “door” and its uses, are rushing to dismantle other “doors” or, one might say, “rafts,” from around the room. They may survive the shipwreck after all.
The second comment is about our thoughts and emotions that create numerous ties and associations to any object or idea. This is how our minds work. If we had a favorite mug in our childhood, and hear a “mug” vignette, yes we might think about our own mug too. As for the special gift mug itself with the healing intent, its owner, the cancer survivor, will surely have other added realms of association. Late nights pacing the floor with a mug of tea, fearing the next day’s treatment, but fearing even more, a recurrence. Luckily, this healing mug did its job.
In some contemplative practices, one may identify personal thoughts or emotions to detach them from an object. Here, for creativity, we may want to do just the opposite, to identify and build on them. Most important is that we know what we are doing and why. To choose.
For creativity, this is our colorful paint box of sights, sounds, smells, emotional colorations, rich associative networks, symbols and ideas, and behind it all, the challenges of being alive and the truth of the human experience. We are learning our creative palette—how vivid or subtle it can be, and how to use it. As we continue, might we find brand new colors of mind we never even suspected were there?
3—LOOKING WITHIN: Seeing, Feeling, Hearing the World Inside
This one is deliberately about more than our visual sense. It’s about the full spectrum of imagery--seeing, hearing, feeling and the rest of our perceptions. And enough of illnesses and shipwrecks. You are now invited to go on a short and happy vacation. Believe me, there are certain cells in our brains that are able to light up nicely, just as if we were really in that calm and peaceful place we might choose to visit. Therefore, let us do it. Let us take that trip. This is our happy goal. First, where you are now, find a quiet place, so you can relax and spend 3-5 minutes, or even more if you choose. (We suggest taking at least 5 minutes.)
The goal is to find, in your experience or imagination, a setting that is lovely, calm, welcoming, and very safe and peaceful for you. This will be different for different people, a mountain, a beach, a friend’s house, a long drive in a car, a quiet interlude with one’s partner.
For me, I think of a special little mini-park along the Northern California coastline, overlooking the ocean, actually, going back to a certain time when my parents lived near there. It’s a little like a movie. I can get into it. There’s a drop to where waves are crashing on the rocks, and I smell the salt water in the air. Up where I am, it’s peaceful and calm, with bushes and flowers all around, and I feel the hot sun on my head.
You will be asked in a moment to find your own place in your mind, a special place for you, and then settle into it. It can be helpful to close your eyes. Just be there. Be comfortable, relaxed, present in this special place, wherever it is. Be there, peaceful, calm, happy, silent, even half-asleep, eyes half-closed perhaps in your imagination, for the person you are in this setting—whatever works for you in your mind’s eye, sprawled out, sitting up, leaning against a wall. Breathe slowly and deeply, in and out, and just enjoy being there.
This is not about words. Just experience being present. You may see it, hear it, feel it in your body, whatever it is that the experience brings to you. You don’t need to make anything up. You know this place. Just be there and notice. As you relax into this, you may even find yourself noticing things you hadn’t at first, things that appear or take place. Whatever it is, how nice it can be. Just relax into it.
Now, take some time for this little vacation…close your eyes and begin. After 3-5 minutes or so, or when you are finished, open your eyes, and rest for a moment. Take your time. You might want to write down a few lines about what this was like for you.
Did you find yourself in a calm and peaceful setting? Did you stay there? Do know, occasionally, that some people will have something else on their minds, and it will keep breaking in. If so, that’s a valid experience too, and a learning as well. If not, this may have been a nice interlude “away from it all.” Remember that you can repeat this again, any time you want.
We begin again with our senses—an excellent way broadly to “be present,” seeing, smelling, hearing, and so on, rather than overlaying our experience with some conceptual scheme, or memory, or expectation. This time we enter the rich and sensuous present reality of an imaginary world. Mainly this is to visit, to look around, to see what’s there, rather than forcing it, or changing it. We mindfully visit our minds. Maybe we may tweak a little something here or there, but mainly we are present to relax into it and look. Our goal is to enjoy, rather than forcing or imagining or constructing what we will find. When we relax into the setting, we may be surprised at how it opens out.
This “looking within” experience is again about being consciously aware, about entering one’s experience more richly, and living mindfully in the present moment, rather than staying stuck in the past or the future. But there is a difference here—we are visiting our interior worlds for creativity, why should it not be?
How visual are you? This happy “vacation” experience is able to call richly on our imagery, not just our visualization, but also on listening, tasting, smelling, somatic inner feeling—all our senses. That is how we can fully feel that we are there. Significantly, our mindbody interaction can powerfully affect our body, as discussed later. Yet in visualization and healing, the most effective imagery is often what we ourselves generate, personally and creatively. This is not about doing something as ordered, straight out of a book. It is about finding out what calls to us.
I conducted this peaceful vacation experience at a conference with a group of 100 people, and some were so relaxed, with eyes closed, that I really hated to stop them, especially after seeing the beatific smiles on some faces. Afterward a number of people volunteered their impressions, saying for instance, that doing this slowed them down so much more, and helped them to attend to a lot more of their experience. One person, a writer, said she is sometimes so eager to get on with the plot of a novel, that she rushes past the setting. She used this vacation experience, she said, to be there with her characters in their environment, and to appreciate their setting from the inside out, before going on with the tale.
Remember Question #5, about recalling what you did yesterday, and how you experienced this? And Question #6, where you were thinking about thinking? We need to use our experience to become more consciously aware. Regarding #5, was your memory of yesterday mainly visual?
With the group at the conference, I wondered how many people experienced their special place mainly visually. This was most people. A smaller number found hearing most important. Significantly, a few even had their main experiences in their bodies. How interesting this was—especially in this culture where we sometimes get too “in our heads,” and lose our mind-body connection. Whichever was dominant, though, many people had a mixture of imagery. They could see-hear-feel their experience all as one, holistically.
It has been reported that the so-called “average person,” whom I’ve never met, by the way—tends to be about 60% visual, 30% auditory, and around 10% somatosensory. Whether these percentages would hold or not across multiple studies, or for any given person, I don’t know. Yet it reminds us to look at our experience in all dimensions. Feel it, hear it, see it, smell it, taste it, feel it on our skin and in our bodies. We can do this whether we are looking around, as we walk down the street, or whether diving back into our memory and plumbing the farthest reaches of our neural networks and associative strands of memory, throughout our years of past history, gleaning faint traces we may never have consciously noticed before. There may even be especial magic when we don’t pull them apart but let our total experience enter, full, and integrated, and present.
If one of our modalities need practice—our hearing, let us say—we can stress it for a time, something like building up a muscle. We might listen more, for instance, to sounds far in the distance—a train, the honk of a horn, the diffuse noise of traffic. Or consider smelling; we might notice faint aromas in the air—cinnamon, nutmeg. Even if we don’t need somatosensory practice, an approach Charles Tart suggested is compelling. We can stay partly grounded in our bodies all the time—maybe with that 10% of our attention—while doing other things. Perhaps we feel our feet on the pavement, or our hand on the arm of a chair. We keep some awareness in our bodies, even while being holistically aware of much more.
Yes, it is very healthy to take this “vacation.” There are major health benefits to a relaxing vacation experience such as this one, even if it is only for 5 minutes. It can measureably decrease stress and lower blood pressure, among other healthy benefits. You may have met such practices already, as part of “medical meditations” that have been used in cardiac rehabilitation centers, and elsewhere, to de-stress people, bring their cardiovascular function more into balance, or combat other medical problems. Luckily, we don’t need to wait for a heart attack or another diagnosis to begin!
What we just did was, strictly speaking, a kind of meditation, and involved, by some definitions, an altered state of consciousness. There will be more in later chapters about our natural altered states and their special roles in creativity—the main points being they are normal, available to all of us in everyday life, and can make creativity more likely.
If this discussion has interested you at all in meditation, you will find some resources in the back of the book. There is no one way to meditate and no required position. You can meditate right here, right now, for a few minutes—or whenever you have a few minutes—it is just fine, no matter how you are sitting (or standing). For example, simply follow the breath, in and out, perhaps 10 times, perhaps 20, breathing deeply and slowly, and relaxing, and feeling the air pass through your nostrils. This can be a wonderful start to one’s day.
Meditation is a discipline for meeting and working with consciousness—which we are doing for creativity. Some have called the act of creation an active meditation. Meditation is of course beautifully applied in many spiritual traditions, and has medical benefits as already mentioned. It is not required to meditate to enhance everyday creativity, but if you want to try it, by all means go ahead. In fact, correlations have been found between meditation and creativity. And meditation can bring new and insightful states, plus incredible relaxation and peace.
Finally, in leaving this section, I’m curious how much you, in your brief “vacation,” felt you were truly present in the place you chose to visit. Just how real did it seem to you. Sometimes we can surprise ourselves with how much we have taken in, subliminally, at an earlier time, when we were physically in a special place, and didn’t even know we were noticing. This is part of the hidden wisdom we can unconsciously carry. Let us learn to meet it more often.
Remembering Gregory Bateson, one recalls that perception isn’t just a recording of “what is there.” It is selection, and self-organization of the visual field, all for a certain purpose, all too often unconscious and automatic.
More conscious living. Yet we can become ever more conscious of our process and can learn to see more each day. When we truly begin to realize we are missing entire universes of experience, right in front of us, even at this very moment—when we begin to see this happening, and how our consciousness orchestrates this—our new awareness is a triumph. We are opening our eyes. We are entering a new realm of experience—one of more conscious living.
Just now we have been focused on beauty. No, we don’t want to miss the sunset. Yet recall that things are not always so beautiful. Our situation may get more problematic if we become consciously aware of an unexpected problem—maybe something that had seemed far removed from us—but now we are moved, or horrified, and want to do something about it. We may never have dreamt of knowing this—but now it is there, it has reached awareness, and we are energized. Isn’t this, after all, what creative people do, see a situation, and go forth to change it?
Or perhaps we’ve been going along on someone else’s trip—just doing what someone told us to do, on automatic pilot, never seeing (or facing) the problem, never making a move. Now, suddenly, the pattern becomes clear. We are aware of it, and don’t like it. What will we do?
Is knowledge always better than ignorance? That’s a good question, since we were in fact screening out the hypothetical trouble to begin with. Wasn’t there a good reason we blocked it? Probably. On the other hand, and as we shall see later on, incredible health benefits can result from this knowing—from knowing and also being able to cope with the problem. More conscious living. Allied with empowerment.
In any event, the change always starts with the seeing. With becoming consciously aware. We cannot do everything. But with awareness, finally, we have the choice.
Back to beauty (it’s so much easier!). Sometimes the hardest part is being self-aware, or remembering to be conscious in the first place. As we’ve probably found with certain New Year’s Resolutions, habits don’t change overnight. How quickly some New Year’s resolutions go away.
Psychologist Charles Tart tells how once, at a retreat center, people used walking through a door to remember to be more mindful. Foot in the air, they would see the lower hinge of the door and—flash!—they would remember. Mindfulness! Tart also recommended putting little sticky notes around one’s living place. I’ve found that putting these on the microwave oven can be especially effective. For instance: “See something new!”
Okay, one thinks, I will give it a quick try. Yet one needs to change where the notes are placed, every few days or so. Otherwise we habituate to them. They too go invisible.
Earlier, one suggestion was that we use the three mealtimes a day as a reminder. You can see if that approach, or something else, might work for you. Whatever it is, I hope you will find a useful way to remind yourself to look without, look again, and look within.
It is more than worth it. I come to this work, and to this book, not only from the lessons of my own mindless excursions, as in my opening vignette along the Oregon roads, but from seeing the promise of the alternative, of a more creative way of living. With the creativity of everyday life, we can open our eyes, and begin to see our world and ourselves. This seeing is not always easy, but definitely better. We can step away from an automaticity where we sometimes, without a thought, not only follow our own habits, but mindlessly follow another’s blueprint for our lives. We can come instead to experience many healthful and life-giving effects of creativity, while we begin to reclaim our lives.
Remember that this first chapter was not about changing our activities; our day is still the same. The difference is in how we encounter that day. We are still going to our job, sitting at a desk, having lunch with our friends, doing the usual things. We are still, so to speak, driving along an Oregon road, and going from here to a destination.
But this time it is different. This time, we take time to look. To notice. To appreciate. To enjoy the process. And, most truly, to be alive.
Remember, in whatever way works for you, to:
1. LOOK WITHOUT: Practice seeing more in the world around us.
2. LOOK AGAIN: Seek the richness of things; resist letting names or labels replace reality.
3. LOOK WITHIN: See /hear /feel the healthy wonders we deeply carry within us.