Mindful Monday: Mindful ways of seeing

Photo: H.N.W.

Photo: H.N.W.

We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. As a result of this act, what we see is brought within our reach—to touch something is to situate one self in relation to it. We never look at one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.
— John Berger, Ways of Seeing

Mindful Mondays are a chance to hone your practice, to give yourself another way to renew, recharge and rejuvenate. As Jon Kabat Zinn states, ‘mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.' Mindfulness can increase your capacity for self-awareness and self-control. It can help you feel more grounded. And while everyone can benefit from mindfulness, for people who have lived through trauma, mindfulness is a crucial skill for healing. It allows you to take on the work of healing in a healthy and sustainable way. It helps you stay connected to yourself and the physical world when the work of healing gets difficult. It rebuild self-awareness muscles.

Today we are going to look at the mindfulness of seeing, of looking, of taking in your world visually.

The funny thing about seeing is that you can be looking at something, the screen you are currently looking at, the road ahead of you, or the pile of papers you are sorting—and you can also be thinking of another event in your mind and be ‘seeing’ that event at the same time in your mind’s eye. Your capacity for visually engaging with information can come from outside stimulation or inside stimulation. In fact your mind is always moving so fast you are lucky if there are only two competing visuals.

So today, or for this week, let’s bring the practice of mindfulness to looking at your world. Take a moment even now to just look around wherever you are, just 10 seconds. Really look. Notice what you see, notice what the light hits, notice what you often ignore. Notice, as Jon Kabat Zinn stated:  on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.

See if you can play with seeing and breathing. Breathing comfortably, notice what your eyes pay attention to as you breathe. Think about how you take in breath, how you absorb it. How the oxygen from the air gets absorbed into your cells. Now turn your attention to seeing. See if you can visually take in your world. See if you can feel yourself seeing so intently that you absorb it. Take in the colors, the light, the textures you are seeing, and let them get absorbed.

Over the course of the day today, take a moment and stop. And look. Really look at something. Breathe and really take in what you are seeing. Use moments of mindful seeing to bring you into the present. Just notice what effect is has. Notice if it is different for you depending upon your attention, what you are looking at, or the context you are in. There’s no right answer. There is only the discovery.

Mindful seeing can be your experience in quiet moments, or it can also be something that feels more playful. I got my first car ever, a 1978 Buick, during the Fall in 1988, and my commute to work was on the back roads in the towns near Boston. I created a game I called “Best Fall Tree of the Day.” I would drive to work each day and look at the fall trees with the plan to give out the prize for that day to the tree that was at its height of its autumn color.  And if you are really observing each tree you know exactly the tree that wins each day, there is never any question. It seems to shine and shout out, “I’m wonderful.” And I would just smile at the tree and congratulate it on its win. And the game would pick up the next morning.  

When autumn turned to winter I shifted the game to my evening commute and the ‘best Christmas lights display’ and in the spring and summer the prize was offered for the best garden flowers of the day.  You can create your own awards depending on your landscape or the crowds of people you see as you commute.

Mindful seeing is a wonderful way to practice the art of perspective taking. You can look at something at close range like a blade of grass or the snow on your car and look at it so closely it can lose its particulars. And you can look at something, like the skyline or the landscape, so that it can seem to take on a shape all of its own, like the picture above of the mountains making George Washington in repose.

And the practice is being able to see and shift your perspective. To see it as you see it and see it as an ant might see it and see it as a tree might see it. So this week, really look and see. Look at your world the way a tourist might, with fresh eyes. We only see what we look at. To look is an act of choice. And what you look at and how you choose to look can be a source of mindfulness.

© Gretchen L. Schmelzer, PhD 2015

For more on Seeing:

For more on Mindfulness:

Wherever You Go, There You Are
By Jon Kabat-Zinn