We all go through life not noticing much of the world around us. This makes sense. We have a limited capacity to process incoming information, or, more simply, we attend to some things at the cost of not attending to other things, many other things. I suspect that even this blue heron is not aware of much more than what is going on in the water around it.
We all know about this limitation, but it can be surprising how severe it can be. Imagine that you are watching a video of six people who are tossing two basketballs to one another. Three of the people have black shirts and three have white shirts. The white shirts are passing a ball to other white shirts and to black shirts while the black shirts are doing the same. In other words, everybody is throwing to everybody. Two balls constantly in motion and six people wandering around also constantly in motion. Your task is to count how many times the white shirts pass the balls. This is a somewhat demanding task. Let’s suppose that when you are finished with the task, you counted the correct number of throws by the white shirts. That is, you were concentrating pretty closely to the task at hand. Now, let’s suppose that in the middle of the action, a young woman in a gorilla suit comes in at the right, walks among the players (who are ignoring her), stops in the middle facing you and beats her chest. She then walks off to the left. What are the odds that you would have attended closely enough to the ball throwing task to get the right count AND see the gorilla? It turns out in replication after replication of this experiment, conducted in many different countries, that the odds are about 50:50 that you would have noticed the gorilla. You can try this yourself by going to this website. And be sure to watch the second video (The Monkey Business Illusion) and see how well you do in that task.
Our attention is indeed limited so how likely is it you would have seen the dew on the leaf above if you were thinking about what’s for lunch and you weren’t looking down at the ground? I am not going to admonish anyone for being inattentive – I do a very good job at that myself, just ask my wife. I am saying that there is an amazingly surprising and beautiful world out there, just waiting to be seen and perhaps photographed and other things such as looking at big shiny bright things or attending to our own thoughts get in the way.
So what do we do if we want to see more of the world? One approach is to simply stand still and look around. Give yourself some time, you may not see anything interesting right away. But give it some time.
I don’t know if this plant above is a weed or a flower. This brings up another very important point. As you are looking, don’t try to name or classify what you see. Get out of the ‘gardener’s way of seeing’ (e.g. this is a flower, that is a weed, this is good, that is bad) and into a way of seeing without words and without judgement about what is good and what is bad.. Don’t look for flowers, you may miss an interesting weed. Look for interesting shapes, textures, colors. There is no doubt this is difficult, it runs counter to what we do all the time.
These leaves have texture and in a labeling way of seeing may be classified as junk, something to be gotten rid of. You can bet that a groundskeeper will be raking them up as well as the fallen blossoms below. These blossoms were found this way, they weren’t arranged. And very little was required in Photoshop to make them presentable.
But the aim is to work at looking at something without naming or judging, to see it not as it’s name, description or value but just for what it is. I can’t say that I can do that well, but I’m working at it.