Category Archives: perception

The joy of seeing clearly | Buddha’s ‘Skillful View’

When my mother was fifteen years old, she got her first pair of glasses. She was, it turned out, very near-sighted. Leaving the optometrist’s office, she walked down the street and discovered that trees had individual leaves on their branches! How exciting it was for her to suddenly see details that hadn’t been part of her world view. She hadn’t realized she wasn’t seeing well. She hadn’t been aware of all the adaptations and compensations she had to make to get along. She assumed her view was accurate. Until suddenly she could see!

That’s what we all do with the way we view the world, not just with our eyes but through our habituated lenses of perception. We tend not to question our view of things, automatically filtering out any conflicting information. We may feel attached to our view, believing it to be an intrinsic part of who we are. On top of that is the fear that softening our fierce attachment to our view might put us on the outs with the community we were born into or the one we have chosen. (We feel this way even though clear-seeing is not leaping from one set of beliefs to an opposite set, but seeing the complex web of fear-based patterns that prompt them all.) From inside a myopic world view, It feels much safer to stick rigidly and unquestioningly to the familiar discomfort of inner conflict, no matter what.

So along comes Buddha, who right out of the gate (or out from under the Bodhi tree where he attained enlightenment) challenged our view of ourselves and the world. Such nerve!

But maybe we could be inspired by my mother’s thrill of discovery as she walked down that street, seeing things anew. She didn’t toss her new glasses in the nearest trash bin and revert to the questionable comfort of the world she knew. Can we open to the possibility that we could polish up our perception and find joy in the process?

Skillful View is one aspect of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path that helps us liberate ourselves from suffering. We explore it first, because developing the skill of clear perception — and noticing what clouds that perception — enables us to see the other seven aspects of the Eightfold Path more clearly.

Without skillful view, we become mindlessly entangled in greed, aversion and delusion, driven by the fear of not having enough, not being enough, finding fault with ourselves and/or others, having something to prove, having strong opinions about the way the world is that has no room for equivocation.

So who is the Buddha to tell us how to see? Exactly what the Buddha would encourage you to ask! He always told students not take his word for it, but to investigate for themselves.

Fortunately for us, his own deep practice and investigation provide the tools for us to explore, because his brain just worked that way. He was really good at organizing the insights he had. So when you have an insight, you can see where it fits into the overall teachings. That’s what drew me to Buddhism. When I began studying it, I had already been meditating extensively, investigating, having insights, writing them down and, when asked, sharing them. I arrived at Spirit Rock with a meditation group and felt I had come home. Home to the natural beauty of the place, home to the community’s open acceptance of me and my individual journey, wherever it might take me, and home to the wise teachings of the Buddha, who had a scientific bent.

So it’s not surprising that when we come to his teachings on ‘wise’, ‘right’ or (as I’m choosing to call it in this series ‘skillful’) view, modern science supports what the Buddha taught.

If we understand the nature of matter, then we can more easily develop a skillful view of all that arises in our experience, especially our perception of ourselves.

The Buddha identified the causes of our suffering to be the Three Poisons of greed, aversion and delusion. [Read previous posts for review]

The Three Poisons grow from these unskillful views:

  1. We think this being we call ‘I’ and ‘me’ is separate and alone.
    While there may be those for whom a little individuation would be healthy, for most of us what clouds our view is the belief that our bodies and minds operate in isolation. We label things ‘mine’, defend them and want more and more, in order to build and reinforce this separate self for a sense of safety and for others to admire, love or fear.
  2. We react to our current experience by either wanting this pleasant situation to stay the same, or feeling like this unpleasant situation will never end.
  3. We can’t see, or we refuse to see, the suffering we are experiencing, caused by the first two.

Skillful View #1
Here’s the simple science: All matter, whether it’s solid, liquid or gas, is made up of atoms. We might imagine matter as made up of microscopic versions of children’s plastic building blocks, because, thanks to electrons, atoms bond together into molecules, just the way the little holes and plugs of the blocks allow them to connect. What an incredible system, right?

Okay, we get it. I’m made up of atoms and over there you’re made up of atoms and that table is made up of atoms. But it doesn’t stop there because that’s only acknowledging solid matter. Don’t forget the gas state atoms — the air we breathe, for example. There is nothing we can sense that is not atoms! We’re all made up of the same stuff and it is all connected. There are no edges to being!

Skillful View #2
These atoms are not static. There are ever-changing systems and networks of life interacting. Everything is changing all the time. Imagine you construct a whole town of plastic building blocks and then play time is over and you take it all apart and put it back in the toy box. What fun would it be if once you put your town together it was stuck that way forever?

You may think you don’t like change, but you wouldn’t exist without it! The world we live in is constantly coming together and falling apart in cycles of birth, growth, death, decay that nourishes new growth.

Why are these two views skillful?
If we can see that we are not separate and that everything is in a constant state of flux, that this is the natural way of all matter, then we are liberated from the exhausting business of shoring up a permanent separate fortress of self that must constantly be defended. We are liberated from the pain of dreading change, whether in the seasons, in the culture or in ourselves. We are alive in this moment, with deep appreciation for this incredible molecular dance of life!

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Bare attention, interconnection and the artist Will Noble

In a recent article in Tricycle magazine, Cynthia Thatcher looked at George Seurat’s neo-impressionist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, as an example of the nature of our interconnection. In her rich exploration, she said that her meditation teacher, Achan Sobin Namto, once wrote, “If we could focus precisely on the present moment…the eye would not be able to identify objects coming into the area of perception.”

If that flies right over your head, you are not alone. But let’s look closer. Her sharing of her experience with Seurat’s dots reminded me of the art of my painter husband Will Noble, whose works are almost all made up of little dots or circles. He draws and then paints each circle over a period of many months — a meditation in itself. But instead of getting caught up in the whys and hows of his process, I’d like to focus on the finished painting.

Phoenix-Will-Noble-ptg

Phoenix, oil painting by Will Noble

In class I had my students take a few minutes to choose one of Will’s paintings (our home is also his studio/gallery) and really look at the painting, first from a distance and then up close. They seemed to enjoy the exercise.

From a distance, people often mistake Will’s paintings for photographs. They note its subject matter, composition and colors, and have whatever response they have to what is represented — usually an intimate waterscape.

But if they take a moment to step closer, they have a surprise in store.

will-noble-circles-closeupThe landscape dissolves into patterns of circles, each circle less than a quarter inch in diameter, unique yet similar to its neighbors. The closer the viewer gets, the more abstract the painting becomes.  The overall image – the initially recognizable subject matter – disappears. Then the viewer steps back, further and further, until the image reassembles itself, coming back into a recognizable pattern that can be labeled as ‘cascade’ or ‘pond’. If the viewer is really paying attention, they may never look at the world the same way again.

When we look at anything, there is a nano-second of bare attention before the mind labels what we are looking at. In that brief but potentially expansive mental space we are just looking. For example, I just glanced out the window, and automatically registered ‘mountain’. All the things I know about mountains in general and that mountain in particular — all the memories of times I have walked it, camped on it, scattered my mother’s ashes on it — are all activated almost instantly. Almost. If I really pay attention, before registering ‘mountain’ I might allow myself to notice colors, shapes, textures, values, light and shadow — all primary concerns of a painter. The artist Chester Arnold once said that he painted in order to be able to see in that way. “If I could see that way all the time, I wouldn’t need to paint.” I don’t totally believe him, because there are many reasons why a painter paints, but it was a very insightful comment. Can the rest of us see that way? Can we give a little space to seeing, hearing, etc. before needing to label and file away all the sensory phenomena that comes our way?

But wait, isn’t seeing color, shape and texture just another way of labeling? ‘Green, round, rough.’ These are all observations based on learned labels for experiencing the world around us. Is that really as bare as our attention can get? In Will’s paintings composed of little molecular shapes, we are seeing even deeper. We are reminded that elementally we are all composed of tiny infinitesimal bits of life coming together in a seemingly infinite ways to shape what we believe ourselves and the world around us to be.

In the last post, I shared the story of the Buddha meditating under the bodhi tree, and his second insight upon awakening: that anyone can awaken. But what was his first insight? Everything is interconnected. There is no separation anywhere.

Today’s science completely supports this fact, but we tend to forget it. We are caught up in the illusion of separation, and  although it can be useful for practical matters in our lives, not being able to see its illusory nature causes us and those around us all manner of suffering.

If we practice this kind of real seeing we will arrive at real understanding — how there is no ‘other’. When we notice a habituated pattern of other-making in our thoughts, we can challenge it. We can step a little closer and practice bare attention. We can step back and see the amazing patterns of life that we had previously interpreted as solid separate objects. How liberating, how wondrous, how comforting to recognize the intrinsic nature of all being.

And if you are in the Bay Area and would like to see Will’s paintings for yourself, contact him.