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What We See…and What We Don’t See

What We See…and What We Don’t See

What We See…and What We Don’t See

Going through books to donate to the library, deciding to look through some of the large format glossy color wilderness books again before letting them go. An image and story from Galen Rowell: A Retrospective knocked my socks off and led to this post on perception– what we see and what we don’t see. 

[And I hope you remember Galen Rowell, the magnificent mountain climber adventure photographer. Local to the San Francisco Bay Area, revered around the world. When I worked for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, his images were posted all around our offices.]

Rowell’s last major expedition, at age 60, was trekking 30 days across 300 hundred miles of uninhabited high altitude Chang Tang plateau in Tibet with Conrad Anker, Rick Ridgeway, and Jimmy Chin, tracking the endangered Tibetan antelope to discover its birthing grounds so they could be protected. 

Rowell was tragically killed in a plane crash one month after returning from that historic trek. The National Geographic Society quickly organized an exhibit of images from that trek. (And the Sierra Club published some of them in the book Galen Rowell: A Retrospective.) As Jimmy, Conrad, and Rick passed one of the images, basaltic rock formations rising out of the hardpan of the high-altitude desert, none of them could remember seeing those rocks. And yet there was Galen’s photograph. They realized with some chagrin, since they had never separated at any time on the trek, they had all walked by the same rocks, but only Galen saw them.

That seeing but not seeing reminded me of a time when I was walking from my B&B to the theater at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a walk I had made dozens of times that weekend. Suddenly a man walked onto the street from an alley I must have also passed dozens of times and never saw.  The gentleman and I spend a good 30 minutes discussing perception, how we can suddenly see something we never saw before but was there all along. The mystery of that.

Reminds me again of my joy at seeing a spider weaving its web, the morning sunlight reflecting on the strands making it brilliantly visible when I had unknowingly passed by it several times before. Another time, walking many times past a puddle on the trail; only when a dog began splashing in the water did I notice the reflection of the nearby trees in the puddle also. 

And perception, seeing or not seeing, is a phenomenon not just in our physical environment but in our social environment as well. How many times do we suddenly “see” something in our partner or good friend we just simply had not paid any attention to at all, even though it was always present, always true. How many times do we get “woke” to gestures of kindness and generosity happening daily but we just don’t register? Or similarly, we get “woke” to injustices and inequities that have been there for a long, long time; we “see” and sometimes stop seeing again. 

Mindfulness – focused attention training is excellent in expanding our perceptions, of course. Here’s a very simple but powerful (and enjoyable!) exercise in expanding our perception from Bouncing Back.

Belly Botany

Years ago, I was hiking in the back-country of Yosemite National Park. Seven miles in, I came upon a park ranger with a small group of hikers sprawled out on the ground, each of them completely absorbed in whatever plants, lichens, bugs, they could observe from a height of six inches. The ranger called this an exercise in “belly botany”. Simply focusing attention on one square foot of ground, and noticing everything that was happening in that square foot of ground for five minutes.

I was a bit astonished when I tried it myself. Life, death, stillness, aggression, beauty, so much to be present to on this micro scale. I was even more astonished when I again looked up at the 8,000 foot peaks all around us. My view exploded exponentially — every square foot of these hundreds of square miles was as full of everything that I had been present to in my one small belly botany patch. This quantum shift from micro to macro can quickly shift our view of our place in the larger scheme of things and open our minds to possibilities not thought of before.

1. Take five minutes to try belly botany yourself. (Honestly, most folks who try belly botany get engrossed in the critters and the colors and the shapes for far more than five minutes.) Find a one-square-foot patch on a favorite beach, in a meadow, in a forest, in your own back yard, in a flowerbox, or in a city park. Lie comfortably on your stomach so that your eyes can focus on your patch from a height of approximately six inches. Come into a sense of presence in this moment, in this place. De-focus on any sense of self in this moment; concentrate your attention on your patch and notice any activity, any stillness, any change of the light and shadows, the relationships of things one to another; notice harmonies of colors and shape; notice oddities.

2. When you have focused your attention on your belly botany patch for five minutes (or more) move your body to a standing position and focus your attention on the larger landscape around you. Notice the sudden change in scale, the relative vastness of the larger landscape. Maintain the de-focusing on your sense of self in this larger view for a few minutes, noticing the shapes and colors, harmonies and oddities in the larger landscape around you. 

3. Then bring your attention back to yourself, and notice any changes in your view of yourself. See if you don’t immediately gain a new perspective on the place of your life in the small and the vast. With practice, you can access this tool of shift any time you need to gain a fresh, big picture perspective on things. The de-conditioning — de-focusing — on yourself encourages a de-focusing in the circuitry in your brain that allows new views and new perspective to link together in new ways. 

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