Wednesday, April 20, 2011

INTENTIONAL AWARENESS - Seeing As a Contact Sport

As I was walking this afternoon down by the flood-swollen Mississippi River, I happened to notice one tree among many others just off the path. There was something hanging from one of its lower branches. I went over to look more closely. Wrapped loosely around the base of the branch was some string. Tied in it every inch or so was a little clump of fabric wadded from torn strips, alternating in color between dusty shades of rose, gray and yellow. Just above this odd necklace a three-inch-wide tin band wrapped neatly around the branch. I carefully turned the band back and forth to read the neat, press-on lettering that wrapped around it in three lines:


  "They are the roots;
    We are the fruits
    So that others may grow."

Was this someone's environmental art installation? A tribute or memorial of some kind? Whatever it was, I found it sweet and touching, and identified with the artist's putting something out there for anyone—or no one—to see and judge. I wondered how many people had noticed and taken the time to consider it.

Sometimes awareness turns insistent, becoming a more proactive sense, a capacity with which you purposely set out to find meaning.

For a second, I stepped back from my reverie and looked around at the bigger picture: the steep slopes of the river valley, shouldering the stocky red brick buildings of the University of Minnesota Medical Center; the gray, wrinkled fingers of a thousand still-bare trees pointing every which way; students drifting in slow motion through their tai chi on the field below; on the path, a young couple delighting in their baby's tottering steps; and, in the background, the surging Mississippi, affecting all with its certainty.

There was so much that could have caught my eye, and yet here I was, drawn in by this quiet, quirky little assertion.

How do you choose what you pay attention to, what stirs you to wonder? It's not always just the biggest, the fastest, the brightest, the loudest that reaches out and grabs us, is it? Don't you find, as I do, that sometimes awareness turns insistent, becoming a more proactive sense, a capacity with which you purposely set out to find meaning?

I've made it my life's work observing wonder. And part of that is observing people observing wonder. Some clearly don't have time for it. Others manage to make time and space for wonder, but play a sort of waiting game. There's certainly nothing wrong with this kind of reactive attention; the openness and patience it requires are the core values of awareness, and they're often rewarded.

Instead of waiting for wonder to happen to you, you expect it. You look for it. In a way, you create it.

But then there's a more intentional form of awareness. It's a blade alloyed of openness, patience and wonder, then honed to a fine edge by a spirit of inquiry. Instead of waiting for wonder to happen to you, you expect it. You look for it. In a way, you create it. Sometimes I refer to this capacity as "seeing generously," which means your vision is no longer just a one-way process of taking things in. It becomes a transaction, for you also give something of yourself to the deal, investing your interest, your expectation, your faith.

It's the difference between simply noticing a stranger entering the room, and studying her. You might wonder why she's there. Maybe you keep watching to see where she goes or whom she meets. You examine her expression and body language for clues about what kind of a day she's having or what kind of person she is. Perhaps you're curious to meet her. All of this while other more obvious things are going on in the room all around you.

I don't think the connection would have been made if I hadn't been reaching out too.

So why did I happen to notice, among all the other things going on, that curious little art piece on the tree limb? Why did it catch my eye, engage my curiosity? Surely it reached out to me in some way, but I don't think the connection would have been made if I hadn't been reaching out too.

I can't prove that we intentional observers actually see more than reactive ones, but I know there's a difference. Perhaps it's just that we see different things…or in different ways. What do you think? When you invest like this in the way you see, how does it affect what you see?

Next time you're out walking, see if you can dial up your passive awareness to the next level. Look at the subtle, quiet things and find meaning. Look intentionally. See generously. Expect wonder!

…and let me know how it goes!

“You can ask the universe for signs all you want, but ultimately, we only see what we want to see, when we are ready to see it.”

  TED MOSBY (TV character, How I Met Your Mother)

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