No matter our circumstance we have challenging lives. Each one of us is trying to improve our life trajectory and the world around us. We all want to make a dent in the universe and see our way to find peace, joy and fulfillment.
But our ability to see clearly is impaired by the VUCA world surrounding us. Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. That contributes to our visual impairment. We scan many things but we see very little. Scientists say there are about 11 million inputs to our senses at any one time and we are lucky to decipher and sense 40 of them.
What we see is what we get and shapes what we do.
My mother was an accomplished artist. She took up painting at the age of 47 and when she passed in 2016 had completed more than 1325 original oil paintings! For many years , I asked her for an “art lesson”. I told her I wanted to learn how to paint. She was amused by my request. “Oh John you are so busy, you have such important things to do, (read with just the right touch of elegant sarcasm that cuts your heart out:) you don’t have time for painting.” She continued, “Many people think you need special DNA or inborn talent to paint, but it is not true. You simply need to make the time to see. And John you don’t have time to see.” (Ouch!)
I learned my lesson after she had declined my request for years. I asked for a “seeing” lesson. She was happy that I understood my need. She relented and agreed to give me a lesson. She set up three apples in her al fresco studio in Hawaii. I had picked up a paint brush and found a small canvas. “What are you doing?!”, she queried. “I am getting ready to paint”. “Before we paint we have to see”, she said with a wry smile.
Mom began to interrogate me about what I saw. And while she talked I could hear my judgmental mind take over. “Why apples? I want to paint a seascape. These aren’t even very nice looking apples…..” I tried to re-focus. “Do you see the purple octogonal between the red and green apples? Can you see the positive and negative spaces? Can you see this shadows? Can you appreciate the geometry of what is here and not what you think is here?” This went on for almost an hour. It was exhausting and frustrating to be present and to focus.
I realized how little I thought about these apples. The unique qualities, contours and dimensions of each. I wondered where they were from, how sweet they might be. I was curious about these apples that I so easily dismissed. Then the apples started to come into view. I started to really see them, as my mother was seeing them. For a moment I became one with the apples!
Then my mother quoted Cezanne (one of her muses)…
A time is coming when apples freshly observed will trigger a revolution.
Cezanne never said that. He said something crazier.
A time is coming when a carrot freshly observed will trigger a revolution!
My mother will never fully knew the revolution she triggered in me! I started to make the time to see others, the world around me, and myself. To notice things. To appreciate nuances and what was here, trying not to judge it.
But not just seeing but being seen. Are we being who we are or what others want us to be?
Hard to do anything if you can’t see, including painting.
We are in such a rush. We put a premium on speed. But speed kills, our ability to see.
Call it a lack of attention, mindfulness, or patience. We jump to conclusions. We wallow in the past and project our futures. We judge and pre-judge. We want to cut to the chase because we lose interest in the plot. And we miss so much.
Not just in the world of things. But what we hear people say. What we notice about body language or facial expressions. How our food tastes. What feelings we are experiencing. And the people around us.
We are increasingly desensitized and numb and we see and feel less and less.
And through this blur our brains change and evolve. Our judgmentalism puts us on neural pathways that skip any real thought or feeling.
We all operate this way and it under-girds our implicit biases (unconscious attitudes that impact what we see and do). These biases are not detectable through self awareness or introspection. They are embedded in our brains and may and often do, conflict with who we think we are.
Neuroscience is showing us that we tend to convert uncomfortable matters, especially those involving humans, into abstract thoughts. In Simon Sinek’s wonderful book Leaders Eat Last, he asserts: “The more distance there is between us amplifies the abstraction and the harder it becomes to see each other as human.” He goes on to describe that our “abundance” both in distraction and in need overwhelm our senses and “dehumanizes” our world.
And our sense of humanity diminishes.
How do we keep our hyper space minds from building more neural pathways and our bulging implicit bias muscles? And restore our humanity.
Check our vision. Quiet our judgmental reflexes. Slow down a bit.
Put down the paint brushes and see what is in front of us. See each other and all of the nuances, qualities, and dimensions that we share and that make us wonderfully unique. Sense how we are all connected and how our destinies are ties to one another.
Can we see that?
These are the apples I eventually painted with my mom. I cherish them, not for the way they are depicted on this canvas, but the way she deepened and broadened my sight. How I became reconnected to myself and everything around me.
My mother taught many extraordinary life lessons that propel me towards greater self awareness and I hope compassion. While I miss her so much, she is always with me.
For me those initially unappealing, inanimate, and irrelevant apples triggered a revolution within me.
What’s your revolution?
Thanks for reading. John
Revised June 19, 2021 on the 5th anniversary of Tomi D. Kobara’s passing)