Pay attention to the ordinary

Whenever I bring up this image it reminds me to pay attention to the commonplace items and situations that tend not to be seen or are easily passed over. It may be the act of seeing beyond looking, more than anything else, that enriches the present moment.

Brief acts of perceiving are the visual equivalent of contemplation. One of the benefits of contemplative photography is that it allows us to stop and spend an unusual amount of time pondering, perhaps just soaking in the beauty of the subject’s form and texture, how it’s situated and lit.

I sometimes recommended a little exercise to my students when they’re in waiting situations—an airport terminal, doctor’s office, business meeting or just at home with the electronics turned off—to pick a subject, put an imaginary frame around it and forget any words or functions associated with it. As a blind person seeing clearly for the first time, enjoy the subject’s attributes. Notice how it’s lit, and how the light accentuates certain features while diminishing others in deep shadows.

It’s a practice that not only cultivates aesthetic perception, it accomplishes the Buddhist practice of mindfulness—accomplished by being aware in the moment, of the moment; being present with what is, no matter what it is or where we are. And if we care to go there, paying attention to singular being—like a towel, thumbtack, pencil or computer mouse—can evoke appreciation for all being.

I thought of titling this post “Perception,” but the point that I most need to remember is to STOP NOW! PAY ATTENTION! Just sit or stand still with no distractions and appreciate what’s in front of me, what I normally take for granted. Even the computer display, the keyboard, the picture on the wall or the tissue box. As I look at these without naming, the question arises, What did it take for this to exist? Right here, right now. How many people were involved in bringing this into being—and then bringing it to me?

It’s part of the Great Mystery—that we and everything else exist and are present as witnesses to cosmic and human evolution. One of the teachings in Zen is “unitive perception,” the experience of being able to see the present and eternal simultaneously, the sacred and the profane in the same object.

By stopping and paying attention to the little things, that can happen. And afterward, through the act of deep awareness there comes a feeling of exhilaration from having tapped into essence, the Reality beyond the personally constructed one.

A person has not only perceptions but a will to perceive, not only a capacity to observe the world but a capacity to alter his or her observation of it—which, in the end, is the capacity to alter the world itself. Those people who recognize that imagination is reality’s master we call “sages,” and those who act upon it, we call “artists.” 

Tom Robbins, Novelist


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