The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. – Marcel Proust
It’s quite easy to live somewhere and stop seeing it. If a person is distracted, preoccupied, rushed, or hyper focused, or if their mind has told them that “there is nothing to see” or “they’ve seen it all before”, they may slowly become oblivious to details of their environment. They may notice the change of seasons, the rapid arrival of unusual weather, or when a neighbor renovates or paints their house, but miss some of the subtler, ongoing shifts.
I’m someone who is entranced by novelty and new environments. Being in a different place, especially another country, stimulates my senses and refreshes my ability to perceive. Travel is wonderful in that respect; it can wake us up to what we already know but somehow, in the day to day, has become forgotten or pushed aside. The flip side is that I often fail to fully appreciate the familiar. My mind tells me I already “know” it and because it signals that there is nothing new to experience or learn, I often relegate what is around me to the background, subtly disconnecting myself from it. There are times when it makes sense to focus on a task, enter a zone of intense creativity, and forget one’s surroundings. But having a habit of maintaining a separation between one’s self and a place is neither healthy nor sustainable. Sometimes, to bridge this gap, we need to move to a new place where we’ll feel more a part of it rather than apart from it. Other times we need to shift how we see and to learn to have new eyes. Occasionally we need to do both.
In Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons, we lie down on mats to explore our habits of movement and our habits of attention. The two are connected: if we are having difficulty moving, or we can’t understand the teacher’s instruction, what happens to our attention? Does it vacate the scene and start planning our next meal, or does our attention become more curious about the challenging movement? If the movement is too easy or not engaging, our attention might wander. Maybe our attention flits back and forth between something more entertaining and the moment at hand. This very thing happened to me recently. At a Feldenkrais workshop earlier this month, the teacher kindly pointed out that the movement I was doing was not what he had said. While I was physically capable of doing what he described, my mind had trotted off on its own adventure and had started drafting an article. I didn’t hear the precise cues and my movements betrayed my lack of presence. I chose not to be embarrassed about the lapse in attention and, instead, brought my mind back to the movement. Such is the practice of awareness: we attend to the moment, we drift away, and we return.
I’ve been trying to bridge the gap between myself and the environment by taking walks in the woods and noticing where my eyes and where my attention go. In Feldenkrais we learn that how we use our eyes can influence what we see and how we perceive it. As I wrote earlier, discovering the universe of mushrooms, once invisible to me because I either walked quickly or kept my eyes purposefully focused ahead, had been quite a revelation. Still, without being aware of it, my mind had concluded that mushrooms exist only in the woods, and therefore it limited the fun experience of discovering them to that context. When I walked around urban environments, larger things, such as fire hydrants, grabbed my attention. Several weeks ago, as I began noticing mushrooms in the city, too, mostly growing at the base of trees near sidewalks, I sensed that a very subtle yet potentially profound shift had occurred. It’s as if the gently sweeping attention I had carefully cultivated in the quiet forest had become more available to me in a more stimulating and less soothing environment, one in which I’m normally more vigilant than relaxed. If my “forest consciousness” could accompany me other places, too, perhaps it would help bridge the gap between how I experience myself in nature and in civilization so I’d feel more integrated.
In mid-September, while strolling down a street I’ve walked, cycled or driven dozens if not hundreds of times, I spotted a large, multilayered fungus halfway up an old tree in front of an elegant colonial set back from the road, whose expansive lawn is about a foot higher than the sidewalk. I marveled that my attention had been open and relaxed enough for this somewhat obscured mushroom to have appeared on my radar. Given its size, I’m sure it had been there for a long time yet, since it didn’t squarely face the street, it could be easily overlooked. I felt as if I had won a prize for being present, for having my attention escape the orbit of my spinning and at times ruminating mind. I zoomed in with my small camera and took a picture so I could examine it more carefully on screen. Last week, I walked by the same house. The tree lay in freshly cut chunks on the front lawn. An unexpected sadness flooded me, even though the magnificent mushroomy growth is probably what killed the tree, necessitating its removal. While I normally respect property lines, I wanted to see this growth up close. I stepped up and onto the lawn and around the logs until I found it. The wavy sections of the fungus with its scalloped edges reminded me of a contemporary sculpture that might be hung in a gallery. I took a few more photos so I’d remember this ephemeral beauty, one I almost missed. As I walked away, I wondered what other curious if not glorious things my new eyes and my freer attention might find.
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