by Monica Voss
One question I have in this predicament called human life is how to thrive in the environment we find ourselves inhabiting. Some people struggle to feel any degree of peace within a “concrete and clay” world dominated by traffic, noise and news of violence. Some live in a quieter, more natural place, but feel isolated, lonely or bored.
For some of us, finding or creating beautiful surroundings is a priority. Daily, I am thankful for the garden I can get out into, rustle through, listen to, or at least gaze at. I understand that I am very fortunate. But what if it weren’t so? What if living conditions were crowded, hot and uncomfortable? Is it possible to relax, rejuvenate, think productively, breathe, meditate while looking at, moving in, and listening to an environment that is not beautiful? Is it possible to find beauty in unpleasant settings and during stressful times?
You may be someone who finds it easy and natural to see loveliness where none appears to exist. You don’t need to be educated in analyzing aesthetics— we can learn to train our eye and mind to see subtle textures, gradations of colour, contrasting material, surprising juxtaposition, line, dimension, rhythm, perspective, even energy. We can remember what we’ve seen, storing it for later. Looking, seeing and nourishing memory can become a disciplined practice.
Many yoga and meditation techniques are dedicated to stimulating mental alertness and our ability to relax, supporting and enhancing our breathing, and assisting us in understanding and calming the mind. There are also slightly lesser known activities that awaken the senses. Perhaps a rationale for these exercises is that they help us discover beauty in unlikely places and at difficult times.
As I understand ‘’gazing‘’ or ‘’drishti’’, it is a meditative practice during which you look consistently and for a period of time at an object that has significance for you in order to help focus your mind and allow yourself to become absorbed in a positive experience, even an uplifting one. What if we applied this exercise to anything or anyone, liked or disliked, attractive or displeasing? The effect might be that your mind becomes less critical, less judgmental, and therefore generally calmer. Another effect could be that somewhere in our mind, the essence of the object or person becomes clear and our inner life — our imagination, our awareness, our emotional centre — becomes richer, wiser and more mature. So, “looking” becomes a calming and centring device for the mind, a brain activity cultivating memory and insight, and a way to reconnect with the natural world and appreciate and understand the beauty and vitality of everyone and all things.
There are many situations in people’s lives where observational skills are paramount. An Inuit hunter, for example, remains stationary at a hole in the ice waiting for the tiniest indication that a seal may surface. Professional photographers, especially photojournalists, are disciplined masters of waiting and looking. Those who care for the dying are intuitive watchers and listeners. Hunters, photographers and palliative caregivers wait and look and then they must act. In yoga, it’s all about the looking.
A yoga exercise apparently from the Tantric tradition goes like this: Choose a scene – a view from a window, a painting on the wall, or the interplay of light and shade on a floor or piece of fabric. Look at it, etching as much of it as possible onto the brain with a mental incisor. Close your eyes and visualize the picture detail by detail. Open your eyes and compare your vision with the real scene or object noticing what “stuck” in your mind and what slipped by. Similarly, remember a happy event or interaction. Repeat it to yourself, filling in more and more aspects of the incident, such as colours, sounds, and feelings.
Telling ourselves stories from the past can help us call up, in our busyness, loneliness, or despair, that particular sunset, those mountains, that blossom, the sea, that person we’re missing, their voice, their presence, what happened, and consequently, we feel moved — or settled and soothed. We can teach ourselves to cultivate the imagination and use memory in a deliberate way to help ourselves.
Looking intensely at our environment – if not daily life on the streets then the sky, the rain, cloud movement and the stars — can be a similar strategy for easing our current situation. The senses link the brain to emotion and memory, calming and enriching the impressions of our life as we’re living it. Through sensory awareness, we can develop deep reverence for nature, self-knowledge, insight, acceptance of what is, awareness of impermanence — what’s ripe, what’s flawed, it’s all in flux — and love where we are.
Monica Voss, December, 2014