Practice 1: See What Lies Beneath

Sunday, November 26, 2017

This week’s practice for learning to see is the idea that we all have resistance towards seeing beyond what is directly in front of us. To look closely and see what is beyond the obvious requires a deeper level of attention. As Daniel Goleman indicates in his book Focus (2013), 'Deep thinking demands sustaining a focused mind.'  Rather than dig a bit deeper, we often choose to ‘turn a blind eye’ to other options lying underneath the surface. 

Resisting what lies beyond

I remember a family holiday that we took during one of my early years in High School. We travelled in a caravan through the inland rainforest and down to the coastline of Victoria. At an overnight stop, I was delighted to see that we were surrounded by thousands of ferns. I’d just learned about fern reproduction in school, and excitedly peered under a clump of fern fronds to see little black spots stuck to the underside of the leaflets, waiting for just the right conditions to crack open and release their spores.

Pointing this out to my parents, my father was not impressed. Stopping me mid-sentence he gruffly reminded me that all plants were made by God and not created by some ridiculous biological process involving tiny black spores. I was shocked at his uneducated view of biology, and at the same time recognised his familiar resistance to seeing anything that did not fit with his beliefs about how the world worked. 
This practice sets you a challenge to look beyond whatever is directly in front of you this week, and focus attention on what might lie beneath it. Don’t assume that what your eyes present you with is the whole ‘truth’ about any situation. Assume instead that just because you can’t see another level on the surface, doesn’t mean there isn’t one there. 
For example, you might use this practice to look beneath reactions you get from other people at work or home; or you might ask yourself if there is something more to a situation that you always assumed was ‘true’ for you. Perhaps you could question if you can see a step beyond a belief that holds you back from further growth. 

If my father had taken a closer and more curious look at the underside of any of those ferns, he might have asked himself a question about those tiny black spots and what they were for. He could have challenged his present understanding of plant biology and in doing so, broadened his view about life, nature and even about God. But to do so, he would have had to overcome his resistance to seeing what lay beneath the surface and be willing to open his eyes to a new story.

Reality looks different to… reality

Here’s another example of how our eyes tell us a different story from the reality. If Dad was alive today, he’d have a conniption at this one! Today, physicists know that the chair you are sitting on and the desk you might be leaning on, consist of atoms, and these atoms are active, restless, vibrating forms of invisible energy. Every atom consists of vast regions of space in which extremely small particles called electrons, ‘dance’ around the atom's nucleus.
Within the nucleus are even smaller protons and neutrons, which in turn are made up of even smaller particles called quarks. The nature of all these particles is that they are never stable. They disappear and reappear, jumping from one interaction to another. When an electron is not ‘quantum leaping’ from one orbit to another, it is not in any place at all. Carlo Rovelli in his book Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (2014) describes this energetic quantum world as ‘A world of happenings, not of things’. 
Until recently however, scientists still believed that atoms were hard, solid building blocks rather than invisible, jumping energy. Our eyes tell us this story too, making it easy to see how things can appear one way on the surface but be another underneath.

To play in this dynamic world of happenings and possibilities, learning to see what lies beneath the surface of our lives is a necessary practice. Resisting by burying our heads deeper in the sand - seeing only what we expect to see, not questioning what we think we know - leads to becoming like the hard, immovable atom of classical physics. I’m sure you know people who go through life just like this.

Choosing to be the energy atom

Many challenging situations occur when we think that we see the whole story on the surface. Recently I had a promising work opportunity arrive in my inbox. It was something I had been progressing towards for a while and I was excited about this new project. Then another situation arose that took all the focus away from the new opportunity and placed me in a state of uncertainty and unwanted responsibility.

On the surface, my promising business opportunity was the only plan I was interested in and I did not want to be distracted from it. Yet, here I was, resentfully postponing exciting plan A for responsible and uncertain plan B. On the surface my plans were ruined by an unwelcome distraction to my life.

Over the past month I’ve come to realise that, like my father who limited his understanding of nature based on his unchallenged beliefs, I can also limit my understanding of situations based on what I see in front of me. Instead of looking deeper at the choices I had, I saw only what sat on the surface and not what lay beneath. 
On the surface it appeared that to follow one path was to automatically erase the other as though life had to turn left or right but could not loop around to include both. This was my immovable atom theory in action! In a mechanical universe there is only one right way to do anything.

But looking just one level down, I could ‘see’ that a vibrating, pulsating, dancing universe of quantum energy is never static. If our entire universe is built on moving ‘happening’ energy, then there is always more than one option open at any moment and every option has the probability that it will occur.

Suggestions for Practice

Here are a few ideas for this week’s learning to see practice.
  • Once a day, touch any object in front of you and say something like, ‘I might not see it with my eyes, but I know you are pulsating with dancing electron energy. You remind me to see beneath the surface.’
  • Find at least one situation where you can test this practice. Use any situation where you think you must make a choice between two or more options. It might be what to have for dinner, or which task to prioritise tomorrow. What option do you see on the surface? Then look one layer down. What options lie at the next level down? 
  • Find a tougher situation to apply this practice to – one where you think you know all the options. Journal this situation in an app (OneNote, Evernote or Google Keep). Think about combining options with this and that, not this or that. How does it feel to not limit your options?
  • Note in your mind when you feel resistance to practicing seeing the next level down. Have you already discounted the practice before you began? What triggered you wanting to shut your eyes to new information? 

Seeing into the Distance

Carlo Rovelli writes:
“Physics opens windows through which we see far into the distance. What we see does not cease to astonish us. We realise that we are full of prejudices and that our intuitive image of the world is partial, parochial, inadequate. The Earth is not flat, it is not stationary. The world continues to change before our eyes as we gradually see it more extensively and more clearly.’

Hoping you see your world anew this week,