Thursday, October 15, 2015

Are we failing to see what's there?

I do some meditative exercises while I work out on the elliptical machine at the gym. Generally, I try to stay mindfully in touch with how my body is feeling instead of distracting myself by watching TV, listening to music, or losing myself in thought. 

These past few weeks, I had a few interesting experiences I'd like to share.

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One of my meditative exercises involves visually scanning the room and noticing details: colors of the paint, cobwebs in one corner near the ceiling, charts, text on the machines, exit signs, what's currently on the screen of the three TVs across from me on the wall, other people working out in the room.

Perhaps the most important part of the exercise is to feel content noticing small, sensual details without giving in to a desire for more entertainment. Just breathe, sweat, move, and feel. Simply look and see. Just hear the sounds of the machines. Focus on, accept, and appreciate only those things.

When glancing around the room, I often notice announcements written on a whiteboard hanging high on the wall. I like to notice the different colors of dry markers used to write the messages, and the board often includes drawings and decorations. 

On this particular day, they had removed the whiteboard, probably to change the announcement. As I glanced about the room, I noticed feeling frustrated when my eyesight would land on the blank wall where the sign used to be, and I quickly looked elsewhere for something more interesting. I really missed that whiteboard!

It must have taken me the better part of an hour before I realized that, in my irritation about what WASN'T hanging on the wall, I was failing to notice what WAS there. In frustration, my eyes had been skipping over it without really taking it in. 

So, I returned my attention to the blank space on the wall. I noticed the two wooden supports into which the whiteboard slides. I saw smudge marks normally covered by the board, some shadows, and different shades of color on the painted wall. Once I relaxed and focused on that area of the wall, I actually found enough detail to occupy myself for a minute, which is a long time for a mindfulness exercise.

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Another day at the gym: same exercise, but the whiteboard was up, displaying several announcements. During most of the hour I spent on the elliptical, my eyes moved across the contents of the whiteboard several times, and I thought I'd reasonably captured its content. There were various colors of lettering, some paper leaves decorating one corner, some squiggles and asterisks and underlining for emphasis.

OK, I've got it!

When my eyes would return to the board, I'd briefly notice the same set of characteristics: the colors, the leaves, the decorative squiggles and underlines. However, toward the end of the hour, as I glanced at the familiar whiteboard once again, I was startled to notice something new. For one line of words, the writer had drawn a small square where any lines in the letters intersected. The effect was like seeing rivets on the letters. Nice.

At this point, the distinctive decoration really seemed to pop. I wondered how I'd missed it the first, ohhh, twenty times I'd scanned the board!

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On the one hand, these examples are trivial. They were just mental exercises. On the other hand, my failure to notice small details made me wonder what bigger things I might be missing in my life.

As it was with the missing whiteboard, my awareness might lapse because life isn't giving me what I expect, my mind so attached to what I think should be there that I fail to see what's right in front of me. Or I might miss details because I've convinced myself that I've gotten it all, and there's nothing left to notice or learn. Or maybe I'm just moving too fast to absorb details, or perhaps I'm distracted by other thoughts and agendas.

Could I be missing important details in my marriage? My job? The way I treat other people?

I'm reminded of the mindfulness concept of being present. How present are you being in your own life? What are you missing?

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