The sun at the heart of our solar system provides heat, energy, and light, which is fundamental to life on earth. Just about all living things have developed ways of sensing and making use of light. Fossil evidence shows that the eye developed over 450 million years ago. Some researchers say that the development of stereoscopic vision, along with our larger brain and ability to walk upright helped accelerate human evolution to where we are today.
Vision is the dominant sense for humans; about 30 percent of the cortex in the human brain is dedicated to processing what we see. In comparison, touch uses 8 percent and hearing just 3 percent. The retina at the back of each eye contains 150 million light-sensitive cells and is an outgrowth of the brain.
Rather than viewing a completely objective reality, what we see is actively constructed by our brains in real-time. A bit like a video camera connected to a computer, the powerful visual system processes what we see into a consistent and coherent view of reality. To do this efficiently and effectively the eyes and brain have evolved shortcuts and best guesses. For instance, only the centre of our vision is ever fully processed in high definition and colour. Although our peripheral vision is good at spotting things coming into view, it’s not very good at colour, shape, or detail. Many visual illusions make use of these processing gaps and how the brain adapts to them.
But it’s not just the mechanisms of visual processing that cause us to miss what’s in front of us. Our mind is also involved in interpreting and making sense of what we see, a bit like an Augmented Reality app that superimposes tools or images on top of live camera input on a smartphone. We’re vaguely aware of the visual field in the background, but much of our attention is on the abstracted mental overlay in the foreground, which around half the time may not even be about what we’re seeing. So, off in thought, we miss what is in front of us. Like the saying, “the lights are on but no one’s at home”; we’re not consciously looking. Although our visual system is constantly active and receptive, it’s often taken for granted and not intentionally connected with our attention.
When we consciously connect with our visual field we engage in a more direct connection with reality, which maybe takes us back to the natural use of vision that our ancestors experienced. Really seeing means bringing our attention and awareness to our visual sense, using curiosity and beginner’s mind, as if we’ve never seen that particular object before; appreciating the play of light and shade, the textures, colours, forms, and shapes. Consciously seeing brings a different quality to our experience, a bit like watching high-definition television for the first time; objects are crisper and colours more vibrant.
Seeing mindfully means simply looking, resting our attention and awareness in the present moment, without naming, interpreting, judging, or going off in thought. Like our other senses, vision is always there as a resource for practising mindfulness. Even when our eyes are closed, we’re always seeing something. Like the saying, “come to your senses”, we can use our sense of vision to anchor ourselves in the present moment. Mindfulness of sight is about subtly changing our relationship with our experience, more directly connected, and with greater awareness and appreciation of this amazing ability that brings the world around us to life.
Suggested weekly practice
- Notice the difference between looking passively, which we do all the time, and actively looking with your full conscious attention.
- When you look actively, take in all the colours, light, shapes, and shades in the visual field with appreciation and gratitude.
- One revitalizing way of meditating is to sit outside in the sunshine with our eyes closed. Then rest our awareness and attention on the play of light coming through our closed eyelids.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified, and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore mindfulness of sight.
Share on Follow on