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Infinity in the palm of your hand

autumn leafWould you like to see the world in a new way? A way that’s more authentic and satisfying? A way that taps into your infinite potential and helps others to realize theirs?

Eirik Solheim has put together an impressive time-lapse movie of a woodland scene that compresses an entire year into 40 seconds of footage. This kind of presentation helps us to see the world in a different, and in some respects more real, way.

The human mind and senses are not good at perceiving change. You look at a cloud once, and then again ten minutes later, and you think it’s the same cloud. Actually the entire shape and size of the cloud may have changed, but you simply don’t notice.

There are of course much more dramatic examples of this phenomenon, which is called “change blindness.” This YouTube link wil show you that 75% of people don’t notice when in the middle of a conversation the person they are talking to is replaced with a completely different person. And this second link will give you a chance to see how hard it is to observe change happening right in front of your eyes.

Now check out the Solheim video and see what change looks like sped up.

When watching the sped-up version of reality the mind becomes focused on the change that we usually tend not to notice because it’s happening on too slow a timescale for us to register or because we simply don’t pay attention.

Imagination and insight

I love this kind of presentation of reality and often find myself looking at the world (in my imagination, of course) in this way. The Six Element Practice, for example, is an insight meditation practice in which we reflect on impermanence and interconnectedness. We become aware of the body — not just those parts we can directly sense but the whole physical body as perceived in the imagination, right down to the internal organs and bone marrow — and sense each of the elements in turn: earth (solid matter), water (anything liquid), fire (the energy of metabolism), air (anything gaseous), space (the form that the physical elements take), and the consciousness that perceives those other elements.

In the case of the four physical elements of earth, water, fire and air, we not only notice the element within the body but we imaginatively connect with it in the outside world, reflecting that all the elements within the body come from outside. Not only do they come from outside, but they are in the process — right now — of returning to the outside world. The “self” is not a thing but a flow. In our imagination we actually see all this happening. When contemplating the earth element, for example, we see crops growing from the soil, we see those crops flowing into factories and stores, and into our bodies, and then back into the outside world as we defecate, shed skin cells and hair, and as we burn glucose in our cells. I see all this happening in a sped-up, compressed form, rather as in Eirik Solheim’s beautiful video. The body is no longer a static thing but is a fluid process.

To Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand and Eternity in an hour (or less)

On one arts retreat I was co-leading (I taught the meditation, someone else was teaching the arty stuff) we were asked to go and connect with the landscape, and to choose one object that we could bring inside that expressed that connection. The retreat was in a beautiful glen in the Scottish highlands, and I stood on a spit of land where a river flowed into the loch (the very spit you see below). I found myself seeing the land as it once was, covered in a sheets of ice thousands of feet thick. I saw the ice melting, the loch forming surrounded by rock scraped bare, the flowing river dumping gravel and rocks, inch by inch building the very spit I was standing on as stones fell out of the flow and were deposited in a spreading fan. I saw trees rise and fall in the blink of an eye, wave after wave of them. I watched changes of ten millennia unfold before me in the space of a minute or two, until we reached the present moment in which I stood.

We’re often confined by the senses that we have. To us five minutes can seem like a long time. To a mountain a thousand years is a brief moment. Its only in our imaginations that we can perceive the world on different timescales, and come to see that the events of our lives are just flickers on a screen. Using our imagination in this way can reveal things in their impermanence, which means that we’re seeing them in a truer way than we usually do, where we fail to appreciate the reality of change.

In the Six Element Practice we free ourselves from the prison of our limited senses. We look at the body and we see a clear demarcation between self and other. Our skin marks the boundary between what’s inner and what’s outer. Yet in the practice we see that what’s “us” is made entirely of stuff that’s not us, and that this borrowed stuff is merely passing through. To realize that is to get much closer to reality.

Imagination allows us, as Blake put it:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Seeing all beings as Buddhas

We tend to see ourselves as “things” — as relatively unchanging entities. We see others the same way. Sometimes as part of my practice I remind myself of the immense change that a person can go through by repeating a phrase from a Zen poem: “All beings are, from the very beginning, Buddhas.” I take that like in this instance to indicate that even if someone is acting in a way that I don’t like and that I label as cruel or stupid, that person has the capacity to be a Buddha. If I relate to that person purely on the basis of who he or she is right now, I won’t encourage the emergence of their potential Buddhahood.

Relating to someone on the basis of how we see them right now is like seeing Solheim’s video reduced to a single frame. It’s a static way of seeing things. We’re disconnected from the reality of change. But imagine if we could consistently see that person not as a thing but as a process — if you could, at least in our imaginations — see that person evolving towards wisdom and compassion. How might that change both them and us?

When I manage to relate to another person as a potential Buddha — as a changing, evolving being who has the capacity for wisdom and compassion, I’m more likely to relate to them in a way that helps them grow into their potential. And I think it helps me grow into my own potential as well.


BodhipaksaBodhipaksa is a Buddhist practitioner, writer, and teacher, and is also the founder of Wildmind. He lives in New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, and has a particular interest in teaching prison inmates.

As well as teaching behind bars, Bodhipaksa also conducts classes at Aryaloka Buddhist Center in Newmarket, New Hampshire. He muses, rants, and shares random aspects of his life on his blog at bodhipaksa.com. You can follow Bodhipaksa’s Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/bodhipaksa or join him on Facebook.


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Comment from Rosana
Time: January 6, 2009, 3:46 pm

Hi Bodhipaksa

I saw the films and I was wondering if this lack of ability to perceive changes is a physical thing, inherent in our visual field or something like that or it´s just lack of attention. At least in Western society we are not usually taught to pay attention, to comtemplate, especially in big cities where being fast and doing a hundred things at the same time seems to be a positive quality. I was thinking about the articles about Mindfulness in Daily Life, I don´t think someone who were participating with a mindfull behavior would not have noticed they were speaking to two different people.

All the best

Rosan

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 6, 2009, 5:24 pm

I’d imagine it’s largely a matter of not paying attention, or of paying very selective attention. It is puzzling that 70% of people don’t notice that the person they were talking to has changed, but we do pay very selective attention. We don’t have a reason to pay full attention (most of the time) to all the details connected with someone behind a desk who’s just giving us directions — we can only pay attention to so much and so we’ll focus more on the directions they’re giving us than on their precise features and clothing.

But I’d think even some people who are very observant might be among that 70% because the human brain can only deal with so much information and has to take shortcuts like simply labeling things: the person behind the desk, the tree, the park, the cloud. Then we can just deal with the thing labeled rather than with all the distracting details. So when I shaved a beard off, for example, many people I worked with on a daily basis didn’t even notice — to them I was just “Bodhipaksa,” not Bodhipaksa wearing such-and-such a t-shirt and with his black sneakers on and with hair on his chin etc etc etc.

I think those shortcuts are useful up to a point, but it does impose limitations that can be problematic. We simplify things by labeling them “self” and “other” (at the most basic level) and then fail to notice that our own wellbeing and that of others is interdependent, for example. So we pollute the air we breathe and we create suffering for ourselves by not valuing those around us.

It’s a big topic: hard to do it justice!

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Comment from Rosana
Time: January 7, 2009, 5:21 am

Hi Bodhipaksa

It´s understandable that we don´t pay attention to every single detail as maybe the mind would be overloaded with information if we did, but theories aside I still think it´s absurd that we can speak to two different people and not notice it, I mean, this is not a detail, there are two people there, I really think it has to do with the fact that we may end up carrying routine a little automatically and not looking at people as people, they are just there as part of the furniture, that´s what it seems to me. A long time ago I saw a similar experiment which involved people who wore uniforms and the results were similar though I can´t remember the exact percentages, but everyone thought there would be difficulty to recognize people wearing uniforms as they somehow hid people´s features. By the way, I think not realizing someone you work with has shaved off their beard, is pretty funny too. Well, as you said, it´s a big topic.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 7, 2009, 7:15 am

I agree it’s absurd to speak to two different people and not realize it, and there does seem to be an especial amount of inattention involved there. And as you say it’s like treating people as furniture, which we do a lot. When teaching the “neutral person” stage of the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) I often say that we tend to treat people like the form-issuers in this experiment as human vending machines. As long as they perform their task efficiently we tend largely to ignore them. And as someone said in one of these videos, we don’t know why 30% of people do notice the switch; it may just be because they randomly happened to notice a particular detail about the person because, say, they liked the color or their shirt or happened to find the person attractive rather than because the observer was particularly observant, although I’d imagine that at least some of them were more observant.

I’d hazard a guess (and this is quite testable) that those more observant participants tended to be more relaxed at the time of the experiment. When you’re stressed about a situation — worried about where to go, how to fill in the forms, whether you’re late, whether people are going to like you, preoccupied with some problem at work — the mind is already very full and there simply isn’t the mental capacity to allow you to pay attention to more than the basics. And sometimes in those situations we don’t even notice the basics; we may be nervous about asking directions to the point where we don’t really take in the directions we’re being given. I’m not saying that I think this is the only factor, just that I think it may be an important factor.

The beard thing was in fact rather astonishing. At the time I was working in a small business where everyone was Buddhist. I walked in with my chin shaved, and in fact some of the people working there had never seen me without a beard so it wasn’t even a question of them seeing me looking like I “normally” did. Seeing me with a beard was normal. And hardly anyone noticed that I no longer had a beard. I thought at least that our designer would notice because designers have to pay attention to details, but she didn’t. I asked her if she didn’t perhaps notice something different about my appearance. She thought about it and asked me if I used to have a mustache! (It had been a full beard). I know other people who have had similar experiences with beard-shaving. Makes you wonder what we do notice.

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Comment from Rosana
Time: January 11, 2009, 9:37 am

Hi Bodhipaksa

I was thinking about the first lines of your article – an invitation to perceiving the world differently. I cannot see how to do it without really slowing down the rhythm of our lives and simply make time to pay attention (not only when we´re on vacation, please). If we keep thinking exclusively about what is ‘practical’ (which usually means something that gets you certain results), we´ll continue to treat people as vending machines as you put it. Slowing down is such a challenge and so conflicting with today´s demands, it seems that we´ll never have time enough to achieve all we need or want to. As you said, when we´re stressed we get so hypnotized by our worries that we don´t even pay attention to somebody replying a question we´ve just made. What happened, when you changed your appearance (and you said you heard it´s happened to others too) is so interesting as it shows how far from reality our perception might be at times (the designer´s reaction was especially amusing). I think if we can make contemplation part of our lives, our existence can be so much more fun, and maybe we can even get rid of this anxious sensation that time is always about to beat us.

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Comment from Bodhipaksa
Time: January 12, 2009, 2:32 pm

That’s a good point. By and large we do have to slow down. If you’re in the checkout and trying to make the most of your time by texting or making a phone call you’re not likely to be very present to the human being or beings who are actually present. It’s a case of more being less; doing more detracts from the richness of our experience. But to some extent it’s just a question of presence — not slowing down physically but slowing down mentally so that instead of being lost in thought you find yourself in the present. Rather than having some kind of inner dialog or monologue going on we can actually be with the people we’re with.

And then partly what I was getting at in the article is that we can change our perspective on ourselves and other people. It doesn’t take any extra time to keep the words, “All beings are, from the very beginning, Buddhas” in my mind, but it does require presence of mind during our everyday activities. Sometimes I simply forget to bear the words in mind, and my life becomes poorer.

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