Sunday, June 12, 2005

Getting out of the eyeball

I've been trying to focus on the world outside my car while commuting to work, and trying to avoid daydreaming while I drive. It's impossible. I'm amazed that the roads aren't a pinball ride of cars colliding with each other as distracted drivers lose track of the outside world.

It doesn't take much effort to start attending to the road and its surroundings, but within seconds I fall into mindless musing; some time later I suddenly realize that I'm no longer paying attention to the world in front of my eyeballs. I slide into the world behind my eyeballs, driving along on autopilot.

In the few seconds that I can attend to the world outside the glass, I'm almost overwhelmed by the richness and detail. What a wonderful world, no matter if it's a tree-lined street, a busy freeway, or a commercial strip. There are endless fascinating discoveries: For example, I noticed some black wires strung along the cantilever holding some traffic lights. Looking along the pole I realized there were two tiny video cameras mounted on every boom; looking around, I then noticed that all the traffic lights at that intersection were similarly equipped.

But my seeing is constantly superseded by mental busywork. It's not the clear productive thinking that happens in a focused time. It's a flux of half-thoughts that live in the limbo between the front of my eyes, and the mind behind. It's even worse when the radio is on; not only am I pulled between the scenery and my thoughts, but the entertainment drags my attention sideways.

That productive, sustained thinking is, it turns out, just as hard for me as sustained concentration on the outside world. It's perhaps even harder: there's less to focus on when thinking, and I have to make the world, not just drink it in.

I find that sketching is a useful aid to seeing. Drawing well isn't the point; sketching guides and fixes my attention on what I'm seeing, and stops me slipping into half-seeing and half-musing. Clicking away with a camera is the antithesis of drawing; the camera is itself a limbo eye. It's interposed between me and the world, and it's a proxy in which the reality of the world is lost. I'm not looking at something; I'm looking at its image in the viewfinder. I'm not thinking deeply; I'm thinking about how to frame something. Clicking the image is a proxy for really looking, or really thinking.

(That's not to say that photography cannot be an aid to seeing - but it must be used as such. I imagine that a practice that involves thinking about how to frame the image, taking it, and then post-processing the result in the darkroom or in software is a discipline as fruitful as drawing.)

I will persevere. I used to switch on the radio reflexively whenever I got in the car; nowadays I prefer to drive in silence. That step led to this goal of simply looking outside the windscreen, rather than oscillating mindlessly between the world and the mind. Buddhists refer to the relentless chatter of pointless thinking as "monkey mind"; softly softly catchee monkey...

1 comment:

Ishdeep Sawhney said...

My comment is on the topic "Mirror Test" [1] and I think Steve Jobs [2] is not really encouraging to drop-out. My take on his speech is:

Steve understates a very important thing that he takes for granted; ask yourself after reading [2], what do you remember most .... maybe your first or second answer will be that Steve Jobs dropped out of college .... and it should be since he spends half the speech talking about dropping out of college .... but the key thing that he understates is .... You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Another point I think he fails to mention is that you have to figure out what your strengths are before you start doing what you love. There is no point singing if people laugh while you sing on American Idol and keep believing that you can become a singer .... no matter how much you love singing. My point is that generally people find it very difficult to have a true assessment of themselves and their strengths. The good ones do this very well and take it for granted and rarely talk about it.

I am eagerly waiting for the next installment of "Winning against a big ego".