Last night, a friend and I went to watch an outdoor performance by some surprisingly talented young singers. Minutes after a lone songstress began to play in the gazebo, a rain shower hit. I was impressed to see most of the adults pull out their umbrellas rather than scatter. A large group of children played in a patch of grass and not one flinched at the rain. They danced and twirled and carried on with their games. Watching them was a reminder of the freedom we can all have when we let go of our hang-ups and fixations on how things must be.
When the rain stopped we were gifted with an idyllic summer evening. Scads of sailboats dotted the water and walking along the wooded reservoir we had a spectacular view of the mountains as the sun dropped.
When we came around a bend, we saw a collection of people loitering and all were staring at their phones. I had heard of, but not seen the Pokémon nonsense prior to this. Like lemmings heading over a cliff, more phone-toting fools were making their way to this dock of addiction. We were at a beautiful oasis of nature in the middle of the city on a rare, perfect night and the only thing these people were interested in was an inane game on a small electronic device.
Any master—be they an artist, writer, photographer, dancer, or scientist—has cultivated the art of observation. It is the way we make connections necessary for creativity and to tap into our genius. Our great poets are and were observers extraordinaire. Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson found inspiration in bearing witness to nature and life in hours of quiet reflection.
In science and research, honed habits of observation are more important than education in catching the unusual or unexpected. Wilfred Trotter, the godfather of neuroscience said, “Knowledge comes from noticing resemblances and recurrences in the events that happen around us.” In medicine, any good healer or doctor should have a keen sense of observation rather than relying solely on tests and diagnostics. If we listen to and observe our own bodies they will tell us what we need or what is out of balance. One night I said a small prayer for my health. In the morning I awakened saying the word “lycopene” aloud. This is a powerhouse anti-oxidant, so I immediately went out to get a bottle and ate two watermelons and a batch of tomatoes over the next few weeks. I assumed my body had told me clearly (and weirdly) what it needed.
I once read a National Geographic article about acclaimed nature photographers who were octogenarians and some even nonagenarians. These men and women had spent their lives observing the natural world. In order to capture beauty, they immersed themselves in textures, tones, and the many hues of light. They were happy, healthy, and still highly productive. Seeking the rare and the beautiful, they were insulated from depression and anxiety. Observing, walking, and creating works of art kept them mentally sharp and physically well. They derived great satisfaction and a sense of purpose from photography, and none had retired.
On another gorgeous summer day after our torrential rains I meandered along my favorite river path. Every single man on a cycle whizzed past me as fast as they could go and each one had a stern look as though they had to get somewhere very, very important. I’m betting not. No smiling. No catching the beauty.
A snake tangled up on a rock sunning itself caught my eye. I jumped with a start and then stopped to observe it. My fear of snakes is second only to my arachnophobia, but I felt this creature deserved some acknowledgment. In many cultures, snake is revered as a symbol of life and positive transitions. He sat flicking his forked tongue for a while and decided to slither around and then take refuge under the rock. Slithering is the part that scares me most and I forced myself to stay put and watch. Observing the snake, rather than fleeing, I left him less frightened than I have ever been.
Consciously going out in nature with the intention of observing and being fully present, I find treasures and wonders on my walks. I have taught myself to look for specific things that hold significance for me. It requires a development of pattern recognition, of training the eye to notice one small thing that doesn’t belong. I find feathers, coins, pertinent messages on paper, trinkets, and even photos. On my suburban walk on the Canyon Meadow ridge I have seen black hawks circling, a pheasant on a rooftop, white-tailed deer grazing, many rabbits scampering, and have heard coyotes howling at sunset. I want to find the unusual and the beautiful.
In order to write and be a storyteller, I must observe. Even though I am a social creature, this is part of the reason I enjoy solo travel. When I am alone, my observation skills are heightened by leaps and bounds. I see things I would never notice if I were distracted by another. I hear things I may not catch if I were in a constant dialogue. And I love the immersion into a new place when my full attention is on the moment.
It is in quieting the mind and sitting in observation that epiphanies and solutions come. When faced with a problem or condition, we get a new perspective if we can step away from ourselves (and any confusion or anxiety) and observe the situation as a bystander would. Like Sherlock Holmes, we can see pieces of our personal puzzle that begin to connect and fit. We may make new deductions as we unearth information.
I think the most valuable gift in the art of observation lies in taking us from wearing blinders on a one-track way of life to noticing things we had previously missed. There is infinitely more in our world than what we perceive as we dash around, only because we have not consciously cultivated the ability to see things we do not understand—things that are not rational and that we have no previous frame of reference on. When we only look for the expected, that is what we will find.
Years ago, I went to a launch for a photo book called Seeing Evangeline, which was filled with plants and flowers in various stages of decline and decay that looked like fairies. The photographer observed the most amazing faces and creatures hidden within nature and it was truly magical. Her work reminds us to use our imaginations and actively hunt for the mystical.
If you have any interest in spotting the supernatural—actively watch for it. If you would like to see things you did not know existed, open your eyes with a different lens, one that engages all of your senses, including your sixth. Ask your heart to lead you away from the commonplace and into the enchantment that still exists on this, our planet Earth.
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