Wonder Eyes: 5 Ways To See Things More Vividly Than Avatar.

Wonder can give us 3-D vision and animate the inanimate.

Posted Apr 07, 2010

Maybe our appetite for 3-D films like Avatar relate to our hunger for wonder, specifically to a desire for a physical world whose objects pulse with electric hues where "reality" and magic merge. Here's what I'm wondering: Maybe we already live there. This world of lamps, dishwashers, and envelopes could afford us daily opportunities to track wonder. Perhaps experiments with a simple object can give us "fresh eyes" and contribute to our well-being.

Why don't our adult eyes typically see objects with wonder? One reason: We're object-glutted. With a few mouse clicks and a credit card, we can purchase four pairs of Tony Burch sandals and a cell phone for each family member and replace them next year with updated styles. So inundated with disposable objects, we take them for granted. We're also sense-sapped. Blitzed with input (especially digitized input) all day long, our eyes - those fierce information hunters - get worn out. Plus, we're categorizing creatures. Our minds' internal language automatically processes objects as "cup" and "tissue" - even before our awareness catches up to this categorization. That largely unconscious capability helps us function and survive, but letting eyes lump individual objects into ready-made groups all day long might not enhance how we see the world or how we feel. Categorizing has helped us survive; perhaps wondering could help us evolve our vision.

Can we see ordinary things with more awareness? The work of University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson and of medical doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests so. Their work - both together and independent of one another - has consistently demonstrated how mindfulness meditation stripped of religious dogma can improve how well people pay attention to thoughts, to sensory sensations, and to others and how such attention benefits our well-being.

Trauma and hardship ironically can shake us into wonder. From this blog's previous post "Wonder is Not Kid's Stuff," one reader mentioned how an injury forced her to sit in her backyard and take in the specific details of tree branches. Another reader mentioned the miracle of her surviving a traumatic physical attack. Now, she says, she heeds the small things such as "the small brown speckled egg I found in my back yard, the way my cat so elegantly cleans his face, the amazing shape and intricacy of a spider web in some dark corner of my house." "Writing begins with amazement at the small things," writer Pam Houston recently said in an interview. Perhaps wondering at the small things is also the beginning of healing.

You can change your vision. That's the experience of neuroscientist Susan Barry. Since an infant, she had been cross-eyed and unable to see objects beyond a flat two-dimensional surface. It would be like seeing the world as a flat canvas. After a chance encounter with Oliver Sacks, she started seeing a vision specialist who gave her a series of eye exercises. After considerable deliberate work, Barry literally changed her brain's cellular make-up that allowed her, for the first time in her life, to see the world in three dimensions.

Wonder literally expands vision (as opposed to fear, which constricts it). That is, when in wonder, our peripheral vision widens, according to the work of Barbara Frederickson. Wonder arouses what I call the marginal felt mind. With the marginal felt mind, feeling and awareness connect; thoughts are almost visceral. The body itself feels open instead of tight. Cognitive scientist Don Norman - who authored Emotional Design: Why We Love (Or Hate) Everyday Objects Basic Books 2003) - writes, "Consciousness also has a qualitative, sensory feel."

At a retreat I led two years ago, a writer and teacher said she worked 10, 12 hours a day and could barely see two feet before her. After two days of tracking wonder and meditation, she pulled me aside and said, "I'm feeling as if my eyes are popping open. Everything seems more vivid."

That's the beginning of tracking wonder: awakening the eyes. I'm not suggesting Senseless gawking but sense-ful relating.

Here are five experiments to mend our relationship to this world of things:

#1 Buzz Your Eyes Awake with 3-D Breathing. Come before an everyday object. An egg beater, ink pen, or paperclip will suffice. Look at the thing for thirty seconds or so. Then, curl your index finger tips to each of your thumb bases. Place each thumb in each ear, and gently rest the other three free fingers of each hand atop closed eyelids. Hear the echo of each inhalation and on each exhalation hum with closed lips. Repeat three to five times. Then, release the hands and slowly open the eyes and notice how you feel and see. This tool is a simple variation of what in Yogic traditions is called Bumblebee Breathing (Bhramari Pranayama).

Francois B. Vialatte, a neuroscientist at Tokyo's RIKEN Brain Science Institute whom I interviewed last year, performed a study on this tool's effect. The study indicates that the yogic tool stimulates in beginning practitioners organized high-frequency gamma wave activity, brain waves that Vialette says are associated with heightened perception, memory, and learning.

This daily tool gives me instant 3-D vision.

#2 Name-Drop and Shape-Sense. Gaze at a thing. Soften the eye muscles and lids. Acknowledge then drop the standard name, the semantic referent for the thing. Let it live wordlessly in your perception. Dropping internal language is challenging at first; be patient. You can help the mind let go of names by tracing the thing's outer contours with your eyes. Close the eyes and re-create that form in your imagination. Open the eyes again and let them rest on the thing while focusing on the breath. Notice if you feel any different and if any new awareness of the thing itself arises.

#3 See With Your Fingers. As you gaze at an object's shape, become aware of your own body. Through proprioception, you can guide awareness down to your shoulders and fingers, then your belly, and even down to your toes. Doing so might feel as if you're seeing with more of your body. Then stroke the thing's textures. Even if it's just a paper cup on your desk, feel the gummy plastic ridge or the satisfying crease where the plastic strip that makes up the cup's body overlaps and seals itself. Close your eyes as you touch it. Touch can stimulate the brain's visual cortex (note for Gregory Berns), and you're arousing the felt mind.

#4 Play with and Re-name an Object. As your eyes rest upon the object, appreciate how that small object has served you and other human beings. Imagine this one thing's history, story, and "lineage," as it were. Then play with comparisons. See the shape within your imagination and ask, "What else has this shape?" Ask, "What else has its color?" and "If it were a person, common or famous or legendary, who would it be?" Observe what seemingly random associations arise. From those associations, create a new, possibly metaphorical name for this thing that expresses your new appreciation for it.

In this way, you practice one of the most essential tools to track wonder: praise. For, praise of ordinary things such as old socks or mirrors or bicycles has been the call of poets in the age of mass production from Rilke to Neruda.

#5 Duchamp an Object. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp infamously bought a men's urinal on Fifth Avenue, signed it "R. Mutt," and entered it in an art contest sponsored by the Society of American Artists. Duchamp often took ordinary objects out of their typical context that we might be startled into appreciating them for their design (and so we might re-consider what we think art is). You try it. Lift an ordinary object from a room in your house and place it in another room. Put an egg beater in your bedroom. Put a bar of soap on your desk. How does its juxtaposition with other objects it's not normally around help you appreciate its design and function? Does it feel out of place, or is it able to blend in? If you were to photograph or paint this object in this new room, what would you title the piece?

I'd like to see a filmmaker try to re-cast a film about ordinary life - say,  Garden State - into 3-D. A bath towel rockets toward the screen. A fly from the screen buzzes by our ears in MorrowSoundTrue 3D. Now that would be a film of ordinary epic wonder (imagine Joyce's novel Ulysses adapted into 3-D).

You don't have to travel to an earth moon called Pandora to experience the world in 3-D. You can voluntarily cultivate wonder. To read more about some reflections and tools on this topic, you might check out the chapters on presence, wonder, and objects in my book The Journey from the Center to the Page.

What are the benefits? More harmony with the things around us? More presence? More surprising joy and innovation? You tell me and us. Try one of these experiments, make one up one of your own, and share with the tracking party here your and others' encounters with everyday objects (one of my favorite subjects).

NEXT: Re-Seeing an Aversion and Dreaming a Daily Routine (or whatever your comments lead me to).

See you in the woods,

Jeffrey