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The Art of Seeing

A talk given by George Piggott at the Phiroz Mehta Trust Summer School at Stamford Hall, Leicester, on 8th August 1997

This afternoon we would like to try an exercise on the art of seeing.

In general terms when we think of seeing we think of vision, looking through our eyes and observing. Generally this is a direct experience. When we see a tree, it registers as a tree immediately. So there’s no conflict there whatsoever. There are times though when we look out and observe in a general sense, but we do not always see and understand what we think we see. We have all at some time or other seen somebody that resembled somebody that we thought we knew. We have crossed over the road perhaps, tapped them on the shoulder and then realised it was not the person after all. So it was a mistaken identity. There are times when we have walked into objects because we have not seen them, tripped over things, walked into plate glass doors. These occurrences bring home to us that we are not always fully awake. If we realise this we also understand that our senses are not always 100 per cent reliable. We smell something and think it is one thing and it turns out to be something else, we hear something, and it turns out to be something totally different. When we reflect on these we begin to wonder how much of our life is spent going through a process of not really being sure. Direct experience is very important to us because it registers immediately what is happening and we know where we are.

If you look at a hotplate and it has a grey look about it, you tend to think it is cold, you put your fingers on it and you suddenly realise it is hot. Although it is not red, it has not cooled off and you have burnt your fingers. But in that instance which is a direct experience you know without question what is happening, and the next time you come across a hotplate you are wary. It is obvious here that direct experience is very important in our understanding.

Direct experience is essential, but there are other factors involved, and one of the crucial factors is paying attention. When we have had an accident it is usually because we were not paying full attention to what was happening. We are either distracted or our mind is elsewhere. I remember as a child when the teacher was speaking about something and my eye caught something outside the classroom, I would pay more attention to that than to the teacher. A voice would say, “What was the last sentence I spoke?” and of course you try and bluff your way through it, and it all comes to light that you were not listening. If you do not pay full attention to what is being said, you can misinterpret. We are in a group with a discussion going on, we blunder in and what we call “put our foot in it.” We did not hear aright, and the reason in most cases is that we were not giving full attention.

If you look carefully over your past experiences, you will discover that there are long periods when you are just sitting listening. You have a tremendous intake of information, and that information is not direct. It has been discovered by somebody else, they may have read about it, and they are passing it on to you. They are asking you to believe what they are talking about and you have to make up your mind and make a choice. But you can see the difference between this and the experience of touching the hotplate, when you have no doubt whatsoever. Don’t ignore what you read or what you are being told. But don’t take it as carte blanche, as being correct.

That also applies in law, because if somebody’s up on a serious charge, the law states that hearsay evidence is not admissible. Nobody can get convicted on hearsay because everybody realises it is open to dispute. Circumstantial evidence is acceptable, but then again that is fraught with dangers.

We went through the Botanical Gardens for a walk this morning. You could go round the whole place in perhaps ten or fifteen minutes. But it is not until you stop and examine something and take your time that you see the variety, the difference, the colours, the forms. The enthusiasm is within you so that you want to look and enjoy. But just taking a brisk walk through and out the other side you say, “There are some lovely things there”, but you have not really seen.

How does all this tie up with the teaching and the sort of environment we have come to here? It ties up in exactly the same way, because if you do not really listen and see and understand you can come along to these various venues year in, year out, and after a period of time you could say, “I really enjoy going to these places, but I don’t seem to get a lot out of it. It’s very complex.” But have you really listened?

If people have listened, what have they done when they have left the speaker? Have they dismissed all that has been said, or do some of them go away and reflect and start to get a wider vision, a better understanding? If you do this in practice, you will be amazed at what comes up. You are confronted with other questions. Obviously the person who gave the talk is not there, so if you have any queries you have to wait till you see them again. But by looking yourself directly into things you can find out a tremendous amount. In this sense we are not talking about just understanding a particular theme, we are trying to understand what makes everything tick, we are into philosophy, the religious, the spiritual side, we are not entrenched in one tiny segment or channel. We try to understand collectively, as a whole. But you have now got to do the homework, nobody can hand all this to you on a plate. This entails effort, and now one has got to be honest with oneself and say, “Have I got the time, the enthusiasm?” Looking into these things can be exhausting, because it is a long session, year in, year out. If the answer to the question is, “Not really, I’ll just accept life as it is and enjoy it”, there is nothing wrong in that. But those who do decide they want to go on have got to understand that there is the work to be done. Then there is the question of finding the suitable teacher, where things are going to come through and give you a better understanding. With religious subjects you have to find a path that is compatible to you, where you can listen without being agitated or having a feeling of constant misunderstanding.

In much of the teachings, we come into the realm of the “I”, the “Me.” That is where we hit the complexity of it all. So let’s do an exercise to try and understand and get to the root of this “I” business.

This entity here, this body, has two “lodgers” if you like, an “I” and a “Me”, that seem to have control. This “I” and this “Me” seem to be making all the decisions for this body as we go through life. Let us try and see clearly from direct experience what the difference is between the body and the “I”. Let’s take this body with the blood circulating, the breath inhaling and exhaling, the changes that are taking place. If we get photographs of when we were young, then of middle age and then of old age, we can see the vast change that has taken place, the changes in our features, and we also know inwardly the change that has taken place within us regarding our memory, and so on. So we are getting direct experience that this being is not what it was thirty years ago. Now who controlled that? This “I”, this “Me”, what influence did they have? If you said to a surgeon, “I’m fed up with this ‘I’, can I have an operation to cut it out?”, he would say, “That’s impossible, it’s all in your mind”. So you are stuck with it. But where is the “I”? This “I” that we attach so much importance to does not control the blood or the breathing or the ageing. When you become unwell, the “I” does not get involved. You suddenly get ill, the doctor gives you antibiotics and you think that is going to be a help. But we are in the hands of Nature, we cannot guarantee that the antibiotics are going to do the job. Again, the “I” which we attach so much importance to has nothing to do with the recovery. It is totally oblivious to it all.

So then we begin to see quite clearly that this “I” is an impostor. It is not controlling this body at all. This body is going to go on from birth to death, and when it is time to die this body is going to decide with Nature’s influence when it is time to go. And your “I” protesting that it wants to hang on for another week, because something has not been completed, is immaterial. So how can this “I” be so very important to this body?

We now have to be very careful, because it is easy to jump in with both feet and say, “If I can find a way to dispense with this ‘I’, and if I can be self-less, that’s the answer.” But it is not the answer. The “I” at times can be beneficial, it is not all negative, as we tend to think. If you have an experience where you have not been paying attention, for instance, if you are on a busy road and you step off the kerb without looking, and you nearly get knocked down, the shock to your system can be really quite tremendous. You step back, and suddenly realise in that instance that one more pace forward and you could have been hit by a vehicle. The next time you are confronted with a very busy road, you are very much aware of what happened before and you watch out for the traffic. The “I” steps in because the “I” now does not want you to get injured, it is saying, “I must be careful and look after this body.” So in that sense the “I” becomes useful. It is not a case of obliterating the “I”, because that is normally impossible.

In rare cases somebody might be able to get rid of the “I” in the sense that they become a selfless person. We have seen this with Phiroz and generally accepted that he was a selfless man. But we are talking about rarities here. All we are saying is, see it for what it is in its entirety, come to terms with it, see how much of a nuisance it can be, and also see the side where it can be beneficial to us. The dispensing with the “I” totally is not really the object of the exercise. The object of the exercise is the art of seeing, and the art of seeing is seeing the two as they are and marrying them, and being content with seeing them as they are. When you go into looking at the opposites which surround us, on face value they look totally separated because of our conditioning and because we have not really stopped to look. If you take a sheet of white paper on its own, you say, “Anyone can see that that’s white”, and that’s right. But if you want to see the luminosity of that whiteness, and put the whiteness against a black background, the black enhances the white, it brings out the whiteness, and the whiteness shows you the density of the black.

Please do not accept this as something being said to you. See it as a direct experience and make your own mind up. If you dismiss it and say no, that is fair enough. But if you see that with the black and white together you have a clearer, more direct experience, then you must take that on board surely. You have learnt something. And this is where the work starts. Just look at all the opposites that you can think of, just make a comparison and see what comes up in your mind. See if you can see something that you did not see before. Then you can move on to other things. It is this moving on that the work is about, and that is what is exhausting and tiring, because your enthusiasm gets you going, you are looking at all sorts of things, not just the opposites, you are analysing and learning. It is not just a case of waiting for the speaker to arrive to give another talk. It is the in-between time. You are doing the work through your own efforts and you are self-taught. If you want to be a successful painter, you can go to an art school and have a brilliant master. He shows you the rudiments, but that is all he can do. The work takes place in your practice.

So we have come to terms with the “I” and we can see quite clearly that it is an impostor. Here I would like to read something to get things in perspective. This is an extract from a book written by Susan A. Greenfield, A Journey to the Centres of the Mind:

It could be that the brain would possess a greater capacity for consciousness as the number of operational neuronal connections increased. In the human cortex there is an awesome number of neurons, approximately 10 billion, but the astonishing figure is the number of connections in the cortex, about one million billion. To count one of these connections each second would take 32 million years, and even more stunning than the number of connections is the way the number of connections can be combined. The number of combinations that can be formed from the number of connections in the cortex is many times greater than the number of positively charged particles in the known universe, a number so great that we cannot give it a meaningful name.

To me, that is an awesome statement. The connections are more than the charged particles in the universe! You reflect on that for weeks on end, and then you think, “I get to the top of the stairs sometimes, and I wonder what I came up for. I’ve forgotten why I’m here”. For example, the talk this morning. It was very profound and I got lost in the complexity of it. Then I wonder why I could not understand it with all this potential. So there is a big question mark in the mind. Why is it I have all that and yet I cannot understand the simple things, and why is it when I think I am looking I do not see as I think I see? We sit back and think that things do not quite add up. There is a conflict here somewhere.

The strange thing is that when you are looking you are making decisions and judgements. When you are waiting for the bus and you are late in the morning, you are looking at your watch and up the road, and saying, “I wonder if I’m going to get to work on time.” So whilst you are looking, this in here is analysing and trying to make judgements and decisions. If you watch the process within you will find that this is happening all the time.

Another thing you discover is that when you are looking out there at something simple, you find that from simplicity grows complexity. You go to buy a sheet of paper, and somebody says, “Are you going to send it abroad, what about colour, size, etc?” You can be an hour while they explain about writing paper. So from a simple sheet of paper, you are now in a complex world of paper. In the supermarket, there is not just one kind of sauce, there are dozens, so you have got to take them down and read the labels.

So in what used to be a simple operation with just two, there are now fifty. Everything has got very complex. The strange thing about it is that it very rarely goes the other way round. When have you seen something very complex reduced to something so simple you can understand it?

You have a football. It is a piece of hide or a piece of plastic, filled with air, the simplest thing you can get. That same ball will hold 75,000 people at a stadium transfixed for an hour and a half. It will raise emotions, people get angry, there are even fights, there’s tremendous competitiveness, there are players costing millions of pounds, there is tremendous money to be made. The whole thing is built up to a mass of complexity. Walk onto the field and take away the simplicity, the ball, which we have already discovered is the most simple part of it. Everything stops, the game’s over, the players can’t play, the cheering stops, nobody makes any money, and the competitiveness is finished. That simple ball has kept the whole thing going. When you look at that in its entirety and can see into it, it is unbelievable that that little ball full of air can get all that lot wound up. It is all revolving round that one ball. And you think, “That brain with all that potential, and there’s that little ball.” You try and tie the two together. That’s something to reflect on.


This is the most true article I read on this subject. The Art of Seeing this is what it is all about.

Sina Karim Khani, 9th May 2004

I love the football analagy “take away the simplicity and everthing stops”. (The heart sutra, Form is void but the void also is form.) I think this should be submited to the Daily Mirror Sports page, might just wake someone up to who and what they really are.

Henry Cowell, 26th March 2004

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