All these terms can pertain to both thought and the act of witnessing with one’s eyes. The metaphors between the two processes are endless. It’s no accident that the optic nerve is the most direct pathway to the brain. It’s also no accident that the word “Vipassana” is translated into both “Insight” and “Mindfulness” Meditation.
The word “Recognition” is often a potent reminder of how the root words provide keys to origins of words and their concepts. In today’s world, to ‘recognize’ something means to see something and know what it is, with the emphasis being on the seeing part. More poignantly, to recognize something means to re-think it or re-“cognize” it. To see it something, know what it is, and reflect on what you know about it. In so doing we reprocess and reinforce the ideas about what we know about it in our minds. Whether what we are reinforcing is true or not, is a different story.
As a child and adolescent I remember staring at myself in the mirror, focusing at looking into my own eyes and repeating the sentence “I am a human being” and dwelling on the idea of my own existence. I’m not sure how I came up with that, but the net effect was to take me out of the whirlwind of thought and experiences surrounding my life at the moment and have a moment or two of rather deep, self-awareness. I felt like the exercise verified and connected me to every other human being. It allowed me to, however briefly, see myself as thought I were looking at a different person other than myself, perhaps providing a glimpse into what others were seeing when they looked at me.
I find that when my mind wanders during Vipassana meditation and I find tensions arising the act of putting my attention on what I’m seeing behind my closed yelids helps awaken my mind to the reality of the moment – as opposed to whatever I had been thinking about when I noticed my attention was not on sensation. This may be a slight deviation from the technique of focusing solely on body sensations, but I find it is instantaneously grounding.
Similarly, focusing on other sensations beyond feeling the surface of the skin: Smell, taste, hearing could likewise may prove helpful in bringing one back to center and closer to the objective of feeling sensations on the surface of the body objectively. The only downside is it seems to pull me out of what seem like deeper states of meditation, which may in fact be just rolling in thought and not meditation at all.
I recently had the opportunity to visit the island of San Juan off Washington state with friends to camp, kayak, and shoot wildlife photography. I’ve been doing photography in various capacities since I was 8 years old, but never got very involved with photographing wildlife for a number of reasons. First, the gear and telephoto lenses required to get close enough are extremely expensive. Second, I’ve never had the interest in pursuing the knowledge required to know where to go to “stalk” subjects properly. Besides, more interesting subjects require expensive travel. On San Juan island the Orca whales travel and feed up and down the west coast of the island daily this time of year, so the opportunities to photograph them are plentiful. I rented what I thought was an adequate telephoto zoom lens, and when chores around the campsite were done went off to the cliffs and shoreline to photograph whales.
The Elusive Orca Whale
The first thing I learned about wildlife photography is you can never be close enough to your subject. You can only zoom in so far with photoshop without all your work looking like a blurry sighting of bigfoot in the wilderness. The second thing I learned is the minimum shutter speed should be approximately the same fraction of a second as your focal length. If you’re shooting a 400mm lens, the minimum shutter speed should be 1/400th of a second to avoid blurring due to the great magnification. The third thing to know about wildlife photography is if something interesting happens and the subject is not in your viewfinder at the time it happens, the opportunity is almost certainly lost forever and it is better to observe the moment, rather than scramble to try to get a bead on it with your camera after the fact. This can be extremely disappointing, especially when you’ve spent a good part of a day waiting for a good shot.
You won’t catch this bird wandering attention. Why? Her quality of life depends on it…and so does yours as a meditator.
Like meditation, I found wildlife photography requires intense awareness, concentration, and patience. If attention wanders or gets scattered, you can miss out on the very thing you set out to accomplish. Meandering thoughts and attention distract from the objective of being present and aware. In nature photography, we need to keep one eye on the big picture and the other fixed to the viewfinder. Similarly, in Vipassana, one must remain aware of what is going on in the big picture of one’s mental state while remaining diligent about scanning the body for sensation. Am I remaining focused, or are ancillary thought patterns interfering with the goal of staying with the sensations of the moment?