Tuesday, May 28, 2013

the bigger picture

photo: jetheriot

People can focus so intently on a small area of space that they become blind to their larger surroundings.

For example, we’ve all encountered drivers who are so focused on looking for the side street or the exit where they’re going to turn that they lose all sense of the larger traffic flow going on around them, braking and accelerating haltingly and unpredictably without regard for other drivers. Their full awareness of space has shrunk to such an extent that they’re seeing only what’s directly in front of them. It’s a form of myopia, a kind of nearsightedness. Call it car-myopia.

Same with smartphones. People become so engrossed in the small area of space they're holding in their hands that they lose sight of what’s happening around them and, for example, walk into traffic or fall into an open manhole: smartphone-myopia.

A person sitting in front of a television, unaware of anything else happening in the room: television-myopia.

A person standing in the middle of an escalator, unaware of people behind them who are in a rush and trying to pass: escalator-myopia.

A person walking down the middle of a sidewalk, unaware of other pedestrians: sidewalk-myopia.

The antidote for these myopic mental habits is to cultivate the habit of broadening one’s field of awareness. The ability to expand and constrict the field of awareness is a universal feature of the human mind. Constricted, it’s like a myopia, a nearsightedness, a “little picture” view. Expanded, it’s more like a panorama, an aerial view, a “big picture” view. And like all mental abilities, awareness can be refined through practice. 

In discussions of meditation, mindfulness often takes center stage, but a formal meditation practice should involve the cultivation of awareness as well as mindfulness. The two go hand in hand. Whereas MINDFULNESS is the capacity to place the mind on an object of meditation, and to return it to that object of meditation when it has strayed, AWARENESS is the capacity for adopting a "big picture" view.

Many beginning meditators spend so much time on cultivating mindfulness that they lose sight of their surrounding environments as they sit. They’re too much in their heads, shuttling back and forth between their breath and their mind's wanderings at the expense of a fuller appreciation of the larger environment around them. In meditation, we're not learning how to escape from our surroundings. We're learning how to plug into our surroundings, so awareness is a crucial component of any sitting practice. 

Experienced meditators who have cultivated the skills of both mindfulness and awareness have a sense of the big picture even as they’re noticing what’s directly in front of them, and this spills over into their daily routine. Walking up a flight of stairs, they’re MINDFUL of each next step they take, but they're also AWARE of the person in a hurry behind them, nimbly stepping aside to let him pass.