When I was first taught how to draw, the first lesson was showing us how us to slow down, attend closely and really see, instead of merely looking (as most of us do most of the time).

What is meant by this distinction between seeing and looking?

Looking is visually scanning our environment and categorizing whatever is identified in the visual field. It is seeing-as, where the seeing is discarded and the “as” is kept. Seeing is suspending the “as” and preventing it from occluding what is there to see if we slow down and pay close attention.

How did we effect this shift? We were taught the method of blind contour drawing. The teacher set an object before the class to draw. It was sometimes a pile of cloth, or a gourd, or a cow skull — something visually complex.

We were told to pick a part of the object to draw — a part with an irregular edge. We were directed to move our eyes slowly along the edge of the form, and as we moved our eyes, we moved our pencils. Like seismograph needles, as our eyes traced the object and followed its contour, registering each minute bump, pit and arch with both eye and hand.

We were told to pay no attention to what we drew. Once we placed the pencil point in the center of the sheet, we were not even supposed to look down at the paper.

At first, we were anxious. We knew we were producing atrocious drawings, and that nobody would even recognize what we were drawing, and we were right.

But this was not about making good drawings. It was about effecting the shift from looking to seeing. The activity caused us to become deeply absorbed in the object we observed. The absorption sidelined our speech. As we gained the ability to see the unique particulars of our object, and disintermediated our seeing from language, we gradually lost the ability to speak. After class, it would take fifteen or thirty minutes to shift back into the wordworld.

This is what it takes to draw what we see instead of writing what we are taught to re-cognize, categorize and scribe in memory when we move around in the world scanning for relevance. The world is there to see and — once we learn how — we can actually see it when we choose to stop looking for a moment.

We cannot see all the time. Even artists don’t see all the time, and they sometimes choose to focus their absorbed seeing, not on the world, but on the artifact they are crafting. But the originality of the artistic vision is rooted in the actual seeing.

An artist who only gets better at looking and scribing what they recognize will not draw a seen eye, but instead will only scribe a conventional hieroglyphs of an eye in a conventional hieroglyph of a face on a conventional hieroglyph of a person, in a world of conventional hieroglyphs, populated by conventional hieroglyphs, furnished with conventional hieroglyphs.

Artists who see might acquire new habits of looking and scribing. But when they scribe an eye, it is a hieroglyph of an eye they themselves observed. It is an eye as they, themselves, have come to see them. Their style reflects their own original experience of seeing.

As a young adult, I learned the art of spiritual blind contour drawing, an art known as Vipassana.

Instead of sight, the absorbing perception of Vipassana is feeling. Vipassana is a tracing of the contours of sensation on and within the body.

Through this art, I learned some direct and extremely disturbing lessons about existence. We are not who we think we are. Our thoughts are not what our thoughts claim to be.

Our thing incessantly recognizes and scribes whatever it looks at, and whatever it cannot look at it does not see. In other words, we think and think and talk and talk and read and read — and rarely slow down or stop to intuit. We fail to register the myriad nameless, unique particulars of which reality is composed. We skim for the categories and toss out the rest.

We are speed readers of the wordworld, re-generating the same thoughts by the same interpretation and logic we we trained to use long ago before we were even conscious. We see hieroglyphs, we write hieroglyphs, we speak hieroglyphs, we inhabit hieroglyphs. We are hieroglyphs.

We will remain imprisoned in hieroglyphia until we learn to see, hear, feel, smell, taste, touch and, most of all, intuit for ourselves.


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