Or Failing To Notice?

“Out of necessity we learn to run on auto-pilot, paying attention mechanically and passively most of the time. This underscores the need to pay attention deliberately and voluntarily, thereby liberating our awareness from robotic activity.”

~ Daniel Goleman

Repeating a story from a former blog about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson on a camping trip shows the problem of failing to notice. As they lie down in their sleeping bags for the night…

Holmes: “Watson, look up into the sky and tell me what you see.”                                      

Watson: “I see millions of stars.” 

Holmes: “What does that tell you?”

Watson: “Astronomically it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Theologically it tells me that God is great and we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically it tells me that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you?”

Holmes: “It tells me that somebody stole our tent.”

The story is funny because it seems absurd and yet we can all somehow identify with it. It is said, “if you want to hide the treasure, put it in plain sight. Then no one will see it.” When I don’t pay attention to something obvious, it is because I am so interested in something else, as was Dr. Watson. He failed to notice the missing tent, but he also failed to notice that he failed to notice. “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds,” R. D. Laing.

Paying attention to what you are paying attention to — and not paying attention to — is a key decision making skill now and in the future. You only see what you pay attention to; and what you see is not all there is. “You can’t see the forest for the trees” is a good metaphor for paying attention to what you don’t see. One reason you don’t see the forest is because you are paying attention to the trees. And you can’t see the whole forest because much of it is hidden.

When you look at a tree you see the trunk, branches, and leaves. You don’t usually see the roots and therefore, don’t pay attention to them. Yet the roots of a tree are often as expansive as the parts we see. In a forest, in fact, the roots of all trees are interconnected and form a dense underground network of relationships of roots, the birds, bees, animals, insects, flora, in which there are no boundaries between individual trees. Another part of the hidden wholeness is the underground networks of relationships and past histories of experiences (fires, storms, human interventions, disease, etc.).  

Can you imagine some of the forest that you can’t see because parts are hidden? Can you imagine some of the hidden wholeness of your life? Like the whole forest, your personal “whole reality” is too complex to observe. But you can be aware of the complexity and even imagine some of it. Most of us ignore the parts of our reality we don’t see. Paying attention by imagining what you don’t and can’t see can be a useful skill in expanding the way you see things. However, this takes thinking like a sleuth.

“The eye sees in things what it looks for and it looks for what is already in the mind.”

~ Scientific School of Police, Paris

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