Thursday, March 15, 2012

Opening the Doors of Perception

 Driving to school today, I noticed something I had never seen before. It was a planted island of cacti in the middle of the road—O’Shaughnessy, to be exact, right by Glen Park Recreation— separating the lanes of direction. Not a big revelation, except for this startling fact. I have driven back and forth on this road most every day for 9 months a year for 30 years. And this was the first time I noticed it.

Now, it’s possible that it was put in yesterday and equally possible that it has been there for 30 years. How would I know? Why did I notice it today? Well, partly because the traffic was backed up and I was going slower. And partly just because.

Our brain’s filter system is a survival mechanism, picking and choosing from the torrential downpour of sensory input. We are hardwired for discrimination, programmed to notice this above that— what we can eat, what wants to eat us, for starters. And then on to who might befriend us, who might betray us, who might we mate with, who might we wish to mate with, but ain’t never gonna happen. So it’s no surprise that a little garden of cacti in the road is low on my list as I’m reviewing my class plans driving to school or anticipating the dinner I’ll cook coming home. But still it astounds me that I noticed these plants for the first time. What other marvels await me if only I stop long enough to pay attention?

Blake said centuries ago that “if the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”  Aldous Huxley used this quote in his book about his experiences with LSD and this was a popular book with my college crowd. Not that I had any experience with it personally—ahem!— but I “heard” that people often felt that the narrow doors of perception had been blown open and the world was instantly more magical than it seemed to appear. From that revelation, many of us were drawn to meditation and discovered that indeed, our capacities for attention and wonder could be opened wider and without any outwardly-chemically-induced-help.

The bottom line is that whether it be a cactus garden on the way to work, the crab apple tree blooming in the Arboretum, the hillside bright yellow with mustard, the world is patiently awaiting our attention. I believe that it is refreshed when we notice it and so are we. Today, the narrow chinks of our cavern are found on our hand-held devices that rob the world of our attention, to the detriment of all parties.

Next time you drive or bike or bus or walk to work, play a little game with yourself and see if you can notice something new that you’ve passed before but never noticed. And extra credit if you write a little poem about it. And just to be clear, I’m not recommending that you take LSD to help you notice.

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