As you may suspect from my references to Winnie the Pooh, I have found very valuable, the brief words of wisdom in these and other stories. These little expressions help us see through new eyes. They may remind us of things we know but have forgotten or lost sight of. Or they may help is to see things in a new light.
What is important is the angle of vision, the perspective or lens through which we look at events of our life, and how we interpret them. It is the difference between what we see and how we see. My favourite example is that of three people looking at the same tree. A logger sees the tree as something useful to cut down; a photographer sees it as something beautiful to frame in a picture; a child may see it as something exciting to climb. What they see is the same but how they see it is quite different. I recently heard a podcast which suggested that our response to life issues is quite different if we see them as a challenge rather than a problem.
Another expression that voices a similar thought is that of where we are coming from. This expression would seem to mean the background perspective that shapes our approach. In a beautifully illustrated story by Jon Muth called Zen Ties, three children regard an elderly woman who lives nearby as quite mean and scary. Stillwater, the giant contemplative Panda, describes her differently as a friend who is not feeling well, and invites the children to offer concrete expressions of kindness. As a result, a friendship does develop between the children and the woman..
We see ourselves, others, and the events of our life differently if we look through the eyes of the heart, the eyes of compassion , rather than those of fear, hurt, or hostility. We may look at freedom largely negatively as the capacity to make money at the expense of others, or as the need to build walls against others. We understand freedom quite differently if we view it as the capacity and responsibility to grow and develop as fully as possible and to share ourselves with one another. We may view freedom as the avoidance of commitment or as the call to commitment; as the refusal or the gift of oneself.
A related approach sees learning or understanding not so much as the acquisition of new information as the dawning and fuller awareness of something we seemed already to know. I recall with gratitude a comment an older student once made to me after a class. She said: “You put into words something I always somehow knew but did not know how to say.”
In a different context, I recall the Plato’s reference to knowledge as remembering, as calling to mind what we had forgotten, possibly from a previous lifetime. To put a different slant, I would suggest that perhaps understanding is recognition. One kind of knowing certainly is the acquisition of new information, such as the climate or population of a country, or various mathematical formulas. But if we are speaking of life issues, it is more akin to naming our experience in ways that have for us a ring of authenticity.
I recall a conversation with a student who had played Junior A hockey with its gruelling travel schedule. He had got word that a grandfather had died and his first reaction was one of relief to be able to go home for a time. This occasioned a lot of guilt, and when our conversation brought out the naturalness of this reaction, and the fact that it had nothing to do with his strong bond with his grandfather, the relaxation in his face was clearly visible.
Other examples include the view that grief is the experience of felt uniqueness; that rage is less related to anger than to searing pain; that rigid beliefs may spring more from insecurity than conviction; that joy contains a grateful sense that it is good to be alive.
Another example that I found striking is in Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Here he speaks of “The love that consists in this: that two solitudes protect and border and greet each other.” These words suggest that there is an essential loneliness that is part of the human condition that is the price of uniqueness. No one therefore can fully understand or relate to another, however closely connected. At the same time, a genuine relationship must honour that solitude.
This thought that understanding is recognition, a coming to conscious awareness in image or word of something we always somehow knew is wonderfully worded in T. S. Eliot’s famous expression: “We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring /Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.”
In sum, what seems to be the most important is the angle of vision through which we look at life, and the uncovering of words that name our deepest experience in ways that we recognize.
May you come ever more fully to find a way of seeing that fosters true and deep awareness. And may you come to name your experience in ways that speak to your inmost heart.
Norman King. August 14, 2022