One evening shortly before we left Colorado, we drove to Black Canyon on the Gunnison River to view the stars. In a crude outdoor amphitheater, we sat through a presentation on the solar system by an NPS employee. (Did you know that the Grand Canyon of Mars, called Mariner Valley, is four miles deep and as long as the United States is wide? And that Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, has some 400 active volcanoes, while its sister moon Europa is sheathed in ice? What’s up with that?) When the slideshow ended and after our eyes adjusted to the darkness, the night sky came into view.
It was spectacular, I hardly need to tell you, but there was also something sobering about this reminder that night after night after night, those bright-burning stars are wheeling across the heavens above us, while we sit watching television or scanning Twitter, in cities that blaze like artificial suns.
There’s a way to think about this that some of you may find helpful. As longtime readers of Traces know, one of my preoccupations is the difference between looking and seeing, which encompasses what some call “inattentional blindness.” Aristotle remarked on this phenomenon in his treatise On Sense and the Sensible:
[A]ssuming, as is natural, that of two [simultaneous] sensory stimuli the stronger always tends to extrude the weaker [from consciousness], is it conceivable or not that one should be able to discern two objects co-instantaneously in the same individual time? The above assumption explains why persons do not perceive what is brought before their eyes, if they are at the time deep in thought, or in a fright, or listening to some loud noise.
In a well-known experiment, subjects were asked to count the number of times the players in white shirts passed the ball. About half of them failed to “see” a gorilla walk into the middle of the scene, turn, beat its chest, and walk off.
Astounding, right? But before you descend into utter despair over the fact that you’re missing out on your own life through mere inattention, that you’re allowing yourself to experience only a fraction of what the world is holding out to you, pause a minute.
What would reveal that hidden world to us? A crisis, obviously. For stargazing, that may mean a scary but revelatory blackout.
In human terms, though, it’s often some shock that makes us look intently, even greedily, at beloved faces and familiar scenes. You hear about a plane flying into the World Trade Center, maybe, and it’s as if you’re really, really seeing your own child’s face for the first time in forever. Or the lovely tree outside your window. Or the strange beauty of the tumbledown building up on the corner of your block.
Our challenge is to find a way to glimpse that hidden world without the necessity of a crisis. Without needing a catastrophe to jolt us into this moment.
That’s what people mean by practicing “mindfulness,” I suppose.
That’s what we mean by living life as if there’s no tomorrow.
That’s what we ought to mean by living, pure and simple.