19. Observation exercise: An aid to objective sympathy and the elevation of the life of feeling.

by Culture and Anti Culture

(Also see Post 3 Aesthetic Forces are Real)

(For context see Post 1)

’THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.’

Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of early Childhood  –   Wordsworth
My experience of moving from childhood to adulthood is exactly portrayed by Wordsworth.  Until the age of eight or so, despite much turmoil and pain, I sensed the natural world as full of enchantment and power.  Everything in nature seemed to speak to me of a lurking, esoteric significance, all seemed suffused with personality – in clouds, flowers, waves and trees.  By adolescence this had faded and I sorely felt its loss. Later, in college, medical school and residency, I felt this dullness even more and named it with an equally dull phrase: “my imagination has been flattened with a frying pan.”

Later, when I had time and ready access to the natural world out my rural backdoor, I worked at finding my way back to that childhood capacity, clumsily but persistently.  I had some success and many failures.  I would have brief access to that world, often for no apparent reason. Then I came across some of Leonardo da Vinci’s notes on observing common but neglected phenomena, such as forms in flowing water and cracks in walls and the impressions they gave rise to.  This was a powerful stimulus for me.

I finally made real headway when I sat on the shore of a fast flowing creek, just downstream of a small dam.  I resolved to stay and stare at the water-forms for as long as it took to really feel their power and gesture, with what I later came to call objective sympathy (feeling-knowing).  After hours of trial and error and fruitless staring and looking away, I hit on a useful approach, a kind of trick, if you will.  Later I used the same method in prolonged contemplation of a van Gogh in a New York museum, and then on many occasions over the years.  This method is the primary subject of this post.  If worked with, it will transiently re-enchant the world, in Wordsworth’s sense and re-clothe it in “celestial light”.  What is evoked will be brief at first, but will gradually prolong and intensify and become much easier with practice.  The associated impressions will bear the mark of objective universality.

Conditions of the Exercise:

Essentially none, other than the willingness to improvise.

The Exercise:

Imagine you are in conversation with a friend, when a sudden loud noise to your left distracts you.  In an instant you turn your head and all your attention toward it.  In that moment, you are all attention, not thinking, yet not vaguely staring either. You are intensely alert and receptive. This heightened awareness passes in a moment, over to a judgment: e.g., “That was a firecracker”.  The exercise consists in picking an image, a sound, a color, etc. on which to fasten this kind of receptive, unprejudiced, unthinking alertness; and having done so, prolong this intensely directed observation for as long as possible.

Wait and see what happens.  This searchlight-like focus will intensify the impression of what is observed, heightening its reality.

The exercise requires no special setting.  It may fruitfully be attempted from time to time in the course of the day.

Thoughtful reflection will enhance the experience and allow you to retain it.  The exercise will develop the capacity to receive feelings which go beyond the purely personal into the realm of objective sympathy (feeling-knowing).

‘Don’t underestimate this idea of mine, which calls to mind that it would not be too much of an effort to pause sometimes to look into these stains on walls, the ashes from the fire, the clouds, the  mud, or other similar places.  If these are well contemplated, you will find fantastic inventions that awaken the genius of the painter to new inventions, such as compositions of battles, animals, and men, as well as diverse composition of landscapes, and monstrous things, as devils and the like.  These will do you well because they will awaken genius with this jumble of things.’                                                Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci

Water forms     da Vinci