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Look Again: The Obvious, Often Unobserved

Rev. Douglas Taylor


Sermon video: https://youtu.be/6LDNgedqC1E

Tara Brach, in our reading (Blessings of a Patient Heart) talks about patience. She encourages patience as a spiritual practice leading to mindfulness.

“The Buddha” Brach tells us, “considered patience to be a ‘perfection of the heart’—one of the basic spiritual qualities that expresses our deepest nature.”

For Brach, the practice of patience leads her to be present in the moment, present to her own emotions, present to the people she is with. In our text for this morning, we heard:

“Patience is not the absence of strong emotions, nor is it the denial of unpleasantness. Patience is the capacity to feel at home, to be accepting in the face of the tension and anxiety of stress.”  

Patience, Brach is telling us, allows her to give her attention intentionally rather than to have it tugged and pulled by the whims of the moment.

But that led me to deeper curiosity: to what am I to give my attention?

It is a common spiritual practice, not only in Buddhism, to be mindfully in the moment, to prayerfully pay attention, to ‘be here now.’ Equally common is the critique of culture – certainly our current culture – leading us to be obediently unobservant.

Our consumer culture, in particular, lulls us into paying attention only to how we can fulfill our wants and desires through consumption. The 24-hour news culture clamors for us to be anxiously attentive on the edge of our seats for the next bit of news. Indeed, there are countless ways in which our attention is focused for us in ways that do not serve our spirits or our values.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes says “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” Now, Holmes was surely referring to observable activities in the world around us. Brach, on the other hand, is turning her attention inward. I suggest they are both on to something and it is, at heart, the same thing. The point is that it is your attention and you ought to be in control of it.

This Christmas, a friend has asked for a very particular kind of Christmas gift. She said to us: “Please give me a copy of your favorite book. And include a note about why it is your favorite.”

My friend loves books. And she imagines she will know me a little better when she reads my favorite book. It is possible she has already read it, or would by chance some future day read it of her own desire. But for this Christmas gift practice she is creating, she will read it while looking for what I found in it. She’ll read it looking for a little of me.

I have, on occasion over the years, been given a book or a recommendation for a book by various people – some here in the room. I try to honor the invitation, but in truth I have developed some particular reading habits. I tend to read non-fiction in a bit of a rush as I prepare for a sermon or a presentation. And then I read fiction at a leisurely pace for my own enjoyment. When someone offers me a recommendation or gives me a book, I will often ask “What is it in this book that you really liked? What did you get out of it? Tell me a little about what it means to you?”

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, “We live not by things but by the meaning of things.” My friend, with her Christmas-book-gift request wants to learn about me and others in our circle through the meaning we have placed on certain books and stories. That is where her attention will be this season – not on things, but on the meanings of things and the relationships of the people around her.

To what are you paying attention?

I’ve recently been reading a book by Alexandra Horowitz, an author, Barnard College professor, and cognitive scientist. Her recent book is entitled On Looking: A Walker’s guide to the Art of Observation. (For the record, this is not the book I am giving my friend, but it is still a good one, if you are looking for a recommendation.)

For this book Horowitz invited a variety of individuals, experts in a diverse range of subjects, to walk with her around her city block. A geologist, an artist, a typographer, and a sound designer: she invites them to reveal to her what they experience of her city block, which she has experienced through her own daily walks of several years. As expected, she learns quite a lot about the world right outside her door that she had not noticed before.

She spent an evening walking around her city block with a man from the Wildlife division of the Humane Society. They talked about rodents and coyotes, pigeons and wild monk parakeets. So much of the city’s wildlife remains unnoticed until a critter is deemed a pest. On another walk around her block, Horowitz strolled along her city block with a professional Sound Engineer to discover sound beyond the roar of traffic and the buzz of flies – the reverberations and Doppler effects caused by buildings and alleys

I think my favorite chapter was when she took an urban sociologist for a walk. A fellow named Kent who worked at the Project for Public Spaces reveled in the way pedestrians move together through the cityscape. “We don’t bump into people,” he reported from in the midst of a tight pack of people crossing the street. The behaviors of a school of fish or a herd of wildebeest reveal rules of movement while in congestion – people have a version of that as well in the city,

Anyway, all of this, really, is about what you notice and what you don’t. As Yogi Berra quipped, “You can observe a lot by watching.” One of the things Horowitz reveals in her book is how our attentiveness can be used against us. We miss things because we are giving our attention to one thing and not another.

“Attention and expectation also work together io oblige our missing things right in front of our noses. There is a term for this: inattentional blindness. It is the missing of the literal elephant in the room, despite the overturned armchairs, dinner-plate foot-prints, and piles of dung. Psychologist have cleverly demonstrated our propensity to miss a rather obvious element of a visual scene when attending to another by asking subjects to watch a specially designed short video. In this video, two teams, dressed in white or black shirts, toss around a basketball. The task is to count the number of tosses made by one of the teams. That is the expectation: the viewers expect there’ll be basketball-tossing! They gear up to see it. Afterward, the subjects are asked for their final tally. Of course, this is not the actual question of interest to the researchers. That question is this: Did you, attentive subject, notice anything else? Anything unusual? Anything else … at all?

“Nearly half of all subjects did not. In this case, the elephant in the room was an actual gorilla – well, a person in a gorilla costume – who waltzes, right between the players, pounds his chest, and saunters off-screen. paying attention to the basketball players, we miss a rather salient (and furry) figure among them.

“Expectation allows us to miss bits of the ordinary world, not just the gorillas in our midst. Indeed, it nearly prevents us from seeing lots of things happening around us”.


Horowitz is referring to the Simons and Chabris “Selective Attention” experiment, 1999. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo&ab_channel=DanielSimons A year earlier Simons did a similar video with a random person giving directions called the “Door” study. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWSxSQsspiQ&ab_channel=DanielSimons And there is a delightful one based on the old Shell Game as well. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bnnmWYI0lM&ab_channel=MarissaWebb You can look these short videos up online. I’ve put the links into the manuscript so you can find them easily. These attention tricks are very clever and it can be fun to get tricked, to notice what you don’t notice.

Here is the important part, however. What do we do with this information? Sherlock Holmes says, “You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.” (From “The Boscombe Valley Mystery.”) But which trifles are the important ones? How are we to judge which bits are the important parts to notice?

I sometimes feel this frustration watching the news and then hearing a bit of analysis about a news story that essentially says – that sensational piece of news was a distraction from the real problem which the media is not reporting! I feel like I’ve been dupped, like I’m stupid. And there have been some recent political celebrities who were quite good at this sort of manipulation and distraction.

When life is like a magician waving a hand saying, “behold, nothing up my sleeve,” it can be quite disheartening to simply be told – pay attention to every little thing. But that’s the problem. We can’t possibly! It is literally impossible, biologically and mentally impossible to pay attention to every little thing. Horowitz concludes her book with a response to exactly this:

“There could be an exhaustion in being told to look, to pay attention, to be here now: one might feel put upon, as though being chastised for being neglectful. Nearly all the people I walked with – some of whom were, in essence, professional attenders or lookers – reproached themselves for not paying good enough attention.

“Do not sag with exhaustion. There is no mandate; only opportunity. Our culture fosters inattention; we are all creatures of that culture. But by making your way through this book – by merely picking it up, perhaps – you, reader, are in a new culture, one that values looking. The unbelievable strata of trifling, tremendous things to observe are there for the observing. Look!”                                                                         -p265

This is the part where I tell you the secret, where I reveal the solution, and direct your attention to what you ought to be noticing. But that’s just the point. Your best course is to pick your own course. And … and to check in with others about what they’re noticing as well, because life is not a competition. We can share our notes with each other.

For example, you might follow along a bit on what Horowitz has done – which is to welcome a sense of wonder back into her daily walks. As the naturalist John Burroughs reminds us, “To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.” Similarly, you may prefer to follow Brach’s lead when she enjoins us into patience that we may give our attention to the inward movements of our spirits, to be wholeheartedly present with the things that matter most in our lives.

English Author Storm Jameson writes,

“There is only one world, the world pressing against you at this minute. There is only one minute in which you are alive, this minute here and now. The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable miracle.”

To be mindfully present to the moment, whether you are a meditating monk or a homicide detective or simply a regular person going about your day, the point is to allow yourself the opportunity to receive what the world is actually offering; to not be shuttled into someone else’s conclusion; to be open to the splendor of living, the regular possibility of joy and wonder.

Life is an opportunity. The world is arrayed before us with beauty and bitterness, wheat and chafe, the mundane and the profound. It’s all there. Life is an opportunity. Look! Seek! There is always more to discover.

I’ll close with the words we heard at the opening, words from my colleague, Rev. Kristen Harper

“Each day provides us with an opportunity to love again, To hurt again, to embrace joy, To experience unease, To discover the tragic. Each day provides us with the opportunity to live. This day is no different, this hour no more unique than the last, Except…Maybe today, maybe now, Among friends and fellow journeyers, Maybe for the first time, maybe silently, We can share ourselves.”

In a world without end,

May it be so.