Be Thou My Vision

Seeing is being.

-- Ramana Maharshi

The last time I had my eyes checked, the ophthalmologist informed me I was developing cataracts, a fairly common affliction among those over 60. Cataracts are a clouding in the lens of the eye. As a photographer, I am naturally concerned about any resulting loss of visual acuity or color discrimination. The effects of the disease are evident in the work of the French Impressionist Claude Monet, who suffered from cataracts in the final decades of his life. Even those casually familiar with Monet’s style will note the growing abstraction in his later paintings, the contrasts becoming less distinct and the tones muddier.

Fortunately, cataracts can be corrected by surgery. However, I knew from my mother’s experience with the disease that the symptoms can come on so gradually you aren’t aware of the extent to which your vision is affected. Having never worn eyeglasses, my mother did not at first believe the doctor when he told her of her condition. She insisted she could see perfectly. It was only after her cataracts were removed that she discovered how much brighter and clearer everything looked.

Unlike my mother, Monet was acutely aware of the deterioration in his vision as the disease progressed. His colleague Paul Cézanne had once remarked that Monet was “only an eye – yet what an eye.” Now he was forced to work from memory and relied increasingly on the color labels on his paint tubes. Faced with the prospect of having to stop painting altogether, he at last submitted to cataract surgery on his right eye at age 82. Afterward he tried to destroy many of his recent canvasses and reworked others.

Even those with perfect eyesight suffer another sort of clouded vision due to the distorting effects of the mind. We all like to think we see things as they truly are, but the world is inevitably viewed through the lens of our thoughts. Visual acuity and color discrimination are largely unaffected, but almost everything else is. For most of us, life becomes a backdrop for a personal drama involving a phantom presence who goes by the name of “I.” All the world is our stage, and we get caught up in the struggle for top billing with everyone else who suffers from a similar delusion. It thus becomes exceedingly difficult to see things as they actually are, because everything gets filtered through the fears and desires of the self.

Buddhists have an antidote for this called prajna, or clear seeing. A simple meditation technique is used to focus attention on what is happening right now, starting with one’s breathing. This calms the mind, and our attention is less apt to wander off with every stray thought. Eventually we may come to see it is not the world that is a stage but the mind itself. There is a shift in perspective that enables us, in effect, to look over our own shoulder. We no longer have a sense of being contained within a self. In this enlarged space, thoughts arise from nowhere, belonging to no one. That phantom presence who goes by the name of “I” is just another poor player among many that strut and fret their hour upon the stage, as Shakespeare once put it. There is no longer anyone to ask what we might gain or lose by the things that happen. We learn to accept with equanimity the bitter with the sweet, understanding that the whole magnificent production plays to an empty house.

Once we have learned to see through the self, the question becomes: if “I” am not the one who sees, who or what is this silent observer who takes in the world through my eyes? The easy answer is to say it is God. But many of the spiritual adepts who address the question are notably reluctant to assign any attributes to it at all. Buddhists, of course, have a non-theistic understanding of this Higher Self. For adherents of the non-dual Vedanta tradition, there is no seer apart from what is seen. The medieval Christian theologian Meister Eckhart referred to the “nothingness of the godhead.” Similarly, Jewish mystics talk about this frame of mind as ayin, which refers both to the eye and to nothingness, or no-thingness. To see with utmost clarity, one might conclude, it is best when no one is looking.

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