Greatness comes, in part, from the way we see. And, more specifically, the ways in which we don’t.
There is a phenomenon in photography – a lens flaw, really – called soft focus. It is not simply “out of focus,” but rather the result of images that are blurred due to spherical aberration – an effect that occurs where there is an increased refraction or reflection of light. It signifies a deviation of the device from the norm, i.e., an “imperfection.”
In photography, the resulting image is sometimes described as “dreamlike.” And when we assume a similar, soft focus in our real lives, it too comes from a state of relaxed – or “imperfect” – attention.
Quite simply, when we see with soft focus, we see almost as though without seeing.
When we relax our visual intake, allow our intuition to take over, we may see literal things less “clearly,” but what we gain in doing so is breadth of awareness.
This phenomenon of seeing without seeing applies to a lot of different world, and being good at something is often attributed to something like it – having a “feel;” a “touch.” Being able to move through something with a softness of focus; settling into intuition.
Author Robert Pirsig talks about the challenges a mechanic sometimes faces when working on a machine – particularly, those that are, at initial take, impasses. The problems that offer no immediate solution, rather than those where the answer is clear.
His recommendation for resolving such issues is to sort of stop trying to resolve them. To “just stare” at the machine. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” Pirsig argues. Just sit with the problem, and “live with it for a while.”
And to not only sit with it, but relax our demands – on ourselves, the machine, the problem. To stop forcing or chasing down a solution if we don’t see it. Rather,
“We should not evaluate what we see. We should keep our mind a blank tablet which nature fills for us, and then reason disinterestedly from the facts we observe.”
“Disinterestedly” – softly; lightly. Rather than focusing directly and intently on the thing, we see it – look at it – in a more relaxed way.
In equestrianism, “soft eyes” is to ride with “open” vision and peripheral attention – awareness of your entire field of vision. Horsemanship expert and author of “Centered Riding” Sally Swift explains:
“Soft eyes are much more than just a way of looking. Using soft eyes is like a new philosophy. It is a method of becoming distinctly aware of what is going on around you, beneath you, inside of you. It includes feeling and hearing as well as seeing. You are aware of the whole, not just separate parts. Ponder the implications of this technique, this tool. The two ears of your horse are always in front of you, but so many of the important parts are under and behind you, where you cannot see them.”
Swift directs riders to relax their visual acuity and direct more attention to the tactile interaction between themselves and the horse. Her recommendation pertains to horsemanship, but “soft eyes” is actually a concept used in many sports in order to relax the athlete, expand their peripheral vision, and increase their awareness.
We do this in creating art as well. When shading in particular, one cannot assume a harsh, direct line of sight; cannot see each individual mark. Rather, we must unfocus and see softly – absorb the drawing as a shape rather than a series of lines. And then it comes to life.
It’s as though you “feel” the shape; are recreating the shape – the shape itself, not the image of it – through the tips of your fingers.
WHERE AND HOW TO LOOK TO SEE
The problem, of course, is that we can’t “disinterestedly observe” everything. We have to know which pieces are integral, and which are not.
“The difference between a good mechanic and a bad one… is precisely this ability to select the good facts from the bad ones on the basis of quality.”
We must first have an objective – a direction; an intent. But you do not need to know what you’re looking for. In fact, “if you know which facts you’re fishing for,” Pirsig argues, “you’re no longer fishing.”
But as long as we know where to look and where to direct our focus, it behooves us to then soften it; to widen our vision, broaden our visual intake, and see more.