4.29.2007,9:17 AM
A Mind's Eye
Experiences in life depend on two occurrences: what our senses detect and how we perceive them. Not everyone sees the same things I do, or you do. A rose is a rose, but oh, what a rose it is.

What we 'see' filters through two processes. [1] One is objective accumulation of data and 'unthinking' processing of said data. Our vision detects a cactus and our brain automatically interprets: thorns, ouch, stay away. This process and sometimes the final interpretation is often subconscious; you don't even think about thinking it. Our lizard brain is imprinted with such responses for self-preservation. And we often react accordingly: cactus = thorns = ouch = move away.

Phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty wrote: "
In so far as I have hands, feet; a body, I sustain around me intentions which are not dependent on my decisions and which affect my surroundings in a way that I do not choose.” [2] What is in the world is 'there', but our responses to that world, and hence, our 'being' in that world is more complex.

The other process is perception. Now, 'perception' is acquiring, interpreting, selecting and organizing information detected by our senses; sight, smell, sounds, touch, taste..... The first process is the input of raw data of the world around us in a specific point in time. Perception is, well, processing all of that data and 'being' in the world.

This is what differentiates us from each other. And from other animals. Our perceptions 'color our world', our reality, more than other animals because we have the ability to reason and think about thinking. That each piece of data may be perceived differently than the person next to you is what makes us individual. It is what splashes the variety of colors, shades and shapes on each of our world and reality. And being in that world as a thinking body that senses its surroundings.

It is what makes us, 'me'.

My eight days in the desert were like a graduate course in perception. If I stood in one place long enough, more data entered my mind and it altered everything I 'saw'. Everything was, and is, all there whether I see it or not. But I can't really 'see' it unless I lasso time and slow it down, enough for me to absorb all that data. And process it. It becomes more than just 'the desert'. It becomes a whole new world in and of itself.

And I, less of a bystander and more a part of it.

What is it I see? How do I perceive it?

In two ways: as a scientist and as a giant sensory receptor. I perceive how the earth under and around me has changed over thousands of years based on what I see before me now and what I know about the geological history. I see how plants and animals have evolved to survive here, and the adaptive mechanisms that have permitted that evolution. I know why colors look differently under cloudy skies versus blaring sunlight, and why the sky is so much bluer here than what it appears to be in the metropolitan areas. My perceptions are influenced by my knowledge of what I sense, and changes the more I see.

Yet, I stand in awe at the varying sizes, shapes and colors of thorns that adorn nearly all the vegetation; the shadows as they slither across the land, formed by landforms or clouds; the deceiving closeness of all the mountains in the far distance; how precisely lizards match the colors of the earth under them and the vegetation around them; the contrasts of shapes and colors of the smallest details in the vegetation; the rapid changes in colors and types of rock within a few feet; the sweet smell of a bush in flower and the bitter scent of a rotting carcass next to it; vertigo battling inside with almost an erotic pleasure when standing on the rim of a canyon and straining to see the details of its bottom; delighting in a brief mist in the middle of a parched land and life; enjoying the different shades of colors under a gray sky, those shades that are elusive under a glaring sun.

Like a giant receptor, I stand without time and see all of these things before me. A new appreciation grows and takes solid form inside my mind, and all the data and perceptions are filed away for future recollection and musing. The data take new forms: memories and feelings. The lizard brain is coupled with the amygdala in processing, knowledge of what I saw and memories of emotional reactions.

And now, later, all is mulled over by the cerebrum: that part of the brain which enables us to think about thinking.

Ah, but then there is the camera, a tool that extends the mind's eye and attempts to capture not only that raw data, but also how it is perceived. And the challenge of applying language to record and convey my 'being' in that world during those points in time, and even now.

That is truly the challenge. For not everyone shares the same perception. Not everyone is receptive. And that, I believe, is the key. One must be receptive in order to perceive.

Next to the last day in the desert, I awoke to gray skies. While some may perceive that as a negative, I knew that the different light conditions would allow me to see the desert differently.

Along with my travel mug of coffee, the camera and I went for a walk in the desert. Zeke accompanied me part of the way, but he lost his patience with me when I didn't play.

The low and diffused light conditions allowed the colors, and hence the shapes and textures, to beam on their own. They weren't washed out by the strong and sometimes merciless harsh light of the sun and blue sky. It was as if they came out to play while the big bully was hidden away.

And I saw many things differently.

Note: the following text narrates the tabblo: A Mind's Eye.

The difference in shapes, colors and textures of plants side-by-side.

The softness and roundness of a bird's nest in a tree covered with angular thorns.

Arroyos beckon like the Yellow Brick Road.

Long, slim and dark green leaves behind round and smooth ears of cacti.

Stark nakedness of a tree against the gray sky and amidst its low growing neighbors.

A a stalk of yucca flowers stands like a beacon of light in the middle of the desert.

The chaos of details on the ground before you compared to serene smoothness of the background hills.

How shapes and colors of plants can be just as contrasting and varied as the rocks they live amongst.

Ah, juxtapositions: look at how both can have the same elements, yet opposite each other. The sharp angular thorns on the round cactus, and the round leaves on the angular branching shrub behind it.

My ultimately favorite perspective of this cactus, layers of contrasts: long sharp thorns springing out of angular sections of a round stalk, all forming a perfectly round clump of opposites.
It looks deceptively soft and furry.

And, yes; the giants. I am a creature of fog, like the Hound of the Baskervilles. The mystique and eeriness coupled with an underlying anticipation and eagerness. How the clouds and fog play hide and seek with the mountains and the sun! And it changes every minute.

I walked around aimlessly for several hours that morning like a child in a magical garden. The further I walked and took in all that surrounded me, the more intimate I became with the desert world. After awhile I found a ledge and sat to settle myself from the sensory overload and feeling a deep peace settle in. And a comforting solitude.

I felt like I was home.

[1] The science and philosophy of perception has been a life-long interest of mine. How they relate to 'reality' is a common theme both here in this blog and in my other blog (more scientifically oriented).

[2] Maurice
Merleau-Ponty was a French phenomenologist and philosopher that proposed a non-philosophical, if you will, approach to the embodied experience; one that transcends the commonly accepted Western dualism of empiricism and intellectualism (or knowledge).
A similar theme appears in Robert Persig's book,
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

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posted by Macrobe
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