The Power of Sustained Attention or The Difference Between Looking and Seeing

Dec 17, 2019

There are always flowers for those who want to see them.

(Henri Matisse)

As a theater director, my job is to watch over, to pay attention, to bring empathy and quick thinking to each rehearsal; to be ready to laugh or to be amazed or even disappointed. In rehearsal, I try not to react, rather I aim to be ready to respond.  I must be patient and wait like a fly fisherman, sensitive to the slightest tug, but also, at every millisecond, able to change course. I must cultivate the capacity to slow down and speed up at the same time. I face the stage with hyper presence and look without desire.  I wait. I wait for looking to become seeing.  

Most of daily life involves a lot of looking, but not much seeing.  Looking is a physical action, defined as turning one’s eyes toward an object. Generally, I look in order not to bump into things. If you see me turn to look at bicycle passing by, you can tell what I am doing based upon my action.  Seeing, on the other hand, is not necessarily visible to who is someone watching. Seeing requires perception on the part of the person who is looking. 

To look means to gaze upon something with your eyes and acknowledge its presence.  But to see requires time, patience, open mindedness and, sometimes even effort. In order to see, not only do I have to look at the object, but I also have to pay attention to it until a new understanding arises. I must look past the obvious and take enough time to enter thoroughly. 

It is not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.

(Henry David Thoreau)

In my own daily life, I have come to realize that, actually, I do not see very much. I am always looking, but I rarely see.  My wife Rena and my stepdaughter Alona like to say: “You pulled an Anne.” Looking through drawers or shelves for a pair of glasses or keys or even a red scarf I typically shout, “I cannot find it!” only to be proven wrong by Rena or Alona who discover exactly what I am looking for in the same spot I had been rummaging through.  I also rarely recognize people in public. I cannot identify famous faces that I have seen onstage or in the media. Sometimes I do not even recognize faces of people that I have known for some time. This can be quite embarrassing. In much of my daily life I seem to look without seeing.

I do not have prosopagnosia, or face blindness, which is a cognitive-neurological disorder that inhibits the ability to recognize familiar faces. Rather, what I seem to have is impatience and the tendency to look around swiftly with minimal attention.  I have a hyperactive mind that, in my daily life, is always planning but rarely settling or noticing. Fortunately, this changes when I am in a rehearsal or a museum, in a theater or in a classroom. I thank God for my attention and capacity for seeing changes on these occasions. I am grateful that I am able to see, at least some of the time.

Children see naturally because they have not already stored up and processed information about how they are supposed to categorize what it is that they are looking at. They puzzle through, notice and work out each detail with a freshness that radiates both spontaneity and play. As we grow older, many of us lose our ability to see and we begin to accept the assumptions that have accumulated while looking.

The art of seeing has to be learned.

(Marguerite Duras)

Looking, unlike seeing, especially in a capitalist society, is indelibly linked to desire and acquisition. We are primed to desire and enticed to feed upon what we are looking at. Much of our current technology is engineered to increase our passion to consume. We have come to value looking over seeing. In recent years, social media and internet shopping have transformed us into looking machines. The consumer culture is filled to the brim with desirous cravings – for the latest news, for the newest gadgets or for the most appealing selfie. Perhaps we are so inundated with visual input that we simply cannot take the time to attend to it all or discriminate one thing from another or even to edit. We scan, we scroll, we change channels or websites, in a desperate search for novelty. The activity is hypnotic, and it is addictive. We look with increasing desperation, moving from one image to the next to the next and to the next. These incessant urges have become a nearly inescapable part of our contemporary lives. The imagery fascinates, motivates and delights but ultimately it can never be enough because the novelty of it all is so enticing that we are not given the opportunity to go into depth with anything.

The tree which moves some people to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.

(William Blake)

Seeing, on the other hand, transcends desire and requires far more than visual engagement. In order to see, I must not only look, but I must also pay attention to what I am looking at. Seeing engages all of the senses, receiving and interconnecting them, while weaving together memory and an awareness of context.  Seeing implies a stronger commitment than looking and an attempt to understand more deeply what I am looking at. In order to turn looking into seeing, I must linger, I must interest myself in the details, always finer and more nuanced. This process builds layer upon layer. If I have the patience, I can begin the process of seeing what a thing is about, what it is made up of and perhaps even how it relates to other things in its environment.  The object of contemplation enters the heart and mind directly. Seeing can conduct me to the next level of perception. The boundaries between the self and the world are transcended, and I momentarily merge with the things seen.

The job of the artist is not to give people something to look at. God knows we have enough to look at. The job of the artist is to get people to see.

(Richard Tuttle)

Although we spend most of the hours of our days with our eyes wide open, we do not spend that entire time seeing. The orgy of looking, sometimes called “binge watching” is a popular activity of our time that we often engage in when we feel tired and unmotivated. The German verb glotzen, roughly translated, means to gawk or gawp or stare. The German language is rich in words and glotzen is a prime example of a word that sounds and feels like its implication. Koma-glotzen is the German word for binge-watching.

But seeing, as distinct from glotzen, is a skill that can be cultivated and developed. Seeing is not only noticing that something is present, but understanding it, attending to it, and looking past the obvious to enjoy its meaning and nuances.  This takes time, patience and attention to detail. To survive, one looks. To flourish one endeavors to see.

The word “theater” comes from the Greek, theatron, or “place of seeing.”  Not only does an audience go to the theater to transform looking into seeing, they also become witnesses to the act of an actor seeing.  And, in turn, the actors must allow themselves to be seen.

It is a glorious feeling to be seen by others.  It feels magnificent. But it also requires a risk to allow yourself to be seen. Being seen can change the circumstances. How we are seen can change the way we see ourselves.

To learn to see – to accustom the eye to calmness, to patience, and to allow things to come up to it; to defer judgement, and to acquire the habit of approaching and grasping an individual case from all sides. This is the first preparatory schooling of intellectuality. One must not respond immediately to a stimulus; one must acquire a command of the obstructing and isolating instincts.

(Friedrich Nietzsche)