Tag Archives: perceptions

Softening the gaze

“Soften your gaze,” is something my Tai Chi teacher says most lessons. It took me a few weeks to work out that this is something I do in other contexts, and to realise why it is so important.

When I see other people out and about, they’re usually looking at something. It might be the phone in their hands, or the path in front of them, or the people they walk with. Our default is to look with intent and look at what we expect to see. There’s a great deal you don’t see when you have this kind of focus.

The soft gaze is part of how I walk. Unless I’m dealing with a section of challenging footing, I look around. It’s worth mentioning that most places round here, most of the time, are not hazardous underfoot. I don’t look for anything in particular which means my peripheral vision is operating. I see a lot of wildlife as I walk, and that softer gaze is a large part of why I’m able to do that. I know from walking with other people that I often see things they don’t because I’m not looking in the same way.

There are more layers to this, though. Softening your gaze means softening your attention. It means not being focused on something, and thus not being especially goal orientated. If you’re trying to achieve something, you focus on it. The soft gaze goes with reduced interest in achievement, and in a spiritual context that tends to be a better idea. Inspiration, a sense of the numinous and other spiritual experiences don’t come because we strain for them. Instead, they call for a gentle openness to possibility, and making room. The soft gaze is one way of making that space, hence the relevance for Tai Chi.

There’s a relaxed quality to not being too focused on anything. There’s no great push or drive going on. This alone can take us out of everyday mode and into other ways of thinking. Not having our eyes focused in the same way can open our minds up to less driven thinking. The mind wanders with the gaze, open to possibilities, and ready to stop and pay more attention if something invites that. Focus comes in when called for – to watch the deer or the butterflies, to appreciate a plant or the way light catches a leaf, or to stop for a view. It means being open to experiencing things I had not specifically expected. And then, letting go again and moving on.

If you have any visual capacity, how you undertake to look at things will inform what you feel about them. The soft gaze is kind and not especially judgemental. How you look also informs what you see. When we’re focused on specific things, we don’t see what we weren’t looking for – there’s some fantastic science out there about this. We tune out what we think is irrelevant information. The soft gaze has no assumption about relevance, and thus it opens up our perceptions and lets us experience what’s right there – the everyday beauty and magic that otherwise we may not notice.

The people who live in your head

We all assemble ideas about the people around us. In normal circumstances, that’s a work in progress as we try to improve our insight and understanding. However, it doesn’t always go like that. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding every now and then a person whose imaginary me is so removed from anything I can recognise that it proves disturbing to deal with them.

They often feel moved to tell me what I’m ‘really like’, and what I’m really like tends to be damning. Most usually it revolves around being mean, selfish, self important and power hungry, usually with a side order of being needy, doing drama, over reacting and making no sense. I worry about who I am for people, so when this has come up, I’ve cross-referenced with others who know me. The majority of people I know are fine with me, and I tend to trust that. So, here’s a poem on the subject…


What the actual fuck?


You’ve done it now, you’ve looked at me

And so there grows inside your head

Some version of a Nimue

Based on some little thing I said.


A Nimue I can’t control

Who lives a life I cannot see

And does the things you thinks she does

And does not owe that much to me.


The Nimue inside your hear

Can bear the weight of your projection

Be the villain of your tale

Blamed for your feelings of dejection.


The Nimue inside your head

May crave a torrid love affair

And offer great, or ghastly things.

I do not know. I was not there.


Blame me for who you think I am

Rage ‘gainst what you think I do

The Nimue inside your head

Is mostly made of you.


But once I’ve taken residence

Uncanny things may come to pass.

Your inner me could act like me,

And kick your sorry arse.

Breaking your reality

We do all to a certain extent choose our realities, because the way in which we interpret experience informs how we think and feel about it. While there are limits on how much we can change our reality by thinking about it (I am so not a chaos magician) the scope for difference is vast. No amount of positive thinking would turn this awkward body into a ballerina, but the ability to imagine I could be graceful would make the difference between dancing and not dancing.

We make theories about life based on experience. It is entirely possible to draw fairly reasonable conclusions that are entirely wrong. We try to find meaning in what happens to us, and that’s a very subjective process. Where we place the power in those judgements makes worlds of difference. Do I see an event of proof of failure and that I am therefore a failure? Do I see it is bad luck and worth another try? Do I see someone else as responsible for thwarting me? Get that wrong and I can start to build a reality that will get me into trouble. Believe I am thwarted and I might start feeding a paranoid persecution complex.

Sometimes, when a wonky reality is really embedded, the only way forward is to break. Sometimes there can be no tidy dismantling of the messy thinking. If your whole reality is a mess, based on dubious premises, then letting go of it will, for a while at least feel like madness. This is a huge incentive not to let go. Sometimes the road to sanity and health does require us to go a bit nuts first. I’ve been through some of this, needing to shift from a belief that I entirely deserved everything that had gone wrong for me. Holding everyone else blameless, I had carried guilt and feelings of being an absolute failure. For them to be right, and ok, I must be so awful that I barely qualified as a proper person. More like a straw doll. Changing that was quite a traumatic process, and it has redefined a significant number of relationships.

It doesn’t always have to be that dramatic. The process described above was one I had little conscious control over. My life and mind fell apart, there was nothing to do but work through that. However, choosing to dismantle a wonky reality, can be approached slowly and a bit more gently. We can set out to change our own thinking, and do that by changing what we do, or the spaces we move in. We are shaped by our environments, by the people we associate with, the things we do, or do not do, and small or modest shifts there can have considerable effects.

I’ve been working this year on changing my relationship with my body, and how I relate to people physically. Initially I thought that would just be about learning to do some things differently, but it is changing my thinking so that I can now see how my thinking needs to change in order to progress. At the moment I’m just trying to unpick what it is that I think and feel, because in understanding that, I might be able to make some conscious changes, or plan some experiments to help me find other perspectives.

Holding together all questions of reality, is that huge issue of “who am I?” Working out what of our experiences are a reflection of self, and defining of who we are. Working out what is just ‘stuff that happened’ and should not be taken personally. How much of that is choice? Do we simply become the bits of our life experience that we choose to internalise? If that’s the case, there is a lot of scope for choosing, and for shifting our realities.

Nature in vibrant abundance

I’ve been walking most of the afternoon. I saw buzzards, heard an owl, saw countless butterflies of many different species and numerous grasshoppers. There were several different species of wild mint, and the tiniest frog I’ve ever seen. I also found a couple of good fossils and one of those caterpillars that dangle from trees. Aside from the duration, this was in many ways a normal sort of walk. Even in urban landscapes, when I go out, I tend to see things. On occasion I’ve interrupted other people’s rituals to point out the visitors – falcons, rodents… I figure when nature shows up to a Druid gathering, Druids ought to care about that.

I have no idea what I’m like to walk with – possibly a little challenging because a big part of my brain is always alert to what’s around me. As a consequence, I’ll break conversations to point at things. The plus side is getting to see all manner of things that might otherwise have been missed, but I find it unspeakably difficult to give anyone my undivided attention for long. As the facebook meme goes, I’m on a highway to… oh look! A Squirrel! Put me in a large city with a lot of noise and movement, and after a couple of days my mind starts to crumble. I’m quite aware that, had I not been a fairly bright child in a not excessively stimulating environment, I’d have probably got some kind of attention deficit diagnosis along the way, and drugged into not doing this stuff.

The thing is that I like being able to spot rodents in the grass by hearing them, I like noticing beetles and grasshoppers. I see a lot of birds, I spot unusual wildflowers precisely because I’m not tuning most of it out. What in many situations would be treated as a problematic medical condition, to me is a wonder and a joy, and part of the way in which I engage with the natural world. I’m also aware that for much of human history, this would be life or death stuff – this kind of awareness is essential for being either a hunter or a gatherer. Which makes treating it as wrong feel a bit uncomfortable to me. It is the habitats we have created that are wrong, not the people in them.

This is just one of the many ways in which being closer to nature, more aware, more involved, more intuitive, more perceptive, is pathologised and treated as unhealthy by wider culture. The things we are, as Pagans are so often at odds with the things we are told we should want. Why watch a television when you can gaze at the amazing structure of a flower, or watch the birds? The details of life fascinate me. The small beauties and wonders take my breath away. I keep looking out of the window as I type this, watching the way light is falling on the horse chestnut leaves. So far no squirrel, but it’s probably just a matter of time…

Whose universe is it?

In the last week or so, a collision of two books has got me thinking about the nature of reality and how we relate to it. (Jack Barrow’s The Hidden Masters and the Unspeakable Evil was one of them). For the magician, the self is the centre of the universe, and the will / imagination can direct said. I’m a long way from being an expert, but as I understand it, holding that belief is rather necessary if you want to go about doing magic. Now, on the Zen side, Jo points out there is one universe and we’re not the centre of it and if we can learn to see ourselves as part of the flow we’ll be able to get along a lot better.

I find both ideas compelling, and after some serious pondering I have come to the conclusion that these things are probably both true. One universe where you are not the centre, another where each of us the centre of his or her own universe and able to shape it by force of will. The life we live, the way we experience things, the choices we make – come down so often to our perceptions and beliefs. If I believe the universe is out to get me, I’ll see proof of that in every setback, and will resolutely ignore the opportunities that came with the setbacks, potentially to my own detriment. If I believe that I am divinely inspired with a special job to do, I’ll look around me and see proof of that in every rainbow and cupcake that comes my way. We see what we want to see.

What’s probably least helpful is bumbling through life without any deliberate choice about how to engage with the world. I don’t mean a ‘go with the flow’ attitude here, I mean a total lack of engagement with anything. The kind of blinkered view that makes it impossible to connect outcomes to actions, to predict how what we do today might shape our options for tomorrow, and to be able to see how other people’s motives might affect things. I’ve encountered that kind of wilful blindness, that refusal to see how what we do influences what we get, often coupled with an inability to imagine that other people are different from us, want different things and react in different ways.

I’m not sure it entirely matters what your relationship with the universe is. I am utterly convinced of the importance of having a considered approach to living and being. Even if that doesn’t fit into an existing idea about how to do things. But then, I’ve also seen so many human relationships conducted with no consciousness of cause and effect, or the implications of difference, too. Things work better when we pay attention to them, think about them, and do not take them for granted.

I am the centre of my own little universe. I am also aware that everyone around me is the centre of their own little universe too, no one of these any more important than any other, all of them able to influence how my bit of reality functions for me, all of them potentially influenced by what I do. Perhaps it could be a lot simpler than that, but I find this perspective works enough for me, so it’ll do for now.