“Amazing, isn’t it?”
The words caught me off guard, but they were clearly addressed to me, and seemed to match my thoughts exactly. A moment earlier a blond-headed little boy had, in plain view of his parents and a half dozen passers-by, pitched a half-eaten ice cream at the garbage can, missing completely and hitting the retaining wall not far from my seat on the bench. They continued down the boardwalk without a word.
When the stranger spoke I think I nodded or harrumphed or made some other corresponding gesture of disapproval. But when I looked up, I was surprised to see the old man was smiling and gesturing at the ocean, and had either missed or ignored the minor injustice that had me so appalled. The sarcastic tone I heard in his comment belonged entirely to my train of thought. He meant only what he said.
I still don’t know exactly why he bothered to stoop and say that to me — unless my preoccupied state was obvious to him even through my poker face and sunglasses, and he knew exactly what to say to reset my perspective.
After speaking to me, he turned back to the ocean and I followed his gaze. It was too ordinary for a postcard: blue sky, blue ocean, no clouds. But it had me like the dancing plastic bag in American Beauty.
My train of thought had been effectively derailed, and I was able to forget myself for a moment, thanks to that random man who said the right thing at the right time. I had been totally lost, for most of the day. It was like when a noisy fan clicks off, which you never realize was running until the moment it no longer is, leaving the most unexpectedly silent silence.
I believe life with that noisy fan is the normal state of human consciousness. This was my thirtieth day on the coast of Australia. I’d been to the beach every day. It was a sunny one like most of them, and at a casual glance this ocean scene wasn’t especially captivating, particularly for coastal Australians who see it every day. Yet he was completely taken in, and so was I.
Thought-killing moments like that do happen, but often it takes something that’s particularly forceful on one’s attention. A flaming sunset, say, is exclusive and dramatic enough to wrest anyone’s attention away from their preoccupations, at least for the fleeting few minutes when it’s at its loudest, visually.
But just as often, I’ve looked at something much more ordinary at the precise moment my head-chatter cuts out, and found myself captivated in the exact same way. A dog sniffing a curb. A old playing card in a garbage can. A swirl in my coffee. There is an unmistakable significance that can be seen in all of them, but usually we’re not really looking.
This kind of moment has been happening more and more often. The most encouraging part of it is that it doesn’t seem to matter what the content of the scene is, only whether I’m aware enough to absorb it without assessing its implications to my personal interests. When my interests and preferences aren’t informing the picture — when I am not looking at it in terms of what it’s adding or taking away from me — it’s like I can watch it without being there. I am alive and aware without the normal heaviness of being a needy, self-obsessed human being. And that is where beauty is found.
I know now that this captivating quality is always there to be seen, not just in classically picturesque locations like beaches but in parking lots, produce aisles, snowbanks and people’s faces. But it can only be noticed when thinking isn’t the prominent feature of the landscape.
This state is an anomaly for almost everyone, but I think we all know it to some degree, as an occasional acquaintance. Trains of thought seem to be bent on creating new ones constantly. I suspect that for most of us, our thinking is the prominent feature of the landscape, almost all of the time.
Our thinking is such a prominent feature of nearly every scene we witness, it can be hard to imagine that we can still be there to see the world when thought isn’t around. Indeed, most people probably live and die without ever detecting a distinction between their thinking minds and themselves.
Next time you think of it, ask yourself: Where is my mind right now? Where has it been this last hour? Are my thoughts the prominent feature in my current landscape?
I’m convinced that this same, captivating significance is present in every scene, waiting to speak to you whenever you offer it a chance. It’s unbelievably patient. It could wait a lifetime.
Photo by David Cain