Many years ago I taught myself to draw using a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. Her premise is that anyone who can hold a pencil and make a straight line can draw. The problem is that we don’t see what is in front of us because our thinking mind – the left side of the brain – hijacks our perception. The mind thinks it already knows what things look like and that blinds it to the actuality.
Look at a straight-sided mug, for instance. It appears to have straight sides with an ellipse at the top and a partial ellipse at the bottom. But if you draw that you get pointy bits where the sides meet the top and bottom edges, whereas in reality these places are rounded.
The book contains a number of exercises to make you really look at things, such as drawing the irregular spaces between objects that the mind can’t guess at. I was amazed at how quickly my drawing improved once I learned to look.
Just so with our other perceptive faculties, for example listening. Those of us who teach will, I’m sure, have had the experience of explaining something perfectly clearly, and possibly more than once, only to find out later that a student thought we said something completely different because that was what they already had in their mind and so did not hear what we actually said.
Once we know that this is how our mind works we can cultivate the ability to let go of thought and perceive more clearly. Just as I could learn to see and draw more accurately, we can become aware of how our thoughts can prevent us from hearing what is being said, or understanding the reality of a situation. The following quote from Shunryu Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind gives us a clue:
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.