Welcome back to the Mindfulness in Nature series.
In the last lesson, we explored ideal qualities that make for a great Meditation Spot, which becomes a familiar place to continue building your mindful relationship with the outdoors. Today, we’ll delve into the art of perception, and introduce a key awareness skill that you can practice at your Meditation Spot, and also apply in many other areas of your life.
Understanding Projection and Mirroring
One of the ironies of awareness is that so much of how we perceive ourselves and the world is based on projection. As the senses take in the environment, the brain builds an inner map of what’s happening from the sensory data, and gradually, creates meaning from this information. As we gain experience, the brain takes what we know and builds a projection of what it expects the next time it encounters a similar situation.
For instance, have you ever watched a movie and noticed that the storyline is predictable, and you have a good idea of what’s going to happen next? In a way, your brain is constantly doing this with everything that it encounters. Researchers have identified mirror neurons that specialize in matching the actions and gestures of people and animals and even aspects of the environment around us. This constant mirroring allows the brain to build predictions about what might happen next.
For instance, if we see someone with a big smile and an open and relaxed posture, we probably sense they are in a joyous mood. Unconsciously, muscles in our face instantly activate with a micro smile of our own, and we probably feel relaxed, too. Most of this mirroring activity is happening beneath conscious awareness, and we don’t even realize it.
This adaptation gives us an extra edge if we need to take fast action because our brain has already modeled and projected what might happen next. In this case, we’ll probably greet the person, so our behavior is cued up for this response.
To save energy, the brain also uses projection when visually assessing the environment. When we look at the world, light moves into the eye, and then a signal is sent from the retina through the optic nerve and to the visual cortex, which is like the Pixar Lab of the brain. This is where the brain takes the electrochemical signals and starts to assemble them into an internal image.
So really, the brain is the place where seeing actually occurs. Amazingly, researchers note that up to 80% of what the brain “sees” is actually its own projection! Let that sink in for a moment. Information is streaming through your eyes and into the brain, and as it is assembled there, the brain calls up memories of similar patterns, trying to match them to the current scenario. If it’s a good match, the brain uses the memories to help assemble the perception.
In this model, it’s possible that only 20% of what’s appearing in front of you actually makes it into your visual awareness! It’s only when something unexpected happens that the brain seeks more information to compare with what it expects to be there.
As many of us have probably learned at some point or time, projection can get us into trouble when it leads us to make assumptions that end up being false. Whether it’s in a conversation at work, in a relationship at home, or in our own connection with Nature and ourselves, it can be very helpful to remember this brain principle and strive to look beyond our projections.
Since the brain has this natural tendency to project, how can we compensate for this? Zen meditation offers a helpful concept around this, of the Beginner’s Mind. Can we approach a moment as if we are new to the world, with fresh eyes, open senses, and a clear mind? Can we allow ourselves the gift of dropping away any preconceived notions or ideas around a situation and how it “should” be?
When we adopt this expansive mindset, we open our conception to new and greater possibilities. We begin to immerse in the true potential and power of the moment. This attitude positions us to be able to learn something new about ourselves and the world.
Today’s lesson is an invitation to purposefully put on this way of Being as a foundational practice in mindfully approaching Nature. Let’s get into meditation, where we’ll discover some prompts that can help us step further into this state of perception. I’ll guide you as if you are at your Meditation Spot, but you can also apply this most anyplace else, too.
Meditation: Soaking in the Moment
As you settle into your Meditation Spot, I invite you to take a deep breath. Breathe in Nature’s energy, and feel it filling you up. As you exhale, release any tension that you don’t need, and allow your body to relax. Feel the pull of the ground beneath you, and allow your body’s structure to support you.
Now, look ahead of you towards the horizon, and allow your sense of Expanded Vision to open up, as your eyes soften. Allow yourself a few moments to simply take in the big picture of everything around you.
Note how you can sense the sky and the ground at the same time… and observe the quality of the light, shadows, and shapes in the environment. Just be aware of your breathing for a few moments, gently breathing in and out as you observe your surroundings…
Now that you’ve settled in and checked in with the big picture, we’re going to begin a practice I call Sponge Awareness. Because only a small amount of what’s going through your senses can actually register in your conscious mind at any moment, we’re going to allow our senses a chance to continue sensing what’s happening, in a very intentional way. This can be done with each sense, but we’ll start with the sense of sight.
Looking down, notice the ground around you. Observe the textures, colors, and patterns on the ground. Let your eyes scan around you, sweeping gradually out from close by your body, to further away into the distance. One each sweep, seek to notice at least one new thing about the ground. Be like a sponge, simply absorbing what’s there. Pause the recording, and do this now.
Next, look around you a bit further above the ground, at the tops of many plants, shrubs, or the base of the trees around you. Again, allow your vision to sweep out from near to far, and with each sweep, seek to notice a few new qualities or observations about what you see. Pause the recording and do this now.
Finally, look higher up above you, and repeat this process, looking several times at what’s happening around and above you. Realize as you do this, that Nature is constantly changing. What’s happening at your Meditation Spot today is different than what was happening there yesterday, even if the changes are subtle. Tomorrow, too, will be a different story.
A helpful inquiry to bring with you on each visit is, “What are five to ten new observations I can make about this place today? Or about myself?” You might wish to carry a small pocket notebook to jot down a few observations along the way. Every visit is a chance to deepen the experience of the Beginner’s Mind and realize more of what this practice has to teach you.
I’ll catch you in the next lesson, where we’ll explore more about our own presence and what it communicates to the rest of Nature.
For instance, consider how long it takes a child to learn a language. Day by day, the young child observes adults speaking, and eventually recognizes the meaning of certain words. Eventually, with a lot of practice, the child starts speaking to themselves and learns to string words together in meaningful sentences. So, perceiving language is a skill that takes time to build and develop. This is true of other forms of perception, too. We can envision in this scenario what’s happening in the brain:
Projection vs beginner’s mind. Expectation and making assumptions is a double-edged sword.