Meaning at the Margins
Updated: Sep 6, 2021
In modern culture we are taught to focus mentally. When we focus visually, both of our eyes look at the same point in space. At the same time, the margins or periphery of our visual fields are different for each eye. Without our being aware of it, the brain compares the differences in the periphery and makes a calculation of how far away the focused-upon object is from us. One can easily see the evolutionary advantage of focus if one is hunting with a projectile or gauging the distance of another person or animal, who may or may not be friendly. In contemporary Western culture, we are often taught to keep our focus on a goal, as if we were hunting.
But there is another kind of seeing, which is intentionally not focusing. This is very different from being unfocused. I first became consciously aware of this kind of seeing after I became a student of Tibetan Dzogchen meditation: one keeps the eyes open, lids slightly lowered and relaxed, taking in (preferably) a wide vista without the eyes being focused on one object. The entire scene stays in view. Try this for a few minutes and see how it feels! Do you notice patterns and interrelationships that would have been missed by focusing?
Such a wide focus would be ideal when trying to find something, such as an edible plant if you are a hunter gatherer. Rather than actively focusing and looking for something, try this wide-view-seeing and allow what you are looking for to emerge from the background. It is also valuable if you are not the predator but the prey and want as wide a visual field as possible.
If trying to solve a problem, it likewise can be quite useful to stop focusing on it for a while, perhaps go for a walk, and just possibly ideas that had been at the periphery or just below conscious awareness, will come to mind.
Likewise, scientists are discovering the importance of organisms that had escaped their notice, that seemed like background to the organisms that sere in the foreground. An example is the uninteresting fungi that, it turns out, serve as networks among tree roots and the bacteria in our digestive systems that affect our mental health (to be taken up in future blogs).
Last-but-far-from-least: We are only beginning to recognize the effects on society as a whole when some groups of people are marginalized.
Over a hundred years ago, William James drew attention to the margins of awareness. Steven Herrman writes about it in his book, William James and C.G. Jung.
The late Eugene Taylor, in his book Williiam James on Consciousness Beyond the Margins (Princeton University Press, 1996)