Meaning at the Margins
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
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 perhiphery or just below conscious awareness, will come to mind.
Likewise, scientists are discovering the importance of organisms that had escaped their notice, like the fungi that 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). We are only beginning to recognize the effects on society as a whole when society marginalizes certain groups of people.
Over a hundred years ago, William James drew attention to the margins of awareness.... to be continued