What It’s like to Look When There’s No One Looking

Last night, Cindy and I drove to a friend’s birthday party on the other side of the Bay. On the drive there and on the drive back, I spent some of the time examining looking in more detail. At one point, I said to Cindy, “Holy shit! I just saw it again for a moment. That van is so real and alive. It’s being itself!”

I was referring to natural looking, which is looking without the preconception that there is someone looking. Phenomenologically, natural looking is almost exactly the same as normal, unnatural looking. There is, however, a subtle difference, which seems ungraspable. In natural looking, there is no subject looking at an object; there is only the looking. Whereas in unnatural looking, there seems to be a subject looking at an object.

We’re all experiencing natural looking much of the time, and especially when we’re deeply engaged with life. The problem, if there is one (which there isn’t), is that as soon as we start to become “conscious” of looking, the idea of a separate self comes in. Then we think that “I” am inside the head as the subject that is seeing the object. It’s as if a hazy veil is pulled over what is being looked at, and then it seems as though it’s not really being seen anymore.

When looking at something that is particularly attractive or beautiful, natural looking arises effortlessly. There is a forgetting of the self, the subject and object are allowed to be one, and the apparent object seems to come alive. But since there is no one to witness that, it’s usually never noticed and cannot be properly remembered. When the illusion of selfhood comes back, the veil is automatically pulled back in place and the apparent objects take on a sense of deadness. The self then uses memories of this selective externalized beauty to weave self-perpetuating stories about quests to attain it, which is impossible.

The more intense the illusion of self, the more the aliveness seems to be pulled into, and circumscribed, by the body. When particularly anxious or depressed, when the thoughts and feelings seem to be churning on the concept of selfhood, the world loses its vibrant aliveness, and seems cold, hostile, and dead. All of the life energy can even seem to become trapped in an impossible-to-define place where the non-existent self believes it resides.

So what is it like to look when there is no one looking? This body can look now at a plant next to this computer and report what is seen. When it’s revealed that there is no separation, the apparent object is vibrantly alive and new. It’s real in a way that makes me say, even if only internally, “wow!” It’s emanating being from inside itself; it’s not being witnessed by another, but being self-witnessed through its sheer existence. Paradoxically, even though there is no separation, the plant seems hyper-real and beyond three-dimensional.

There is actually nothing special or unusual about this. What is actually seen by the brain is no different than when there is unnatural looking. This “empty looking,” as Lisa Cairns calls it, often happens for all bodies, even though it cannot be remembered or appreciated. It’s extremely hard work to maintain the illusion of separation, to maintain the sense of self, and natural looking is therefore the default way of looking.