Vietnam: Deep Observation

Today, in our first writing class of the day, I talked about the Buddhist concept of “bare attention.” Bare attention means deeply looking into something — just really seeing it deeply. Stopping to really see, to really perceive with our senses. Taking the time to slow down and see. Just noticing what is. It is only from this kind of deep observation that we get to know something intimately – and as writers, that makes it possible for us to describe it in vivid detail. When we look in this way, we see more than just the surface of things. More than what we typically notice when our attention is brief, distracted or cursory.

Now that we were slowing down at this resort that has been so carefully orchestrated to be restful, I thought it was a good time to pull out this exercise in slowing down and bare attention. I asked the writers to go outside and find a 12″ by 12″ square out in nature – something that wasn’t moving like the ocean or the swimming pool, but rather, to choose something that seemed at first glance to be static and still: a pile of stones, a plant, a patch of grass, a fence post. The assignment was to sit in front of that square foot in silence and to deeply observe it for half an hour: without talking to anyone, moving, writing, or doing anything except visually exploring that single patch of nature before them. After the half hour of looking came a half hour of writing about that square foot – and the experience of studying it.

I sat in front of a plant in a pottery stand. I don’t even know the name of it (but now I want to find out!), and I just looked at it deeply. At first I noticed that it looked like a person squatting with six bowed legs holding it up. These trunks or legs were fatter at the base going into the planter than they were at the top. As I looked more, I noticed the incredible variations in color – from a burgundy to a gold to a green to a deeper green to a black. There were places where the “skin” of the plant was damaged – gouged, peeling, and nicked and I wondered how it had gotten hurt. I already was feeling attached to this plant, personifying it as a thing with feelings, which I suppose plants  have. How had it gotten hurt? How had it survived its bruises, gouges and nicks?

After ten minutes I noticed that two of the “legs” of the plant had a growth hanging down between them. “The plant has a penis,” I thought, delighted at the discovery. The more I looked, the more I wondered if the plant was growing up from the planter or down from the trunk. There were smaller sprouts going from the main “legs” down into the stones that covered the dirt in the planter. And it really looked like these new shoots, which were coming out in many places, were growing down and I had the feeling the whole plant was growing down from the trunk into the soil, but how could that be? How had the plant started if it didn’t start from a seed or a cutting in the soil? This made me think about the air plants I’ve seen that don’t grow on soil at all . . . and this made me want to know all about this plant. Its name. Its life cycle. Its beginnings. What it ate? If it needed to be fed or watered. Where it was from. By this time, my half hour was almost over. And I found myself reluctant to leave my plant. I loved its nicked multi-colored skin, its thick curvy legs, its squatting posture and so many other things I was only just beginning to discover.

And to think this plant was something I would have just walked by and barely noticed if I we hadn’t spent this half hour together. It makes me wonder, how many other things in my life do I walk by and miss all the time?

Just looking . . .


Observing . . .


Staring at the rocks . . .


Deep observation


This is what I saw


And this is what I saw



Here’s what I was looking at. Don’t you love it?


Owies! Ouch. What hurt me?


The penis:


Growing down or growing up?


New life?


Many colors


Doesn’t it look like the moon?


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