Tuesday, June 24, 2014


An interesting and somewhat disturbing insight during meditation this morning.  Those who have attended one of my "Art of Looking" sessions know that I start out with the invitation for participants to drop all their preconceptions about the painting we'll be looking at--including those easy judgments about our likes and dislikes, what is good art, what is bad, and so on.  I explain that this is a prerequisite for taking a good, clear look at the painting, or else we end up looking in the mirror instead of what is on the wall in front of us.

So here's my insight: I realize that what I so persuasively preach against when it comes to looking at paintings, I find myself all too often practicing when it comes to people.  They talk too much, or they're uncommunicative.  They are cold and unfeeling, or sentimental.  They're too smart for their own good, or they're dumb.  They're blinded by their own religious persuasions, or lack all moral perspective.  They're beautiful, or not so beautiful.  They're interesting, or boring.  I instinctively like them, or dislike them.  So many judgments... and that's not even to bring up the subject of race, where judgment is so often veiled in social guilt and stereotype.

The trouble with all these judgments is precisely what I teach about paintings: they stand between me and the real person standing in front of me.  What I end up seeing is not the living, complex human being with whom I imagine I'm engaging, but a reflection of myself, a tangle of my own prejudices and preconceptions.  The irony, of course, is that I see it all so perfectly when I'm talking about art.  Yet in that still more important area of my life, I unknowingly cut myself off from my fellow human beings.

We tend to make snap judgments as short cuts, a way to reach a conclusion without all the work that's needed to make a real assessment of people, events or objects in the world outside ourselves.  They're a convenience to which we resort--whether consciously or not--to spare ourselves the necessity of genuine thought and effort.   We do so, though, at a cost.  People or paintings, if we want to know them, if we want to learn from them, if we want to appreciate them, we must put in the work.

Judgments, yes, are important.  We need to make distinctions, exercise discernment in our lives if we want to make good choices.  But our judgments should be based on careful thought and critical observation, not on prejudice and preconception.  Or else we end up, wherever we look, looking only at ourselves.

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