Seeing What’s Actually There

One of the most important things I learned at university was how to see. Architects communicate through drawing, so it’s important for them to learn to draw. Drawing well requires observing carefully; capturing what’s actually there as opposed to what you think is there. This is harder than it sounds. The mind keeps breaking in with shortcuts. “I know what this is. It’s the roof of a house. We know what the roof of a house looks like, don’t we? Just draw that.” The result is often an abstraction that has little to do with what’s actually there.

Knowing that your mind meditates between the world and what you’re trying to capture is an important lesson. If it isn’t pointed out to you, you may not know you’re doing it. You go along merrily introducing theories and abstractions that influence your perception of reality.

I’m teaching my students to observe systems in action. Systems are comprised of various elements that relate to each other in particular ways. When these elements interact, the system exhibits particular behaviors. Understanding how the system works and what it does requires observing these elements and their behavior over time. What are the elements? How do they influence each other? What happens when they do?

When I ask the students to explain what they’re seeing, they invariably respond with a mix of observations and theories. Often, the theories have little to do with what’s actually happening. Interestingly, the observations they report are clearly influenced by their theories. The students make assumptions about what they’re seeing based on what they believe is happening.

We all do this. Observing with equanimity is difficult. Our chattering mind constantly breaks in with explanations. We pine for coherence; we want reality to correspond to our mental models, rather than the other way ‘round. We must practice seeing clearly and impartially in order to get better at it, much as we practice to get better at sport. It’s an essential meta-skill that improves our ability to acquire other skills.