Seeing the Big Picture

"To see things as they are the eyes must be open; to see things as other than they are, they must be open even wider; to see things as better than they are, they must be open to the full."

Antonio Machado

"Genius . . . means little more than the faculty of perceiving in an unhabitual way"

William James

One of the problems with being physical creatures is that we tend to get closed in by our senses. The sights and sounds and feelings of living are so compelling that we humans are constantly refocusing our attention on the sensation of the moment. We get accustomed to the way we feel in our body and the types of input we get from our surroundings. We develop habitual ways of perceiving the world, just as we develop habitual patterns of thought.

Some of us are optimistic; some are pessimistic. Some of us typically feel in control of our destiny. Others of us typically feel victimized by circumstances. Our thought patterns feel right to us, and we build defenses to make our thought patterns and belief systems appear reasonable. As we build our way of perceiving the world and build our habits of thinking about ourselves and the world, our experience becomes circumscribed by those patterns. Just as an infant is able to learn any language, but later will find languages more difficult to learn, as we grow up we may lose the capacity to see the world in ways much different from those that are familiar to us.

If we are afraid to appreciate different kinds of food, art, and music, or are afraid to interact with people who are different than we are, life will be pretty plain. If we only spend time with people who think as we do, our thinking will likely be narrow. A healthier way of living is to open up to life's possibilities. When we seek to perceive the world always with fresh senses, we come to appreciate different points of view, different aesthetics. Being open to seeing the world as if through the eyes of others we grow in compassion.

The broad minded thinker sees possibilities where another sees only problems. The person who can put emotional experiences into context can experience pain without being brought down by suffering. They look beyond the immediate circumstances, and place suffering and joy into a great mosaic of emotions that is life.

When we keep our focus too tightly on the little part of the world we inhabit, when we become overly involved in our personal losses and gains, we can easily fall victim to disappointment and despair. When we open our minds to the bigger picture, when we open our hearts to other people, our daily rising and falling loses some of its urgency. We learn to weather our emotional storms. We find that our interest in others is reflected in other people's interest in us. Being more giving, we receive more in return.


As you go about your activities, notice your patterns of evaluating your experience. Do you tend to be negative about things that happen around you?

How would your life be if you gave up negative or pessimistic thoughts?

When you find yourself being negative or pessimistic, see if you can reframe your response to be more positive.

Look more at the big picture. If you had a loss, did anybody gain? If you had a gain, did anybody else lose as a result?

Spend time in meditation this week just allowing your thoughts and sensations to come without evaluating them. If you have a sensation in your body, go into it more deeply before labeling it pleasure or pain. When you have a thought, see if you can let go of your need to evaluate the thought or to link it to another. Go for the pure experience of sitting quietly with your mind. Look beyond the flurry of thoughts and sensations. What else is there?

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© 1998-2006 Tom Barrett