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Blog #13 – on ‘seeing as if for the very first time’

Recently someone commented on the title of my new book - Understanding Phenomenological Reflective Practice in the Social and Ecological Fields – basically saying ‘the title lost me’. ‘Yep’, I thought, ‘fair enough’ – aware it’s the word phenomenological that gets to people. Too academic; too wordy; almost impossible to even say. I actually prefer the title Three Rivers Flowing but that’s a long story.

What is the ‘phenomenological’ about? The best definition that I’ve ever heard is basically - to see as if for the very first time. Put in perspective, most of our seeing is abstract – we see ‘things’ or ‘objects’ or ‘representations’ of the phenomena. A tree becomes the abstract image of a tree – because we don’t have time, or make time, to go and look at the actual tree in front of us. In the same way, an ‘annoying neighbour’ has become the object we now see as ‘an annoying neighbour’ – also an abstraction and a subjective perception. A relationship has become a ‘difficult relationship’ – again, a representation of a relationship that can in fact shift if we, ‘the seer’, see it differently and with more nuance and in constant change.

As such, phenomenological seeing is to recognise this play of perception that is always present. Do we settle with the easy abstractions – a tree as thing, a neighbour as object, a relationship as difficult – and get stuck in that way of seeing? Or do we stretch ourselves and recognise that we can pause, and step into a perceptive perspective that actually sees something or someone as ‘if for the very first time’, afresh, with ‘beginners mind’ as the Buddhists might say. It’s to take some responsibility in recognition that it’s more about us the ‘seer’ that determines what (and how) things are seen.

Imagine if we were to try to do this – to see ‘as if for the very first time’ – in our stuck and settled relationships, our routinised and rhythmic days, our hustling and bustling work-places?

How could we do this as a daily living practice? Perhaps notice that tree you’ve walked past 100 times; or smile and wave at that annoying neighbour – ask them how their day is going; or try to remove the impulse of naming that relationship ‘difficult’ and see what happens. Rather than trying to change anything, try to change how we perceive. Then we’re on the phenomenological journey.

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