Friday, Christmas Day, was a long day for my wife and me. We traveled to southern California in order to visit with our son and his wife for two weeks, and had the full holiday travel experience. A jammed plane, lots of crying children, and the usual airline food. We had an hour delay due to weather, but most of our fellow travelers remained patient and pleasant, and eventually we made it into the warm embrace of our loving son and his gracious wife.
It is easy on a day like this to not notice things, especially the people who serve us. At the airport there were so many people working on the holiday, and each person responded to our needs in the spirit of the Christmas season. Even the men and women at the security check points were very hospitable. My wife and I made it a point to express our gratitude to each of these people for working on Christmas Day. As we did so there was an unmistakeable air of fellowship among us, a true sense of the spirit of the Christian Incarnation.
It is not enough to simply “see” what is going on in our immediate environment in order to fulfill some function, or complete some task. This kind of sight is utilitarian, and while necessary it is hardly sufficient if it is our intention to live life abundantly. Living a full life requires that we are mindful of seeing, an active process in which we engage with the seen with curiosity and openness, a state of mind that leads inexorably to acceptance and love. It may sound odd to say that we were able to accept and love airport employees, but I think it is honest to say that we were accepting and loving toward the people we encountered on Friday.
Mindful curiosity is a pleasant state. When we sit and simply notice our breathing, then allow our awareness to be open to all of the activity of mind, and then notice that activity with acceptance, our curiosity naturally arises. Our mind becomes a source of wonder for us, and instead of being enslaved by its impulses and desires we learn to attend to its activity with skill, knowing when to follow the mind’s direction and when to recognize the mind’s desire for safety and control, conditions that may be quite unnecessary. This practice of mindfulness, of being curious and open to all experiencing, leads to a fullness of life defined by acceptance and love. And being accepting and loving translates to truly seeing all people, recognizing our inherent connectedness and shared humanity.
Being seen is a pleasant experience. When I am truly seen by another I feel a stirring within, hard to define and describe, but quite palpable. I feel known, as if my eyes were truly windows into my soul. When I am seen I may feel some fear stir as well. In that moment of being seen I become vulnerable. That fear can lead to a flight to safety, to becoming unseen once again, or even to becoming frozen in place, unable and unwilling to face the risk inherent in true relationship. But that fear is an energy, and if my practice is true and my mindfulness is one of curiosity and openness, then the energy of fear can be transformed skillfully into the courage I need to be accepted and loved. And then something wonderful happens: this person who has truly seen me is seen in return. And in the act of seeing, relationship arises, and now the spiritual ideal of agape, or charitable loving, the origin of the compassionate heart, comes into being.
“Being seen” is a curious phrase. On the one hand, it seems to connote a passive quality, that I am seen by another, if “being” is taken to be a verb. But what if we take “being” as a noun? Then the phrase connotes another meaning, that the most essential aspect of our existence, our very being, can be seen and experienced by another, and another’s most essential aspect of existence can be experienced by me. Imagine a world in which each person formed the intention to truly see and the willingness to be seen? Gandhi had it right when he said “you must be the change you wish to see in the world.” It begins with each of us, and it begins with our simple act of practicing mindfulness in each moment of each day.