As I was struggling for a focus today (this phrasing will seem a bit ironic or maybe just pertinent in a moment), I flipped through the flurry of Substack and other online newsletters I get most days, and which have been accumulating this week, clinking links, scanning many, reading a few, and then I came upon Kate Raphael’s recent post in her A Grain of Salt newsletter. It’s titled “Auditory Cortex,” an essay on problems she’s had hearing people (an interesting essay in and of itself).
She quotes Annie Dillard in Dillard’s essay “Seeing,” writing about two kinds of looking, or attention-giving: the first, looking with “a voracious gaze, attuned to every detail of the world” and the second what Dillard describes as “the kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” In her essay, Dillard adds “When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied.”
Dillard describes looking at a creek with a voracious eye and missing the moment of movement of a crayfish and “the glint of light on the silver backs of shiner fish.” Because her eye and other senses are so alert and searching, the movement happens “wherever she isn’t looking.”
“So I blurred my eyes and gazed towards the brim of my hat and saw a new world. I saw the pale white circles roll up, roll up, like the world’s tuning, mute and perfect, and I saw the linear flashes, gleaming silver, like stars being born at random down a rolling scroll of time. Something broke and something opened. I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone.”
Raphael adds: “With a softer gaze, less hungry eyes, Dillard dissolves into the world she observes.”
This practice of blurring one’s eyes is something done in meditation, though it’s usually refered to (as Raphael also describes it) as softening one’s gaze. (I mentioned this on Day 6, referring to it as “scanning without looking for or at anything in particular,” but in this case it’s not even scanning, just resting with eyes partially open without trying to see). Softening the gaze doesn’t automatically blur or unfocus the vision, but it can. Most of us probably are familiar with this — looking but not staring at a point not too far ahead and allowing our focus to slip sideways in its own time. When it does, the scene shifts, layers overlap, shapes and colours predominate, the quality of light may change, and what’s on the periphery is as noticable in a certain way as what’s in the center, perhaps more so.
And, it can feel like boundaries are dissolved, because firm edges disappear, not only the abutting edges of what you’re looking at but the edges of you. It’s not a safe place for everyone, but for some, it’s just the right place.
Raphael, who had been diagnosed with a sort of lazy auditory cortex and told to try harder, decides, after reading Dillard’s words, to try less hard. She decides to try to unfocus her ears,
“Let the sound reach me however it reaches me — a kind of hearing that, in Dillard’s words, involves a letting go. I don’t expect that this method will improve my overall comprehension of speech. But I do think it opens the door to hearing layers of life that I might otherwise chalk up to background noise.”
In letting herself hear what comes to her, as it comes to her, allowing her ears and auditory cortex to “absorb the sound, not interpret it or raise my hand as the pitch goes higher,” Raphael is inviting the ever-present unseen, unwritten world we live in, taking cues from marimbas, trash trucks, and other vibrations. I’m going to try it, too.