It is a normal and natural thing to become somewhat numb to the stimuli we encounter in the same way every day, for it would be far too much for our minds if we were to notice and acknowledge fully every thing that happens in every moment, over and over again.
That is, if we did not skim over or condense our experience into ‘things we’ve seen before’ so that we can pay full attention to ‘new things/annoying things/things we want more of’, we might go a bit nuts. Our brains and senses would be overstimulated by just sitting in our own living room, let alone functioning in the world.
This capacity to filter out and select things to pay attention to is called ‘anticipation’ in psychology and human development. Anticipation allows us to hold an image of ‘how things are’ in anticipation of them continuing in that manner, so that we don’t have to continually be re-noticing things that stay consistent. The shape of your computer, the color of your kitchen table, the sensation of being in your body…these are things that you include in your anticipatory experience.
This is all fine and good and a very natural part of our brains. Anticipation in fact is a necessary evolutionary tool, as it allows us to stay on high alert for things we’ve never seen before and which might want to eat us. If we spent all our time here having to constantly be aware of our consistent surroundings we would have very little capacity to notice incoming danger, thus this wonderful adaptation.
But in a world where less and less is actually trying to eat us, is it possible that anticipation may actually be working against us in our modern ways? Is it possible that the not seeing that happens for all of us—the not noticing of daily experiences—is contributing to our unhappiness and disengagement from life in a profound way, and that we should rethink this evolutionary tool in a modern and empowered context?
When you think about it, how many mind boggling things do we stop noticing just because they have become somewhat ‘mundane’ or predictable? How much of life do we not take full notice of with our senses and brains because we have, at some point, seen it before?
Take for example a hummingbird. This fantastic bird (that we might not take full notice of on most days) is a Lilliputian phenomenon that beats its wings at 200 times per second, and reflects the spectrum of light in impossibly small flashes of feather as though it might have been banished at one time from its rightful place in a rainbow. It is unbelievable in so many ways. Sure, you may have seen a hummingbird flying thousands of times before, and as a child might have engaged with the wonder of it momentarily because it was new, but when did a hummingbird become fit into your anticipatory model of the world so that you stopped noticing it? And is way of being actually serving your happiness, development and greater awareness, to not be fully aware with such a crazy fantastic thing?
Or think about the interface that exists between your body and the rest of everything: your lungs. Think about what you’re doing with every inhale, drawing energy and food in from your surroundings, absorbing it, filtering it, and then almost simultaneously releasing all that you don’t need or want. In every second we are breathing,either inhaling or exhaling, interacting with our surroundings in such an intimate way and yet not at all giving much thought to it in the least. Of course we can’t be aware of every single breath at every single moment—we would go nuts, as mentioned—but to take a moment to give attention, to get out of anticipation and this mental numbing, and really notice what is happening in our bodies. Is this not a grand route to awareness?
I have what you might call a hedonistic tendency, a view on life where I believe that the path to understanding and awareness is not through removing myself from the human and earthly experience, but through diving ever more deeply into it, surrounding myself with the infinite amount of pleasure to be derived from sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. I know that withdrawing into mental processes or isolated meditative practices forever is not my road—I have been given this body and these senses for a reason, and I intend to use them fully.
Engaging completely with the awe of being alive and all that we get to see and experience here is a route to profound happiness. There is beauty and complexity just waiting for us to come out of our numbed, anticipatory states, and it is through this beauty and complexity that we may come to blow our own minds (and hearts) wide open. Notice your world and let it touch your whole being today. Refuse to lose contact with the amazing quality of being here. Nothing is going to eat you in this moment, and it just might be the most powerful thing you do today to stop and take fully notice of what it feels and looks and sounds like to be you, right now.