by John Rockwell

A while back, I read an article about “plant blindness.” When shown a picture that shows a pair of elephants in a clearing and asked what they see, virtually everyone says, “Two elephants.” Even when the question is repeated, “What do you see?” people persist in saying “Elephants,” as if the questioner were stupid or blind. No one says that they see grass and trees, much less describes the type of plants. The biologists lament this lack of appreciation for the greenery that is our constant background. They point out that plants are just as important and in fact make up the base of the food chain that supports our existence. This lack of connection and community with the plant world can ultimately support a life style and work ethic that is destructive to our environment. What we don’t perceive, we have no feeling for. What we have no feeling for, we don’t care about. What we don’t care about, we can destroy and feel nothing amiss. Of course, by destroying the plant world, we are undermining our own existence. 

When I told this story to my wife, she said, “What about the air and oxygen that support the plants?” At first, I felt irritated that she was making a simple example too complicated and missing the point. Then I realized the wisdom in her words. When we look at the picture, the elephants are in the foreground. We generally focus on the foreground as the most interesting event and ignore the background. If we expand our awareness, we can include all the green plants, bushes, trees, and the like. If we look further, we can see the sky and clouds in the background and the earth as the literal ground out of which the plants grow and on which the elephants walk. We can infer from the clouds the presence of water vapor and rain that water the plants and nurture and bathe the elephants. If we contemplate the picture even further, we can intuit the presence of space that accommodates everything in this picture. Space blindness is just as prevalent.  

When Chögyam Trungpa was teaching a class at the University of Colorado in Boulder, he drew a flying bird on the blackboard and asked the students what this was a picture of. After a long silence, a brave student finally took the bait and said, “A bird.”  After another silence, Trungpa Rinpoche replied, “Actually, it’s a picture of space.” 

This brings us to an even more fundamental blindness, the blindness toward our own mind. When we look at the picture, we are doing so with a particular mindset. Hence, all the different kinds of blindness are possible. What we see is our own mind reflected back to us. Yet we again focus on the foreground, the picture, as if that is what the world is. We habitually live in a small mind surrounded by a vast world of awareness. Realizing our mind blindness is a first step. In fact, it’s always possible to open our heart and senses and appreciate this rich and limitless world right now. 

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