Sunday, June 23, 2013

Cardinal or Can of Coke?

I am playing T'ai Chi outside at Harvard Business school yesterday early morning (before teaching a class there - yes, on a Saturday!), and I see a cardinal (bird, not prelate) flying around. Every now and then I see him as I turn, catch him out of the corner of my eye; but also every now and then I would think I see him only to find that my attention has been caught by a red Coke Can that someone has discarded on the lawn. 

It is obvious that my mind is projecting a cardinal when I am really looking at a Coke can. The cardinal is in my mind. The not-so-obvious and even profound thing that occurs to me is that I am probably not seeing the cardinal EVEN WHEN I AM ACTUALLY LOOKING AT THE CARDINAL, that I am seeing the SAME projection of a cardinal that my mind furnishes when I look at the red Coke can. 

Suddenly everything shifts and I start SEEING what I am looking at, without filter or expectation. The remainder of my T'ai Chi workout is pretty sweet. The lesson is deep and memorable.

It is pretty good indication that whenever I look at something I don't actually see what is there. I usually see what I expect to see from my past experience of the thing - my mind furnishing the image from its' memory banks that most closely corresponds to the thing I think I am seeing. When that thing actually is a cardinal it is almost impossible to notice that I am really seeing a projection rather than the real thing. When the cardinal is a Coke can, the phenomenon is much more obvious - (thank you Coke Can for the lesson!).


  1. Lovely! And the Native Americans could not see the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria, at first, because they could never have imagined such a thing as tall ships.
    Me wonders, what would the parallel bird be with a Pepsi can?

  2. Thanks for this great illustration of how the human mind – with its insatiable need to filter, assign meaning, create story, relive the past and ruminate on the future – keeps us removed from fully living the moment as well as from unity with whatever shares the moment with us.
    I’ll endeavor to recall your experience when I practice/play, but also why stop there when all life’s moments (T’ai Chi and otherwise) are so precious.. and so fleeting? Will we ever evolve to the point where we needn't have to hope to evoke this, but rather can LIVE it?
    (“bird, not prelate”.. too funny! )

  3. Very interesting experience. Do you have similar thoughts often?