With my indoor time exponentially increased by Old Man Winter, I’ve been looking for movies and books to keep me busy. I was recently stumbled upon On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz (author of Inside of a Dog). The book is structured around 11 walks that Alexandra takes in her neighborhood with different experts – a geologist, a physician, a sound designer, a child and even a dog – in an effort to see the world how they see it. It was the just the sort of mindful exercise that resonates with me these days. I often find myself rushing through my day, barely noticing much of anything around me.
The book and the idea of paying more attention as we move through our day was the inspiration for this week’s DS Hashtag Challenge #DSLOOKING. As you go about you day, take a photo of something you notice, maybe it’s something that you pass by every day – a particular color of a door or maybe a display at the grocery store – anything that strikes you no matter how mundane. Share what you see – either email, Tweet or Instagram it with the hashtag #DSLOOKING by the end of the month and we’ll post our favorites on D*S! –Amy
To get you inspired, we asked author Alexandra Horowitz a few questions about what she learned when she began looking with expert eyes. See our interview after the jump!
Design*Sponge: In the book, you tell the story of walking behind a scientist who is so intent on what she was looking for that she steps right over $60. Does this mean that it’s impossible to focus on multiple things at once or it is a part of training yourself? Did you find it was better to focus on one aspect of of mindfulness?
Alexandra: She was a wonderful example of how “selective” attention is: yes, we simply can’t pay attention to everything at once. This is useful! There are innumerable things “happening” around you right now, things to see or hear — to say nothing of what is happening outside your window, or in your head. On the other hand, sometimes we turn blinders off to all but “what’s in our head”, especially when we are walking through a familiar environment, and so we miss obvious, or interesting (or both!) things right in front of us.
You do have to make some choice where your attention is going to go — but there’s an important fact hidden in that statement. It is that you can make some choice (unless you are being attacked by a tiger, in which case your body takes over). Most of the time we seem to forget that we can learn to move our attention around, and focus it on things we find valuable and meaningful. In my mind, being “mindful” is being open to attending to things happening around you, not just attending to your own list of to-dos in your head.
Design*Sponge: Did you find that looking so closely on this walk spilled into other areas of your life? Maybe changed your awareness on other walks or doing mundane tasks?
Alexandra: Certainly my walking behavior has changed a lot since writing the book. I don’t always pay attention to what’s around me, of course, but now I often make a deliberate attempt to simply notice my environment on my walk. I look up more. I enjoy the richness of the outdoors, even in the city. I also found myself much more interested, even, in others’ perspectives — in how differently everyone sees the same scene.
Design*Sponge: Do you feel every street is applicable to what you did here and if you don’t have an expert, how can you change the way you look at a space?
Alexandra: For my book, I deliberately walked on “ordinary” streets — not ones where there seemed to be something interesting, or architecturally noteworthy, or beautiful to look at. The point was exactly that there is something of interest on any street — one simply has to look.
I love that question: “if one doesn’t have an expert handy…what do you do?” I did choose people whose perspectives — borne of their careers, or their constitution — would, I thought, let them notice something different on a street than I do. But none were experts in walking and seeing things, note. I walked with doctors, wildlife researchers, artisits…these are just people! One of my realizations has been that I could have asked anyone to walk with me and show me what they saw on a walk. Everyone has a distinct perspective, and I’m willing to wager that if only you can get people to point out what they see, it won’t be the same kind of things as you see. The tricky part is the latter: getting people to realize that they could articulate what they see, and that it might be interesting to someone else. Well, it was interesting to me.
Design*Sponge: Do you think this is an exercise that has to be done with others? Could have gotten the same/similar result without the experts? Alexandra: Sure, you could. I think having an expert helps — when I walk with a doctor, I start looking at people. When I walk with a dog, I look at dogs. When I walked with a tree guy, we looked at trees. But if you were interested in architecture, and read up on architectural details, then taking a walk looking just at the facades of buildings would be really exciting. It helps to “prime” you to focus your attention on the walk. I think this is “common-sensical” to some degree: if you start thinking about becoming pregnant, suddenly you notice all the pregnant people around. If you become a person who wears dapper hats, you notice the other be-hatted (or not).