Observation, as distinct from Seeing!!

Most of the time, I have decided on the topic for the next blog. This time my mind was a total blank, a clean slate. I picked up things at random, ran through my earlier workshop notes, browsed through some of the old newspapers I had kept aside for some reason (and then forgotten the reason) and then, on top of a pile of books on my ‘to read’ books was this book entitled ‘Fables’ by Arnold Lobel. It has 20 fables — all one page each with eye catching illustrations. I kept reading them in sequence, stopping at some for a brief reflection and moving on. At number 16 was the fable of ‘The Elephant and His Son’ I read it a couple of times and the author’s suggestion of a take away from the fable was, ‘Knowledge will not always take the place of simple observation.

Quite contrary to what we believe!

This took me to a response I got to my previous blog on ‘hands’ from a reader which said “I read the rich exposition on ‘hands.’ You are such a marvellous observer and have the words to describe it. Thanks.” (Got a little teary eyed and did feel blessed with the appreciation.)

Was it a coincidence, or just me putting unrelated situations together and finding a topic for this blog? Yes, it is ‘Observation’.

No, no, I have not forgotten about the fable. But before you read the story, have a look at this picture and make a few of your own observations.

Picture taken from ‘Fables’ by Arnold Lobel

Here is the fable and I hope you enjoy it.

The Elephant and his son were spending an evening at home. Elephant Son was singing a song.

“You must be silent,” said Father Elephant. “Your papa is trying to read his newspaper. Papa cannot listen to a song while he is reading his newspaper.”

“Why not?” asked Elephant Son.

“Because Papa can think about only one thing at a time, that is why,” said Father Elephant.

Elephant Son stopped singing. He sat quietly. Father Elephant lit a cigar and went on reading.

After a while, Elephant Son asked, “Papa, can you still think about only one thing at a time?”

“Yes, my boy,” said Father Elephant, “that is correct.”

“Well then,” said Elephant Son, “you might stop thinking about your newspaper and begin to think about the slipper that is on your left foot.”

“But my boy,” said Father Elephant, “Papa’s newspaper is far more important and interesting and informative than the slipper that is on his left foot.”

“That may be true,” said Elephant Son, “but while your newspaper is not on fire from the ashes of your cigar, the slipper that is on your left foot certainly is!”

Father Elephant ran to put his foot in a bucket of water. Softly, Elephant Son began to sing again.

Having read the fable, check your observations with that of Elephant Son.

Did you see? Or did you observe?

For example, most would have seen the fire; however, did you observe that it was the left slipper/foot? Also, what could have caused the fire? Why is Elephant Father continuing to read the newspaper? Has he not observed or felt the fire?

I asked, did you see or did you observe?

There is a basic difference. Seeing involves a visual act.

Observation is a mental process that involves both seeing or visual, and thought or reflection.

At times observation is conscious, and at most other times it is unconscious.

Conscious observation is practiced in a number of professions and jobs. In professions like Medicine, a doctor often says, ‘we are keeping the patient under observation’. This is to monitor all necessary parameters for diagnosis or emergency action.

A psychiatrist or psychologist observes the client while having a therapy session — he or she does not hear only the words but focuses on tone of voice, eye movements, gestures and body language.

In Education, a teacher’s lesson is observed by a peer or a supervising authority based on parameters. A teacher observes a student.

A detective or a forensic scientist observes the surroundings for clues to solve a crime.

Sitting on a recruitment panel involves conscious observation of body language and much more.

Almost all professions and jobs require some degree of conscious observation, some much more scientific which demands the need for accuracy and objective documentation.

However, I am much more interested in unconscious observation, something that we engage in — all the time — in our daily life.

It is the little things: During this pandemic year, I am sure most of us would have found time to ‘stand and stare’. Just the small act of taking a short walk in our front yard, I find I am observing things that I only saw earlier.

Why do flowers look up and vegetables look and grow downwards?

Did the birds suddenly arrive or were they always there? The little Sunbirds, the Red Whiskered Bulbul — and that sets in motion, the curiosity to find out more.

Our tree of joy, the lime tree has been dropping tiny limes, must have lost over a hundred of them. The tree is not too well and is being treated.

That’s not all; observations while cooking — for example, the sugar would not caramelise for a cashew chikki (toffee) I was trying to make. Finally ended up with a white chikki, but why did the sugar not caramelise?

Observing expressions and interpreting the feelings behind the expressions. An observation of people’s behaviour (from behind my gate) after the lockdown was relaxed. No masks, no social distancing, 3 on a bike. It is as though the virus has taken its final bow!!

Sometimes the observations are unexpected, leading to reflection, interpretation, drawing inferences and conclusions. Have you noticed how observation can make one creative, insightful, excited, joyous and happy, yet at other times anxious and sad?

Observations really, ultimately force one to look within. Observe the feelings, the thoughts, the actions and grow — grow as a person. And when I grow, others grow along with me, through observation.

I would then have to agree with the learning from the fable, ‘Knowledge will not always take the place of simple observation’.

Observation is an educator, perhaps a prime educator.

And this reminds me of the immortal words of William Blake:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower”