The theory and practice of creativity—culled from the lifetime of experiences of an esteemed art educator/therapist, Shaun McNiff. In Imagination in Action with proven techniques, he’s discovered for jump-starting the creative process.
Dynamics of Witnessing:
What We See and Miss
We practice witnessing with the assumption that every act and gesture, no matter how seemingly small or irrelevant, is a bearer of expression. Our purpose is to be as attentive as possible, realizing that our attitudes, vantage points, and degree of awareness will influence what we see and miss. By looking from different and unaccustomed perspectives wee may see more.
When witnessing another person we also realize how there are many elements of expression and action happening at the same time. I refer to this as the principle of simultaneity, which entails what we call sacrifice, since it is not possbile for any of us to focus on everything happening in a given moment.
For example, if I am looking at the right hand moving, I may not be able to see the left hand, the person’s facial expressions, and other aspects of the body’s movement. When two or more people are working together and being witnessed, this dimension is magnified.
I call it a sacerifice because it is a definite loss, something we give up in order to concentrate on the chosen object. It is a necessary part of the overall process that underscores how human perception operates.
When concentrating on the present moment as a witness, I will often consciously shift from highly focused perception to an emphasis on peripheral vision, while also concentrating on sounds and bodily sensations. The witnessing process may move in and out of a detailed focus within the whole field of eprception. Even the most circumscribed points of contact, like a person drawing on a small surface, present this variety.
Rules that Further Expressiveness and Perception
Experience suggests we are more apt to move in and out of awareness. Sometimes the concentration happens immediately and then it is lost. Rather than try to fight or prevent loss of contact, I find it helps to accept is as natural, and this helps refocus attention and discovery.
Witnessing demostrates how the creative process is a discipline in which action and perception move steadily at some times, and unpredicably at others. The different modes complement one another.
The witnessing process gives us opportunities to consciously experiment with these dynamics. Sometimes we latch on to a discovery and stay with it, thus missiing other options for perception.
If I see something a person does as helping to answer a question I am addressing in my life, this might so completely occupy my attention that I lose contact with other opportunities.
The same thing happens when writing or painting, where I latch on to an idea and lose others that may be moving through me at the time. The perceptions of writers and readers correspond to these dynamics of witnessing, as do streams of consciousness in making and listening to music. When the process is operating at optimum levels, it is a truly oscillating dynamic of gain and loss, concentration and letting go.
Practice: Revisiting and Playing it Again and Again
My experience in the museum is an example of how fascinating it is to return to places or look at photographs of ourselves in a particular context to explore what we saw and remember and what was completely missed. I experience this vividly in reading literature, listening to music, watching a favorite film, or returning to a meaningful place form the past. The quality of a book or any other artistic expression is related to its ability to invite ongoing engagement and discovery.
Where some might focus on the negative aspects of what is missed or unseen, I prefer to concentrate on realizing the completeness of each engagement and the bounteous nature of expression and life. Perception by nature concentrates on focal points and has the potential to constantly see new things. This is one reason why I discourage fixed interpretations and emanings. They guard against the new and the surprises of imagination.
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