What You See is What You Get

I preached the following sermon this past Sunday (August 11, 2013) at Conejo Valley UU Fellowship, the congregation I serve.

American Buddhist Joseph Goldstein tells the story of a friend’s son who was asked by his first grade teacher “What is the color of apples?” Most of the children answered red. A few said green. The friend’s son raised his hand and said white. The teacher explained that apples could be red, or green or even golden but never white. The little boy raised his hand and said, “Look inside.” Goldstein tells this story and then tells us, “Perception without mindfulness keeps us on the surface of things, and we often miss other levels of reality.”

“It is that simple – what you see is what you get,” writes Annie Dillard in her classic book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She could have easily have written, “How you see is what you get” or “you are the one assigning meaning to this chip of copper, this muskrat kit paddling from its den, this apple….”

Dillard’s way of seeing and assigning meaning emerges from a year spent in a cabin by herself observing Tinker Creek and the mountains that surround it. We can learn from Dillard’s year in the woods, just as we learn from reading earlier transcendentalists like Thoreau, Emerson and Fuller.

We can learn what it is to let go and to truly see.

As we let go we empty ourselves of the meanings we give to the pennies and boulders, the treasures and obstacles in our lives. As we let go the only moment is now and things appear as they really are. “The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera,” Dillard tells us (p. 31).


Who here hasn’t spent most of their vacation behind the lens of a camera? I remember when my daughter graduated from high school. I arrived at the auditorium loaded down with camera equipment – my video camera AND the still camera – I was ready! One friend, who happens to be a professional camera man, took the video camera away from me. Another friend came with her very expensive digital camera from work and told me to put mine away. They gave me the gift of being completely present –completely mindful – to the experience of my oldest child graduating from high school. Before their gifts I was ready to record my daughter’s graduation, but not exactly ready to experience it.

Walking with a camera is to view all of life through a lens of interpretation. I see this way because my parents taught me to see this way. I am no good at this or that because my teacher told me so. Walking without a camera is to drop the lens of blame and guilt. When we see our lives just as they are the windows of our beings open wide, the moment’s light imprints on us a new image. We become the observers of our own dramas. Without a year spent alone in the woods, without the aid of stalking muskrats or observing nature’s cruel beauty, even we can see in this second way.

This is the “miracle of mindfulness” that Thich Nhat Hanh writes about. When Dillard stalks muskrats all she is aware of is stalking muskrats. When we wash dishes, we can practice being aware only of washing the dishes.

The first time I read Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, I purposefully placed myself outdoors in my backyard. It was a beautiful day – I was mindful of the heat against my skin, I was mindful of my cat jumping in the grass, I was mindful of the squirrel yelling at my cat, I was mindful of every word on the page. “Wow, I’m really good at this” I thought….which is the trick of course, as soon as we think we’ve got it, we really don’t.

The miracle of mindfulness is much more than being completely present to washing the dishes or a daughter’s graduation. Being “conscious of each breath, each movement, every thought and feeling, everything which has any relation to ourselves,” seems sort of selfish. But how can we be aware of anything if we aren’t even aware of our own self?

Joseph Goldstein says mindfulness is the key to being fully awake. Books like his “Insight Meditation,” Lama Surya Das’ “Awakening the Buddha Within” and Thich Nhat Hanh’s many books are instruction manuals in the art of mindfulness. It is a great concept, one that many of us who are not Buddhists are attracted to. It has crept its way into Western self-help thought and become a recipe for stress reduction. To lift the concept off the page, we actually have to practice it.

I like to practice mindfulness in the shower. This seems so simple at first. Half-asleep, perhaps my mind would be slow enough to just let me take a shower. Each morning I start my day standing in the shower determined to well, take a shower. Usually I end up planning my day, writing a sermon, figuring out the grocery list, designing brilliant arguments, making decisions about things that haven’t even happened yet…the list goes on. My mind is involved in every sort of activity besides taking a shower. I try again.

After getting dressed and drying my hair, during which my mind is doing all sorts of things besides getting dressed and drying my hair, I try again. Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Every day and every hour, one should practice mindfulness. That’s easy to say, but to carry it out in practice is not” (p. 27). That’s very reassuring. He then suggests we set aside one day a week to practice. That is not so reassuring. A whole day? I must be a bad Buddhist.

And so we begin again. Waking up in the morning we smile and breathe. We notice during the day when our shoulders are up around our ears. We stop. We breathe. We can become more aware by measuring our breath with our footsteps, counting as we breathe or following our breath while carrying on a conversation. We practice mindfulness during mundane activities such as making tea, washing the dishes and cleaning house because when the really big moments in life arrive we want to be able to throw down our camera and see beyond the surface of things.


Annie Dillard’s year at Tinker Creek begins with a transcendent experience when the late afternoon sun plays tricks with silvery fish, the creek and floating flower petals. “Something broke and something opened,” she writes. “I filled up like a new wineskin. I breathed an air like light; I saw a light like water. I was the lip of a fountain the creek filled forever; I was ether, the leaf in the zephyr; I was flesh-flake, feather, bone. … When I see this way I see truly. As Thoreau says, I return to my senses” (page 32).

Dillard’s mindfulness practice in nature takes her to a transcendent place, a place where she becomes more than her self. It is not always this way, she confesses. She must adopt a “healthy poverty, a simplicity,” so that a mere penny can make her day. Hers is the classic solitary experience of the transcendentalist from our Unitarian tradition. Thoreau spent two years alone in the woods observing the natural world and drawing conclusions about the nature of reality.

In her autobiography, Margaret Fuller recounted her moment of awakening during a walk on Thanksgiving Day in 1831. Only twenty-one, filled with despair for herself and all of humankind, she walked through fields as fast as she could, as if running from her deep sadness. She walked for hours, emptying herself. In her description of that day, she recalls the bleak clouds, the cold November wind and the shrunken stream. Suddenly the sun breaks into her gray day and with it a thought that burns as brightly as the sun. With that thought, she saw the “ineffable, the unutterable” – she perceived mindfully.

Here is where I confess that not only am I a bad Buddhist, but I am also a bad transcendentalist. It is difficult for me to be one with the heat, the cat and the squirrel in my backyard. This may be because I am a suburban dweller whose experiences with nature come in the form of squirrels, cats, lizards and store-bought plants. I do not have muskrats paddling around in my backyard.


I do have occasional visits in nature, glimpses of awe-inspiring vistas. And now that I live in California, I have more than the occasional chance to “breathe in air like light,” as Dillard says. One visit in nature stays with me, imprinted on my being by the light of insight and new awareness. Several summers ago I shared a rented cottage on a creek with some family members. One morning we observed a nutria or a beaver, or it could have been a rat for all I know. Add bad naturalist to my list of labels. I’m not sure which it was, but we watched it bathing itself in the creek just below a stack of sticks that we assumed was some sort of dam. A mother duck and her four babies swam from light to shade and back to light again. A chipmunk – yes, we recognized a chipmunk, something I never saw in Texas – showed up both mornings we were there. A weeping willow filled the yard just below the deck at the back of the house. I cannot identify all of the birds we saw or name the water plants that lined the shore. Disappointingly, I was not the “lip of a fountain the creek filled forever.”

Rather, I noticed how the weeping willow reminded me of the trees from my childhood. I was mindful of my sister sitting reading a book in the morning sun, how thin she has become. I was present to my youngest daughter, recently turned 18, as she joined the adults on the deck each morning for a cup of coffee. I was mindful of why we were there.

My mother had died the September before our summer gathering. We rented a cottage on the creek in a small town in upstate New York because we were in that small town to bury her ashes. We gathered in a tiny cemetery that contains the remains of my ancestors going back to the 18th Century. My father is buried there. My grandparents. My great-grandparents. My mother had been planning this trip for us for years. “When you take my ashes to Saugerties…” she would always say. She left detailed instructions including an article cut from the Houston newspaper about a historic house in the area. She had written on the edges, “You might want to visit when you take my ashes to Saugerties.”


I knew what to expect from this trip. I knew where we were headed. I knew what we would see. I had imagined it all many mornings in the shower, when I was failing at my mindfulness practice. After the service at the cemetery, standing on the deck of the cottage by the creek with cousins, mother’s college friends and my family I did not stand “transfixed and emptied” as Annie Dillard does at the sight of silvery fish, a creek and floating flower petals. I stood transfixed and emptied at the sight of the shining people, memories retold, the laughter and a weeping willow that bent down over us mirroring our sadness.

I was not the “lip of a fountain the creek filled forever.” I was not one with the birds or the plants that I could not even name. I was filled – filled with the unexpected letting go of what this trip was supposed to be like, one with a new-found connection to my family and our shared history.

Right mindfulness is the seventh step on the Noble Eight-Fold Path. It is the “kind of seeing that involves a letting go.” It is Thoreau’s returning to our senses. It is seeing beyond the surface into other levels of reality. It is knowing that the color of an apple is white.

In the original Mindfulness Sutra, the Buddha described the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. We are to be aware of our bodies, aware of our feelings and emotions, aware of our thoughts and aware of events. We practice mindfulness during mundane activities such as making tea, washing the dishes and cleaning house because when the really big moments in life arrive we want to be able to throw down our camera and see beyond the surface of things. We practice mindfulness during mundane activities because in reality there is no difference between the mundane and the extraordinary. We practice mindfulness during mundane activities to remind us that every moment is sacred.

The miracle of mindfulness is that we see past the masks, the limiting thoughts and the labels. The miracle of mindfulness is sitting with a dying loved one and seeing them as if for the first time. It is listening to our partner during an argument and not replaying all of the past arguments. It is seeing our child not as a reflection of ourselves, but as a separate person continually unfolding in front of our eyes.

What we see is what we get. And when we see deeply, when we perceive with mindfulness, what we get will transform us.

About Lora Brandis

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister, on-call hospital chaplain and INELDA trained death doula. I am also nana/nanny to twins Rose and James - best job I've ever had.
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