Seeing, experiencing and escaping from crocodiles. 2.

Seeing, experiencing and escaping from crocodiles.  2.

The image: Crocodile Mummies. Read on and see why.

By JMCC1 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Seeing, experiencing and escaping from crocodiles. 

Taking photographs can cultivate seeing, like drawing can. And, paradoxically, also absent us from experience, detach us from real presence. Gazing is a steady, patient attending, unfolding over time. The capturing snapshot may evidence my having physically stood in front of the Taj Mahal, but not that I necessarily looked at or saw it. Documenting an event does not mean we have experienced it: sometimes it actually defends us from experiencing.

The paradox of the selfie is that by stepping into the picture our experience is of taking or being in a picture. The experience we might be having is relegated to a scenic backdrop for our self-regard. Some weddings feel like movie sets because generating the photo opportunity is one of their main functions. The photograph used to function as an authentication: ‘I really did go to the Taj Mahal: they really are married. Look!’ That need for authentication easily becomes the creation of a false, always smiling, self, against a perfectly staged backdrop: a studied inauthenticity that is almost the opposite of experience. We perform.

While I suspect that a sort of ‘total documentation’ via photographs and social media will have unforeseeable psychological effects on how we structure ‘a self’, I am also using this as a metaphor for how if we don’t fashion experiences out of events, or our experiences are invalidated, it is easy to establish, and identify with, a false self. That can create real psychological problems.

The processes by which events become experiences have much in common with seeing and looking. Both demand our active engagement with what happens to happen. Both emerge from a reciprocating movement between ‘outside’: (what we see, hear, notice), an ‘inside’: (How we feel about that, which informs either a choice to act, or feeling compelled to act / not act by a strong emotion), and ‘outside’ again: (what we do, and what happens then).

We are often unaware of how many potential choices there are in this cycle, because we don’t notice it is happening. Noticing requires awareness, a place to notice from.

Experiencing is a braiding of these to and fro movements, through reflection, into an awareness, knowledge or skill that is carried forward. In other words, we are changed by it.


What is most likely to disrupt this continual adaptation, development and change is if a highly emotionally charged pattern is recognised, (or mis-recognised), as we sift information. Then the imperative to act short-circuits reflection, seeking new information, or trying other templates. It’s easy to understand the evolutionary imperative: it doesn’t matter what colour the crocodile’s eyes are, or that ancient Egyptians mummified sacred crocodiles at Crocodilopolis. Run, now.

‘Motion’ (and motivation) are written into e-motion. They make us move, propel us towards desired patterns or away from feared ones on the basis of very ‘fast and dirty’ recognition system. (The Buddha identified the psychological dominance of this process as the root cause of human misery.) 

Even for fleeing as stark a threat as the crocodile effectively the danger template may not be enough. Crocodiles are faster than humans on land for long enough to catch one. They aren’t good at cornering though. Running in zig-zags is the best chance. It might be hard to remember that in the circumstances. (Though if you are ever in that situation I hope you will now!). The balance to emotional reactivity is presence of mind.

This is more true when we only believe there is a crocodile, because there was one once. If that keeps happening, (and it can be inconvenient in the High Street), the looking/seeing, events/ experiences system needs some help retuning itself.  A place to notice from, and being more at ease with the to and fro of inner and outer that mediates meaning are helpful, and are the stuff of art therapy. I’ll look a bit more at how this works next.


Posted by Malcolm Learmonth
16th March 2016

Back to news