Beholding

“Wisdom does not inspect, but behold. We must look a long time before we can see.”

— Henry David Thoreau

Beholding exercises change the ways in which we see the world, enhancing one of the primary means through which we interact with the world: sight.

Joanna Ziegler, professor of Visual Arts and Art History at Holy Cross and one of the Center for Contemplative Mind’s first Contemplative Practice Fellows, was a pioneer of the contemplative practice of beholding and its application in the higher education classroom. Ziegler didn’t teach a studio class, but she found a way to deepen her connection to her discipline by developing research methods that make use of studio habits like persistence and attentive observation.

Her students would look at one abstract painting for an entire semester. Just one painting. Every week, they would visit the Worcester Art Museum, going to the museum at the same time, on the same day of the week, using the same mode of transportation, to sit in front of that one painting and respond to the question: What do you see?

They were instructed to refrain from research, consulting secondary sources, Googling, reading the wall text, or even speaking to docents, so that they could hear their own voices. Ziegler also asked them to report on subjective features of themselves as observers: how they felt physically and emotionally, and what was going on in their lives. She left the theoretical art history until the end of the course, when students were better able to take it in without affecting their experience of their painting. During their discussions of their experience up to that point, they learned to share their perceptions and ask the questions, What did we see, and do we have to agree on what we see before we interpret it?

Ziegler understood that through attending to and developing a feeling for great works of art, her students would become more interested and intimate with them, and begin to love what they came to know. Repetition is a strong feature of her pedagogy. As her students went at the same time to the same place each day to sit before the same painting and simply look, focusing their attention again and again, they noticed the changes they saw in the painting, and they also noticed changes in themselves.

Many educators would be skeptical about the value of inviting so much of their student’s subjectivity into the study of their discipline (especially during those early weeks when students can find the exercise of looking at the same work pointless, irritating, or even torturous), but Ziegler found that out of subjectivity true objectivity arose. After some time, the ordinary distractions lost their hold on the students’ ability to observe; the students then went beyond their limited perspective and began to understand the limitations of all perspectives. Bringing back their wandering attention again and again to the object of beholding, the students experienced a self-transformation that took them from “I hate this” to “I love this.” Over the 13-week semester, did the painting change? “No,” said Zeigler, “they did. Out of practice they went from antipathy to love. From dismissing it as something any kid could paint, they cultivated reverence for the work under their observation.”

Translating attentiveness into care, Ziegler proposed, is the foundation for moral concern. Once her students experienced the impermanence of their own preconceptions and prejudices, they developed, Ziegler said, “the foundation of an ethical awareness, the beginning of an ethical stance.” Even if they were not interested in meditation, yoga, or other traditional practices, Ziegler found that they learned to see, to behold. And that attentiveness leads to care and the capacity to focus on what’s valuable in art, nature, and human life.

The Tree of Contemplative Practices

The Tree illustrates some of the contemplative practices currently in use in secular, organizational and academic settings. Learn more.