One way to diminish our suffering is to become conscious of when our eyes go looking for something that upsets us. Another way is to be watchful of what our imagination is up to.
Just as sponges can soak up dirty water as easily as clean water, our eyes can also take in impressions from the world around us that leak misery into our soul. We like to think we use our visual faculty in pursuit of pleasure, but we also use it to entertain old hurts, grievances, and longings. Our eyes go looking for pleasure and stimulation—but also needlessly for ways to suffer.
Groucho Marx famously asked, “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” The drollery is delightful, yet our eyes are suspect nonetheless. Our eyes, along with our imagination, quite readily go searching for things to worry and brood about. Through our eyes and imagination, we can be tempted to look for sights or impressions that stir up within us negative emotions relating to deprivation, refusal, helplessness, rejection, and unworthiness.
The writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “The hardest thing to see is what is in front of your eyes.” He meant, of course, that we’re emotionally blocked from seeing objectively. Often we’re determined to see what we want to believe. Typically, we’re eager to believe what’s irrational or false when doing so safeguards our resistance, denial, projections, and illusions. While we unwittingly block out gleanings of truth and reality, we also allow, unimpeded into our minds, subjective perceptions that stir up negative emotions that have remained unresolved in our psyche.
Meanwhile, we also possess an imagination that, in our mind’s eye, can conjure up images and visualizations that dress up our inner life with speculative fears, negative propositions, and gruesome considerations.
To avoid unnecessary suffering, we need to be more conscious of our visual capacity (termed the visual drive in psychoanalysis) in order to regulate it. We want to be able to monitor ourselves so that we can correlate our negative feelings at any given moment with the related visual impressions we’re absorbing or the imaginative musings we’re producing. In this way, we catch ourselves dipping into negative emotions for no other purpose than to suffer.
When we look at a beautiful object, we naturally want to feel some pleasure. Instead, we could in that moment be feeling deprived of the object and envious of those who own it. Or we could be creating reasons in our mind to belittle the object. In doing this, we’re using our eyes to deepen the hurt of feeling deprived or to wallow in the feeling of being a lesser person because we don’t possess the object.
Orlando says in Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “But Oh, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes.” Indeed the negative feeling of envy is a bitter one. A deeper emotion, however, is at play. This is our emotional entanglement in deprivation, a leftover effect from the oral stage of childhood and the driving force behind consumerism. Deep memories of deprivation—and unresolved resonance with that feeling—make us frantic consumers at the SuperMart of materialism, loading our shopping-carts with what we’re determined to believe are the basic essentials of the good life.
Remarkably, most people aren’t conscious of the inner mechanism through which they create this suffering. To understand this inner operation, we have to develop some awareness of how, deep in our psyche, we’re holding on to unresolved emotions. That awareness grows as we see how and why we misuse our visual drive.
We move about our environment with famished eyes, pawns of our psyche’s determination to feel marginalized, disrespected, unfairly treated, and deprived. We don’t do this all the time, of course. The tendency comes and goes, but it can be excruciating painful when it does come upon us.
There’s a quaint, rather comic term from psychoanalysis—negative peeping—that identifies our tendency to absorb visually that which induces a negative reaction within us. When people look into the world, they’re often “peeping” to see how others are indifferent to their existence. Or they’re looking around to see how they can feel superior to others. Racists do this for the unconscious purpose of cozying up to unresolved feelings of inferiority within themselves. A hoarder creates mounds of clutter and then peeps at it in dismay, stirring up unresolved feeling of being helpless and overwhelmed by it all. A youngster can be peeping when she watches closely to see whether her brothers or sisters are getting more attention and love than she believes she gets from Mom and Dad.
The other related misuse of the visual drive involves our imagination, and here the same principles apply. Now we’re seeing images and visualizations with our inner eye. Writers, artists, scientists, entertainers, and others use their imagination to create dramatic effects, useful products, or beautiful objects. We can all use our imagination wisely to produce pleasant thoughts and feelings. But many of us (worriers, for instance) produce images of bad things happening because of our unresolved affinity for feeling overwhelmed and helpless in the face of challenges or calamity. As well, painful feelings of fear, along with unresolved emotional attachments to feeling dominated or overpowered, are often behind the misuse of the imagination.
French novelist Marcel Proust was right when he wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” New eyes refer, of course, to the consciousness behind the eyes. English poet William Blake immortalized this point when he wrote, “This life’s dim windows of the soul / Distorts the heavens from pole to pole / And leads you to believe a lie / When you see with, not through, the eye.”
In other words, we’re unlikely to perceive our world with wisdom and insight unless we’re developing an interior life, a growing consciousness, which sees from the depths behind our eyes. When we see in such a manner—from behind our eyes—we’re more conscious of how to resist being lured visually into the arms of negative emotions such as deprivation, helplessness, and feelings of unworthiness.