Usually, it’s far too easy staying in familiar grooves of seeing and experiencing.

My mom, who was a brilliant art teacher and mentor, both at home and at my high school, reminded me of this again and again. Then, my first drawing instructor at University of Georgia pushed me even further. “Don’t accept standard views. Be willing to explore different angles and perspectives. And don’t be timid about zooming in to see what you very well could miss by standing too far away.” In other words, “Look deeper.” These weren’t his exact words, but they’re a pretty close approximation. His admonitions, layered on my mom’s, have stayed with me. Still, the seductive laziness of veering into easy or familiar ways of seeing constantly threaten to cloud this artist’s eyes.

There’s one BIG thing I’ve learned: My best work seems to materialize when I look deeper. And, aside from being an artist, living becomes richer and more satisfying.

Joining an online photo group has helped open my aperture.

My big sister, a talented watercolorist, got me onboard with this large group of people who are challenged each week with an assigned theme. Each member is invited to submit one image captured using one’s cellphone. Initially, I was reluctant to participate since I couldn’t lean on the fancy options and flexibility offered by my expensive Canon camera and lenses. Then I reminded myself that the challenge was more about “seeing” and stepping outside of normal frames of reference than demonstrating technical prowess. It was about looking deeper and I’ve been due for a good jolt in this regard.

I admit I’m competitive when it comes to a challenge. But I’m mostly competitive with myself and I like exploring ways of pushing myself out of the usual perspectives. I also LOVE being given the opportunity to see through other peoples eyes. This can be quite illuminating and inspiring.

A reminder to not be a prisoner of conditioned thinking

Have you ever been going somewhere or doing something, only to realize later that you were oblivious to your surroundings? I have—far too many times. I call it one-dimensional living. It’s being so lost in mental narratives that it’s like living with blinders on. Is that really living?

If you want to get the most out of Italy, look deeper.

And set aside narrow, romantic notions of this country. I’m still amazed at how many intelligent, educated people land in Italy yet cling to cultural conditionings of their countries of birth. Hollywood notions of Italy and Italians lead some new exapts astray. Getting beyond the surface beauty and into the grout, the nooks, and the crannies of all that is Italy takes real commitment (and time). There is so much history, so much complexity, so much paradox, and so many layers of beauty to be experienced. Believe me, I’m constantly having to slap myself out of my Americanized stupor to really be present and to open my eyes to what my direct Italian experiences can teach me.

Reflections and patterns.

These have been the most recent challenges in the photo group. Italy has tons of material to offer to these themes. While I’m always on the lookout for photo and painting subjects, these fun challenges have prodded me to look deeper at my surroundings while preventing my sometimes overly chatty mind from obscuring the beauty and diverse perspectives all around me.

The featured photo in this post comes from the reflection challenge. Not only does the photo offer a literal reflection, it also is a reflection of my life in Italy. More and more of our daily comings and goings involve our Vespa. And rear view mirrors don’t have to function only for checking out the traffic behind me. When I embarked upon this assignment with my cellphone in hand, suddenly I was seeing reflection stories everywhere—in the windows and windshields of cars, in water, in phone booths, in traffic mirrors, in store windows, in polished metal posts. Had I not had the reflection assignment I would have missed so much.

Look Deeper into Reflections
Look Deeper into Reflections
Look Deeper into Reflections

Be here now. Be present.

Ultimately, anything that can bring us to reside fully in the present moment and life unfolding around us can be a gift. It can also be beacon toward living more expansively and away from identifying ourselves with persistent mental commentaries.