June 30, 2012

Look up to See the Big Picture. ~ Lauren Tober

Photo: Lauren Tober

I learned a new word today: allocentric.

Egocentric, as we all well know, is being focused on ourselves; it’s self-centered.

Allocentric, on the other hand, is a wider focus, or other-centered. It allows us a greater perspective to see things as an observer, rather than getting caught up in the minute detail.

According to Rick Hanson, a Buddhist neuropsychologist and author, we naturally switch between egocentric and allocentric processing styles every three to four minutes.

Egocentric processing naturally occurs when we’re thinking about ourselves and our own lives, and also when we’re holding and manipulating objects close to our body.

In terms of meditation, egocentric processing occurs when we’re practicing concentration meditations, like observing the breath.

Allocentric processing occurs when we’re just “being” rather than “doing,” and especially when we’re practicing meditations like choiceless awareness (being aware of whatever arises, without aversion or clinging).

This can lead to being “poised to shift into intuitive modes of comprehension – into insights of various depths1.”

In a recent talk-back session with nicabm, Rick taught a simple way to cultivate allocentric awareness.

It’s easy.

Photo: Lauren Tober

All we need to do is look up and out to the horizon.

When we do this, the part of our brain that’s associated with allocentric processing is triggered, and we can see things with more perspective, as the “seer” or the “other” might.

On the other hand, when we look down and at things close to our body, we trigger the part of our brain that’s associated with egocentric processing.

It works like this:

When we look to the horizon, we’re receiving information from the upper part of the visual field, which flows to the lower regions of thalamus. According to Rick, this part of the brain is associated with “world salience.”

When we look down however, we receive information from the lower part of the visual field, which passes information to the upper regions of the thalamus, which is associated with “self salience.”

I’m oversimplifying something pretty complex here, but you get the picture.

We look up, our brain switches into the objective, allocentric mode; we look down and it moves into a more subjective, or egocentric mode of processing.

If you think about it, we do this intrinsically. I know I do.

When I’m trying to remember something I’ve momentarily forgotten, or I’m looking for some other kind of inspiration, I look up.

When I’m feeling more introspective, I naturally look down and turn my gaze inwards.

In either case, I’m not really looking at anything, but the direction of my gaze reveals my style of processing.

When I go for a walk on the beach, I can’t help but look out into the distance, and after awhile, the problems I thought I had when I left home, seem so much less weighty and significant. My world view shifts a little, and I see things with a little more perspective.

It’s no wonder standing at the top of a mountain, surfing, looking out over the front hand in warrior pose and watching the sunset all feel so good.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has experienced this.

In the book The Valkyries, Paulo Coelho takes his wife on a 40 day quest into the Mojave Desert where she is taught by the son of a magus to look at the horizon. She finds that doing so causes her soul to grow and her world to expand.

Let’s not forget Buddha.  It is said that he sat under the Bodhi tree for seven days and nights, until he looked up on the eighth morning and saw the morning star and attained enlightenment.

Ok, so maybe he did a little background work before that moment, but still, it was at the moment when he looked up that he found enlightenment.

Try it for yourself.

Take your eyes off this egocentrism-inducing screen and look up and out.

Better still, get yourself outside and look at the horizon.

I’m not guaranteeing enlightenment, but it might just feel good, and give you a little insight.


Dr. Lauren Tober is a yogi, clinical psychologist and photographer.  She teaches in Byron Bay, Australia, and online at www.laurentober.com.



Editor:  April Dawn Ricchuito

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1. Austin, J.H. (2009). How does meditation train attention? Insight Journal, 16-22.


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