Looking at an inanimate object is different from looking at a living one. When you see a rock it may be beautiful as a flower, but it is only an object and there is no looking back at you. The flower is recognized by the viewer as a fellow living entity; or it can be and should be. The significance of this recognition is limited or enhanced by the capacity of the viewer. The bee does not expect the colourful stone to have produced any pollen during the night for it to harvest. It knows where to find food. The dog looks at the sunflower by the back door differently than at its bowl of food, even though it might jump up any minute to bite the flower. But that is more likely to happen in the case of a young dog. The action is related to energy that must be expended, rather than to any logical intent.
What happens in the mind when one living entity recognizes another and this becomes mutual, is communication. The eye that is taking in a work of art triggers admiration and appreciation in the viewer and may cause inspirational lifting of the spirit, although any communication taking place is with the artist, not the work, as in reading his or her letter or message left for speaking to the viewer through the work.
Looking at the flower or animal is then representing a form of I-You relationship (in the Martin Buber sense), not an I-It relationship. Recognizing life thus in the act of observation is a form of greeting, a reaching out across the species divide to a fellow citizen of the earth. Valuing what is observed is the basis for constructive coexistence, for maintaining harmonious biological diversity and all those related good things. Such communion may give cause to the experience of a lifting to a spiritual I-Thou level, when and if such needs might arise.
But something else happens when looking at the flower or the world. There is a moment of undefined, poorly understood and risky intake; openness to what is out there that through the act of observation may grow, modify or even harm the viewer. It is called living, risk-taking behaviour from which the living is not spared! Silent, attentive surveillance of the environment is acceptance of the fact that the viewer may be forever and significantly changed by what is being taken on board. This openness seldom yields such spectacular results, but it might. We just could at any moment suddenly really see!
The thinking and scheming that might follow within the individual from observing something remarkable is a different matter. That comes from what is available inside and, of course, what has entered through observations of before. Looking with the intent of being open to what is out there and allowing it to impress meaningfully, (or even irrevocably or fatally in a conceivable dramatic twist), is the brave act of making life the big adventure that it can be. What usually prevents it from such mammoth impact is the limitation imposed by the memory that nothing much was gained when looking last time! The ordinary outcome from unused opportunities is what makes us average, brings boredom and mediocrity.
Looking at good things does heal, feed and inspire. But what is good to whom and when, is a series of big questions. Learning what works for you enhances your individuality in relating to nature, but surprisingly also sometimes your similarity to some others, because this is a skill and not only a style. Skills can be mastered by many who try; style can be original and need not be copied for better results. And mastering the right mindset for best registering what is around you is a skill that brings reward.
The complexity of the world we live in defies our efforts at defining the human ability to understand in any narrow sense. It is more than figuring out, making sense of or getting the hang of what is out there. But it starts with careful observation of what is selected from the environment. And the living part of it observes us back! So the monkey in the zoo can deduce in its own way how to extract more peanuts from the passersby. When Charles Spearman gave us the notion that the apprehension of a percept is a key part of intelligence, we could have pursued that line of thinking more vigorously and may have reached different conclusions or thought destinations. We could have been a species that contemplated the flowers around us with much more respectful attention. But every available option can still be explored by those who are yet alive, via 360˚ pioneering in n-dimensional space!
So, the flower can speak to you! Nature allows communion among those that live by eating each other. But so can the painting, or rather the artist through the presented message in his or her work also convey wordless significance to the viewer. The living, whoever or whatever they are, can conspire to have a different view of life whenever the mind is applied; and they can thus share such important stuff for renewing the world they shape and which in turn shapes them. So look again. Look harder.