This exercise originated in the early Christian monastic tradition. It has no theological content and can be attempted by anyone interested in a truly breathtaking experience of direct perception.
The actual directions are quite simple. Find a small object you can hold easily in your hand. I recommend a twig, a small stone, a leaf, or some other object from nature that you can hold for a while without it wilting. Be sure it’s something you find emotionally neutral; avoid anything to which you have a strong reaction, pro or con. Find a quiet spot where you won’t be disturbed for at least half an hour. Sit down, relax, and look at your object. Don’t stare, just look. Try not to become overly carried away by your thoughts. Don’t fight your thoughts, but instead, when you can, come back to the present and pay attention to the object. Keep looking at it until your perception shifts. (When it happens, you’ll know it.) That’s it.
Here’s what’s going on. Normally, when you and I look at something, we don’t see it as it is; we see our biases and conclusions about it. Let’s say you’ve chosen to do this exercise with a small stone. When you first look at the stone, you actually engage in an internal dialog in which you think about everything this rock reminds you of. As you’ll discover later, while you believe you are looking at the stone itself, you are actually rehearsing your thoughts about the stone. Looking about the stone forms a kind of background music that you mostly ignore while you have one thought after another. Note that you can’t turn off your thoughts through force of will. You just have to wait until your thoughts stop on their own. That’s what can make this a frustrating exercise for some people: you simply have to hang in there until the result you want happens by itself.
It’s a little like falling asleep. We can’t make ourselves fall asleep; we can only set up the right conditions and wait for sleep to happen. Some nights, when we feel well and are not distracted or upset, we’ll fall sleep quickly. Other nights we just have to wait.