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The World is Not How We Take It – Perception and Reality

Take a moment to tune into each of your senses. Start with your eyes closed, so that you can notice the sounds, smells, and sensations more clearly. Then open your eyes and include the shapes and colors that surround you. Now ask yourself: Where is the world that you sense around you? Is it truly out there or is it constructed in your mind?

Consider what life would be like if you could never tell whether something was real or only appearing in your mind. A world without a stable, independent existence is a scary place. The routine of daily life demands that we have a sense of certainty about our place in the world.

We need to recognize how important this sense of certainty is and how it shapes the ways we relate to life. It drives us to assume that we have access to the truth about the world around us. We rely on our senses to provide an accurate reflection of the outside world, even though we know our senses can deceive us. According to current understanding of the brain, none of us sees the world as it is and we also don’t all see the world in the same way. Remember the blue or gold dress that broke the internet?

This is not a new idea. Writing in the early 1800s, Hegel devoted the first chapter of The Phenomenology of Spirit to refuting the idea that consciousness passively reflects an external world. Instead he argued for a conception of human self-consciousness that is always actively engaged in constructing its experience of the world. Even if tuning into your senses a moment ago felt perfectly natural and passive to you, your mind was actively engaged in picking out patterns, giving shape, color and significance to the contours of reality.

Why is this important? As the BBC article points out, this means “what each of us sees is a meaning derived from our shared and individual histories.” So, two people can see the world very differently and both be honestly reporting what they see. This is not an easy fact to accept. How do we decide which of these two people to believe?

Accepting our active construction of reality opens the question of who has authority to dictate which reality is the true or the real. Think of times in your life where others saw you differently than you see yourself. How does this feel? In my life, people are always surprised to learn that I have suffered from severe anxiety, because I am outwardly very relaxed and easy-going. In their reality, people who look like me don’t have anxiety.

My meditation tradition also understands that we don’t see the world as it is. Residual impressions of past experience, called samskaras, color and distort our conscious experience of life. Interestingly, the tradition extends this beyond a single lifetime and believes we carry residual traces from the whole scope of history. I interpret this in an evolutionary sense, that we’ve inherited from our predecessors a storehouse of mental schemas that shape how we experience life.

Although these imprints bias us, they are not all bad and indeed are necessary for navigating life. Our goal in creating the world and lives we want is to eliminate the negative samskaras that obstruct our ability to see the world in the right way. At the same time we want to strengthen the positive samskaras that help us see the full potential of who we are. The Kashmir Shaivite tantric tradition teaches a combination of deep meditation coupled with study, ongoing discussion and the cultivation of insight to continually refine our understanding and experience of life closer to the ideal.

The BBC article also concludes that understanding how the world is shaped by our minds “gives you the freedom (and responsibility) to take ownership of your future perceptions of yourself and others.” These words understate the immense work this involves. It requires healing the trauma that disrupts our capacities for extraordinary growth and creativity – and we all carry some of this trauma. And, it requires continually broadening and refining our perspective to reveal all that is possible in every moment.

My meditation tradition sees it as the work of a lifetime, partly because we are always torn between two aspects of our nature. Part of us is free to change and grow into its own vision while another part of us is always dependent on the outside world, other people and history. Hegel saw this as well. The Phenomenology’s second chapter, on Self-Consciousness, works through the ways we struggle to reconcile these two parts of our nature. We’ll take this up next time as we start to look into Our Divided Selves - Freedom and Dependence.


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