How We Perceive the World

“Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe. What we believe is based on our perceptions. What we perceive depends on what we look for. What we look for depends on what we think. What we think depends on what we perceive. What we perceive determines what we believe. What we believe determines what we take to be true. What we take to be true is our reality.”

David Bohm

David Bohm, the famous quantum physicist and thinker believed that our thinking was the greatest source of all our problems. He said, “….it looks as if the thing we use to solve our problems with is the source of our problems”.

We assume we are rational thinkers, but in our thinking there are many unconscious biases. His quote at the top of the page summarises the dilemma nicely. Our so called rational mind is mainly rationalising. There is a great tendency for us to see things as we wish them to be and discard evidence to the contrary.

I remember reading in one of Charles Darwin’s diaries words to the effect, “When I am in the field and I find evidence which is contrary to what I am trying prove, I quickly write it down because I know that is what I will soonest forget!” But somebody needs to be particularly perceptive and courageous to think that way. Thomas S Kuhn in his famous book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” show how many scientists unwittingly discard data that is antagonistic to the thesis they are trying to prove.

Over a period of time having cultivated our knowledge in a particular field, we have a vested interest in maintaining the integrity of that knowledge.

And of course we do this in more mundane ways. If I read the newspaper I selectively read it to reinforce my beliefs. I cultivate friends with similar beliefs to my own so that my treasured position is not unduly challenged. When I hear criticism of my beliefs I create various defence mechanisms to prop up my cherished beliefs.

To some extent such defence mechanisms can be healthy so that my sense of self is not continuously being assailed. Indeed Martin Seligman in his book “Learned Optimism” shows that pessimistic people and those with depression often are deficient in such defence mechanisms.

As the French Author, Anais Nin perceptively wrote, “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are.”

Henri Poincare, the great French mathematician and physicist made a similar observation. “It is impossible that there is a reality totally independent of the mind that conceives it, sees it, or senses it..”

It is obvious then that our state of mind impacts on how we might view the world.

In another story I am writing about a Princess with depression I describe the various techniques that the Buddhist Augustus, uses to try to change her worldview. Because I enjoy the teaching mechanism of parables, I am going to leave you with a couple of extracts from that manuscript.

First Extract:

Augustus was determined that he should coax the Princess to view the world differently. Her question about how was it possible to interpret the world in different ways was a typical response from those who were yet to understand. He had put the same question to his Master, Takygulpa Rinpoche. He smiled as he remembered his Master’s response.

“Old Yan Zi was said to have owned a small dog called Sunshi that barked incessantly.

The goldsmith who was an upright and optimistic man would walk past his house every morning. ‘Ah, little dog,’ he would say ‘it is good to hear you so chirpy and positive.’

The calligrapher who was always grumpy and pessimistic came soon after. ‘Why you little cur,’ he mumbled, ‘always complaining.’

The teacher, renowned for his insatiable curiosity then followed. ‘Sunshi,’ he said admonishingly, ‘always full of questions.’

Finally along came the Emperor’s cook. He was a very portly man. He shook his head and exclaimed, ‘Poor little dog – always hungry.’

The dog, on the other hand, just liked the sound of his own voice.”

Second Extract

The Princess looked at the little Buddhist and enquired, “You have told me Augustus that we each have different worldviews and because we see the world differently we respond to the world differently.”

“Yes – that is so Princess.”

“But how can these view points be so different?”

“Some of us are inwardly focused and fearful and as a result we can’t see very far. We are always looking for those things that we believe are threatening us. We can’t see beyond the next slight or insult. We see the world as a threatening place. Others that are more at ease with themselves are able to see the world more benignly. To them the world is more benign and they are more likely to be at one with their world.”

“Let me give you an example. Consider a green ant living with its colony in a mangrove tree. The ant is gnawing at the edge of a leaf. All of a sudden, a gust of wind arises and breaks the leaf from its branch. The leaf, with the ant clinging grimly to it, tumbles down into the water. The tide is running out and the leaf is whirled around by the eddies formed where the mangrove roots meet the water. The ant is thrust violently about and hangs on for grim death. Eventually the leaf emerges into the main stream and is washed further down the estuary. Soon the leaf comes to a sand bar. This impediment to the flow of the tide creates small waves in the water. But to the ant these seem like huge cataracts. Once over the bar the water becomes calm and another gust of wind arises and pushes the leaf with the hapless ant aboard to an overhanging branch. The ant quickly grasps the branch and hauls itself out of the water. It sits exhausted for a while on the branch, its little heart beating furiously. ‘Whew,’ it thinks to itself, “I’ll never go near the sea again. What a treacherous place it is, with whirlpools and cataracts and mountainous waves.”

“The poor thing,” exclaimed the Princess. “What a traumatic experience!”

Augustus resumed. “All the while the ant was enduring its journey down the estuary, a sea-eagle was soaring high overhead. The warm sun created a strong thermal that enabled it to hover effortlessly above the estuary. ‘What a lovely day,’ thinks the bird. ‘The estuary is so calm and beautiful. I feel at one with the world.’ What the ant saw as frightful and traumatic, the sea-eagle saw as tranquil and beautiful.”

“We are like the green ant and the sea-eagle. Those self obsessed and driven by fear see the world as a frightening place. They are compelled, through no fault of their own, to be defensive and pessimistic.”

My blog of June 20 2009 (see archives) also relates to this theme.

21 Replies to “How We Perceive the World”

  1. “There is no conditional way of reaching the Unconditional; there is no finite way of reaching the Infinite”.

    Paul Tillich.

  2. I think therefore I am…..but i think my thinking may be controlled by something else.I perceive what i have been conditioned to perceive. I think maybe i’m really not thinking, i am being controlled, therefore i am not.

  3. If I am I because I am I, and You are You because You are You,
    I am I, and You are You.
    If i am i because you are you, and you are you because i am i
    i am not I and you are not You.
    Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, 19th Century Rabbi

  4. A late comment this week, life seems to speed up at this time of the year.

    There are a lot of different models used to explain our individual world view. Brain chemistry is a nice analytical and scientific way. Essentially our emotional outlook is controlled by the chemistry within our brain. We can feel optimistic, pessimistic, depressed, energetic, lethargic… all because of tiny amounts of chemicals in our brain. The solution to being in an undesirable state (depressed, hypo, etc) therefore seems pretty simple, get the right drugs and adjust the dosages to get the state of mind that is considered acceptable. There is a multi billion dollar industry in existence and growing rapidly to do just that and it is getting plenty of Government funding. The dilemma though is who decides what is normal in relation to how one should feel, and do we really want to be in the same controlled emotional state all the time. Without valleys there can be no mountains.

    There is another model that was and in many areas still is very popular. This is the “your problems are created in the past by others” model. In this model which is still being supported by many psychologists throughout the western world the depressed person is convinced that unresolved traumatic events in their past are the cause of their current state of mind (as a rule depression). This is often readily accepted by the sufferer because these people often see themselves as victims (being self absorbed is major symptom of depression). The cure therefore is to revisit the past emotionally over and over and confront and resolve the issues with people involved (often family) to try to come to terms with it. The problem is it always makes things worse and not better and has a reputation for damaging current relationships. Sacrifice the present for the past! Does not make a lot of sense, but it still it goes on.

    In my opinion looking for the solution in the past is a waste of time and drugs are not an acceptable solution although in an extreme case they may still be the best solution in the short term. Drugs are never the sole solution though and should always be seen as a temporary measure on the way to the cure, which is training of the mind to see the world in a different way. The model I prefer is a positive feedback loop where behaviour creates emotions and vice versa. Most of us behave as we do based on how we feel. When we are feeling happy and positive we go out and socialise, do some exercise, play sport, go fishing, etc. When we are glum we watch TV, lay about the house and mope. Problem is both these activities are positive feedback loops that re-enforce the state of mind we are currently in and both cycles can be broken. A trauma at work can break the happiness cycle but most importantly our actions can also break the glum cycle.

    So when I am feeling glum and depressed and I am predisposed to this, I force myself to do the things I do when I am feeling good. It can sometimes take a huge effort but it’s worth it. It really does work if you really want it to. Don’t just go through the motions really get into the activity what ever it is and magically you stop thinking about yourself and start living outwardly again. There are lots of other tools as well that can break the cycle. Good topic for Movember Ted.

  5. Thank you all for your comments.

    Greg, I especially enjoyed your perspective. I must say I have always been dubious about psycho-analysts that wanted to dredge into the past. I recall that Freud had as a patient a woman he had treated for forty or fifty years on this basis! One can only wonder what he thought he was doing to improve her lot! Better we learn how to address the present than worrying about how the past has harmed us!

  6. Everyone, without exception, protects their ‘I’dentity, and every negative conflict, from the smallest disagreement, to the greatest world war, arises out of the fear driven need to protect one’s ‘I’dentity. Fear arises when one’s ‘I’dentity has a boundary and this fear arises from the awareness that a boundary implies the potential for vulnerability to what lies ‘beyond’ the boundary. The smaller the ‘bounded’ ‘I’dentity the greater the sense of existential fear due to the fewer perceived supports for sustaining the ‘I’dentity and the greater the potential forces against it – the paranoid psychopathic killer has the smallest ‘I’dentity but national and religious identities also give rise to fear which is potentiated by its reverberation within the collective. Except for ‘local’ definitions, there are no good or bad identities and socially rejected maladjusted ‘I’dentities are just as much protected and defended as are socially acceptable well-adjusted ones. All ‘I’dentities grounded in perceived phenomena are vulnerable and induce some form of fear.

    Only an unbounded ‘I’dentity can be free of existential fear. Unbounded ‘I’dentity ‘arises’ as a peaceful awareness within the ‘local mind’s’ arena of consciousness that the subjective starting point from within which all perception is projected is unbounded ‘I AM that I AM’! Any separating category-related concept or phenomena placed after ‘I AM’ and included in one’s ‘I’dentity must, to some extent, give rise to the experience of existential fear. ‘I AM’ is Brahman and ‘I AM’ is Our shared ‘I’dentity! ‘I AM’ is ‘above all local perceiving minds; through all local perceiving minds; and in all local perceiving minds’ and all shared perceived phenomena arising within the collective arena of consciousness is witness to the ‘common journey’ that ‘I AM’ undertakes as We ‘dream’ Our collective ‘Cosmic’ dream of separation from timeless Singularity. Perhaps the existential question is “who am ‘I’ and what ‘choice’ do ‘I’ have” and perhaps the answer to that question is “I AM that I AM” and ‘I’ can stay asleep to the awareness of that ‘fact’ or allow such an awareness to ‘arise’ within the local arena of consciousness. Perhaps the projection of the ‘Cosmic dream’ will cease to have been when its ‘background eco’ is no longer ‘revisited’ within any remaining node of local consciousness! So, does the present temporal ‘journey’ have any purpose? Yes, to foster the collective awareness of ‘I AM’ through the rejection of all pressures to establish and protect local boundaries to one’s Own ‘I’dentity! If ‘I’ ‘see’ separate interests ‘I’ will protect those separating interests. Families, organisations, nations and humanity itself only survive to the degree to which the debilitating effects of separate interests can be ‘overcome’ by the healing effects of shared interests. The ebb and flow of this process is the stuff of history. IMHO

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