A common expression that you are all familiar with is “looking at the world through rose coloured glasses” which implies that the person is unduly optimistic or idealistic. The saying propagates a myth. It implies that everyone else sees the world directly and consequently, more realistically. But as much as we might want to think otherwise, none of us sees the world as it is. Each of us has a distorting set of lenses that we are largely unaware of through which we view the world. We each build up a picture of the way we believe the world is. That picture reflects our attitudes and beliefs. Neuroscientists suggest that this process is laid down by our late teens or early twenties. Once we have constructed such a paradigm we tend to look for and pay attention to those things that reinforce our preferred paradigm and tend to ignore or discount any evidence that might threaten our paradigm. So, in a perverted sort of way, we largely see what we want to see.
(If you are interested, have a look at the psychological phenomenon known as inattentional blindness. When we focus on observing some particular thing we are often not aware of much that is going on around us even when it is quite bizarre!)
David Bohm, one of the architects of quantum theory articulated the problem thus:
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.
Charles Darwin had an inkling of this problem. I remember reading in one of his 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!” That is a courageous response! Most of us would prefer to ignore the challenge.
The picture we build up in our minds of the world is never the real world only our representation of it. Normally it is good enough at a physical level to ensure we don’t fall over things and in the main to live normal, productive lives. But on other dimensions it is more questionable.
Polish-American scientist and philosopher Alfred Korzybski alerted us to this problem when he wrote “the map is not the territory”. This is the first principle we need to remember.
The second principle relating to our perception of reality, is to realise that we are not passive observers of the world. We have an impact in many ways on how we see the world.
Although this had been a central tenet of the beliefs of many of the ancient sages, scientists first noticed this effect when they started to measure physical phenomena, particularly those involving very small quantities.
For example if I want to measure the current in an electrical circuit, in order to do so I usually introduce some additional impedance in the circuit which in itself, even if minimally, will serve to reduce the current in the act of measurement.
Or perhaps I want to go for a ride on my bicycle. Before setting off I decide to check the air pressure in the tyres. When I put the pressure gauge on the valve a little air is released into the gauge. Thus, even though it might be just a trivial amount, my act of measurement has reduced the pressure in the tyre.
And indeed most acts of measurement interfere with that being measured, so that the measured phenomenon is different, even if so very slightly, from what it was before we intervened.
With the advent of quantum physics we were alerted to an even more dramatic impact of the observer on the observed. Heisenberg showed us that we could either detect the momentum of an electron or its position, but not both. The determination of one automatically precluded the ability to define the other. What’s more many of the characteristics of matter at the subatomic level could only be explained in terms of their probability. The intervention of an observer, however, collapsed the probability function so that a concrete outcome eventuated. It could be argued that indeed the act of observation forced a particular outcome from an array of probabilities.
Physicists Bruce Rosenblum and Fred Kuttner from the University of California suggested that an observer must conclude that:
Reality was somehow created by the observation itself, that the observed reality is created solely by the observer’s acquisition of knowledge. If so the observer is inseparably involved with the observed system. That would challenge his view of a physical real world existing independently of his senses perceiving it.
In the non-physical realm, as we saw above, there are similar effects.
I have often used the quote sometimes attributed to author Anais Nin from her book Seduction of the Minotaur, “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are!” (Others have assured me that this is a quotation she has resurrected from the Talmud which is a central text of Rabbinic Judaism.) Whatever its source it is surely insightful.
In this sense then, a conscious observer is never a passive participant in the universe. We actually help shape our own (perception of) reality.
If you doubt that your mind (perhaps more correctly, your consciousness) can create landscapes and people and natural phenomena, what about your dreams? Do not these dreamt artefacts create an environment similar to that you confront when awake? When you are asleep your dreams appear to you just as real as what your waking consciousness experiences.
This is a very powerful learning.
Most of us think differently to this. We largely believe there is a world out there that we need to perceive and measure and understand. Most of us, through the agency of our egos believe that the world is a hostile place where we must continually struggle to defend and promote ourselves. That response varies from person to person. Some through their fortunate circumstances and history believe that they can master the world and indeed change it to their own advantage. Many are not so fortunate and believe they are essentially powerless and devote their energies to harm minimisation and avoidance strategies. Most of this activity is stimulated by our sense of separation and specialness (even if that specialness, our own uniqueness makes us feel individually impotent!).
Now what do these strategies achieve?
The first category of people I defined above, mount their defence of their perceived world by pursuing power and amassing wealth. In this way they believe that they can control their lives and hold the world at bay. But in the end they can’t escape the trials that most of us face. They are mortal like the rest of us (even if they can afford better medical treatment!). They still have problems with their relationships. Their children are often alienated and do drugs. They are susceptible to economic downturns and stockmarket crashes. They suffer depression, bankruptcies, and gastric ulcers. In surveys they score as no happier than the rest of us.
The second category of people fare no better. In their attempts to isolate themselves from the world and its perceived problems, they cut themselves off from life. They examine every perceived activity to identify its downside and try to protect themselves accordingly. Often, being reluctant to take risks, they let a lot of life and its intriguing possibilities go by. In basic terms they are afraid of life. They try not to make mistakes or offend anybody. Their worst fear is that they might be blamed for something. And they, even more than the first category of people, suffer depression too. Because they want to be blameless, they are compelled to curtail their lives so as not to expose themselves to undue risk. And when they do venture out into the world they want to control everything so that they can again insulate themselves from risk. As you might imagine this approach to the world doesn’t lead to much happiness either.
So what to do?
The mystics have always taught us that our well-being is not determined by the “world out there” but by the “world in here” – the theatre of mind. Our external circumstances are not the prime determinants of our well-being – that is determined by our state of mind, how we choose to view the world.
In simple terms our picture of the world is determined by firstly, all our sensory inputs and then secondly how those inputs are filtered, interpreted and modulated. As the good Dr Phil says, “Nothing comes to us with its meaning attached.” We in fact manufacture that meaning through the filter of our assumptions and beliefs. So when we live in fear, succumb to envy, trip over our pride and our desire to be special, seek power and material wealth or whatever that stands between us and contentment, know that this is not a problem of the world but our interpretation of it. Once we learn this lesson we know that our greatest benefits will be accrued not by changing the world but by changing our mind!
This is not an easy process. It requires an ability to dissociate from our thoughts and emotions and just accept the world as it is, or perhaps more accurately as it appears when we don’t let our emotions and thoughts distort it. We are, in this process, trying to actually be that “passive observer” so that our picture of the world is not distorted by our assumptions and beliefs. This has been the teaching of the mystics for millennia.
Here are a few quotes to aid your understanding of this difficult process.
The self you made is not the truth. Therefore this self does not exist at all. And anything it seems to do and think means nothing. It is neither bad nor good. It is unreal and nothing more than that.
A Course in Miracles
The mind is but a set of mental habits, of ways of thinking and feeling, and to change they must be brought to the surface and examined.
The mind must learn that behind the moving mind there is the background of awareness, which does not change.
It is only when the mind is free from idea, that there can be experiencing. Ideas are not truth. And truth is something that must be experienced directly, from beyond the bundle of ideas – which is the “me”, which is the mind – only when one can go beyond that, when thought is completely silent, is there a state of experiencing.
We often believe that our personal advancement is advanced by the acquisition of knowledge. And to some extent that is true. But when the mind is stuck in egoic defence, no amount of knowledge will suffice to have it experience well-being. What the sages teach us is that we need to actively develop our minds so that they can perceive the world without the various ego-defence mechanisms. This is what Anthony de Mello meant by increasing our “awareness” or the Buddhist masters meant by increasing our “mindfulness”.
As I conceded earlier this is not an easy task. If you need some help along the way, here are some useful readings:
- Awareness by Anthony de Mello
- The Way to Love; The Last Meditations of Anthony de Mello edited by J Francis Stroud
- Silence Is The Answer To All The noise Of Doubt by Robert E Draper
- A Course in Miracles edited by Glen Ellen
- Happiness by Matthieu Ricard