How and what we see are interpretations
In part, our uniqueness as individuals traces to our capacity to perceive, beyond merely looking. Aldous Huxley famously observed that “The eyes and the nervous system do the sensing, the mind does the perceiving.” The eyes gather information and the nervous system delivers it to the brain where it is sorted, referenced to memory and interpreted. The object of my reflection here is that everything we sense and know comes down to interpretations based on perceptions. In this light, the mystics and physicists who observe that this world is an illusion makes sense, particularly when we consider that our perceptions—and the acts that follow from them—are determined by the lenses through which we view each other and the world.
Even as we use instruments to learn about objective reality, interpretations relating to it are based on these lenses. They include our biological inheritance, family upbringing, peer group, physical and social environments, education, affiliations, status, belief systems and accumulated experience. In a sense, each personality is a culture unto itself, uniquely formed and constantly under construction. I am not the person I was ten minutes ago, much less ten years ago because my personal and social lenses are dynamic, ever changing.
Recognizing that everyone is seeing through different lenses should urge tolerance and compassion in our interactions, or at least some respect and patience when our perceptions, judgments, preferences and choices differ. Yet across cultures, people are willing to risk everything for the satisfaction of being “right” or being in possession of “the truth” or the “best way” to accomplish something. We will even kill and be killed holding onto a perception or belief that derives from this strong sense of knowing. Is my personal reality fixed, so dependent upon my way of seeing things and being right that my world would crumble if it were proved otherwise?
I can’t imagine. But considering that one of our primary lenses are the stories we’re told—and understanding the power of story, which provides the basis for all religions, cultures and most everything we believe in—I can see how personal realities could become fixed and immutable. A lie or conspiracy theory told often enough and with passion can easily be accepted as true. And we’re seeing how perception can be weaponized, as in radicalization and brain washing.
On the other hand, there’s survival value where there’s the ability to see the manipulators behind the curtain and keep an open mind when exposed to different points of view and change. Writing of the power of story and storytelling, human potential author Jean Houston asserts “Change the story and you change perception; change perception and you change the world.” Given that, the way to win a war or succeed in political office is to tell stories that affect changes in perception.
In many instances, clashes over differences in perception have more to do with strategy than outcome. Americans generally agree on the fundamental rights and privileges articulated in the Constitution and Bill Of Rights, but we differ strongly on how to realize them. Some see political power as an opportunity to strengthen the whole of society by empowering the governing body to act on behalf of all citizens. Others, fearing the possibility that those who govern will overstep or abuse this power, prefer to empower individuals and corporations directly, believing they can and will take responsibility for themselves. We may want the same outcomes, but we see different ways to achieve them.
At the extreme end of the spectrum are dictators and tyrants who hold onto their perceptions so tightly, they feel justified in killing and waging war. Whatever their outer objective, they have to “win” in order to prove to themselves and others that their perception is the correct one. The genesis of their perception can be be simple or complex, but the severity of it is determined by how tightly they hold onto the notion that they know best. Publicly stated or privately held, it’s their signature position.
Differences in perception are often the root cause of conflict. Archaeologist David Freidel defines “culture” as “the shared conception and perception of reality in a society.” Indigenous peoples the world around perceived rocks, mountains and art objects as being alive, while we only attribute life to animated organisms. And now, the environment is paying the price for that perception. Farmers destroy rainforests in order to feed their families, whereas environmentalists view those same forests as the lungs of the planet. A dandelion for one person is an object of beauty; for another it’s a weed.
So what is the truth? Who is right? In one lens better than another? According to the Bible, it’s by our actions—consequences—that we shall be known. Philosophically we can say that, for the most part, each individual’s perception is valid for themselves. It’s their personal reality. But all actions have consequences. If the dandelions in my yard are crowding out the grass, I can run the lawn mower over them with impunity. But when I put down poison to kill them, animals and birds can be affected, and that has consequences for the neighborhood. (A neighbor of ours had a cat that died from eating another neighbor’s grass treated with weed killer).
We say that “Seeing is believing.” Like all good formulas, it works both ways: Believing is seeing. Thus the popular phrases: “We tend to see what we believe,” and “We see what we want to see.” Perceptions are always biased by what we already believe. The “truth” or “rightness” of a belief or perception is and can only be personal, a singular viewpoint. Characteristically, the more powerful one feels the more this is suppressed.
At all levels, perceptions gain credibility by consensus. The more people who agree with our perception on any issue, worldview or experience, the more we—and they—hold onto it. As we’ve seen, the lives of public figures and celebrities can easily become tragic. As egos become inflated, there’s a loss, confusion or misdirection of identity. One’s perception of self comes into question.
We do not see ourselves, others or the world objectively. The balanced position then is to practice tolerance, respect the perceptions of others and become more aware of our perceptions, always on the lookout for refining and aligning them with the truth as we discover more of it. Easier said than done, but we have a model. Arguably the greatest teaching on perception and its consequent behavior was Jesus, the Christ who advised us “Love they neighbor.”
Whenever we encounter a viewpoint or behavior in contrast to our own, we can choose a loving response. Whether in thought, word or deed, rather than attack we can at least allow and respect a person’s right to see things as they do. And keep an open mind. In a constantly changing world, the truth of anything is always bigger than what one individual can see. The eyeglasses in the photograph above, remind me that we all see through unique and constantly changing lenses.
A person has not only perceptions but a will to perceive, not only a capacity to observe the world but a capacity to alter his or her observation of it — which, in the end, is the capacity to alter the world itself. Those people who recognize that imagination is reality’s master we call “sages,” and those who act upon it, we call “artists.”
Tom Robbins, American novelist
Power rests in the conjunction of what the individual perceives of his own internal being. What he perceives in the world about him, and how he relates these perceptions to establish his relations with other human beings.
Richard Adams, English novelist
The world you perceive is made of consciousness; what you call matter is consciousness itself.
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, Indian guru