Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘perception’

standing stoneThe Ryoan-ji garden is an ancient rock garden in Japan, in the Zen tradition. It’s a so called dry garden, consisting of groups of large stones place upon a bed of smooth-worn and finely raked pebbles. I’ve studied Zen as an amateur student for years, but it’s an enigmatic subject, difficult to gain purchase and try as I might I still know virtually nothing about it. In a similar way I’m no doubt entirely ignorant of the deeper meaning of this garden. One of its intriguing and more talked about features however is that no matter what angle we view it from we can only ever count fourteen stones.

There are actually fifteen stones, but one of them is always hidden from view by the others, so we can never know for sure that there are fifteen, presumably without flying over the garden and viewing it from an elevated perspective. So, how many stones are there? Answer, obviously fifteen, but how many in our experience? How many from our every day perspective?

I’m not sure if this is an important Zen teaching, or if I’m creating a tangential one of my own, but it’s a useful concept none the less, that reality is always subjective and cannot help  but conceal both it’s true nature and, by inference, our own.

On a not unrelated subject, about twelve hours ago, I ate breakfast in the garden of a cottage overlooking the North Sea, a little to the north of Scarborough. I sipped coffee as I contemplated the changing shades of blue, and I tried to hold on to the scene, to imprint it in memory, both visually and emotionally, because I knew I would shortly be taking my leave of it and it would be a long time before I came this way again, indeed if ever.

Like that fifteenth stone the view is now hidden. I know it exists from some other perspective, but what I’m left with now, as I tap this out are the fourteen stones of a more mundane reality.

The ability to hold on to an awareness of the fifteenth stone is helped by having seen it in the first place. No amount of being told of its existence can substitute for the experience of seeing it. Merely being told it’s there requires faith and trust, when you cannot see it yourself.

Of course what I was looking at this morning was a reflection of my own self in a reality that was closer to the truth of who felt I am, of who we all are when not pummelled into a different shape by the repetitive and habitual lives that normally contain us. For a short time though, on holiday, we escape, we gain a different perspective, we view a different emotional landscape, we see and feel ourselves differently and wish upon wish we could be like that all the time. It is this transcendent essence that is contained for me in the symbolic meaning of the fifteenth stone.

But the truth is we have all seen it from time to time, and even though the evidence of our own eyes mostly denies its existence, we have only to shift our perspective slightly, do something, go somewhere a little out of the ordinary, to reveal its presence and realise it’s been there all along.

Read Full Post »

downham-phone-boxSo, I signed up for Instagram in the summer and got busy posting a pastiche of pictures of my imaginary life. As usual though I’m a bit slow in catching on to how you game the system so I get a thousand likes on my pictures. Sure,… I saw a blurry picture of a rusty nail knocked into a piece of wood, and it had twelve hundred likes. My picture of a broken watch got ten. The best I’ve done so far all year, a picture of a red telephone box in Downham village, is about fifty five.

This is not to say I’m disappointed by the response, only that I do not understand the game, how you massage the waves, tickle up the perception of a much liked life, rusty nails and all. You have to follow other people, I know. You like theirs and they like yours, but you can only take this so far. My fifty five max likes is garnered from a followship of about a hundred, which is itself garnered from my following of two hundred and fifty others. An equation governs the relationship – something to do with game theory I guess. But if you follow people, their stuff gets added to your daily feed and you have to spend a while going through actually liking their stuff, so your Gravatar pops up in their feed and piques their curiosity and hopefully inspires them to be kind enough to like you back. But at some point this becomes impractical in terms of the sheer time taken in the nurturing. I mean, I have a real life, you know? And I was always quickly bored with games especially when the rules were so arcane as this.

In short, perception of personal worth through any form of social media then: we fool ourselves. Nothing controversial there. It’s just a game. Get over it.

Of course, our nightly scrolling through this stuff is where the business model cuts in. The adverts appear, cunningly disguised as content, so before you know it you’ve liked that ad for Scarlet Johansson’s latest movie, thinking it was a pastiche artwork by a talented amateur.

I get those inspirational pieces as well. You know the kind: the teenage lifestyle gurus offering me a world as perfect as theirs, if only I’d learn from their canned quotations, taken fresh from the quote-o-mat machine.

And speaking of lifestyle gurus, Ekchart Tolle is on there too. I follow him. He puts stuff up of an inspirational nature, and truly I like it, though I suspect it’s not really Eckhart putting it up. I don’t mind this. What can I say? I like the guy. Recently, Eckhart, or someone channeling him said something like: pulling back into the “now” is often sufficient to make a difference to the adverse circumstances of your life. This won’t make sense unless you’ve read his stuff, and you’re familiar with this idea of letting go of striving and pulling back into a detached awareness of the present moment. And you know, it works, but we forget, so it’s good to be reminded.

Anyway, I thought to myself, okay, pull back into the present moment, and sure enough a lot of the bad stuff I felt was coming at me fell away. I felt re-energised because bracing yourself against adversity takes up a lot of energy. This suggests to many a paranormal effect, but I don’t see it that way. It’s more simply to do with perception. So much of what we take to be a real and imminent danger to our well being is in fact imaginary. We imagine danger and it sours our lives. Happiness is therefore not another life, more a change in the way we perceive the one we’ve already got. Hey, that’s good, I may Instagram that one later (twenty five likes?) But you heard it here first, right?

Discussion of cars in the office, two colleagues seriously questioning the purchase of older cars on account of them having no central locking button, one you can hit when travelling through a shady part of town, so the trolls don’t come and drag you off down a dark side-street and eat you. I’m perplexed by this, wondering if I inhabit a different world, one where there are no trolls, and where the shady parts of town are simply the parts of town you do not know. I’m sure my car has a central locking button, but I’ve no idea where it is, nor have I ever felt the need for one.

Perception of  danger therefore: How easily we frighten ourselves, and mistake the unknown for something sinister and threatening!

But jumping back to Tolle’s “now” there’s also a misconception about what it means. There must be zillions images on Instagram, and all of them the valued nows of Instagrammers. I see a cross section of the nows of people I follow. Look again in an hour and those nows have sunk, no longer fresh, buried under new nows, new images. It is a dizzying dynamic and it reminds us of the fleeting nature of existence. But these former nows are not lost, just forgotten. The machine soaks them up and my mind boggles at the terrabytes that must be devoted to the storage of this stuff no one ever looks at. What use such an accumulation? What use the mediocre picture of sunset over suburban Manchester a week last Tuesday? And that rusty nail? Are there algorithms that can interpret them, profile us and target advertising in response?

Misperception of the “now”: it is not something to be preserved or captured. We observe, we let it go.

I was stuck on the motorway for an hour last night, a pitch dark, misty night, and a string of red tail lights leading off into the distance – ten miles of it. There was a temptation to eye up the angles, the light, the geometry, to squeeze off a few shots for Instagram and say: hey look here’s me stuck in traffic; what a drag!

Sack that. An hour’s a long time in a traffic jam, sure, but our perception of it is improved if we can observe the present moment without judgement or agenda – like: I really need to be somewhere else right now. The lights, the contrasts, the sounds, the scents – there was an aliveness and vibrancy to the experience when viewed with a relaxed detachment, but even attempting to share it as I’m doing now dilutes it, because before we can describe a thing we must gain a perspective that’s remote from it. And then we do not live it. It becomes like a butterfly pinned in a display case – a dead thing. They are dead moments then, these Instagram snaps, these terabytes of server storage nothing more than a mausoleum of dead things.

It’s just a game.

Misperception of reality, and craving. They render us vulnerable to control, to suggestion by people who understand these things better than we do. I’m thinking of charismatic politicians, and other sellers of stuff. We are most of us asleep, but every moment offers an opportunity to awaken. The perception is one of a bumpy ride, that we’d better hold on as the going gets tough. Awakening is having the courage to let go. To switch off life’s record button, and simply observe without a thought for how one can game the system.

Read Full Post »

keys

“Master, when will you teach me?”
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes.”
“Then go wash your bowl.”

Presence is inner space. It is stillness. It is making room inside ourselves for the primary essence to return to conscious awareness. Without presence, our lives are dominated by our thoughts and our memories, and we mistake them entirely for who we think we are. Only when we still the mind, when we rise above the flow of thought and memory, do we invite presence and reconnect with the authentic self.

So, try this for a moment:

Sit down. Take a deep breath. Focus. Don’t reminisce, don’t anticipate the future. Narrow your sights to the present moment, and above all STOP THINKING! Do it now.

Did it work?

No.

It’s impossible to stop thinking. And anyway, we have to live, to work, to take care of our families, get through college, pass exams, fix the car. Try doing any of that without thinking! It seems “presence” is not only a difficult thing to attain, it’s also impractical and unhelpful in our everyday lives. So, do we live as we should, or do we retreat to a cave and nurture presence instead?

Actually, presence is helpful and practical; it’s just a question of how we get there. If we can somehow create that space within ourselves, we can move beyond our thoughts, rest in spaciousness, and from there recognise our thoughts for what they are: mostly imposters and prophets of false doom. We think when we need to, but we no longer confuse “thought” with “identity”.

The deliberate cessation of thinking is impossible. Even to attempt it is only going to make matters worse, risking thoughts of self loathing when we inevitably fail. We should think more of “presence” as a state where our thoughts proceed at a more measured pace, and where we no longer find ourselves caught up with their contrived chains of endless urgencies:

We must do this, we must do that, or this won’t happen, and then we won’t get that, so we won’t be able to go there, and so and so won’t like us any more, and then we will be unhappy,…

If we can distance ourselves from the chain of thought, it’s a start. And indeed, if we sit quietly we find it is possible to observe the run of thoughts from a place within ourselves, without actually engaging them. We merely watch their coming and going, without judgement. If we feel our emotions getting hung up on particular thoughts, we press them gently aside. This is a powerful practise, and we find, in time, moments of deeper presence creeping into our lives of their own accord.

“Master, when will you teach me?”
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes.”
“Then go wash your bowl.”

There are many ways to nurture presence and they aren’t that difficult. They require a little imagination, and the cooperation of the ego. But that they require Ego’s indulgence is the reason so few of us make way in this search for presence – egos, being entities comprised entirely of thought, are not naturally inclined towards the cessation of thinking.

Try this instead:

Look at your hands. Now (in a moment) close your eyes. How do you know your hands are still there? Because you can feel them. But what are you feeling? You are feeling the energy of the body. It’s particularly noticeable in the hands. Now breathe in, and very gently out, and breathing out, focus more on the feeling in the hands. The feeling grows stronger. Breath, it seems, can help focus stillness and amplify one’s sense perceptions.

Remember this.

Using the imagination as the vehicle, and the outward breath as the energy to drive it, it’s possible to explore more of the body this way. Thus, we discover similar feelings in our arms and our chest. The region around the heart and the lower abdomen also respond strongly to the caress of breath-assisted imagination. The more we practice, the stronger and more readily these feelings come to us. And at some point, while we’re doing all of this we realise we’ve not been thinking about anything for a while. We have become still, we have become more “present” in the body, and we feel calmer. This is a very effective practice on the road to presence.

But there’s more.

When we become familiar with this feeling of centred calm, secure within the body, we begin to see and feel the outer world differently too. I’m looking at my keys – familiar things – but I realise I hardly ever truly see them, because the mind is not interested in them as they actually are. It labels them “keys” and moves on because it has so many other things to think about.

But, observed in stillness, a deeper dimension is revealed to my keys – the shape, the colours, the myriad indentations, the fall of light upon them, the reflections, the highlights. Be warned though: the mind may have trouble here as thinking tries to reassert itself. We might try to think about the keys: What doors do they open? This one is looking worn out and maybe I should replace it; I wonder if the battery is okay in my little torch thingy. Should I test it?

We cannot observe in stillness while we are engaged in thought. Thoughts are like stones tossed into the lake, breaking up its morning stillness. In stillness we accept only sense perceptions as they come to us – here primarily our vision, but we can also bring the ears, the nose and the sense of touch into play. But however we observe the outer world, we simply let it be, without analysis or judgement. We sense the world without thinking about it and if we’re doing it right, the feeling that arises is one of calm alertness.

Experienced on a larger scale, say in the outdoors, in the natural world, observing without judgement the tremble of every leaf and every blade of grass, this feeling of presence can be very powerful indeed, but as the lesson of the keys reveals, it can also be experienced in the minutiae we oftentimes simply overlook. And the observations need not be of static things. We can observe movement just as dispassionately and discover the stillness in it (stillness in movement) It can be experienced even in those things that we might consider a chore – ironing clothes, clearing out the garage, mowing the grass,… or washing the pots.

Master, when will you teach me?
Have you eaten?
Yes.
Then go wash your bowl.

Perhaps we should be more willing to embrace those mindless tasks for what they have to teach us.

Read Full Post »