We often mistake our perceptions for reality. Perception colors how we see the world, how we hear, smell, taste, touch, and how we react emotionally. The problem is we invent, imagine and create perceptions based on our experiences. Our perception can be brightened by a good mood or obscured by a dark cloud of negativity. What we perceive in any given moment is not just determined by sensory input, our personal physical abilities, energy levels, feelings, social identities also color how we see things. The goal of perception is not to see things as they truly are, but to assure our survival.
“Neuroscientists commonly call the brain an ‘anticipation machine.’ To predict and get ready for what is going to happen next, it constructs a perceptual filter that selects and organizes what we actually become aware of based on what we’ve experienced before. Filters shape what we focus on, which in turn influences the information our brains receive. And filters help us survive: If we are driving a car, we need to be scanning the road ahead for obstacles and primed to step on the brakes rapidly, filtering our options to a select few so that we can react quickly when needed.” Daniel Siegel
Much of the information in this talk comes from the book, Perception: How Our Bodies Shape Our Minds, by University of Virginia psychologists Dennis Proffitt and Drake Baer. They share research that found: If you are tired, distances look farther. Hills look steeper when you are wearing a heavy backpack. Golfers who putt well see bigger holes. Feeling bad makes things seem harder. Friends lighten the load, making hills seem less steep and pain not so painful. They also found:
“Participants who drank a sugary drink made better decisions and delayed immediate gratification longer than people who gulped down a sweet-tasting drink without glucose. When judges make parole decisions just before their lunch breaks or the end of their day, they tend to deny parole. That’s because a decision to grant parole requires more careful consideration—and, so, more energy.” Dennis Proffitt and Drake Baer
Our filters and biases constantly reinforce themselves, that makes us think our perceptions are accurate and complete. Confirmation bias exists when we selectively pay attention to things that conform to our existing beliefs.
Thus, our group affiliation affects our perception. When participants solved a math problem to verify the truth of a research finding, like whether a vaccine is effective or if banning guns saves lives, the people with greater math skills were able to calculate the answer only when the result did not conflict with their political beliefs. So just providing more information won’t help people figure out the truth of the situations.
“We do not have immaculate perception; we perceive what we already believe.” Daniel Seigel
Because of our filters and biases, we unconsciously judge ourselves, other people and events before we allow ourselves to experience the moment. We often tell ourselves stories based on our inaccurate perceptions. “She did not say hello to me. She must not like me.”
“Without our being consciously aware of it, the fluency of an experience guides our value judgments. Fluent writers strike us as being intelligent and fluent statements sound true… Fluency makes us vulnerable to mistaking ease for truth: it’s a function of how we perceive our own thoughts. But with a little inquiry, the spell can be broken.” Dennis Proffitt and Drake Baer
Here are some other misperceptions Kristen Neff discusses in her book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself:
- Putting others down makes me feel better. In reality, it creates and maintains the state of disconnection and isolation we actually want to avoid.
- Harsh self-criticism is motivating.
- Failure is an option box that need not be checked. I can and should avoid falling short of perfection.
- I can control my external circumstances and my internal responses to them.
- My partner judges me as harshly as I judge myself.
When we have wrong perceptions, we hurt ourselves and others. When we believe our perceptions are reality, we may act on them. This is very dangerous. In fact, people kill one another over their different perceptions of the same reality.
“All our suffering arises from our failure to recognize things as they are. We should always ask ourselves, humbly, “Am I sure?” and then allow space and time for our perceptions to grow deeper, clearer, and more stable.” Thich Nhat Hanh
We practice meditation to train the mind to perceive more fully and accurately. When we meditate, we become aware of our unconscious perceptions. Then we can investigate our perceptions to see what is true, what is partially true and what is not true.
To do this we need to:
- Pay attention to what is going on inside of us
- Recognize our mental and emotional habits
- Become aware of what triggers us
- Recognize how we armor ourselves
Meditation is a tool that can help us get to know and understand ourselves. By coming back to our anchor, we learn to become aware of our unconscious thoughts. Once we are aware of the stories we tell ourselves, we can slow down enough to question the truth in those stories. Then we learn to accept what is, whether we like it or not. Taking a deep breath lessens the overestimation effect.
We learn to turn toward, not away from discomfort so we can shine a light on unconscious habits that don’t support us. We see the innate goodness underneath all the armor we put on to protect ourselves. We realize that our defenses, causes and conditions have contributed to the mistakes we have made. We don’t need to be perfect; we can love ourselves just as we are.
Slowly over time we learn to break old habit patterns that stifle us and become a better friend to ourselves. Clear recognition of the way things are provides us with calm, not from indifference but from understanding. We don’t need to add on all the chaos, anxiety and suffering.
- May you see things the way they are.
- May you accept things the way they are.
- May you have the wisdom to see through your biases.