“Perceptions are portraits, not photographs, and their form reveals the artist’s hand every bit as much as it reflects the things portrayed.” — Daniel Gilbert
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 present experience. Our perception can be brightened by a good mood or obscured by a dark cloud of negativity. And perceptions are based on filters and biases from past experiences.
According to Daniel Siegel, “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.”
Our filters and biases constantly reinforce themselves and 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. Daniel Seigel says, “We do not have immaculate perception; we perceive what we already believe.”
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.”
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.
Thich Nhat Hanh says, “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.”
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 look into our perceptions to see what is true, what is partially true and is not true.
To improve the accuracy of our perceptions, 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 perceptions and thoughts. Once we are aware of these stories that 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.
By accepting what is, we learn to turn toward, not away from discomfort so we can shine a light on our unconscious perceptions that don’t support us. Rather than seeing ourselves as flawed, we see our innate goodness underneath all the armor we put on to protect ourselves. We realize that our defenses, as well as external 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 perception patterns that stifle us, and become a better friend to ourselves.