Meditation Talk: Lens of Perception
As we begin a mindfulness practice, we often hear talk about widening our lens, stepping back, taking in the bigger picture. While I have certainly found this to be true in many experiences on my own journey, I also think that what we’re doing, practicing, and learning is much “bigger” than even this. For the purposes of this talk and the verbiage I have experienced from my own teachers, I want to liken our minds and the process of receiving experiences: perception, to that of a camera, and talk a little bit about the myriad ways we play, experiment with, and change in response to perception.
In this way, I think it’s really important to start by expressing that I have found, at least in my own experience, that we are largely completely out of control of the way or ways in which we perceive both our outer and inner worlds. I heard recently that a scientist estimated that every second there are approximately 2 millions bits of information available in the landscape of our inner and outer experience, however, out of those 2 million bits, we actually form a “picture” of reality from approximately 130,000 bits. So how do we get from 2 million to 130,000? Unconscious filtering. Our minds are constantly, moment by moment, creating this picture of reality, snapshots of experiences, that it then weaves together into something coherent that tells us a story. And when we operate unconsciously, this movie invariably becomes our life. This point about perception itself is the first space our mindfulness practice can begin to cultivate change - not by changing the process of filtration from 2 million to 130,000, but rather by bringing attention and awareness to the simple fact that it’s happening.
Instead of being trapped in the reality of our filtration, we begin to open the possibility that reality is actually different than what we are perceiving: that our thoughts and views are not inherently true and that different ways of receiving, perceiving, and interacting are possible.
Because this filtration of perception happens almost instantaneously moment by moment, we are not in any way hindering this natural process but beginning to see our filters for what they are. In keeping with the camera analogy, I love that this process has always presented itself through teachers and my personal experiences as “filters” because I really imagine them like the filters we use on Instagram, iphones, and other camera sources. If we imagine each of us in this room as image gatherers, we each have our own unique filters...you may hear this talk in sepia tone while your neighbor hears everything in blue tones. The same information is received in completely different ways. When I first began teaching this, I called it the filters of perception; however, I have begun to feel and experience my own filters in a slightly different way, and I’d like to offer that to you here. Rather than a filter, I have come to feel that experience comes through more of a mirror with some small holes...ok so bear with me. Essentially, rather than seeing reality for what it is even through a filter, I think it’s more accurate to say we view reality through the history of our own experiences: a mirror reflecting ourselves onto reality rather than a sieve through which we receive refined experiences from not-so-solid reality. The interesting part about this mirror, however, is that without mindfulness we never see it, never know it’s there. It’s in this way that mindfulness can first begin to “widen our lens.”
As we invite ourselves to see the mirror, we invariably see ourselves, and in the moments of noticing ourselves, our own habits, our traumas, our neuroses, we can then invite ourselves to see a more whole, unfiltered, unmirrored image of the present moment: “what’s really here?”
If we stay mindful, aka non-judgemental through this process, this act of seeing can become one of powerful insight as well as playfulness, experimentation, creativity. We can invite ourselves to try on new filters, new ideas, new thoughts - in essence new ways of receiving and perceiving. When this happens, we give ourselves permission to release our histories and our traumas and start feeling and experiencing the world with newness, from wholeness and love rather than worry and fear. With the same respect, in the moments where we are already receiving through a filter or a mirror of goodness, we can encourage this habit, this pathway of thinking and perceiving.
The more we do this, consciously deciding how we engage with our perceptions, the more we have the potential to lift the veil of suffering and see each moment for what it really is: impersonal, full of beauty, full of suffering, interconnected, loving.
So, yes, our mindfulness practice cultivates a wider lens...perhaps we can call this the fisheye, the 1/8th of an inch of space between awareness and our thoughts or perceptions. It’s this 1/8th of an inch that IS the wider lens. It reconnects us to our breath and our body and inherently to our ability to choose where we go from that moment.
But I would like to play here with the idea that in addition to widening our lens, to our fisheye abilities, that mindfulness also invites a microscopic lens to experience. I want to read a quote by Richard Feyman which I once heard that I think articulates so beautifully the power of a mindful microscopic lens:
“I have a friend who's an artist. He'll hold up a flower and say "look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree. Then he says "I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing," and I think that he's kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is ... I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it's not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there's also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower.”
When I begin a mindfulness training program with a new group, the first practice we always start with is body scan - reacquainting ourselves with the fact that we actually are embodied, have a body, and that the body often has a lot to say about experience. As I instruct, I often say to intentionally normalize what many people experience “stay with this part of the body even if you don’t really feel anything.” It was during a recent body scan practice of my own, that I realized “huh, this is like putting that microscope lens over the camera on my iphone and taking a much smaller and deeper look at what’s happening.” My son has a toy that actually does this, and to be honest it’s wicked cool, but maybe I only think that because like Richard Feyman, my heart is a scientist’s heart.
Anyway, I have learned through my own practices on and off the cushion, that pre-mindfulness and meditation, I think it was only the big stuff that really made a difference to my heart, to my mind, to my life. Now while I say this, I remember my dad reading a book when I was kid and maybe you’re familiar with it “Don’t sweat the small stuff?” But I would argue that these kinds of affirmational ideas of letting the little things go is only necessary because we have a habit of making little things into big things...BUT, we only seem to do this with the bad stuff. Think about it. How often does taking a shower or drinking a cup of coffee or seeing the sun in the sky become as awesome and personally impacting as getting a job, starting to see someone new, buying new, shiny things? We tend to make small negatives epic and little wins invisible, and I think this is another way in which mindfulness has the capacity to change our lens. When we sit down and practice a body scan, we start to feel even the smallest most minute sensations in the body. We start to connect to our energy systems, our cardiovascular system through heart beat and pulse, our emotional experiences: how and where they present in the body, and even the energy and visceralness of the thinking mind. The more in tune we become with our own bodies, the more we invite ourselves to notice the smaller experiences in our day to day. We actually begin to smell the coffee as it’s brewing, feel the warmth of the cup in our hands, and taste more than the first sip. In this way, we invite the small beauties of every day aliveness to pervade those 130,000 bits of information. We take the habit of ignoring the mundane yet beautiful pieces of our humanity and turn them on their head through a microscopic lens.
Much like Feyman described in his view of a flower, mindfulness can help us begin to see every moment of our life this way - no longer an unconscious aesthetic, we become active, feeling participants in the moment to moment experience of our own lives.
So what does this all mean? More than anything, I desire this talk to be an invitation to playfulness, to curiosity, experimentation: ultimately, to letting life be one big experimental photography session. Try out different lens, change colors and don’t just blindly trust that the first lens you put on is the best one - be curious and test out others - reflect on the results and maybe you’ll find you actually like living from a different lens. As you bring attention to the mirror of your perception, invite the homeless man down the street to give it a spit shine and see if the world looks a little more beautiful with a little less of the past and more of the now. And be willing to see it all - in the most average of moments: sweat the small stuff, revel in the incredible amount of good that fills your life no matter how small it is, and in the hardest of moments, find that fisheye lens, that 1/8th in of space to see what’s really happening: the hurting human beings and the compassionate love that could cure it all.