A reader contacted me with a question, and I decided a good column could come from answering it. Here’s the question: “Could you write about something that came up in a recent discussion? Someone said to me recently, ‘perception is reality.’ I said that it’s not and they were stunned. To me, perception depends on a person’s happiness or unhappiness; their optimism or pessimism. I’d like to hear what you think. Thanks.”
In answer to the question “is perception reality?” – I have to say, no and yes. Is perception reality in an absolute sense? From the standpoint of human senses and the intellect’s capacity to symbolize and understand experience, no, it cannot be. Absolute reality is the Universe-as-it-really-is, far beyond the capacities of human senses and intellect. The Universe is, as modern science is discovering, a single quantum field of energy manifesting matter/consciousness, but that is not what our sensory perception tells us. We can create only a representation of a very limited portion of reality and then create images and ideas about this incomplete information, and this information tells us we are separate and alone in the universe. Is this perception experienced and acted upon as reality? Most certainly, yes. And there lies the problem. We tend to act as if our subjective experience of separateness is reality, when it is only a perspective on reality.
From this perspective, it must first be recognized that human beings experience reality very differently from other species who have very different sense organs and brains. Then, amongst humans, perception will be strongly influenced by psychological and cultural factors. At this personal level, every individual lives in their own reality to a greater or lesser degree. Within a given cultural grouping, a person’s conformity to reality as a cultural norm is the basis of our measurement of mental health and illness at the most basic level. This variance of the subjective experience of reality is also the source of most human conflict. One person’s reality can be so different from another’s they will want to kill each other. Think of the current conflict between Islamic Jihadists and European-culture-based societies.
Then, at subtler levels, we come to just how one individual sees things versus another, right down to small tastes and preferences. So here, as the questioner noted, a person with a psychological predilection to happiness will experience a more positive “reality” than a person with a pessimistic and negative predilection. This is why we can predict how a predisposed anxious or angry or depressed person will perceive and react to the same event in very different ways, and how persons with differing styles of being-in-the-world will differ from each other in how they express themselves. We experience “reality” in vividly personal ways, so it is very important to realize that our perception is literally only a point of view.
An important question, however, remains: can humans intuit actual reality? In other words, beyond the limitations of senses and brain and culture and individual psychological bias, can a human have a sense of the Universe-as-it-is through its levels of organizations, from the microscopic to the macroscopic? From the perspective of Buddhist teaching, we have to say, “yes.”
We in this culture too often fail to acknowledge a deeper level of knowing than the intellect. This knowing arises from the silent intelligence of intuition and has no words for it transcends the realm of language. It is just a knowing, and is the source of both mystical and scientific insight into the true nature of the Universe. Intuition is capable of this because intuition is the consciousness that is both individual and universal. This non-duality is expressed within Oriental cosmologies when Buddhist masters instruct us to realize ourselves and the universe as one.
A very non-Buddhist source, astro-physicist and cosmologist, Mark Whittle, Ph.D., states a similar intuitive insight that is an example of what leads the cutting edge of science: “The Universe has, in a sense, made us in its own image… We’re descended from stars… and evolving within Nature has shaped our intuition in such a way that we can comprehend the cosmological story. In a sense, we’re children of Nature, at home in the Universe.”
The great challenge to those of us raised in a psychologically dualistic society, accustomed to mistaking technology for science and thinking for intelligence, is to grasp that the true scientists, such as Whittle, Einstein, or Tesla, are reaching into their intuitive knowing in order to understand what lies beyond the limits of accepted technology. They then use and shape technology to further the reach of our scientific understanding. Thinking comes after the intuitive insight, to organize and communicate their insights
In the psychological/mystical/spiritual dimension, this same opening of intuitive insight is necessary, and just as the theoretical scientist learns to trust their intuitional insights into the mystery of the Universe, we can, through training, examine the moments of our lives with the silent intelligence of awareness. We begin to experience, as the Japanese Zen tradition would say, the “Thusness” or “as-it-is-ness” of existence on the multiple levels of our existence. We can engage in what is known as the Zen practice of Shikantaza – a form of meditation that is the direct seeing and experiencing of the moment without preconceived judgment, not intellectualizing, but rather, being the truth of the moment realized in awareness.
Training in meditation, mindfulness and awareness is meant to expand our ability to experience more of the everything of existence, utilizing more of our perceptive and mental capacities in a non-judgmental manner to create a more accurate experience of reality-as-it-is. This is, of course, a continuum, and each of us is somewhere on this continuum between what Buddhism calls “egoic delusion,” living almost entirely out of the projected conditioning of our ego, and awakened awareness, experiencing Life-as-it-is, in both the conditioned world of form and the energetic absolute Universe where form and consciousness are like the particle and wave of quantum physics. Through our training and practice, we move on this continuum closer and closer to absolute reality
“The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.” – Yasutani Roshi
Through both scientific and mystical intuitive inquiry, we can come closer to the realization that we and the Universe are both matter-energy and consciousness-energy, all One. We can experience how any small movement of our sense of self-in-the-world (perception) from egoic delusion toward awakened awareness brings us closer to the living reality of existence, and with it, significant expansion of our capacity for well-being and security as the gap between perception and reality grows smaller. We begin by narrowing the compassion gap that separates us from understanding ourselves and our fellow humans. This reduces the conflicts we have within ourselves and with other people. We then have to narrow the gap that separates us from identification with our fellow creatures, with Nature and the Earth that is our home. Eventually, we awaken into the realization, what Zen calls the “felt sense,” that we and the Universe are one. This is what Zen calls realizing our original nature, where perception resonates much closer to actual reality.