The Wonder of Perception

Perception is an interesting thing. In general, it is defined as our way of seeing or understanding something. It can also be defined as our way of interpreting something. Even further, it can be narrowed down to a specific sort of intuition or insight.

In recovery we talk about perception very much being a choice we make each day. We can choose how we want to see the world. We can focus on a half empty glass or a half full one. We can wear dirty glasses or clean ones. So much of recovery is about creating a new perception so that we no longer see the world through a dark and dreary lens that leads us down a path of destruction and despair.

Recovery or not, perception is very much a subjective, personal beast. In philosophy you learn about the Noumenon and Phenomenon, the former being the thing simply as it before interpretation, and the latter being what it becomes when it is experienced through the senses. Romantic writers and poets explored this idea a lot. What is something before it is interpreted? Well, you can’t really say. Once you start to try to define it, you dilute its very meaning. It only stays pure when left alone. When left to simply be what it is. And what is it? You can’t say! Then it no longer is what it is. It’s being given meaning and definition based on one’s subjective perception. Boggles the mind, doesn’t it…

This is also explored in recovery and forms of meditation, namely mindfulness, the idea of acceptance and letting things be as they are without judgment and control. When we accept things as they are and let them simply be, it prevents them from having power over us and wreaking havoc on our thinking. When we do not assign an interpretation or a story to a thought or feeling or event, it doesn’t turn into anything other than its simple impersonal existence, and then it dissolves and melts away. When we do not believe our thoughts and take them as gospel, when we let them be what they are, just things that the brain creates for kicks or whatever, they do not turn into a tornado of fear. The Buddhists often call this tornado of fear or uncontrolled thinking the “monkey mind” or the “small sense of self.”

Perception as intuition and insight is slightly different. It could essentially be classified as spiritual. When the mind quiets down and we don’t apply neurotic meaning to our thinking, we can sense in our soul a sort of universal truth. The message I often hear is, I am safe and loved no matter what. This is what yogis often refer to as leading from the heart center and what I believe Bill and Bob (AA’s founders) were talking about when they said we needed to experience a shift in perception in order to live our lives sober. I think they meant tapping into our hearts, not just controlling our minds. There is a difference between assigning meaning from a mental place based on our background of conditioning and experiences and coming to understand something from our heart center, rooted in Truth.

But perception, the mental kind, is still something we inevitably have. Humans are always seeing and judging and interpreting and coming to conclusions. Some of us do it more than others. Some of us are more open-minded than others. But that is still a piece of our perception. It is simply what we do, perceive, and it is not inherently bad. In fact, it’s quite fascinating.

I love the topic of perception, because of its very subjectivity. I love that I can look at a painting and find it absolutely breathtaking and beautiful, and someone else can look at it and deem it unremarkable or even ugly. No problem there. But why is that? What is causing that difference in two people’s perception? As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but why? What molds one to see something so differently from another, and why does this change, and how does this change? How come some people are better able to open their minds and change their perceptions more so than others? Why are we so attached to our past and our stories and willing to let them always dictate our perception?

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