Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Mindfulness and Perception: How we see or don't see affects our lives

Mindfulness has many reported, and evidence-based, benefits; enhancing aspects of the physical, emotional and social. How does 'paying attention' create such a significant result in our lives? In looking at how perception impacts our lives, and at how mindfulness impacts our ability to perceive, we can begin to see some ways in which this practice can affect our relationship with the world. 

How we ‘see’ things – how we interpret our experience, is dependent upon many factors such as emotional state, past experiences, and beliefs, for example. A coiled rope on your path may appear as a snake or a backfiring vehicle may sound like a gun shot. More commonly, for most of us, it can be quite easy to misinterpret the meaning of another's words, such that a benign comment may be experienced as an insult when we are feeling vulnerable or in a bad mood. Our perception isn't so straightforward, and what we think we 'see' isn't always accurate. 

Perception: Patterns and Symbols

In order to make sense out of –and function in- our environment, we must be able to organize, identify and interpret our experience. As new babies we are subject to an onslaught of colors, sounds and sensations, and in order to interact in the world we begin to learn to categorize and prioritize these experiences. We end up with a very sophisticated system of symbols and labels.  

Language being one of these very important systems, along with the ability to discern meaning from patterns of experience; to recognize what is safe and what is a threat, for instance (‘Mom’ is safe; someone we’re not familiar with, a threat.) This process of learning to perceive our environment is necessary to our survival and functioning. However, this can begin to work against us when our interpretations and systems become rigid and inflexible. It’s not hard to lose sight of the fact that these tools for navigating our world are just that, tools, and we can begin to believe that these symbol systems and interpretations are actually objective facts or 'reality'.

What are we really seeing? 

Betty Edwards, an art teacher and the author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, recognizes how this tendency gets in the way of artistic skill for many people. 
“Visual information from the real world is rich, complicated, and unique to each thing we see. [However]... adult students beginning in art generally do not really see what is in front of their eyes … They take note of what’s there, and quickly translate the perception into words and symbols mainly based on the symbol system developed throughout childhood and on what they know about the perceived object.” -Edwards

Before and After Five Days of Instruction - Illustration from Betty Edwards "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain"

She has developed a five-day workshop which teaches almost anyone how to draw well, and her book presents the information covered in the workshop. What she teaches people is not artistic ‘skills’ per se, but rather how to ‘see’ the way an artist ‘sees.’  She does this by directing attention toward -and exercises working with - the elements that make up an image such as edges, spaces and shadow, among others. (with miraculous results - see the image above for before and after drawings!) 

We might also consider this tendency of not recognizing our symbol systems for what they are as a significant stumbling block in ‘thinking outside the box’.  We quite easily confuse our perceptual interpretations for what’s objectively true and are then unable to shift our thinking to any alternative possibilities. We get stuck in our same-old pattern. 

Another way to recognize how our particular interpretation of sense data isn’t necessarily reliable ‘fact’ is to consider optical illusions such as the young woman-old woman. Both images are present, but whether you initially see one or the other is dependent upon which perceptual cues you pick up. Whether you can eventually see both has a lot to do with how fixed your perception is after your first impression – are you unable to let go of the concept that was formed when you noticed the image initially? 

The ability to recognize the bare data being processed (color, shapes, negative and positive space, etc.)  while noticing the perceptual information derived from it (nose, hat, chin..)  facilitates more flexibility with that process – enabling us to let go of the idea that a particular arrangement of lines means “nose”, for example, so that we are once again open to ‘seeing’ what other interpretation might be available.

In mindfulness meditation we are training the mind to be more readily able to ‘think outside the box,’ and we are doing this not by trying to see 'outside' vs 'inside', but rather by becoming more intimate with it, that is, its components – letting go of the concept of 'box' and seeing what is really there. In general, it's through connecting with direct experience (seeing, hearing, felt sensations, etc.,) that we are able to engage at that level. We can still see at the conceptual level, of course, but we also begin to have more flexibility in recognizing the range of conceptual interpretations that are available to us based on the underlying data. We never lose the ability to see a ‘box’, but we also enable a greater cognitive flexibility

Seeing how we are seeing

In order to perceive in this way we are not only seeing what’s really there - or becoming aware of “the bare data of cognition” – as Bhikkhu Bodhi refers to it - but also of how we are perceiving; becoming aware of 'bare' experience, and also aware of the awareness of experience.  This is what Jon Kabat-Zinn is referring to when he says, “paying attention in a particular way”… it’s an attention that is present with direct experience and also recognizing how we are relating to present moment experience. This is a greater understanding of what it means to be mindful than merely ‘being present.’

Our ability to recognize how we are perceiving our experience can have a significant impact on us, this is evident in a very real way if you watch the powerful 15 minute TED talk by health psychologist, Stanford professor and best-selling author, Kelly McGonigal, PhD. Her TED talk on ‘How to make stress your friend’ is one of the most popular TED talks of all time.  In it, she discusses research that shows how you perceive stress has more of an impact on our health and well-being than the stress itself, and that the awareness of this effect can serve to change that relationship.

She asked the question, “Does the perception that stress affects health matter?”

Beware: Watching this video might just have a transformational effect!

“It turns out that thinking that stress is bad for you is.. really bad for you.”  - McGonigal  (Research indicates that believing stress is bad for you comes in at the 15th largest cause of death in the US!)

The good news is that once we start to realize how our perceptual process and systems can trick us into believing our own conditioned minds in such limiting -and sometimes harmful- ways, we can also begin to understand how to moderate this effect. Mindfulness practices can help to establish a higher degree of proficiency with this very powerful 'tool' of the mind; our perception.  

Learning mindfulness not only helps us to become more present and connected in our lives as is so often reported, but also provides us with the skills to utilize our human tool-kit far more creatively and effectively. 

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