Friday, September 14, 2012

What we see, and what we think we see

My husband came out of the shower this morning talking about a piece he'd heard on NPR, about a huge cache of amateur photos discovered, dating back to the 30's.

What particularly interested him was a story within the story, about how the photographer's pictures had changed after a particularly traumatic event in his family.  Why would this be true?

Fortunately I had just begun reading Michael Singer's book, Untethered Soul, this morning, and it seemed to me that the answer resides in a particular phenomenon of human processing which Singer describes:

"When you're just thinking, you're free to create whatever thoughts you want in your mind, and these thoughts are expressed through your inner voice... This inner world is an alternate environment that is under your control.  The outside world, however, marches to its own laws.  When the voice narrates the outside world to you, those thoughts are now side by side, in parity, with all your other thoughts.  All these thoughts intemix and actually influence your experience of the world around you.  What you end up experiencing is really a personal presentation of the world according to you, rather than the stark, unfiltered experience of what is really out there.  This mental manipulation of the outer experience allows you to buffer reality as it comes in.  For example, there are myriad things that you see at any given moment, yet you only narrate a few of them.  The ones you discuss in your mind are the ones that matter to you.  With this subtle form of pre-processing, you manage to control the experience of reality so that it all fits together inside your mind.  Your consciousness is actually experiencing your mental model of reality, not reality itself."

So of course, if what we see is always filtered by that mental description of what we are seeing, then what we photograph in any given situation could be significantly different depending on the mood we were in, or something that happened to us in the recent past.  This explains how my daughter and I, standing in the same place, usually come up with completely different photographs: we're different people, with different mental filters.

But it also explains how my Republican friends and my Democratic friends, looking at exactly the same ugly economic picture, can come up with completely different conclusions about how we got there and what's to be done about it.  Each of us is seeing through a specific mental filter, which exposes some aspects of the situation and masks other equally valid aspects.

When I looked out the window this morning, the sun was bright pink again, just as it was yesterday.  But because it was rising in a clear sky rather than a cloud-darkened background, my camera could only see it as white -- even though I KNEW it was pink.  Both white and pink are true, in their ways, and so I took yesterday's pink sun and photoshopped it in over the white -- but what emerges is something very round and three-dimensional -- which is ALSO true, but we know we can't actually see that three-dimensionality of the sun, so something immediately tells us this image is false.

All of which, I think, points up the value and importance of a meditative practice.  We need to spend time listening to and getting to know that inner voice and its peculiarly narrow view of the world, and we need to take time to develop a consciousness that lives beyond that voice; to come to know the witness that hears that voice, that part of us which is capable of experiencing the world directly without the interference of all the preconceptions that inner voice brings to the picture it sees.

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