EXPERIENCES, PERCEPTIONS, INTERPRETATIONS, MEANINGS, MEMORIES, AND THE CREATION OF STORIES AND WHAT WE CALL “REALITY”
I just read “The Woman on the Beach in Guaymas,” a short story by Sylvia Boorstein in her book, “It’s easier than you think.” It tells the story of two women in the middle of a storm, and how while one is full of fear, the other is relishing in the beauty and power of nature’s spectacle. It shows how different people perceive what happens differently, and how our upbringing and past experiences shape our perceptions and the ways we interpret events.
It seems that reality — everything we assume as indisputably real — is merely a construct of our minds. What we call reality is what our brains create from the way we perceive and interpret what happens. We create stories based on how we interpret our experiences, and they become for us our ‘reality.’ That is why it is said that if we change the way we perceive and interpret events — if we change the meanings we attach to occurrences — we will inevitably change our stories, which will bring about new realities for us.
You probably heard this maxim, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
Experiments in quantum physics, for instance, demonstrate that the actual act of observing particles changes the particles. So, it makes sense to ask ourselves, “Do we, observers, change the world by merely observing it?”
CREATING NEW STORIES: PICKING AND CHOOSING, REARRANGING AND ATTACHING NEW MEANINGS TO EVENTS
We have to realize that we are constantly creating all sorts of stories, constantly trying to extract meaning from what happens.
We need to be aware of the stories we create and tell. Sometimes, when we are craving for sympathy and affection, we tell stories of our victimization, stories that highlight our wounds. Other times, when our egos are craving admiration and adulation, we tell stories that highlight our heroic courage in overcoming difficult times. These are the times when our egos are craving to be revered and remembered, which may come from an unconscious desire: the desire to outlive physical existence and be eternal.
We must realize that we are constantly rewriting our stories, and adapting them to different audiences. We pick and choose our memories, and arrange them in new narratives, without taking into consideration that our memories are changing all the time. We would be doing ourselves a favor if we started to doubt the veracity of the stories we tell, and came to conclude that stories are not really true: they are all made up.
Have you heard of the negativity bias, the propensity of our minds to give much more attention to what is negative than what is positive? Well, many of us are always catastrophizing. No matter how good the present moment may be, we are always imagining that something bad is about to happen, that tragedy is just around the corner to hit us. We live in fear, building unnecessary stress and anxiety, which in turn have detrimental effects on our mental and physical health and well-being.
The practical advice for the improvement of life that comes out of all this would be, “Pay attention to the stories you hear, and practice to be skeptical of the stories you are being fed with. Observe deeply, and be extra careful of how you choose to make meaning of what happens. Choose to see thoughts just as thoughts. Choose not to engage, not to allow yourself to be carried away to the future or the past by worrisome stories. Choose to let the stories go and come back to the present moment, always remembering that both the past and the future do not exist except as thoughts in the present moment; they are only thoughts. If you are not happy with your current reality, choose to interpret what has happened to you differently. Attach different meanings to your experiences, and create different stories. By changing your stories, you will create new realities, open up to new possibilities, and change your life.”
But what if we didn’t do any of these things? What if we didn’t judge, didn’t try to derive meaning from the events, didn’t create stories? I believe that we would improve our lives immensely if we let go of our stories, and realized that our attachment to our stories is an impediment to our growth, liberation, and transcendence.
WHAT REALLY MATTERS
One good advice is to focus on what really matters. And how do we know what really matters, you may ask? Well, ask Death, the wisest adviser. When faced with impending death, 99% of the things we deemed important lose importance. This is when we will be ready to let go of a series of attachments, desires, and “unnecessary needs,” such as the need to find meaning, the need to create stories, the need to be recognized and remembered, and the need to leave a legacy.
THE COMPULSION TO DERIVE MEANING FROM WHAT HAPPENS
I think that it is fair to state that we think too much, and spend too much time trying to extract meaning from the occurrences. Can we pause, analyze and come to the conclusion that this is a dis-ease; something that does not allow us to live with ease?
In order to regain our sanity we must curb this compulsion to think, and overthink, and create stories, and engage with them, and be carried away by them. We must see thoughts just as thoughts. We must slow down, meditate, and learn to observe our thoughts. We should befriend the idea that occurrences are just that: occurrences, and that we are the ones attaching either positive or negative meanings to them. We should realize that there is a difference between what happened and the many stories we tell about what happened.
We should realize that we have the power to choose the stories we tell, and that we can tell stories that either empower or dis-empower us. We should realize that we can curb the habit of attaching meaning to our experiences and that we can even refrain from creating stories altogether.
We also have to be mindful of how much time we spend criticizing, judging, and condemning. We have to realize that we go through life like slaves under the domination of our cravings and aversions. “I like this. I don’t like that. I want more of this. I want none of that.” We are the ones unable to accept “what is,” always wanting something else. We are the ones who trapped our own selves in this never-ending quest for pleasure and avoidance of pain, constantly wanting to maximize what is pleasant and minimize what is unpleasant.
But what would happen if we decided to stop classifying things, people, and events? What would happen to us, and the quality of our lives, if we curbed this impulse to state what is pleasant and what is unpleasant for us? What if we exercised equanimity, and simply accepted people, things, and events as they are, without having to tell ourselves, or anyone else, that we consider them good or bad?
I believe that as we move to empty ourselves of the unnecessary and self-imposed load of overthinking, meaning-attaching, and story-creating, we begin to open space in our lives to receive the blessings of the Universe. It is only when we become able to accept “what is,” that we will be open to receive and appreciate the gifts.
My good friend Jack, again and again, reminds me to stay in the present. He made a copy of the following passage from Eckhart Tolle’s book, The Power of Now, and gave it to me. “I have learned to offer no resistance to what is; I have learned to allow the present moment to be and to accept the impermanent nature of all things and conditions. Thus have I found peace.” ~ Eckhart Tolle
FILTERING OUT INFORMATION
We have to realize that although a vast amount of information is coming our way all the time, we are only able to process a small part of it. Our conscious mind can only absorb a fraction of reality, mainly what matches our understanding of what life is. It seems that our brains accept what is in accordance with our knowledge and reject what does not harmonize with our memories and expectations. It is as if we had filters that allow the entrance of that information that matches our stored experience, and keeps out what does not make sense to us. What is new and unexpected has little chance of breaking through and making its way to our conscience.
This explains why different individuals looking at the same event have different perceptions, or see different things altogether.
Have you heard the saying, “people hear what they want to hear?” I am convinced that people hear what they are predisposed to hear. When listening to someone, we all look for those pieces of information that sustain our beliefs, and we reject the majority of those that go against them. Our filters are allowing some bits of information to pass through while keeping others out. We don’t absorb everything that is being said because our brains are selectively looking for what confirms our understanding of the world.
On the other hand, if we have a predisposition to oppose and find err in others, we listen to detect what does not match our beliefs, so we can solidify our position and increase our sense of self by opposing views we don’t accept.
We are not really open to listen to what others have to say. What we do is to pick and choose, and reinterpret what was said so it matches our preconceived ideas. It is very difficult to hear with an open mind — a “beginner’s mind” — with curiosity, attention, and freshness, without judgment, because our beliefs, past experiences, accumulated knowledge, and memories look for those pieces of information that are in alignment with what we already know.
Again, we hear only what we are predisposed to hear.
We have to understand that we don’t hear with our ears; we hear with our brains. We don’t see with our eyes; we see with our brains. Our perceptions are shaped by the things we accept as real and true, by the stories we tell ourselves. We all have our own views of the world, and because we crave security and comfort, we compare our beliefs with each other, we surround ourselves with people who think and understand the world as we do, and we come to agreements of what reality is. We, then, embrace this collective perception, the paradigm of our tribe,as ‘reality.”
This explains why it is so difficult, especially for those of us with untrained minds — those of us unfamiliar with intellectual exploration — to change deep-seated opinions; the moment our understanding of the world is challenged, we feel threatened; fear kicks in, and we close ourselves up.
“The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up”, Esquire Magazine (February 1936).
The persistent questions are: “Why don’t we allow ourselves to explore and examine what is new? Why do we resist to consider other worldviews? Is it due to fear of the unknown? Or is it because we don’t want to dissent with our group, and be perceived as disloyal? How do we get out of the habitual mind, the one that keeps replaying and running the same old programs and coming up with the same old [and mostly bad] solutions, and begin to take new looks at reality from different angles? Furthermore, since we have been trained to accept what comes through our five senses as real, and to pay little or no attention to our feelings, how do we train ourselves to pay more attention to our intuition? How do we hone our ability to listen to our inner voice, and reach a point where is not so much about making right decisions, as it is about making decisions that ‘feel right?’ Why don’t we pay more attention and take action on our inspirations?”
And the great question, then, seems to be: “Knowing that individual and collective perceptions keep us stuck, and do not invite us to consider new ideas, new visions of life and the universe, new ways of relating to one another and organizing ourselves to live in community, how can we open our minds and begin to absorb new information that challenges our paradigms, and can lead us to embrace new ones?”
I don’t claim to have an answer, but I believe that in order for us to open our minds we must first come to feel, as Socrates did, that an unexamined life is not worth living, and pledge that we will put our fears aside and boldly launch ourselves on a journey of exploration.
We have to accept responsibility for our realities, believing that they were created by us through our chosen thoughts and perceptions, through our own, or our tribe’s interpretation of the occurrences, through the meanings we attached to the events, through the stories we created.
We must commit to deliberately remain open to listen and analyze other points of view with curiosity.
We must decide that we will engage in a practice of questioning ourselves that will lead us to consciously unlearn the self-defeating beliefs we have unconsciously learned. Curiosity, doubt, and skepticism should be our companions.
A good place to begin may be to ponder on the impermanence of all things, and on the unending cycle of birth and death. We should also consider the vastness of the universe and Einstein’s views of unified time, because such reflection has a humbling effect that tames our egos and sets the stage for some radical transformations.
I believe that the process that leads to those life-changing experiences — the epiphany of oneness — demands the practice of some sort of inner work, which, based on my experience, involves silence, solitude, a reverence for nature, and, among other practices, those of mindfulness and gratefulness; a commitment to stay in the present moment, appreciating the simple things in life, while opening ourselves up to receive and to give love.
We should practice and get good at observing and controlling our thoughts, at refraining from comparing, hastily judging, and quickly reacting. We must practice and get good at becoming the masters of the space between stimuli and responses, developing the ability to make time (yes, “make”), ponder, and choose the best responses to the challenges of life. Our goal should be to develop ourselves so we can live mindfully, responding thoughtfully instead of reacting mindlessly to what happens to us.
We have to practice mindful living, paying extreme attention to the here-now, to this present moment, in order to enhance our perceptions, see beyond what we see, and see magic, mystery and miracles everywhere, all the time.
Then we will experience that awakening that allows us to realize that we are, at the same time, body and soul, solid matter and vibrational energy, mortal and immortal, human and spiritual, earthly and divine, separated and united, independent and interdependent, many and one.
We will gain a better understanding of this physical life, of the impermanence of all things, of the cycle of birth and death, and will be blessed with the revelation that life is more, immensely more than what we were ever able to imagine. And once we experience this enhancement of understanding — this awakening, this enlightenment — our perceptions, ideas and beliefs will change, and all fear will subside. We will look at the world and see it differently. Those things we once thought were desirable will seem meaningless. We will look at all the struggle for power and privileges in the world, and will consider it senseless. We will look at all conflicts and squabbles and see them as absurdities. We will realize that when we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change.
When we seriously give consideration that what we accept as reality may not be real, and that, in fact, we may be living in a construct of our own minds — an illusion, if you will — our ability to perceive begins to enhance. And each individual shift in perception will add to the critical mass that will eventually tip the scale, and bring about a great planetary shift in the collective consciousness, when a whole new world — new perceptions and realities — will arise. Then, we will discover Heaven right here on Earth.
“I’m doing my best to remove my filters and remain with my eyes, ears, and mind open.” ~ Piero
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