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Perceptions and Misperceptions

Kitayama Park Lotus Pond, Japan. From Wikimedia Commons.

Sentient beings, self and others, enemies and dear ones—all are made by thoughts. It is like seeing a rope and mistaking it for a snake.

When we think that the rope is a snake, we are scared, but once we see that we are looking at a rope, our fear dissipates. We have been deluded by our thoughts. Likewise, mentally fabricating self and others, we generate attachment and aversion.” — Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Every time I encounter the teaching on the snake and the rope, I breathe a sigh of relief. The image is so apt! It reminds me to look more deeply into my perceptions and assumptions, to remember that most of my suffering comes from wrong perceptions and that I rarely see the whole picture. Our community is very musical, and as I write and play music, I recently bought an amplifier for my guitar. When I set it up for an evening of performances, it didn’t work. There wasn’t the time to see what was the matter but I did have time, over the next week, to get frustrated with thoughts like, “This is the second time I’ve bought something from that store that doesn’t work. When will I find the time to return it? It’s our Big Retreat season. I don’t have time for this now!”

When I finally had a chance to test it out with different cables, it took me a full 10 minutes to see that I had plugged the guitar cable into the headphone port, not even noticing that there was a second input for the guitar cable. The amplifier worked perfectly well! I had a good laugh at myself once I figured it out. There are many studies showing how people miss a lot of the sensory impressions that they receive. Take the classic Invisible Gorilla study by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons where the study participants are asked to watch a video in which six people—three in white shirts and three in black shirts—pass basketballs around. Participants are asked to watch the video and keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts. At some point, an actor in a gorilla costume strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera and thumps its chest, and then leaves, spending nine seconds on screen.

When the study was conducted at Harvard, half of the people who watched the video and counted the passes missed the gorilla. It was as though the gorilla was invisible! But we don’t need the studies to prove it to us. Haven’t we all had a time when we were sure that the computer or the cell phone wasn’t working, only to find that the cable wasn’t connected or we were pushing the wrong button? These situations can irritate us no end yet they happen all the time. The repercussions of misperceptions are often more serious—mistakenly thinking that someone insulted us and ending a friendship over it, believing false evidence in a criminal trial, mistaking sexual desire for love, mistaking addiction for freedom of choice . . . the range of misperceptions that cause us to suffer is endless.

I’ve been noticing a different aspect of this lately, which is the tendency to deny moments of clear perception that put me in a bad light, usually in conversations. While talking with someone I might feel a knot arise in my stomach and wonder if I’ve said something upsetting. Then I tell myself that it was probably a misperception and since the other person hasn’t said anything, I ignore it. This has happened a number of times lately, only for me to find out a few hours or days later that the other person was hurt, I was unskillful and the knot in my stomach was an accurate perception of the other’s discomfort.

I was talking with a friend the other night, and after a while I felt a knot arise in my stomach, sensing tension in my friend. I ignored it and continued on my train of thought. She then went on a totally different train of thought, giving me lots of advice that I felt uncomfortable with. An ugly silence arose. It was late in the evening and I could have left, but I decided to explore.­ I asked, “Did something I say make you feel uncomfortable? It seems like you closed and a wall came up. I was just trying to express my difficulties. What happened?” She told me that I had been complaining so much that she felt really uncomfortable. As we continued, she said that it brought up memories of her mother, who had a long history of severe depression and suicide attempts. She realized that she didn’t want me to focus on the negative because she feared that I would fall into a depression like her mother. I thought I had just been expressing my difficulties when I had actually gone into heavy complaining. I wanted to be heard to relieve my discomfort, but what resulted was more suffering for both of us. In the end, we realized we were both placing many layers of projections onto the other. Once we both looked more deeply into what was really happening, we were able to build a deeper connection by understanding each other more.

When we’re certain that our ideas and thoughts and perceptions are right, we suffer. It’s clear. How many families are broken and wars fought due to people being certain of their rightness? But insisting that our ideas and thoughts and perceptions are wrong, especially when we ignore strong emotional cues, isn’t any better. Most perceptions are inaccurate or at least incomplete, but we can’t know which ones or to what degree. As Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong, says, “The thing about being wrong is that it feels just like being right.” It’s not until we realize our error that we feel wrong. Certainty is what hurts us. Yet the simple practices of observing the breath, feeling the contact of each footstep on the earth, tasting the food that is being eaten, seeing the thoughts come and go . . . all of these mindfulness practices bring a spaciousness to our certainty. Any sustained practice will eventually show that all suffering comes from Wrong View, or a lack of Right View. It is only the sense of a separate self that cares about being right or wrong in the first place. By practicing the Buddhadharma, we slowly learn to relax into uncertainty and cultivate trust in our life experiences while questioning our thoughts and perceptions. We suffer less, meaning there is more room for joy.

It’s a long road, this Middle Path. And it’s beautiful.May your journey be wide open. 

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