In Buddhist psychology we are interested in understanding the processes of conditioning which limit our ability to see the world clearly. The mind is conditioned by many factors and these affect our perception, creating subtle biases and colouring our experience in various ways. All of these colourations are in some way reflections of the sense of identity. At an unconscious level, we tend to seek out the familiar because it makes us feel comfortable, and safe, so when we look at things, we interpret them in the light of our pre-existing ‘blue-prints’ and fit them into stories which we already identify with.
This process of identification and distortion happens at many levels. Even the language we use is part of this self-comforting process. Our thoughts are framed in ways which are personal to us, using descriptive words which are part of our habitual vocabulary. My view of a sunset will be different from yours, described in different words, and connecting to different memories, associations and stories. In some sense, my experience of the sunset will reflect me, just as yours will reflect you.
In part this selective view is connected to feelings of safety, but in part it is simply functional. The human mind is basically lazy. Our perception takes shortcuts, and, instead of looking afresh at the things in front of us, we tend to jump to conclusions about them and see what we expect to see. We construct our vision based on the blue-prints which we already have in our heads.
Recently I was walking with some friends by the River Soar. We stopped in the water meadows, looking over a barbed wire fence at the field beyond. There we noticed in the distance there was a round object, curled up on the grass beneath the tree. It was in the field where we often see rabbits, but my impression was that this animal didn’t have the shape of a rabbit or move in the way that one would expect a rabbit to. It was too rounded. Pointing to it, I whispered to the person who was standing next to me that I thought it must be a hedgehog. We both watched intently, keeping as quiet as we could so as not to disturb it.
As we watched, the hedgehog started to snuffle around. It seemed to be looking for food. I felt quite excited, for I hadn’t seen a hedgehog in that field before. One of the reasons I love being out of doors is seeing the variety of wild-life that is found even that close to home.
I am particularly fond of hedgehogs. I have memories from childhood of sometimes finding them in the hedge or running through the long grass near to where I lived. I was always excited then and often picked them up if I could. I loved the strange scratchy feeling of their spines and liked to watch them tuck away their funny little snouts and bright eyes as they curled themselves up in my hands. Nor did they seem particularly frightened of me. Unlike other animals which you couldn’t get near at all, the hedgehogs were remarkably accommodating of my interest, even if they did occasionally leave me with a few of their fleas. As an adult, I am more respectful of the hedgehog’s autonomy, but then I was simply wanted to befriend them in my own way and assumed they were happy with the arrangement.
Something must have made me doubt what I saw, though. The hedgehog was far enough away that, although I was certain that I could see the shape of its snout, it was difficult to really be sure what was going on. I wanted to get a closer look so I climbed over the locked gate and walked across the field towards it. The others followed.
As I neared the hedgehog, I began to suspect that I had indeed been wrong. The shape was too regular and spherical, and on closer examination the creature did not appear to be moving after all. Gradually, as I was able to see the object better, I realised that what I was approaching was in fact a football. It must have been washed up into the meadow by the recent floods. I smiled, amused at the distortion which my mind had invented, as I ran towards it.
I realised that I had a huge resistance in me to kicking my imaginary hedgehog. Whilst my brain told me that it was a ball, I still felt the hedgehog-ness of the thing that I was approaching and a part of me couldn’t bear the thought of kicking it. By the time I reached the ball, however, this feeling had worn off. I finally exorcised the ghostly fantasy of the hedgehog by sending the ball spinning drunkenly across the field towards my companions, who by now had also seen what it really was. We all laughed at the way that our imaginations had run away with the idea of the hedgehog.
Once an idea establishes itself in our minds, we start to embroider it. We create a story for ourselves based on our expectations and on our previous experiences. The mind receives basic information from the eyes and elaborates it, based on existing knowledge. It fills in the gaps between small pieces of information and creates a plausible story out of them, and usually we settle for this unless new perceptions force us to revise our interpretations.
We see what we expect to see. Once we believed that we were looking at an animal, my companions and I became sure that we saw movement and we then interpreted it as hedgehog behaviour. We couldn’t really see clearly enough to be certain of what we were looking at, so once the hedgehog story had been established, we looked for evidence which confirmed that interpretation on the basis of what was really rather ambiguous visual evidence. Despite the fact that we couldn’t really tell what we were looking at, we became convinced by our own fabrications.
This sort of thing happens all the time. The mind shapes what is perceived to create plausible fictions about the world, and in some way those fictions support our stories about who we are. For a few minutes in that field I was the hedgehog rescuer that I had been as a child. Until I had proved it otherwise, the object of my attention confirmed to me a whole lot of associated ideas. I loved nature since childhood. I loved the Mrs Tiggiwinkle friendliness of hedgehogs. I was the kind of person who would climb a gate to investigate a new experience. There were many levels to the experience which all reflected these different aspects of my identity.
We continually adjust our experience of the world around us to fit with our expectations. Most of the time we have no idea that we are doing this, but carry on with our lives, projecting our personal stories onto our surroundings whilst assuming that we see the world as it is. In this case, however, I was spectacularly found out.
Caroline Brazier: This article is based on an extract from Caroline’s current writing: a new book on environmentally based therapy and the Ten Directions model which she teaches on the training programme of that name. Caroline is author of six previous books on Buddhism, psychotherapy and environmental therapies including Acorns Among The Grass: Adventures in Ecotherapy published by Earth Books and Other-Centred Therapy published by O-Books. She is also course leader of the Tariki Training Programme in Other-Centred Counselling and Psychotherapy. Details of her work including the training programmes can be found at www.buddhistpsychology.info
Review of Caroline's book 'The Other Buddhism' is on this link: http://mbsmagazin.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/amida-comes-west.html#.VP24EI4fotE