Opening the Gates of Perception
When I was growing up, we hungered for the sight of the soul—to witness the invisible, slender threads that interweave all things and to search for a connection to the underlying sacredness and mystery of life. Many of us took drugs. A lot of them. I didn’t. I meditated. Either way, we longed for a taste of the infinite. “This is how one ought to see, how things really are,” remarks Aldous Huxley in The Doors of Perception. Under the influence of Mescaline, he saw the “suchness” of things, the “glory … of naked existence, of the given unconceptualized (italics mine) event.
In the twentieth century, Jung and Freud explored the reality and power of the unconscious. Both the shadow world and the numimous reality beyond appearances were brought to life in a vital experiential study of the human psyche. Today, cognitive behaviorism dominates psychology. Everything must be measured to be considered real. The discoveries of neuroscience cannot yet find the existence of god or the underlying reality behind all things.
My brother has recently returned to graduate school after a highly successful career in Finance to study psychology. He felt the inner call of the numinous and is now passionately engaged in the search for Self. One of my students, a former successful photojournalist, has also been touched by fire, uncovering the things that are found in the night, in ones dreams and within those unformed vague visions that intrude upon ones consciousness. These dark things—facing the unknown—ultimately open to our potential wholeness. We cannot become whole without integrating both the light and shadow.
Breaking the Spell of the Rational
We live in a strange society. Freud and Jung were towering figures in psychology. Yet my brother tells me that they are scantly mentioned in modern psychology programs. One of my students even described Jung’s insights as “old fashioned,” a common belief in academia. Shouldn’t we attempt to build on the discoveries of the past, updating them as needed, but respecting the lifelong efforts and the penetrative wisdom of our antecedents? Mere rationality and the human experience are strange bedfellows. Today, rationality rules at the expense of our resonant human potential and our souls. Ancient Greece, which in part gave birth to western models of thought, believed in the intertwining of reason with the mythic dimensions of life.
While my generation needed more sobriety and impeccability, today’s world is crying for a vision, in desperate need of the re-enchantment of life, to honor and search for our own natural wisdom and the luminous realities beyond the material world and its superficial pleasures and pains.
The generations of people who have come of age in the past twenty-five years aren’t experimenting with drugs to reach higher states of consciousness nor seeking universal brotherhood through Woodstock or love-ins. Today we attempt to find normalcy through pacifying ourselves with Xanax, Lexapro, and Prozac. This isn’t to say that we aren’t searching for meaning. Many of us do search, but we find little in a culture that has been so diluted and desecrated. Today, we pick and choose our preferences from the buffet table of spiritual practice. Though we are afforded a quantity of choices, we now lack quality and distract ourselves from the lifelong commitment to uncovering who we really are.
Our culture has lost its faith in spiritual traditions and mystical experience. Religion once functioned as a way for us to allay the inherent anxieties of being human. Through faith, we may attempt to understand impermanence and our own mortality. The world over, we all experience the same feelings of sadness, fear, anger, joy, and love. Today we don’t go to our elders with our deepest inquiries; we go to people with the right certifications, being told that higher education and talk therapy can equate to genuine insight. Modern psychology has taken over the guidance of our inner nature. Even spiritual practice becomes something we “do,” often to feel good rather than to open to the tender and terrifying rawness of our inner depths.
Philosopher Peter Kingsley claims: “More or less everybody, spiritual teachers as well as politicians, wants to fix things and make them better; but you can’t do that with our inner nature. And if you approach a spiritual lineage or tradition, the chances are you’ll immediately be given a string of external techniques and told to do this or meditate like that. It’s very rare to find someone who’s willing to take you with all your thirst and longing and make a commitment to preserve and increase the power and sheer rawness of that longing. Everyone wants to fill the hole in our heart that could draw us back into our inner nature, instead of helping us to make it bigger.”
Educating the Heart
According to the Dalai Lama, what’s needed is an education of the heart. What the heart sees is invisible to the eyes. We need to cultivate a relationship to a vision that incorporates the resonant wisdom of the body, the sensitive knowing of the heart, and the penetrating insights of the mind: together as a single holistic form of understanding. Everything we see in the world has a dual reality: what it is and what it means to us. We have both a conscious and unconscious response to literally everything that we perceive. Our nightly dreams as well as art and creative efforts often clarify what our unconscious response is to the external world. They are a means of self-knowledge. True integration is when the conscious and unconscious come together, and when our essential self begins to make its appearance through the cracks of the dominance of our conditioned personality.
A beautiful and evocative Zen parable speaks of educating the heart and opening to our natural wisdom:
When I was young and I went to nature, mountains were mountains, rivers were
rivers, clouds were clouds, and trees were trees;
As I grew up, mountains were no longer mountains, rivers were no longer rivers, clouds were no longer clouds, and trees were no longer trees;
And later, once again, mountains were mountains, rivers were rivers, clouds were clouds, and trees were trees.
With elegant simplicity, this parable enlightens the quality of perception unique to human beings — where our seeing contains a dual potential. We perceive the world as a reflection of who we are, of our values, our beliefs, our experiences, our conditioning and development — or we perceive the world cleanly and directly, seeing things for what they are in moments of illuminating vision.
As young children, our perceptions of the world are innocent, pure, and direct; that is, they take place without the intervention of mental constructs and the labeling capacity of the mind. We see things for what they are without the enlarging yet complicating perspective of knowledge and past experience — and our perceptions represent a manner of exploring the world cleanly and inquisitively. We are in the present moment, rooted in the direct experience of the here and now.
As I grew up, mountains were no longer mountains, rivers were no longer rivers, clouds were no longer clouds, and trees were no longer trees …
When we grow and learn, acquire knowledge and undergo the inevitable process of socialization, what transpires? Have we lost this quality of direct perception, this source of endless joy and discovery that is present in engaging the senses? Our seeing becomes a reflection of our worldview and our propensity to conceptualize all phenomenon. Our rational mind insists on naming everything. As soon as we give it a name, we think we understand it, and this gets in the way of the direct perception of the present moment. We need to look deeper than our concepts—much deeper.
The conscious mind has much to learn about the way in which our unconscious “sees” outer phenomena. Indeed, the integration of self can only proceed, according to Jung, by integrating the contents of the unconscious gradually into conscious awareness. What in the outer world resonates within us with the most power and impact? Why are we drawn to this scene, this place, this person, this condition, and not another? Can we begin to determine — to feel and sense — how the world interacts within us? What is being mirrored? We cannot avoid seeing the world, and even other human beings, as mirrors of ourselves — of our inner conditions, our potential, our obstacles, our angels and demons. If we wish to achieve the aim of self knowledge and insight, we must pay attention to these deeply rooted, often unconscious responses to the world surrounding us. Observing our dreams certainly helps, but the daily effort of witnessing our reactions and interactions with the world around us is a valuable key towardinsight and self-discovery.
Our unique experiences, cultural biases, upbringing, our gender, race, economic status, ethnic background, and national heritage; all contribute to our subjective perceptions. Upon close examination we can see that the influence of these factors is at times obvious, and at other times, subversive or hidden. To witness our response to the world based on these factors is highly instructive. It is a necessary tool toward self-awareness and for tolerance of each other’s points of view. We cannot be accepting of others with compassionate understanding until we observe these deeply ingrained elements in ourselves and within the society-at-large.
By far, the most important discovery available through this form of perception is to find our true selves — to see aspects of our essential nature mirrored in the world around us. When we see our original face reflected in the world, it is a moment of revealment, a heightened moment of awareness, one that enters our consciousness with a directness and force uncharacteristic of our usual perceptions. When our inner landscape corresponds to the outer scene in front of us, an unmistakable sense of resonance is experienced. Here we begin to know ourselves in context, as part of a larger whole. We begin to feel our relationship to the living world, of which we are a part.
And later, once again, mountains were mountains, rivers wererivers, clouds were clouds, and trees were trees, and—one form of this parable goes on to say—one knows the taste of pure water.
Moments of this form of consciousness are rare in our presently incomplete and fragmented states of being. But we have tastes of this pure form of seeing; in moments of perceiving the sublime beauty and unity in all things, in love, in transformative pain and suffering, in quiet connection to the natural world, and in experiencing works of art, music, and literature arising from a deeper source that reveal a greater dimension.
We may touch this form of perception through empathy, seeing the world for what it is — which may be different than what we want it to be — and using our senses and feelings to know what stands before us. Striving to get beyond our own world view and subjective filters, we attempt to perceive and then honor the inherent nature or innate characteristics of the object of our perception. We may, through our attention, enter the energy field of another and understand them from the inside-out. We may feel the life force of a mountain or a tree inside ourselves. We are them, and they are us. The world is one. We all contain the same energy. While this may sound like a mystical conundrum, we are called to this form of awareness through respect for others, love of nature, and a deep caring for our collective existence. Ironically, through seeing our own contradictions, we may open to glimpses of realty. The awakening of conscience is a powerful force for perceiving truth. Through hints of conscience, we may awaken to the reality of self and others. And we may glimpse the splinter of divinity in all things.
What characterizes these moments of awareness and illuminating vision? There are degrees of heightened awareness — awakening may be less like a lamp that instantly turns on and off and more like the rising run, which gradually spreads its rays over the welcoming earth. Like the sun toward the earth, we may bear witness to ourselves. We strive toward a connection to the organic energies of the body, a state of relaxation, an awareness of the breath and the heartbeat, a witnessing of the thoughts, associations, and emotional reactions coming and going… and the growing presence of an inner stillness, which brings in its wake a deeper awareness.
Inner silence, a refined rate of vibration, brings understanding, allows finer energies to pass through, and invites a deeper awareness of ourselves and the world around us. It is true, we cannot really “make” this happen. We cannot force it — yet through our efforts, our attention, we can create the conditions for its appearance through an inner alignment of forces: body, mind, feeling, and spirit. It is up to us. It depends on our striving toward an inner accord, a sensitive alignment with the forces within and without.
Respect for the world is paramount. It will continue long after our demise. To see a mountain as a pristine manifestation of life, a reflection of the world’s divinity, far surpasses our usual self-centered subjective standpoint. We cannot experience the world’s divinity without knowing the sacred in ourselves and we cannot approach pure seeing without cleansing the doors of perception. We cannot be brothers and sisters to each other without a conscious recognition of the unity of life.
Can we be more open, more relaxed, permeable and receptive to a widening stream of invisible influences; present to our own existence and to a deepening contact with the currents of a subtle reality, or in the words of sculptor Isamu Nogouchi, this something moving very rapidly through the air?
Toward real seeing . . . real listening . . . Being.
. . . And one knows the taste of pure water.
“It is important to have a secret, a premonition of things unknown. It fills life with something impersonal, a numinosum. One who has never experienced that has missed something important. We must sense that we live in a world which in some respects is mysterious; that things happen and can be experienced which remain inexplicable; that not everything which happens can be anticipated. The unexpected and the incredible belong in this world. Only then is life whole.”
— C.G. Jung
Adapted in part from Deep Perception: Cultivating the Art of Seeing by David Ulrich