If you could look at the world with no preconceptions, how would it look?
Let’s say we don’t accept some of the basic “common sense” notions we take for granted: ideas such as “the external world is the most real world there is”: “the definition of reality is based on the external world”; “the material world is the one to which we should be paying most attention”; “everyone dies – and death is the ultimate extinction of our existence”; “things happen as a result of causes (in other words, the present is a result of the causes which occurred in the past)” – ideas like those.
What would things look like if we just suspend our most basic assumptions and beliefs about what the universe is and how the world works and what we are doing here? How would things appear to us without our habitual and incessant attempts at interpretation according to preexisting belief structures? In other words, what would our experience consist of without using a rationalized system of definitions and explanations to interpret it?
We might describe our lives as spinning ripple-like in outward waves of experience, beginning always in the present moment and spiraling outward toward ever more remote moments of a dimly-remembered past and a partially imagined future. If there is something we would most likely describe as being “real” – each of us might say something such as, “My direct experience in the present moment – this is what seems most real to me”.
Let’s work with this for a while. It doesn’t appear to be such a radical thing to say, once it is said, does it? I mean, if we just start with something we’ll call, “direct experience,” we might agree quite well on the perceptual and existential bases for such a position.
If this is the case, then what can we say of our direct perception of “reality”? Whenever we actually observe it, we see it remains intact – unmodified and pristine – even when we are not attending to it and attending instead to a constant stream of thoughts, explanations, interpretations, and reactions.
Even while we are processing our experience through generalization and abstraction, we are still experiencing the world directly – because there is no other way to experience it.
The act of observing this process seems to create a split in our awareness. On the one hand, we observe certain aspects of our experience, such as our sense perceptions and bodily sensations directly and on the other hand, we can observe our minds engaged in continual processes of action and reaction, abstraction and generalization, rationalized thought and interpreted emotion.
As symbol generators, our minds are continually translating experience into symbolic terms. And because systems of symbols have a powerful hypnotic effect on our consciousness, as soon as we have created a set of symbols, we employ those symbols as frames of reference for future experience. Our minds both create symbols from experience by processes of generalization and abstraction and they use symbols and symbol systems as frames of reference for experience itself. In other words, our minds are constantly creating and recreating mental maps and at the same time they use those maps as ways to control and navigate future experience. The problem, of course, is that a procedure like this makes it less and less likely that new experience can occur. And the problem with that is the less open a living system is to new experience, the less it is likely to survive.
In the interest of continued survival and to promote the most positive outcomes, focusing more on direct experience and less on abstraction can lead us toward a state of optimal openness. This is, after all, the definition of healthy living systems.
Image: “Word World I” by Tullio DeSantis, digital image, 2010.