We Are All Missing the Vast Majority of What is Going On
How to see more.
Back when I was a budding young musician in college, the campus pub that generally featured Rock or Folk music made the (wise, in my opinion) decision to book a Jazz band. I was delighted. As my head bobbed about in the traditional “yes and no” style of the true aficionado, to my everlasting chagrin, a group of tipsy young jocks sauntered in, surveyed the scene, and loudly pronounced their judgment of the musical selection that evening. “Jazz sucks!”
What cretins! I had thought at the time. How could anyone fail to appreciate the genius of what was so plainly a superior form of human expression? Why could they not hear it for themselves? One reason is that they were drunk frat guys but another may be that to the uninitiated, Jazz can sound frenetic and haphazard, even though it’s anything but. Once the fundamentals of the style and structure are learned, a whole world of appreciation can blossom.
We have all experienced the phenomenon of being more than a bit miffed at how differently others relate to a common experience or piece of information. How often have we blankly stared as a friend or family member regales us with their political thought, only to have it strike us as rank stupidity? How many split couples struggle to process how their exes could possibly have chosen these new partners? “This is what you left me for?!”
This phenomenon can even be applied to life itself. There seem to be two kinds of people. One group observes reality in the way that we all seem to experience it and conclude that it is all rather meaningless, and though it may be interesting, nothing of particular importance is taking place. To them, life seems random, disordered, and unimpressive.
Another group partakes in the same kind of experiences as Group One yet concludes that the world is a magical place full of meaning, order, and purpose. What can possibly account for such a stark discrepancy of opinion over such a fundamental thing?
More Than One Way to See
Stereographic images are optical illusions designed to create the perception of depth in an image. When initially viewed, these images look like a chaotic, if often pretty, swirl of colors and shapes. A remarkable thing happens when you stare at it and allow your eyes to relax—three-dimensional shapes slowly manifest. Now, you can easily see multiple layers and specific images (airplanes, dolphins, flowers, etc). You discover for yourself that what moments ago appeared as a random jumble is actually a highly ordered, clever, and pleasing design.
I often think of those folks in the “life is random” camp when I see these kinds of pictures. On one level (the surface one), the case for randomness seems pretty tight. But for those who have seen the deeper design, there’s no going back. The frustrating thing is that some percentage of the population simply cannot get their eyes to perceive the three-dimensionality. To them, it’s chaos all the way down, and (at least in theory) the “it’s obviously designed” camp can end up seeming like naive dreamers.
It Makes Sense
Have you ever seen one of those videos of a deaf child who has her cochlear implant switched on for the first time? Each of them is beautiful, and no one could be unmoved by the sight of a kid newly awakened to the sound of her mother’s voice. A level of reality that was simply unknowable suddenly becomes accessible, and the world shifts.
There’s a great scene in the film CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) where the musically gifted daughter of an entirely deaf family performs with her family in attendance. Her parents gaze around at the faces of the clearly engaged audience and seem to wonder at what they are experiencing. How could you even explain it to them? Your ears get stimulated by vibrations that produce certain emotions? How strange. Some will perceive. Some will not.
We Are All Missing the Vast Majority of What is Going On
I often have the feeling that what I am able to perceive is the tiniest sliver of “Actual Reality.” Outside of the sheer number of variables that comprise moment-to-moment existence, I am cognizant of the fact that I can’t name most of the chemical processes that occur in my own body or the exact functions of many of my organs. I am aware that the majority of what I “think” takes place below the surface of my general consciousness, and I can’t remember most of what I dream.
Nonetheless, there are moments in my life when a bigger sort of reality seems to assert itself, and like a lightning strike in a dark forest, there is a brief flash of illumination. Most of the time, however, I feel imposed upon by my perceptual limitations. My “blindness” weighs upon me, and I can feel a sort of jealousy of those who seem to see more.
There’s a video of a 1950s housewife who undergoes an LSD test. I have to admit that I’m fascinated by the way she speaks to the experimenter and her inability to articulate what she is “seeing.” He asks her to try and explain, to which she responds:
I couldn’t possibly tell you. It’s here, can’t you feel it? This whole room—everything is in color, and I can feel the air. I can see it. I can see all the molecules. I’m part of it. Can’t you see it? If you can’t see it then you’ll never know. I feel sorry for you…
Many of the core tenets of our religious and spiritual systems are designed exactly for this purpose—to enable us to pierce through the artificial limits of our vision and open what Aldous Huxley called “The Doors of Perception.” Achieving this more durably requires the difficult work of ego reduction—of learning how to deprioritize our self-referential, opinionated, defensive, whiney, and judgmental selves. It requires learning how to actually care about the needs of others and developing an openness to the brute fact that the Universe (or The One) will not bend to our will. When we learn to respect that, we may find that it has much to teach us.
Dr. Lisa Miller has written an invaluable book on this topic entitled “The Awakened Brain,” which is chock full of excellent advice for those who want to get on this path.
When we’re driven by achieving awareness (ego) alone, we’re more likely to be limited by self-obsession and craving, and less sensitive to the field of life around us. Through awakened attention, we open up more channels of perception. We learn not only to notice but also to draw meaning from what shows up in our lives. We see more, and we’re better able to use what we see.”