"If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear as it is: infinite."
~ William Blake
"From the beginning, not one thing exists."
~ Hui Neng
As Taoist practitioners we know -- at least theoretically -- that all is flow and change: that the "ten-thousand-things" are in constant transformation. But if the phenomena appearing in/as the self and world are in a constant state of transformation, so that, ultimately -- as Hui Neng says -- "not one thing exists," then how is it that, for most of us, most of the time, it is indeed "objects" that we see?
Now perhaps occasionally -- say in deep states of meditation -- our perceptual field will manifest as flowing energy, or as a fabric of shimmering light. And while through our kinesthetic or auditory channels we perhaps can more readily experience the world/self as a flowing continuity, rarely is this the case for our visual field. Mostly what we see are "things" -- trees, tables, butterflies, chocolate mousse pies, cars and people -- which appear as "entities" with more-or-less clearly-defined boundaries.
So: why is it that "how things appear" is so rarely in alignment with "how things really are"?
In previous essays, I've explored the conditioning of vision at the level of the human bodymind:
Seeing: A Play In Three Acts includes a description of how photons contacting the retina initiates a cascade of bioelectrical and biochemical processes within the brain, the final result of which is the projection of visual images, which are deeply conditioned by various associational networks.
Seeing: The Encore extends the exploration to include the process by which huge quantities of sensory information is filtered -- in accordance with our various attitudes and beliefs -- to determine which stimuli "make the cut," so to speak, into our conscious processing, and which of them remain subconscious or wholly unconscious.
Recently I've been feeling quite fascinated with yet another, and even deeper, way in which vision is conditioned -- referenced in Laozi, Kant & Buddhist Pranama, in the context of a discussion of direct perception. Here's the relevant quotation, which offers a technical definition of "direct perception":
"Direct perception is explained to be a cognition arising immediately after the occurrence of an object, which does not continue at all. It exists only for one moment and in the next moment, the image (ākāra) in our cognition is substituted by a very similar, but completely different cognition. For example, when we see a desk, we usually believe that we can continue to perceive the desk as a single entity, admitting the identity of the object for a certain length of time. However, such an assumption is wrong according to the Pramāṇa School. They claim that what there really is in our perceptual vision is a sequence of very similar, but completely different moments of time, which are wrongly constructed to be a duration/continuum (saṃtāna) of one and the same desk. In reality, the image of the desk manifests itself only in the very first moment after one perceives the object. Only the cognition in the first moment is called direct perception and the succeeding similar cognitions in later moments, which belong to conceptual construction, cannot be referred to as direct perception."
What this description of direct perception suggests is a form of perceptual conditioning distinct from the two described above (viz. the filtering of perceptual stimuli; and the conceptual elaboration into which any given image is almost inevitably drawn). It describes, instead, how a perception itself is, in most cases, immediately overlaid with a stored visual memory of it. It's as though mind/thought takes a snapshot -- a photograph -- of the direct perception, which it presents, in subsequent moments, en lieu of another direct perception. Or, to use a computer metaphor: the original perception gets placed in our cache, so that what we view, in subsequent moments, is not the most up-to-date version, but rather a stored-in-computer-memory version.
It's the substitution of these memories for the direct perception which creates a false sense of continuity, of "sameness," which allows us to cognize the "object" as unchanging, i.e. as a "thing" -- and also, of course, as a necessary correlate (and the deeper, hidden agenda of the entire process), allows us to cognize ourselves as fixed, unchanging "entities," i.e. as separate "selves."
This sensory distortion -- viz. the overlaying/substituting of conceptual pictures (from memory) onto subsequent moments of perception, mistaking the memory-snapshot for actual perception -- is our habitual way of "visualizing" a world defined by the subject/object split. In other words, this is the mechanism through which we create the visual perception of "things" -- rather than perceiving phenomena directly, nakedly, as they actually are.
So then we might ask, why do we do this?
One way of understanding such an impulse is to begin with the intuitive sense of "sameness" that most people experience: some feeling that there's something deep within us that is indeed unchanging. Now from a nondual perspective, we might conjecture that such a feeling is, in Reality, simply the echo, if you will, of Pure Awareness, or Tao, or Buddha-Nature, knocking at the door of conceptual-mind.
But to make sense of such a feeling -- from within the kind of dualistic, materialist framework that many of us assume -- requires that we project/create/visualize "objects" (and, by implication, a "subject") which remain "the same, over time." In other words, we mistakenly project the "sameness" or "continuity" of Buddha-Nature, onto the appearances of the phenomenal world.
Ironically, this process prevents us from seeing through the seemingly-solid appearances to emptiness/openness, and then to their clear-light essential nature -- i.e. to what actually IS eternal/infinite, a perception which would yield instantaneously the fruit of satisfaction/contentment which we most deeply yearn for.
But instead, we succumb, again and again, to our habit of fracturing self/world into the subject/object polarity -- and then as an imagined/visualized "separate self" harbor the belief that happiness is to be found via acquiring (or getting rid of) this or that "external object" -- thus maintaining the very fracturing that is the source of our unhappiness, our dis-ease.
In other words, our imagined solution to the dilemma is exactly what perpetuates it!
So then: what's a more skillful solution? How do we actually extricate ourselves from this fundamentally nonproductive habit -- and, in the bargain, resurrect our capacity to see things in alignment with how they really are?
* play with "surrendering" apparent "objects" continuously to Tao, Pure Awareness, Presence -- offering appearances (of world or mind) to that deeper Knowing
* stay tuned into the current of interest/enthusiasm/bliss, i.e. to the living flow of energy/awareness which IS direct perception -- rather than to the various (pleasant or unpleasant or neutral) "objects" which may appear in conjunction with this interest/enthusiasm/bliss
* experiment with visualization practices designed specifically to purify perception of its dualistic overlays, e.g. projecting a deity-form, as a seemingly-separate object; and then imagining that deity-form dissolving into your "own" body; (and know that what appears as the "external world" (including our physical bodies) is already a "projected deity-form" -- awaiting its "completion" within our direct, undistorted perception of it)
* remember, again and again, that if we're perceiving an object as an unchanging "thing" then we're not perceiving directly/nakedly but rather are perceiving a snapshot-memory of it
* and, finally: clear your cache -- frequently!
~ * ~