Believing is Seeing – Who, Me?

At my San Diego Rigpa Fellowship retreat last week, lama Sogyal Rinpoche, in teaching about the nature of the unenlightened, ordinary mind (sem in Tibetan),  mentioned how perception can be distorted, especially by strong emotions like anger.  Naturally if you can’t perceive the world accurately, you’re going to do things that will have unintended and negative consequences, create karma.  My understanding is that an important aspect of whatever “enlightenment” is would involve clearer, more accurate perception.

I knew this to be true from modern psychological studies.  Our common sense model is that perception is accurate, seeing, e.g., is like taking a picture with a camera, whatever is actually in front of your eyes registers on the film, and we think a picture never lies.  “Seeing is believing.”  Of course with modern digital cameras and software to edit photos, we now know a finished photo may be very different from what was actually in front of the camera.  Similarly psychological research in the last century has shown over and over that perception is seldom a simple registration of what’s actually there, it’s much more a form of high-speed (you think it’s instant), automatized thinking, a construction that’s a guess as to what’s there.  But presented as an obviously real perception, with no “best guess” label attached.  For us digital types, it’s better to see the eyes, e.g., as a digital camera and there’s Photoshop type processing automatically going on before we perceive the picture.  How this biological Photoshop alters the picture has a lot to do with our emotions, our personality, and our cultural conditioning.  Believing is seeing, or at least has a lot to do with what you perceive.

I notice this once in a while in myself.  Sometimes I look out my bedroom window at night, e.g., and notice a tree in a neighbor’s yard is underlit by a floodlight, it’s very pretty.  Except as I look more closely I realize I’m seeing a patch of partly lit night sky through the trees, not an underlit tree.  I’ve seen this many times, but still often at first see the illusion, then suddenly it switches – my biological Photoshop changes its functioning – and it’s a patch of dim night sky.  I can almost never switch it back, but next time it may happen again.

In spite of intellectual knowledge about “Believing is seeing,” though, I seldom think that this is something that applies to me.  After all, I’m a scientist, I strive to perceive accurately and like to believe I’m good at that!

So I was somewhat startled, then pleasantly surprised when I had a strong personal demonstration that “believing is seeing” this morning.

Our neighbors are having their kitchen remodeled, and I looked out our living room window and noticed that a couple of workers were rolling a very heavy looking machine across the street toward the kitchen.  I wasn’t quite sure what the machine was for, but I thought it was a tile cutting machine, something I know is heavy and massive.  A few minutes later I looked out our kitchen window, and could see their truck parked across the street, which I figured would give me a clue as to what kind of machine it was.  The distance was sufficient that it was somewhat difficult for me to see clearly, but I could make out a company name and, by squinting a little, underneath the company name it said “tile floors.”  The figure below gives you an idea of the level of clarity I could see with from a distance.

I went and told my wife that it was now clear that our neighbors were installing a tile floor on their kitchen, and we would probably hear a fair amount of noise during the day as they cut tiles.

Imagine my surprise a few minutes later when my wife told me that our neighbors had had a hardwood floor put down yesterday, and the machine I had seen was a large floor sander!  I now went and looked at their truck from closer window and, as the figure below shows, the words below their company name clearly says “hardwood floors!”

I can’t say there were any powerful emotions driving this, but what a clear example that “seeing is believing!”  I had decided a tile floor was going down, and under somewhat difficult seeing conditions, I saw my proof in the words on the side of the truck.  I think this is especially amazing, as the word “hardwood” is twice as long as the word “tile” would be.

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