We take reality to be what is sensed and perceived. What we feel is – for all intents and purposes – what we think of as real.
But what one thinks they sense is not always what is actually being sensed. Instead, a mistake could erupt from cognitive biases. One example of this could be the confirmation bias, or the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. Another example is the primacy effect, or the tendency to weigh initial events more than subsequent events. A list of other cognitive biases can be found here.
Similarly, what can be sensed is not always what is actually there. Instead, the experience could be due to a flaw in our perceptual system – an illusion or a hallucination. Take for example the visual illusion called the café wall where the horizontal lines (which are actually parallel) are seen as bent, or look at the Rubin vase, also called the Figure-ground vase because if one focuses on the figure of the picture one interprets it as a vase, but if one focuses on the ground of the picture one sees two faces staring at each other. One of my personal favorite optical illusions is the Spinning Dancer, which one can perceive as either spinning clockwise or counter-clockwise (try it out with your friends or try to see both)! Often, these kinds of illusions are used in the field of Systems neuroscience, in order to reveal how the brain normally organizes and interprets different kinds of sensory stimulation.
As can be seen, the mind in itself can be just as much a tool of clarity as it can be a tool of deception. To understand the reality of things, one cannot simple look at them, but also understand the conditions of what one is experiencing. This is why science has a particular method of empiricism, one that includes not only observation but also quantitative measurements of what is observed, and statistical-based conclusions. By doing this science protects itself from these perceptual and cognitive biases – or “knowledge” that may often be sensed or thought of as reality, but turn out not to be so.
However, despite all of these potential illusions and biases – there is one thing that is always real: the experience of them.
The Reality of Experience
What distinguishes one experience from being any more or less real from any other experience? Sure, we may see two dogs in the room when really there is just a pile of clothes on the floor. In this example, the observer wrongly interprets the conditions of what he or she is experiencing. But the experience is just as real as any other combination of thoughts, feelings and external senses that take place in a given moment within time and space.
But no, we might claim that these illusions, hallucinations, or dreams are always – in retrospect of the experience – proven to be unreal. Of course, this does not discount the possibility that we could one day wake up from the “bigger dream” of our waking life spent on Earth. But that would be considered one of the more extreme, albeit interesting, perspectives to take on the nature of reality.
What if we were just a brain in a vat? What if this reality was just a life-long simulation, like the whole theme behind The Matrix?
But even if our brains aren’t in a vat, how much of experience is illusory? But what first makes something an illusion? Colloquially, something that is imaginary or fantasy could be considered illusory. But the how do we define something like that?
But no matter what questions are asked, the same place always arises: at least most people hold the belief that “those things that are strictly in the mind” are the essence of what is “illusory” or a “delusion.”
We are inclined to perceive true reality as “out there” – the external world – something ultimately separate from us, separate from even our own mind.
We are all dualists – we have disconnected our minds from reality. We forget that mind experiences are just as real as physical experiences.
The mind is real. There are thoughts, memories, feelings, and emotions, and they are all just a real as anything you can see, hear, feel, smell and taste. Sometimes, we even perceive them as “more” real than our external senses – but there is no such thing as “more” real – there is only truth and non-truth. Reality is digital, it is either there or not there, you are either experiencing it or not experiencing it.
But experiencing reality does not mean understanding reality.
Understanding the True Nature of Reality through Consciousness
To fully understand reality one would have to be omniscient. But to understand the nature of reality one only needs to observe consciousness with a clear mind and a scientific enquiry.
A clear mind is necessary because that is your tool of observation – and you wouldn’t work with a microscope to study atomic particles nor a telescope to study the cosmos if either tool of observation had a dirty lens.
So what makes a mind dirty or unclear? Contrary to popular belief (even amongst a big portion of the West who practice meditation) – it is not thoughts that muddy the mind per se.
Mental clarity, is more broadly any degree of concentration that can be paid to any particular field of awareness. This field of awareness includes both body and mind, meaning: physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts.
The observer has two ways of making an immediate and intentional effect on consciousness: awareness and concentration.
Meditation: Awareness and Concentration (Cleansing The Lens Into Reality)
In meditation, or any other experience, there is awareness and there is concentration. Awareness is a lot like the shape, size, and location of the spotlight on a stage. Concentration is the level of brightness/dullness of that light.
Awareness can both expand and contract. Awareness can shift to an individual sensory object (such as a pain or prickle sensation in the foot) or it can cover the full range of sensations throughout the whole body (and mind).
In meditation and in all everyday experience it is common to find that the observer’s awareness is constantly reshaping, changing size, and shifting between various physical and mental phenomena.
This is where the meditative practice of mindfulness is most important. Mindfulness is the concentration of our ever-changing field of awareness. So, mindfulness is not concentration in the traditional sense of being concentrated on a particular object, but instead, it is the concentration on a process.
As beginners of meditation, there are very low levels of concentration or clarity in the mind at first. This is due to the ever-fleeting nature of our awareness, even when it is a shift of awareness towards our own awareness.
But by practicing mindfulness we can slowly build greater levels of concentration on the process of changing awareness – what Vipassanna meditation teacher Shinzen Young often labels “flow.” By consciously labeling these changing sensations – by noting them in the mind as something such as “flow,” – Young recognizes that we can improve our “mindfulness” to this ever-changing experience, this single moment we call life.
As mindfulness becomes an easier practice, the observer begins to build more and more levels of concentration to the processes (just as an observer can build concentration to a particular object by following a similar discipline of meditation).
Mindfulness is the passive observation of the rising and falling of physical and mental sensation (the “flow” of consciousness). Mindfulness is not originally intended to build concentration, but experienced mindful observers (after cultivating the right way to direct attention and awareness) will reach a point in their mindfulness practice where it becomes a concentrative meditation, as much as it is a mindful one.
Once the observer reaches the first true balancing point of stillness and concentration then the mind begins on its path into full concentration and full absorption (what is known in Buddhism as Jhana, a meditative state of profound stillness and concentration in which the mind becomes fully immersed and absorbed in the chosen object [or process] of attention.)
These states of absorption (Jhana) are considered instruments used in developing wisdom – by cultivating insight and using it to examine true nature of phenomena. During this, the practitioner will need to investigate and verify their view on what is the nature of reality. Within this process, “right knowledge” is said to arise, which is later followed by right liberation.
It is often considered premature in Buddhist tradition for an individual to share an experience of Jhana, but there are plenty of reading materials around the internet and especially at Access To Insight (one of my favorites) that will give you the tools you will need to identify the different states of Jhana. Shinzen Young’s videos also go into some teachings of Jhana but he often refers to them as “Resting States.”
“Our tendency is to be interested in something that is growing in the garden, not in the bare soil itself. But if you want to have a good harvest, the most important thing is to make the soil rich and cultivate it well.”
- Shunryu Suzuki
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