The world is primarily given to us through our perceptions, and of all perceptions sight is the richest and widest in scope. But does seeing present to us objects as they are? I am not talking about “as they are” in the philosophical, Kantian, sense. Rather, is the physically seen object the whole story? Not so much.
There has been many times I’ve sat in the same room staring out of the same window, or walked the same sidewalk or driven the same road, but I have perceived the world differently. I am talking about day to day, and sometimes moment to moment differences while the external facts of my life such as finances and relationships haven’t changed. I have seen the neighbor in the elevator at times as relatable and at times as an alien. I can encounter people, places, and things as pleasant or unpleasant depending on my moods or feelings.
When we see things we don’t just perceive their physical characteristics; we see them as bearers of value and significance. It’s not so much that value and significance are superimposed on objects of sights after the fact. We don’t first see and then judge. We see things as always already charged with some value which reflects our interests and moods. When I am elated at the sight of some beauty in nature, I am not just perceiving an inherently neutral landscape and then judge it as beautiful. I am actually seeing it as beautiful. I am seeing the landscape and beauty at the same time, as if the object and its significance were fused together.
There’s an interesting position within the phenomenological tradition stating that we wouldn’t be able to see things if they had no place in the field of our values and interests. I relate to that a lot. There’s signs, stores, people, etc. in my everyday life that I don’t notice even if I pass by them. It’s not that they’re not in the field of vision but rather they are not registered or seen, simply because seeing is a selective process conditioned by my likes and dislikes. So it seems seeing takes more than the mere presence of the physical object in the field of vision. There must be an underlying interest or motivation, often at the unconscious level, to make the object stand out in the field of vision to be registered and seen by me.
Our visual perception of the world around us is highly influenced by how we feel in any given moment. An ordinarily neutral interaction can all of a sudden appear as uncomfortable and threatening if I am in a shut-down state of mind or heart. But feelings are always presented to us through bodily sensations. If you pay close attention to your body when you’re excited, sad, disappointed, angry, etc., you’ll notice that the field of bodily sensations are different in each case: there might be a constriction in the throat, a hole in the gut, or a tingling sensation on the face. We don’t often notice these sensations when they arise and instead, and in an split second, interpret them as sadness, anger, etc.. But bodily sensations always come first, though they may be intensified or even triggered by our mental states as a result of a feedback loop generated and maintained by the stories we tell ourselves as to their causes.
Practicing mindfulness and embodiment for years, I have noticed that whenever I am compassionate toward or judgmental of others, whenever I am angered or excited at the sight of something, there’s always a set of bodily sensations that accompany these feelings; in fact, these sensations have dictated to me what to see and how to see them. These bodily sensations, perhaps rooted in childhood and survival-level operations, modify the value-significance that’s projected onto the visual object. This is also true of when I see beauty or friendliness: my body is more relaxed; I am more in my belly than in my head.
Our bodies can warp our vision: we don’t just see with the eyes but rather with the flesh.
Our bodies have a strong say in our perceptions, simply because we are in our foundation embodied beings. It takes the body, the field of immediate sensations, much longer to evolve than our thoughts and behavior. Anything solid has more resistance and changes slower than things such as thoughts or the mind. No matter how much we have progressed in reason and science, our bodily level responses are still mainly frozen in times when they are evolved to protect us in a hostile environment. In most cases, our bodies think and react as if we are still living in wilderness and should worry about threats to our survival. But since we are actually not in such an environment, our minds in an effort to make sense of the body’s sensations simulate a hostile situation in our heads, stories filled with threats and fear in which the dangerous enemy or lion is personified in our boss or intimate partner, our finances or what not.
The mind simulates situations and reads threats into them, quite innocently, to make sense of uncomfortable sensations and unpleasant feelings. As a result we end up seeing in our visual field more than what’s there. We may see a monster in our spouse, an enemy in our friends, etc., and we do so by projecting malicious intentions onto others’ behavior when we are bothered by our own sensations. In a sense, the bodily sensations warp our our visual field: we actually see the world not with the eyes but rather with the flesh.
I have already written about a practical approach to uncomfortable sensations as they arise, mostly in my post “Nonduality and the wisdom of unpleasant feelings.” So, we don’t need further analysis of the underlying processes. I think everyone can verify this by reflecting on their own experience. For the rest of this post, I’d like to explore some practical ways of loosening the paralyzing grip of the body on our day to day interactions with life, to feel a bit more free and relaxed in our own skin.
Pretty much any time we react disproportionately to external stimuli, often followed by regret or avoidance, it’s our sensations that have dictated that behavior to us. They have triggered our minds to project an unreal threat to an otherwise neutral or resolvable situation. This process often happens unconsciously and without our awareness. Therefore, the first step toward moving from reaction to response mode is to bring awareness to this process. And the best place to intercept the process is at the sensation level, to bring the awareness to our bodily sensations rather than feelings. Feelings and thoughts are elusive and nonlocal phenomena and often difficult to grasp and hold on to. Sensations, on the other hand, are local and tangible; we can find them in our bodies and hold on to them. In a way, our sensations provide a firm ground to which we can be safely anchored in order to explore and know ourselves better.
The more we stay with our immediate sensations without the need to interpret or suppress them, the more comfortable we become with letting them be. We gradually realize they are not harmful, that they are remnants of old survival strategies, and that we are totally fine to feel them in the safety of our home. As we get stronger in our tolerance and acceptance of seemingly unsettling sensations, we can take our practice of embodiment to the streets and apply it in situations that actually make us anxious. Over time, the hardened link between these sensations and the stories we’ve read into them loosens up. They become more tolerable and manageable, and we find less reasons to react to them to the detriment of an already fine and resolvable external situation.
We charge our inherently impersonal and harmless sensations by our own horror stories
With consistent practice of embodiment and immediacy, we can see through our own seeing; we notice that much of the value and significance that we perceive around us are reflections of our own preferences and interests that are encoded in our sensations, often without our permission. The result is more freedom and serenity because we now know that part of the discomfort and threat we see in the world is simply the voice of our own flesh which has not been kept in the loop as to the higher level of safety and security we enjoy as adults in a modern society. The body simply needs our attention and reassurance, our self-acceptance and compassion.
The idea is to hold on to the body and its flowing sensations whenever we find ourselves about to react. Perhaps it’s easier to start in our private corners and catch ourselves whenever we are about to indulge in an avoidant strategy, such as acting out by going into our phone, binge watching Netflix, smoking, etc.. We can relax our awareness back into our body and scan it across, maybe become aware of our shoulder’s position, breathing, the sensations in our throat, face, etc.. The goal isn’t to interpret our sensations differently but rather to stay as present as we can with them without adding any interpretations, and even notice our impulse to interpret them and go into our own head to make up scenarios to find a cause for them. We can then keep returning to those sensations.
If we are on the self-improvement journey, we often do a good job of taking care of our minds, but I think it’s even more important to bring the love and attention to the moment to moment calls of our body. To do so not with the intention of getting rid of unpleasant sensations but to simply listen to them, to notice them and stay aware of their harmless flow without panicking and leaning away from them and into our heads. The body only wants you to see it and be with it.