This is an edited version of an essay I originally wrote as an assignment during my yoga teacher training – I’ve taken out some of the sanskrit terms for clarity. Today, it seems especially relevant.
In our everyday lives, we are constantly taking in information, assessing it, and reacting to it. The thoughts that we have about this information are affected by our individual experience, our family interactions, the culture we grow up in, and even deeper, in the epigenetics that influences our very DNA. We automatically identify the things we see and the things we hear – table, bird-song, friend, stranger, and with each object, associate with it concepts, likes or dislikes, and associations. Understanding the true nature of our world, of unfiltered reality, is one of the most important ways we can grow and gain wisdom.
Many of the assessments or unconscious judgments we make are related to the concept of “attachment”. We may “like” something or dislike it. We may seek more of something or to avoid it.
Some of our judgments and inclinations to seek or avoid something are closely related to survival. It’s wise, for example, to stay away from animals that could cause harm; it’s similarly wise to seek healthful food. It’s also useful in navigating our lives – understanding what a “car” does or knowing what a map is helps us in our daily lives. Our aversions, though, can keep us from having needed, uncomfortable conversations or from new experiences or interactions out of fear. Our learned filters can also affect how we view the actions of another person, especially if we believe they are from another culture. Fears can feel so real that someone may not be able to function effectively in the presence of an object or entity that evokes a feeling of threat. And a positive, supportive item or person may be overlooked because of the way we interpreted that presence from our filters.
I love Jackie Chan movies because in many of them, he illustrates this idea that our filters, our habits of labeling things, can hide the true nature of something. In a Jackie Chan movie, a table, a mop, an umbrella, a ladder, or even a bicycle can be used creatively and effectively for self-defense. He illustrates in his movies the idea of seeing objects not as how they are commonly used, but instead recognizing the underlying structure and function that allows innovation.
The Yoga Sutras address this condition, recognizing that the assessments we automatically made are affected by the filter that reflects the sum of our experiences and conditioning. We may not even recognize that there is a filter affecting how we perceive some things.
Optical illusions can be a fun way of exploring how our perceptions may not line up with what we are actually seeing, such as the elephant on the right. There are also tragic examples of this such as the practice of racial profiling or not recognizing there are systemic injustices some people experience even if we don’t individually treat them any differently from our circle of friends and acquaintances.
The ability to not be deceived by the filters in our experience must be developed through diligent, focused, and effective practice. There are many meditation traditions that provide guidance on this approach, and I recommend that anyone who wishes to work on this develop a relationship with a teacher that has a solid foundation and lineage.
One of the ways we can start recognizing our filters is to use the process of “keen discernment” or detachment. Detachment, in this case, means recognizing our natural desires to either want or avoid an experience, and to simply notice our reactions. Practicing mindfulness, paying attention to the direct sensations, and even noticing how one “likes” or “dislikes” a sensation, can bring one closer to seeing the sensation for what it is and to strengthen our ability for detachment.
With practice, one can begin to sense, and awaken to, the underlying awareness that is present in each of us. To be in touch with this is to perceive the world without the filters and patterns that can drive our reactions. Awakened awareness does not mean, though, that we lose our selves or that we fail to function in our environment. It does mean, though, that we operate more authentically, with greater awareness of everything present; of actions, cause and effect. And it starts with the simple act of noticing without judging. Trust that you can achieve this, and trust that through practice that you’ll begin to understand your own filters and experience more pure awareness of the amazing reality we inhabit.