The Process of Perception

Chögyam Trungpa on perception and the process of perception

“The question of reality is a very confusing one. Nobody knows, but everybody knows that somebody knows. That seems to be the problem we are facing: maybe nobody at all or maybe everybody knows. So we should not purely trust the information, suggestions, and ideas that come to us from external sources, but actually work with ourselves and try to develop our own personal understanding and appreciation of reality. Reality seems to be the basic space in which we operate in our ordinary, everyday life. It brings some sense of comfort and, at the same time, some sense of confusion. There seems to be a basic play between the two.

When we begin to perceive our phenomenal world, we do not perceive it as purely gray and nondescript, as though it were camouflaged. In fact, we see highlights of all kinds. For example, when we perceive an ordinary object – when we take a look at an egg or a cup of tea – there’s a sense of boredom, because such a thing is so ordinary and domestic. We already know what an egg is like, and we know what a cup of tea is like. But when we are presented with something extraordinary, we begin to feel we are being treated to a special show. So in either the ordinary or the excited state of mind, whether we find the world extremely boring or extraordinary entertaining, there’s always a sense of confusion and aggression.

Such aggression is an obstacle to visual dharma, to hearing and the other sense perceptions, and to understanding reality in its fullest sense. So some kind of fundamental discipline seems to be absolutely important and necessary. Without any actual practice of sitting meditation to enable us to make friends with ourselves, nothing can be heard or seen to its fullest extent; nothing can be perceived as we would like to perceive it. But slowly and naturally, through our discipline, we gradually begin to branch out into the real world, the world of chaos, pain, and anxiety.

When we reach the state of of nonaggression, it is not that we cease to perceive anything, but we begin to perceive in a particular way. With the absence of aggression, there is further clarity, because nothing is based on anxiety and nothing is based on the ideas or ideals of any kind. Instead, we are beginning to see things without making any demands. We are no longer trying to buy or sell anything to anybody. It is a direct and very personal experience.

Our experience of the state of nonaggression becomes so personal that sometimes it is quite painful. Because all obstacles of any kind have been completely cleared out, for the first time we are seeing things from the point of view of pure vision and clarity. We begin to hear music purely and see colors and visual objects in their fullest purity. When we become more sensitive to experiences in this way, they become more penetrating, and they begin to make more sense. Therefore, there is the possibility of irritation. But at the same time, there is also a lot of humor. We no longer feel that we have to hassle, or try to swim across this ocean of tremendous demands the world makes on us. We don’t have to push against it anymore. There’s a sense of clarity, which is extraordinary pleasing, and at the same time, there’s a sense of overwhelming precision, which makes our experience terribly painful. So we could say that this particular journey of seeing things as they are, experiencing the iconography and sacred art of the world, us a state of mind- as much as Bombay Gin.

In many cases, we try so hard to understand. We are so eager that eagerness begins to become numbness. we are so eager that we misunderstand things a lot. Sometimes our mind becomes completely blank, and we can’t actually communicate. We forgot how to put our sentences together; we forgot what to write down; we lose our memories. All kinds of problematic things take place in us as an expression of eagerness, which is a somewhat euphemistic term for mental speediness. But this is a long process. It is important to study and work with this material and to examine our life and our experience. We could learn to experience our world properly, so that our life becomes worth living and further learning takes place. We can perceive the world with lots of space, or we can perceive the world with no space, but that is saying the same thing. The experience of no space at the same time happens to be space. So when we begin to overcrowd  the whole thing, the overcrowded becomes space.

Visual perception becomes reality gradually. According to the traditional pattern, beginning to see something visually is a process that has many levels. First we see with our eyes, then we smell with our eyes, then we hear with our eyes, and then we begin to touch the object with our eyes. Each particular sensory perception has those same aspects taking place. For instance, at the auditory level, when we hear something, we see it first, then we beat it, then we smell it then we touch it. So psychological shifts take place all the time. Perceiving is a gradual process.

Realistically, when we see something and experience it personally, our first connection is made abruptly, impulsively. As we perceive further, we can smell that visual object: its texture, its setup, and the vibrations it presents to us. The we begin to hear that visual object. We can  hear its texture as well as tis breath, whether it breathes hard or soft. We can actually hear the heartbeat of that visual object. So we see its heartbeat and hear it at the same time. Finally, because we have gone through this whole process, we begin to take an immense interest in that visual object, and we try to touch it visually. we commit ourselves to that particular perception, and we actually begin to relate with whatever goes on in our world. we begin to touch our world, to feel the real texture of it, not just the sound or smell or first visual flash of the texture. In that way, we ar able to establish ourselves in total communication.

That process takes place all the time, in whatever we do in our life and at whatever perceptual level we are relating with. Whether it is our hearing system, smelling system, seeing system, or tasting system; whether we are eating food, hearing music, seeing visual things, wearing different types of clothes, or taking a swim, those four categories – sight, smell, hearing and touch – take place all the time. That is how we actually perceive things as they are. However, sometimes we jump back and forth instead of going through the regular, gradual process of seeing things as they are properly. First we touch some kind of edge, then we bounce back from that edge, and then we return to it again. We begin to have a dialogue, with ourselves, to ourselves a story: ” Maybe this is not right, maybe this is not true, maybe this is the ideal situation. let’s talk about it, let’s think about it.” We go on and on that way, bouncing back and forth all the time. That is the neurotic, or psychotic tendency in visual perception.

Visuel perception does not have anything to do with where ornate we are seeing colors properly. Even if we are color-blind, we can still do it. When we begin to see something, first we have the questions of visual perspective: the world we see is framed by our eyes, so it has a sort of oval shape, or egg shape. We can’t see beyond the limitation of our eyes. The we begin to smell, which goes on in the back of our head. We smell behind what we see. Some kind of commentator comes along and says that this object has a smell or odor to it. Not only that, but then we begin to hear that particular object from all around – not behind and in front alone, but underneath us and above us as well. We begin to sense that something is there, and we try to figure out what it might be. And finally, we begin to try to make decisions, saying, “I’ll buy it. Like it,” or “I reject it. I don’t like it.” The whole process takes place in a fraction of a second, very fast. Jing! Jing! Jing! That whole mechanism is very fast and very simple, and it takes place all the time.

As far as dharma art or absolute experience is concerned, along with our experience we begin to see things as the are, touch on things as the are. Then we begin just to be with object perceptions, without accepting or rejecting. we simply try to be that way. There is a kind of standing-still quality, or stalemate, in which comments and remarks become unimportant, and being things as they are becomes the real thing. It’s like a frog sitting in the middle of a big puddle, with rain constantly falling in it. The frog simply winks its eyes at each raindrop that falls on it, but it doesn’t change its posture. It doesn’t try to either to jump into the puddle or to get out of the puddle. That quality is what is symbolized by a sitting bull, so the frog becomes a sitting bull.

'The process of perception' from 'True Perception - The Path of Dharma Art', C. Trungpa
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