Our Perceptions of the World

In a diary entry dated 04/08/1931 in Fernando Pessoa’s posthumously published book The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa writes, “For us everything lies in our concept of the world; changing our concept of the world means changing our world, that is, the world itself, since it will never be anything other than how we perceive it.” There are many things in this world that make assumptions about, and we never truly know if our assumptions are correct. But what information we take in, and how we use that information and interpret it, shapes the world we construct and the assumptions we attach to the world.

 

I really like this quote, especially at this time, because I have been thinking about consciousness after having listened to a few podcast episodes from Rob Reid’s show, After On. Reid has had a few guests on his show who have talked about consciousness and the challenges in fully understanding what is happening in our brains. We don’t know exactly where consciousness comes from and whether it is within the brain or something that sits on top of the brain. We don’t know what it is that allows our brain matter and nervous system to become conscious and we don’t know where consciousness stops, whether it ends with dogs and ferrets or if it continues all the way down to bees, ants, or plants.

 

Beyond questions of consciousness, we have questions about the information that our body is able to take in and process. We also have questions about what information we actually become aware of with all the the information that is available for us to perceive. We know that we can’t smell as well as a dog, we can’t hear the same frequencies as a bat, and we can’t sense the earth’s magnetic field the way a bird does. Bees can see a greater range of the light spectrum than we can see, but we at least have eyes which can see much better than starfish which can only pick up on whether it is light above them or not. For each animal, including humans, the range of possible senses and information that can be taken in is called the umwelt. A German word to describe the experiences of the world for that animal.

 

All this brings me back to Pessoa’s quote. From a pure physics level, it is easy to see that our thinking and understanding of the world is limited by the physics of the universe and by the information we can take in form our surroundings. The world we see and know, in some sense, is not the whole world. Pessoa is correct to say that our world is defined by the way we perceive it.

 

But what Pessoa meant in his quote was not so much about physics and the limitations of the human body to sense and experience the world. How we think about the world constructs the reality we live within. The narratives and stories we come up with describe ourselves, define the society we live in, and explain what we do are the things that make up our reality. We can be wrong about these perceptions, like when we hear someone near-by laugh and assume they are laughing about us. We should be aware of the thoughts and narratives we create about the world and we should be willing to question them. We should work to have the most clear picture of the world possible, always understanding that there is more happening than we can ever know, and always remembering that how we perceive the world will determine the reality we see in front of us.

Attachment to the False View of Self

When we try to compartmentalize reality and split our experiences into separate categories, we end up with a view of the universe that is incomplete and incorrect. Everything that happens is interconnected, and how we experience the world at one moment is influenced by our experiences of the past and expectations for the future. The time of day, how much we have eaten, and the temperature all shape the way we experience and interpret the universe. We are unavoidably connected to the matter of the universe, and we are truly matter observing other matter.

 

When we think about ourselves, we put ourselves apart from the universe. We view the person that we are as separate from the natural phenomena of the universe, as someone who experiences reality with a rational mind that views the things happening around us. We create a story about our selves that helps us understand the world we live in.

 

However, this is not reality. We cannot stand ourselves apart from the universe and we cannot look at ourselves as individual, objective, observers of the universe as though we are immune to the happenings and occurrences around us. Through meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other Buddhist monks through time, have come to recognize this problem with the way that we think about ourselves. They call this problem the false view of self. A view that creates a self as a rational actor moving through the world in control of ones perception, experiences, and outcomes. This false view can be dangerous and is formed on unfounded views of reality. As Hanh writes, “Attachment to the false view of self means belief in the presence of unchanging entities which exist on their own.”

 

What Hanh and Buddhists found through meditation, Amanda Gefter learned from the study of Physics, particularly from the discoveries of John Wheeler. In a previous post of mine, I wrote about a quote from Gefter where she explained that the universe can only be viewed from the inside, where everything is changing. Trying to view the world from the outside, from a Gods-Eye-View, violates general relativity and breaks the physics of the universe.

 

The view of self that we adopt as we move through the world (especially in the United States) is inconsistent with the view of the self described by monks who noticed their inability to control their mind during meditation. It is also inconsistent with the reality of physics which highlights the challenges of trying to the view the universe as an unchanging object outside the universe. Giving up the concept of self is difficult, but when you remember that there may not be a self, you can let go of stress and pressure to be the person your story is telling you to be. You are connected to the universe and you are a changing being within the universe. Your actions are not your own conscious choices, but the culmination of phenomena occurring within the universe. For me, mindfulness in this area helps me to think about my choices and decisions and react to the universe in a more calm and clear way, even though I am not standing apart from the universe and from forces around me to make the decisions that I make.

Compartmentalizing our Experiences is Impossible

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the present moment and I have been working on making the present moment its own moment in time, unconstrained by the past. I am working to remember lessons from Marcus Aurelius and to remember that all I control is my mind and reactions to the world at this moment. At the same time, however, I have recently ready Daniel Pink’s book When and I’m currently reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. Aurelius encourages us to be focused on the present moment, and to leave the past in the past and let the future come without thinking too far ahead. He stresses the importance of separating ourselves from the past in order to do the most that we can with the present moment.

 

Research by Pink and Newport, however, suggests that this might not be possible, and that even if we try our best to stay mentally focused on the present, the past unavoidably impacts the way our brains operate in the present. Pink studied the science of timing and examined the ways that the body and mind react to the world as we move through the day. He finds that the time of meetings, of intellectually challenging work, of exercise, and sleep all impact the way we think, feel, and move about the world.

 

Newport in his book looks for a way to perform at his best and seeks to understand how habit, performance, attention, and experience are all linked. He finds evidence to suggest that our minds are not very good at switching between tasks, and that what we have done in the past directly shapes our brains and our performance in the present. The habits we build and the effort we put toward developing our attention either enhance or limit our ability in the future to think deeply and focus on a given thing. What his research, along with Pink’s, finds, is that our current experience and state of mind is directly linked to our past and to rhythms and experiences throughout the day and throughout our lives.

 

The insight from Pink and Newport comes from scientific study of reality, but has also been discovered by those who meditate. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about the inseparability of the world in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He states, “The great body of reality is indivisible. It cannot be cut into pieces with separate existences of their own.” the experience we have at one moment can not be compartmentalized and separated from another moment. At any given time we may be doing one thing and not another, but our experience of that moment is to some degree shaped by the experiences we have had throughout the day and in our past. In stoic philosophy, there can be a tendency to want to split what we do and how we experience the world into separate categories, but Pink, Newport, and Hanh suggest that this would be a mistake and may not be possible at all.

 

I don’t think we have to throw out the ideas of Aurelius and stoicism, but we must understand as we focus on the present moment how it relates to our past and to our future. We can perform our best if we think, moment to moment, about how we are connected to other times in our lives and how we can maximize our performance and experience given the time of day and the activities we have been involved with or will be involved with. This drives greater intentionality in our lives which in turn drives better experiences and a better connection to the present moment.

The Absurdity of Thinking We Know What is Happening in Another’s Mind

We make claims all the time about what other people are thinking and feeling and about the motivations, beliefs, and desires of others. We can maybe be right about some large things and the study of psychology has given us insight into a lot of patterns of the brain, but to think that we could ever really understand what is happening in the mind of another person is beyond nonsense.

 

This fallacy starts with our misunderstandings of our own brain and our own consciousness. We like to think that there is a single actor in our brain, observing the universe, directing our actions, and making sense of the world in an objective and rational manner. What everything seems to indicate, however, is that this experience of our consciousness does not align with reality. People often fail to act in a way that is in their rational best interest. We are driven by the stories that we tell ourselves, giving rise to prejudices and allowing us to be swayed by our self-interests. When meditating we see just how hard it is to focus on a single thought, even if we try our best to make our conscious mind think about our breath and not the candy jar on our co-workers desk. In all of these situations, our thoughts seem to be a bit beyond our control, a bit random, and heavily influenced by factors that we perceive or imagine even if they don’t exist.

 

When we look inward at our own mind we begin to see just how jumbled our own thoughts and consciousness can be. When we truly work to improve our mind, we can build our self-awareness, look at the world more objectively, and start to recognize patterns of our own thoughts and behaviors, but this is hard work and reveals a confusing set of contradictions within ourselves. Indeed, as Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, “If you want to know your own mind, there is only one way: to observe and recognize everything about it. This must be done at all times, during your day-to-day life no less than during the hour of meditation.”

 

To know our mind is to recognize the times when our mind is not what we think or imagine it to be. And if we cannot even know our own mind without constant study and evaluation of what we are thinking and believing, then how can we ever claim to understand another person’s mind, even for a second? We can hide things from ourselves, fail to recognize the reality of the world around us and of ourselves, and we can develop false beliefs in our thinking. This is true for each one of us, and for everyone else around us. When we think of other people, of their desires, habits, actions, fears, and their general mindset in any given situation, we must remember that they are as complicated as we are, and that we cannot possibly understand what is happening in their mind.

 

When I think of this, when I read Hanh’s quote about self-awareness and how difficult it is to know ourselves, I remember to judge people less harshly, to slow my thinking down, and to first interrogate my own mind before assuming something about the mental state of another person. This is not easy to do, and it undoubtedly leads to a place where I think to myself, “well the world is hard and this person is influenced by many things and feels many fears and pressures, so their actions and behaviors can to some extent be deemed understandable.” This works well when I am confronted by a grumpy person in line at the bank or a jerk driving next to me on the freeway, but it is less that satisfying when thinking about people who commit serious crime (an area I don’t have solid thoughts on right now), or people who seem to antagonistically oppose beliefs that I find important and noble. What I can say is that remembering how challenging it is to know myself helps me be more empathetic with others and view what they say or do in a less attacking and critical light. In personal relationships and in the office this is a great skill to cultivate, because it stops me from assuming I know what is happening in another person’s mind, and reminds me that they may not even have their own thoughts fully understood.

Avoid Machine Thought

Recently I have become more aware of how often I have automatic “machine” like thoughts about the world. When I hear someone sneeze I automatically reply “bless you” with no thought as to why I am saying what I am saying. A thousand times a day I have some type of response to someone that is not really a response but rather just a trite saying that I have not thought closely about. In every day we fall back on these automatic machine phrases that we utter without using much brain power. These thoughts sort of think themselves, and we just go along with them.

 

In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to get away from these routine and automatic thoughts by becoming more aware of our actions, habits, and thoughts themselves. In his book he writes, “Whether it’s sunny or rainy, whether the path is dry or wet, you keep that one thought, but not just repeating it like a machine over and over again. Machine thinking is the opposite of mindfulness. If we’re really engaged in mindfulness while walking along the path … then we will consider the act of each step we take as an infinite wonder, and a joy will open our hearts … enabling us to enter the world of reality.”

 

Rote thinking saves brain space. It allows us to go through the motions of a conversation, a walk, a drive, or a life without having to consciously consider the wold around us as we go. It is automatic, habitual, and has no real meaning or purpose. The machine-like thinking referenced by Hanh serves no purpose other than filler for our days. True mindfulness reveals just how frequently we operate by machine thought. Becoming more aware of our rote habits helps us to uncover what is really taking place versus what we are doing just because it is habit or commonplace in our society. Mindfulness takes away the filler and helps us see the world without the stories we tell about the world, allowing us to recognize judgements, desires, fears, and concrete facts of our life in a more clear way. One of the biggest benefits I have found from my imperfect mindfulness is the pulling away of the narrative that I have attached to so much of my life. Without the stories that I make up and without the filler of machine thought, I have had a better approach to the world that is less driven by fear and stress, and more driven by a conscious choice of what is important to me and my life.

Our Very First Thought

During a typical workweek, when I get into a flow from day to day and wake-up early to read, write, and exercise, the first thought that I usually have, after turning off my alarm, is “x more days until the weekend and I can sleep in.” I really dislike the first moments of waking up. I get up much earlier than my wife, and I am always afraid that my alarm is going to wake her up, so I try to roll over, find my phone, and turn off my alarm as quick as I can. After that, as I groggily pull myself out of bed, I usually think about getting an extra hour or two of sleep in the morning on Saturday and Sunday.

 

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, author Thich Nhat Hanh describes a Buddhist monk named Doc that he once met. Hanh briefly writes about Doc’s daily routine and how he incorporated mindfulness into his day from the very beginning. “When he woke up in the morning,” Hanh writes, “his first thought was, ‘Just awakened, I hope that every person will attain great awareness and see in complete clarity.'”

 

The monk was building awareness and mindfulness into his day from the very beginning of each day. I rarely think beyond the initial moment and my desire to continue sleeping when I wake up. I could certainly allow myself to be a little slower with turning off my phone and I could make an effort to be more aware and mindful in my first moments. Running this thought through our minds at the outset of the day helps us be present and recognize that we are in the process of awakening and that nothing terrible has happened to us yet (even waking up as early as I do is not a terrible torture). This helps to set us up for a productive and self-aware day, something that is often missing when we go through the world complaining about each given moment. Doc’s thought is powerful because it aligns our thoughts to be productive, and opens us to compassion toward others as we are recognizing the mental challenges and struggles that others will face as soon as we wake up, rather than thinking about our own misfortune.

Advice Doesn’t Help Us Generate Knowledge

As you would expect, Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is all about how to be a more effective coach. Part of becoming a more effective coach involves understanding how the brain works so that you can understand how the people you coach are going to learn and react in certain situations. To help demonstrate the importance of knowing how the brain works, Bungay Stanier references Josh Davis and his colleagues from the NeuroLeeadership Institute and their model known as “AGES”. Specifically, Bungay Stanier focuses on the “G” from AGES.

 

G stands for Generation, and commenting on knowledge generation, Bungay Stanier writes, “Advice is overrated. I can tell you something, and it’s got a limited chance of making its way into your brain’s hippocampus, the region  that encodes memory. If I can ask you a question and you generate the answer yourself, the odds increase substantially.” What is important here is understanding that we create memories and generate our knowledge in an active process. Learning and creating knowledge are not passive processes. We don’t sit in a sea of information and passively absorb new lessons and knowledge as tides of information wash into our brains. Instead, we hunt down the specific information we need or want (or sometimes we inadvertently pursue it) and emotion and engagement pull the knowledge into our minds.

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Quoting the NeuroLeadership Institute, Bungay Stanier writes, “When we take time and effort to generate knowledge and find an answer rather than just reading it, our memory retention is increased.” The chance of us remembering something a professor says, or something we hear on TV, or the advice our parents give us is not great when it is just verbally directed toward us. If we truly seek out the information, if the information is presented to us in a way that forces us to be more engaged to get the answer we need, and if we have to truly use the faculties of our mind to find meaning, reason, and truth, then we will have a more powerful connection to the knowledge. We will generate new information in our brain and become more knowledgeable than we would if the information was simply presented to (or at) us.

Whats the Real Challenge

Yesterday I wrote about how easy it can be to solve the wrong problem. When we go to meetings, chat with someone during a lunch break, or are working in a group on a project, it can become very easy to start complaining about whatever thing happens to be annoying us at that moment. Whatever issue we just had to deal with can be a bit overwhelming and can come to dominate our thoughts. However, the issue we just dealt with may not actually be the big thing at the heart of our problems. We might be annoyed by the way a particular form is being completed by another person or by a team’s inability to come together to finalize a draft of a new project, but the real challenge may be something deeper and more significant. If we don’t access that deeper level, then we are not actually doing anything that will help us or our organization improve when we complain at a surface level about some annoyance.

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier has a recommendation for us to get to this deeper level. Throughout his entire book he encourages us to be better listeners and to ask the right questions to get our conversations moving in the right direction. His advice to get to the big issue is to ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” Whether we ask this to ourselves or to someone we are coaching, the result is a more deep consideration of the situation that is leading to frustration or bad outcomes. Bungay Stanier describes the question this way, “This is the question that will help slow down the rush to action, so you spend time solving the real problem, not just the first problem.”

Bungay Stanier explains that we will always have multiple problems to deal with, but that not all problems are created equal. Some will be more pressing then others and some will stem from larger more structural problems. Asking what the real challenge is can help develop thoughts on the larger issues at the core. Adding the “for you” part of the question dials in on the specific details that are in the individual’s (or your own) control, as opposed to details that are too vague and general to be something we can address directly. It also helps the question be more personal and aim toward individual growth and opportunity.

The Coaching Habit helps us get beyond simple venting and complaining to have more constructive and thoughtful discussions. Learning to listen and understanding how questions can help shape the direction of our conversations is crucial for successful coaching and even for successful introspection. Understanding our real challenge and then helping others dial in on their real challenges can drive new growth and productivity.

A Moment and an Experience

Senator Cory Booker wrote about a tenant leader and housing advocate in Newark that he met when he was part of the Newark City Council in his book, United. Booker met Frank Hutchins through advocacy work and events to help people living in areas of intensely concentrated poverty. Booker was with Frank during one of his last moments before his death and talking about the time he spent with Frank as cancer overcame him, Booker wrote, “When he looked at me it was as if his whole being was present and attuned to mine—it wasn’t just a moment, it was an experience.”

 

This quote brings me to an idea I think about frequently but don’t always manage to incorporate into my life in a meaningful way. Many of the books I have read focus on the idea of presence and being in the moment. An important component of being in the moment, one Booker truly understood and felt when he was with Frank, is a recognition of our emotions and allowing ourselves to truly feel and understand our emotions in the moment. Mindfulness allows us to think about how we are feeling and reacting to a situation, but it can sometimes take us away from the moment, and we can get caught up in our own thoughts to the point that we forget to experience the important moments where we are.

 

Booker’s time with Frank at the end of his life is an example of how to bring emotion into the present. Experience includes emotion and an awareness of those emotions, but it also involves being present in the moment. Booker did not just recognize his emotions but felt them and felt the enormity of the situation an was able to record and truly be present in the moment. When we are with others, we can be present and engaged by turning away from phones and screens and focusing on discussion and dialogue with the other person. Being present in this way involves truly focusing ones attention on the other person, and not on thoughts about how other people will think of us or thoughts of what we should or should not be doing, thinking, or feeling in the moment.

 

I am not the best at this even though it is something I think about often. I am working to improve and become better at understanding and feeling my emotions without being overcome by thoughts specifically about how I am feeling at any given moment. Becoming overcome with thoughts about how you are feeling and reacting takes you away from the present moment, where mindfulness helps you recognize your emotions and engage further in what you are doing at the moment.

A Theory of Others

How much do we value other people, and how much should we value other people? At the core of ethics lies this question, and philosopher Peter Singer addresses it in his book The Most Good You Can Do. Singer refers to Canadian philosopher Richard Keshen’s ideas to build his vision of what ethics look like in an age of reason and tackles questions of how we should think about other people. In his book Singer writes, “At the core of the reasonable person’s ethical life, according to Keshen, is a recognition that others are like us and therefore, in some sense, their lives and their well-being matter as much as our own.”

 

This piece of advice is very similar to the Golden Rule, but with one notable distinction. The Golden Rule puts us at the center, focusing on how we want to be treated, and then expanding outward. Singer’s foundation for an ethical person starts with other people and a recognition that the lives of others are just as important in the world as our own life. It builds on common humanity and pushes past areas where see human ethics frequently fall short such as, tribalism, merit, and perceived responsibility. If we cannot start from a place where we accept that other people’s lives are as valuable as our own, we cannot move forward with truly equitable ethical foundations.

 

Singer’s ethical base also reminds me of childhood developmental studies and Theory of Mind, which focuses on a young child’s early recognition that other children and people have thoughts and feelings. This recognition builds until we are able to perceive, predict, and interpret the thoughts, feelings, and ideas of others. From our own consciousness we can begin approaching other people as if they are rational conscious individuals just like us, even though we can never see their consciousness or prove that they have thoughts just like we do. Ultimately, Theory of Mind, a recognition of conscious thought in other people (often also projected onto other living and even inanimate objects around us) begins to shape the ethical foundation of our life.

 

This seems to be built into Singer’s worldview through recognition and reflection of life and consciousness. On a recent episode of Sam Harris’s podcast, Waking Up, guest Yuval Noah Harari discussed Rousseau who said, “I think, therefore I am,” but he was critical of Rousseau’s fictitious “I,” or the self  created by Rousseau out of nowhere and built on in story. Harari explained that the conclusion Rousseau should have reached is simply, “Thought exists, therefore thought exists.” This view does not diminish the reality of our consciousness, but helps us understand that the “I” discussed by Rousseau is simply the story that thought creates. We know that thought exists so it is not unreasonable to believe that others can think, and if others think and can build their own story to create a fictional “I,” then Singer’s ethical foundation still exists and is perhaps bolstered as we recognize the stories we tell ourselves and  as we accept that our thought is in no way fundamentally different from the conscious thought of others which gives rise to our imaginary “I.” Ultimately, we must realize that we are limited in how we experience the world and that others experience the world in the same way. Increasing our ability to think of others and interpret the stories they create for themselves helps us to further our ethical thinking and behavior.