As I’m writing, I’m sitting at my desk looking at the late November landscape. The leaves have mostly fallen off the trees, revealing their varied shapes. The evergreens retain their robust, lush appearance, impervious to the change of season. The grasses have turned various colors: the tall grasses a beautiful parchment, that glows when the sun is shining; the medium grasses a dullish tan; and the short grasses stubbornly hang on to their green, even though we’ve had some night-time lows in the mid-20s already. It’s a mostly gray day, but the cloud cover has variation to it in color and texture. And the light, while low, is very soft. It’s a very peaceful, beautiful landscape, almost devoid of wind.
Unfortunately, most people sitting at my desk looking at the same landscape would say that it’s a dull. dreary day. Period. Indeed, many years ago I would have said the same thing. This is but one small example of the labels that we, without any active thought, apply to what we experience. And how, whether they express likes/dislikes or other judgmental thoughts, those labels are obstructions, creating a barrier between us and the reality of what we are experiencing, preventing us from experiencing things or people in their true fullness.
There is not one area of life where these labels do not impact how we experience ourselves and everything around us. Whether it’s your personal or family relationships, passing strangers on the street, eating food, experiencing the weather, navigating work relationships, how you hear a politician speaking, and most importantly perhaps your relationship with yourself ... every moment of every day, your perceptions are but the labels that have been formed by your learned experience, whether it be your upbringing, your peer experiences, or your experience at the hands of the broader culture.
“These are my perceptions,” you say. “They are a valid view of reality. They are not just labels.” They certainly feel real to you because they are based on a lifetime of experience and are supported by your family, friends, and culture. But they are nevertheless illusory, they are empty of any intrinsic existence. They are totally dependent on your learned experience. Another person with a different learned experience will react very differently to exactly the same reality experience. The difference is not in the reality; the difference is in the learned experience of the observer.
The point is not whether one perspective is more valid than another. The point is that any perspective is illusory. Only when you can see and experience directly without the intervention of thought can you experience yourself, those around you, and everything in your life as things really are because then there is no separation between you and reality.
How one gets to that point is a long path which I describe in my books and which I will come back to at various times in this blog. But for now, the first step is to realize, at least intellectually, the truth that all of our perceptions are labels, dependent on our learned experience, and that they are obstructions that prevent us from seeing things as they really are. With that knowledge, you’ll find that you will start having moments when you glimpse that there is something there other than what you are perceiving. You will start being more open to the honestly held but opposing opinions of other people who are just coming from a different exposure to learned experience. You will be more measured in your thoughts and opinions.
Another lesson in practical Buddhism.