There are two types of barriers to our experiencing reality through our senses. The first and most prominent and distorting is that the impressions received by our senses … whether it be through hearing, seeing, etc. … do not go directly to our brain. Instead, these senses are first filtered, interpreted, by our mind, our ego-mind, our learned experience. Which means everything has a label placed on it and those labels incite corresponding emotions. The result is that we do not experience things directly as they are, with dispassion.
The example I like to use to illustrate this process is how we perceive the weather. One person, because of his background and learned experience, finds hot and humid weather wonderful, hates cold, and is depressed by the endless gray days that can be experienced in winter. But another person, because he has a different background and learned experience, finds that same hot and humid weather truly unbearable, enervating, loves the refreshing briskness of a cold winter day, and finds beauty in the gray days of winter.
The weather is what it is. It is a measurable fact. That is the reality. But our learned experience causes us to label it one way or another, with a definite impact on our mental state. That is perceived reality, something quite different. The same is true for everything that we experience, all the things that we like or dislike, whether it be the way we are treated, the look of something, whatever.
Because our ego-mind, our learned experience, makes it impossible for us to experience reality directly, with dispassion, and instead causes us to react to it with cravings, emotions, judgments, and attachments … the causes of our suffering, of samsara … a basic teaching of Buddhism is to train ourselves to see reality, not through our ego-mind, but through our heart, our true Buddha self.
But the ego-mind doesn’t just cause us suffering. By distorting reality, its emotions, attachments, judgments, and cravings paralyze us and make it impossible for us to move forward in a way which is in our best interest. Thus when we surrender our ego or turn out will over to the care of our true Buddha nature, it enables us to forge a new relationship with reality which frees us.
The second barrier to our experiencing reality is that our senses are limited. For example, when we see a cup, we see and feel a solid, hard object. But if we put that cup under an electron microscope, we see that the cup is in fact a collection of molecules, which are in turn a collection of atoms, which in turn contain neutrons, protons, and electrons, the latter of which whiz about at incredible speeds.
When we look at a cup with our unaided eye and touch it, we see and feel one thing, which is directly observed reality. But we cannot sense the complete reality of the cup’s makeup.
Much the same is true when we observe people. We see what they do, but we have little idea of the confluence of learned experience that makes them do what they do.
We are all creatures of our learned experience, and although cultural learned experience pervades much of the human landscape, each person is a unique individual because no two people have exactly the same combination of learned experience. There are common strains, but each person is different, much like no two people have the same fingerprints. And we are programmed by that experience to think and act in certain ways; our “free will” operates within a very narrow range. We don’t have free will in the normal sense of the word at all.
So for example, we see someone, whether a parent or some executive, treating children/people poorly and we judge the person for that. They are harming another person. On the one hand that judgment is appropriate because each person has to be responsible for their acts, regardless how they are programmed by their learned experience. We cannot have anarchy.
On the other hand, we should have compassion for that person because that person’s harsh treatment of others is clearly a reflection of their suffering, their programming (see my post, “A Path to Compassion and Loving Kindness”). As Flip Wilson’s character, Ernestine, used to say, “The Devil made me do it.” Substitute “ego-mind” and “learned experience” for “Devil” and she got it right.
And so how we treat people, for example in the criminal justice system, should reflect that compassion and the knowledge that we all have our true Buddha nature deep inside us, waiting to be rediscovered. There is no such thing as a bad person, just people who do bad things. We are all, as Emerson said, “God in ruins.” And so people should be rehabilitated, treated in a way to help them reconnect with their true Buddha nature.
Being aware of these barriers is critical both in forming the intent to turn our will and our life over to the care of our true Buddha nature and slowly making progress on that path.