There is an often used scenario in Buddhism that explores the nature of perception. You are walking along a country path one day, and as stroll along you spot a snake in the grass, a venomous one perhaps. Naturally your heart rate instantly goes up, your body goes onto full alert, and your mind is filled with terror. But once you get a closer look, you realise that it isn’t a snake at all; it’s just a coiled rope. Just as quickly as the fear set in, it dissipates. Relieved, you have a little chuckle, ‘Phew! It was only a rope. Really got me going for a minute there!’
But after this incident the chances are that you would think nothing more of it, the overwhelming feeling would be relief that you had ‘narrowly avoided’ a run in with a snake. When you are practicing on the Buddhist path though, these kind of incidents spark your curiosity. The snake and rope scenario has several points to ponder in it – the most intriguing one being where does the snake go at the moment you realise it is actually a rope – but I’m only going to consider the point in it that a change of perception can completely change your experience.
I had the opportunity to investigate this myself with the help of a wasp and a hoverfly. If you don’t know much about these insects the summary version is a wasp is a big yellow and black stripy insect that is very easy to annoy, and the result is that it will sting you; a hoverfly is a slightly smaller yellow and black stripy insect that doesn’t even have a sting, it is entirely harmless (to humans, not aphids though) but it dresses up as a wasp as a way to avoid getting hassled. Snake, rope; wasp, hoverfly. Both easy mistakes to make; both with potentially painful consequences.
I was just leaving the house the other morning to go for a walk, when I saw a hoverfly lurking around the door. As it was quite small compared to a wasp I confidently assumed it was a hoverfly, and having no fear of it made a half hearted effort to wave it away from the door, and I thought I had succeeded.
When I came back from my walk I was called to the living room – there’s a wasp at the window, can you get it out? I peered at the window and saw my hoverfly friend from earlier. Oh, it’s just a hoverfly, I said, but my partner insisted it was a wasp. Oh, it’s a wasp, ok.
Now I don’t actually have any skill in wasp extraction, so I done what little I could. I tried to waft it towards the window with a book, but it didn’t budge. I was just wondering what I could do, since I’ve never been so bold as my geography teacher was – he would pick them up by the wings and throw them out the classroom window – when I thought to myself that perhaps it would climb onto my book and then I could carry it to the window. I popped the edge of the book in front of it, and it duly climbed on. I took the book to the window and held it out, and my stripy friend was on its way.
As I reflected on the situation I realised that some interesting things had happened. First of all I noticed I wasn’t scared of the insect; normally the merest suggestion of a wasp will put me on high alert. Then I realised that under normal circumstances I would never try to get a wasp to climb onto something I was holding, I usually want to be as far away from them as possible. Gently cajoling a wasp with the edge of a book to encourage it to climb on it is normally the stuff of nightmares for me.
I was just about to start congratulating myself for overcoming my largely unfounded fear, when I remembered that I had previously thought it was a hoverfly. Remembering the story of the snake and the rope, I realised I had done it in reverse – I saw a rope when it was actually a snake. I thought I had accepted that it was a wasp, but actually it seems that my subconscious perception maintained that it was a hoverfly. So rather than being brave, in this case I was just mistaken.
I find this really fascinating, because it is such a clear example of how much our experience is mediated by our mind. If my mind says one thing – it’s a hoverfly – then I’m not scared, and I get it out the window because I get it to climb on my book. If it says another thing – it’s a wasp – then I get scared, and I’m too scared to go near it so it stays stuck in the living room.
The Buddha encouraged us to learn how to see through perceptions, because they are part of the reason we experience suffering. When we see the wrong thing it creates suffering; the wrong thing being self in things that are not self, and permanence in things that are impermanent. While seeing a hoverfly instead of a wasp, or seeing a rope instead of a snake, doesn’t directly reveal to us not self or impermanence, it does give us a very clear experience of the role of our perception of a situation in how we feel. These kinds of experiences are crucial because they start to show us that all is not as we think it is, and that loosens our trust in the mind and in feelings as reliable guides.
What we need to learn to do is to see only what is in front of us, and nothing more:
“…Bāhiya, you should train yourself thus: In what is seen there must be only what is seen, in what is heard there must be only what is heard, in what is sensed there must be only what is sensed, in what is cognized there must be only what is cognized. This is the way, Bāhiya, you should train yourself.”https://suttacentral.net/ud1.10/en/anandajoti tran. Bhikkhu Ānandajoti
To see only what is seen in what is seen means to see only what is coming to us as visual data, and neither add nor take anything away from it. Imagine it like a Christmas tree; our incoming sensory data is like the tree itself, and all of our thoughts and feelings about it are like the decorations, tinsel, lights, and baubles that we hang on the tree. Compared to a decorated tree the original tree is quite sparse, and the reality of what we experience is actually quite sparse.
When you can see just how many layers of decorations we put on top of it you can see why it is that we get so tangled up in experiences and lose sight of what is underneath it all. When we meditate we get exposed to just how many extra layers we add on to all of our sensory inputs, and just how much discomfort we can create for ourselves by doing this. An innocuous statement from a friend becomes the source of a years long feud, a badly loaded dishwasher becomes grounds for divorce, a car breakdown becomes proof of our own personal failings.
We do horrible things to ourselves when we allow the mind to proliferate, and while we recognise that we are suffering and want it to stop, we don’t always realise in what way that we are the cause of the suffering. We point the finger at the outside world as the source of our unhappiness, when really most of it was caused by our own perception of what we are experiencing. Or we point the finger at ourselves for doing it wrong, or being rubbish, when that is not the case either. Only when we start being mindful and meditating do we get to unravel the knotty mess of ideas, memories, preferences, and concepts that we have built up over our basic experience.
But just knowing that something is a concept isn’t enough to automatically change our perception. When I am confronted by a wasp I usually am aware of how much of a role my mind is playing in the feelings of dread I am experiencing, but just giving myself a pep talk about ‘it’s just a perception, these are just feelings, wasps need love too, love all beings’ rarely ever changes the way I feel. The reason it doesn’t work is because in that moment I believe what my mind is saying; I believe the perception that there is a wasp there, and I believe the response that wasps are angry and will sting you so they are to be avoided. I’ve never actually been stung by a wasp, so I always say to myself “how do you know you need to avoid being stung? It’s probably not that bad, you shouldn’t be scared”, but it makes no difference to how I feel in that moment.
So to be able to see exactly how much my perception of a situation is responsible for how I feel and respond is really interesting, because I have had enough experiences of seeing a wasp and believing all my thoughts and feelings about wasps to be able to compare how different it was. It literally only required me to think that it was a hoverfly for me to act completely differently. I wasn’t scared, and I was able to interact with the wasp differently and get a better solution for both of us because of that. The fact that it actually was a wasp is immaterial; what’s important is that being scared when you see a wasp isn’t compulsory, it’s entirely dictated by what you think and feel about them.
The easy solution then, you might think, is to try to persuade myself that I am looking at a hoverfly when I see a wasp, but this isn’t what the Buddha wanted us to do. He didn’t want us to just change our perception, he wanted us to see through these perceptions entirely, to add nothing to what we could experience through our senses.
By reflecting on situations like the one I had with the wasp and the hoverfly we can get our own first-hand evidence of the nature of perception. Having seen for ourselves that it is perception that dictates how we feel about something, we are then always on the look out for those perceptions. When we become aware of feeling a certain way, like angry, or tense, we take a look to find out just what perception is driving that feeling. Right now I feel slightly on edge, so I can investigate what is going on in my mind that is causing that.
I’m waiting for a phone call, and my mind is saying “keep an eye on your phone, don’t miss that call”. My perception then is that if I don’t pay attention then I might miss the phone call, and that is driving my feeling of edginess. If I don’t understand this connection between the story in my mind and how I feel then I can end up creating another story out of it instead, such as dwelling on other thoughts that also make me feel edgy because the feeling triggered some memories. Then I might find myself worrying about a conversation I had several years ago and what I should have said differently, and then after listening to my mind for a while I might find that I have talked myself into leaving my job and flying to Bali to teach windsurfing. This hasn’t actually happened to me, but these are the kind of rabbit holes the mind goes down when it catches a negative mood.
If I saw that I was feeling edgy because I was waiting for a call, then I could understand that everything that was coming up in my mind was being triggered by that feeling, and that I shouldn’t listen to it because it had no basis in reality. Feelings of edginess are to protect us from physical threat, not from missed appointments. Instead of following the feeling, I should try to figure out why I am feeling edgy, because again feeling edgy while you wait for a phone call is not compulsory.
There are lots of layers of decoration on this particular tree to unravel, such as why is it so bad if I miss the call? I’m sure the person will try to phone again if I do. Would I think I was a bad/inept person if I missed this call? Not anymore, but certainly in the past I would have taken any simple failure on my part as evidence of what a useless person I was. We say things about ourselves that we would never say of anyone else, and yet these are just stories, this is all just perception. This is one of the most painful ways that perceptions can cause us suffering.
In the Buddhist world of cause and effect the suffering isn’t caused by having the wrong perception, it is caused by having any kind of perception at all. Perceptions are the product of concepts, and concepts are not real. But understanding what it means to have no perceptions or concepts at all can be challenging; it is a very complicated subject, but primarily because there are so many extremely detailed explanations of how we come to create these perceptions in the first place.
But experiencing what it is like to bring no perceptions to a situation isn’t actually that difficult, and in this case the doing is much more accessible than the theorising is. Every time we sit in meditation and just allow what is happening to happen, and don’t think about it or interfere with it in any way, we are having an experience without adding any perceptions to it. Any time we find ourselves in a situation and having noticed the contents of our mind, decide to let them go, then we are having an experience of letting go of any perceptions we are adding to it.
Once you have started practicing it actually happens all the time, and to begin with we tend to use it as a way to stop causing ourselves unneccessary suffering. There is nothing wrong with this, in fact it is a crucial step in our learning process. Over time, we need to become so thoroughly convinced that having these perceptions does us no good at all, that we automatically ignore them when they come up. We need to utterly disbelieve our perceptions, and the more we see for ourselves the impact of allowing them to be believed compared to the more peaceful experience of not believing them, then in time we will just dismiss them without a second thought.
Me thinking the wasp was a hoverfly and experiencing no fear at all was the clearest evidence I could get that all of the fear I feel when I see a wasp is entirely down to the perceptions created by my mind. Now I’m not champing at the bit to go and find another wasp to test myself with, but the next time I do see a wasp I will remember that in the same situation I was able to act in a completely different way.
Fear ultimately is just a perception too, but it is one that creates such strong feelings that it is hard to be able to sit with them long enough to see through them. Sometimes we need to find a glitch in the system that allows us to see the problem with perceptions before we can dampen our instinctive responses down enough so we can ‘face our fear’, and start to investigate it.
The next time I see a wasp I will probably still be scared, but seeing the glitch in the system allows me to summon up a bit of curiosity too. Knowing that it is possible to see a wasp and not feel fear, I will wonder if there is a way to feel that way again. Previously when I have just been scared it was hard to do any work with the feelings, but that little bit of curiosity is what might make it easier for me to stay with the feelings of fear and perhaps start to work through them a bit.
Of course I might end up being stung by a wasp, our fear reactions are there for a reason after all, but maybe it won’t be so bad after all. If having a major operation isn’t as bad as I thought it would be then I’m pretty sure getting stung isn’t any worse.
I’ve said it before but it’s always worth remembering that even though we need to push our edges a bit in the practice, we shouldn’t ever be too gung ho about it. It’s not ego we’re using to unravel our fears but insight, clear vision, and understanding. When you’re all psyched up with adrenaline to face your fears, your mind doesn’t have any of the fine skills of reflection or investigation available to it, and you will never learn anything about the true nature of how the mind works.
Wanting to overcome your fears for purely egotistical reasons won’t work either; bringing any sense of ‘I’ into the equation will block you from being able to see reality clearly, because ‘I’ is also just a perception and you won’t be able to disbelieve one perception while you are thoroughly convinced of another at the same time.
Instead, try looking for the stories that you mind tells you that turn out not to be true, or the glitches in the system that show you how it all works, then start digging into that experience and see if you can find the perceptions that are decorating that particular tree and start to unravel them.