A Shift in Perception

October 31, 2012

The majority of my students come to learn meditation for one primary reason – to relieve or better manage stress.  In our society stress has come to be the accepted byproduct of a life lived in the fast-paced, frenetic, modern world.  We’ve all experienced it at some time in our lives; acute or chronic, real or imagined.  As more and more research reveals the correlation between a stressful lifestyle and the chronic health conditions that afflict our society, people recognize that they must take action to manage their stress or face the physical, mental, and emotional consequences.

Stress, as familiar an experience as it happens to be, is often vaguely defined as a sense of tension, pressure, or anxiety, or a constriction that feels as if a powder keg within is poised to explode at any minute, but never does.  However, stress pretty much boils down to one thing – the feeling of not getting your needs met.  Whenever we have a desire we wish to accomplish, we set out in a particular direction, but occasionally we run up against an obstacle.  When we encounter resistance, we seek a way around, over or through that obstacle.  Unfortunately, we can’t always get past the barrier and that causes a blockage in the otherwise uninterrupted flow of our energy.  This experience we interpret as the familiar sensation of stress.

Once the stress arises, it triggers a chemical cascade through our physiology that we have come to know as the fight or flight response.  This response, first studied by American Physiologist Walter Cannon, consists of an entire symphony or biochemical changes to our normal relaxed state of being.  It is the equivalent of a complete rewriting of our mind-body software.  Within the span of a few heartbeats our entire system is rewired to run or fight.  We secrete stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol, increase our respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration and breathing, redirect circulatory function, release additional blood sugar into our system, increase the stickiness of the platelets in our blood, and decreases the blood supply to the frontal cortex of our brains.  All these things happen almost simultaneously, preparing the body to go into battle.

This response evolved over millions of years as a survival strategy and has been used with great success to ensure the continuation of our species.  However, our current dilemma is one in which we activate this response for non-life threatening situations, anywhere between 5-15 times a day.  A hectic drive to work, too many emails, a confrontation with a coworker or spouse, a work deadline, the evening news; all these and countless other situations send us spiraling into the stress-based world of fight or flight on an all too frequent basis.

However insidious stress may be though, it is simply the effect, not the cause.  Stress and the fight or flight response is just our body’s automatic coping mechanism.  If this is true, then what actually triggers the stress to manifest; where does it all begin?

In a word, it begins with Perception.   What is perception?  On the surface level, perception is the process of using our senses to acquire information about the surrounding environment or a specific situation.  But ultimately, perception encompasses our attitude or understanding based upon what is observed or thought.  So perception governs how we view and understand the world we live in.  It informs and helps to build our worldview and to a great extent determines how we live and the choices we make.

In regards to stress, perception is the primary cause.  Stress doesn’t exist independently of our interpretation.  It’s not as if a cloud of stress is hanging over the highway as you drive to work and you become stressed as you pass through it.  Instead, stress begins with the perception of a threat.  This threat can be either physical or emotional, but usually involves the crossing of a boundary of safety.  Once the threat is perceived, the very act of perception activates the chemical messengers that instantly transform the physiology into fight or flight mode.  No perception of threat, no stress response.

In the words of Dr. David Simon, “Reality is a selective act of attention and interpretation.”  This means that what you consider to be your reality is really the culmination of what you put your attention on and the meaning you give to it.  We all pay attention to different things; we look at one object or situation and ignore another.  Our conditioning and experiences have programmed us to look for some things and not others, and when we become aware of those things, people, or situations we interpret them and give them a specific meaning for us.  I say for us because this process is a completely subjective one.  Your experiences based upon your actions, memories, and desires will be different than mine and will therefore lead you to notice things in a different way than I do, thereby creating a different experience of reality.

This is worthy to note because we can all remember an occasion when we were with someone and experienced the same objective situation in completely different ways.  Imagine for example, that you are at a restaurant with a friend when suddenly across the room, you notice your Ex, with whom you experienced a turbulent breakup a few weeks before.  That situation causes a shift in your awareness that isn’t shared by your friend because your memories of your Ex are different than your friend’s.  Your mind-body system may perceive this situation as a threat and kick into full blown fight or flight while your dining companion has a completely different experience of that same event.

This is the power of perception.  How we perceive the world shapes our understanding of who we are, what the world feels like, and if it’s a safe or dangerous place.

Change your perception, change your world

So, we can understand now that perception has an incredibly potent effect on how life unfolds for us.  But if we want to live life fully, we need to learn how to shift our perceptions away from a worldview in which life seems threatening and dangerous to a worldview that is uplifting and supportive.  Fortunately, meditation it the perfect tool to accomplish this goal.

Through meditation we gently settle down into a more relaxed and peaceful state, our thoughts gradually become more and more abstract, and may even stop for a time.  Through this process the effects of the fight or flight response are reversed, allowing the mind and body to shift into a state of growth and healing rather than protection.  The perception of a threat is also relieved and the physiology receives an unspoken signal that everything is all right.  If this isn’t amazing enough, the effects of meditation aren’t localized to the time spent in meditation alone.  Instead, the stillness accessed during meditation spills over into your regular daily activities, allowing you to be less stressed on an ongoing basis.  But the real beauty is that through regular meditation, you begin to retune your perceptual software so that the world doesn’t look as dangerous.

When we meditate, we slip into the stillness, often referred to as the Gap between our thoughts.  This Gap is powerfully transformative because by entering into it on a regular basis, you embody that stillness, that space, and it begins to infuse your life on every level.  To a certain extent you actually become that silence and it changes how you perceive and thereby react to the world.  At first it’s a very subtle difference, but as you continue to practice, you notice that rather than perceiving the world and instantaneously interpreting it a certain way, (i.e. good, bad, supportive, dangerous), you find that there is a slight glimpse of stillness, a little space between perception and reaction.  That little space is all that’s necessary to see the situation from a different, more reflective perspective.  In that pause, you realize that you have choices to how you will respond to what you perceive.  You’re no longer trapped, imprisoned by conditioning and forced to react in a repetitive robot-like manner.  You can choose differently.

According to ancient wisdom traditions, this process is known as cleansing the windows of perception.  When we can see things clearly, as they really are, the world takes on an entirely new quality.  It is fresh, new, and undistorted by our preconceived notions.  We can see things in their simple purity, unclouded by our beliefs or prejudices.  This is true freedom.  In the end, nothing has any meaning until we give it one.  There is no ultimate good or bad, right or wrong, only the interpretations we assign to the external situations and circumstances of our lives.

“All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

-Edgar Allen Poe

The magic of meditation is that through the process we are not only relieving the stress of our lives during the real-time practice of meditation, but we’re also causing a shift in perception that alters the interpretation of potentially stressful situations in the future.  Some students, reluctant to make the commitment to a daily meditation practice, often use meditation in times of crisis to help manage the stress of the issue they are facing.  However, if meditation were to become a regular part of their lives, they would find that due to the shift in awareness that comes through extended time in stillness, the perception of a “crisis” might change altogether, revealing an opportunity, a deeper clarity, or a moment of transcendent awareness.

Regardless, we can see that by changing our perceptions we are literally changing our world.  When we see our experiences through new eyes, we’re no longer condemned to stress and anxiety; we see things as they truly are, free from the burden of judgment, and from an enlightened viewpoint.  In that enlightenment lies true liberation in the embrace of the timeless present.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: