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Understanding that my perception can be disconnected from those around me, and that even my own perception could change from one moment to the next, was something that was engrained in me many years ago. The ability to challenge one's perceptions can be helpful in my roles as a psychotherapist or diagnostic assessor, but I really cannot point to any particular university professor or professional mentor planting this particular seed, though many of these individuals certainly did help that seed grow. Instead, we can thank Mr. W (I do remember his full name) and his student enrichment program at my former high school in Thunder Bay.
Mr. W's enrichment program was one of my most formative experiences of my adolescence, and is something I reflect on often. It was a program that I frankly requested to join because my two best friends were invited in and I no longer had anyone to hang out with at lunch. While my motivations for joining were unorthodox, I am certainly thankful that Mr. W welcomed me into the program, given that it clearly has had a profound effect on me both personally and professionally.
Mr. W challenged us with a variety of activities that forced us to think outside the box and look at problems through a new lens. He also spent a great deal of time on philosophical discussions, where concepts such as "Perception is Reality" was not an unheard of topic. He was a soft-spoken and non-reactive man who challenged us in ways that I had never experienced before. I also recall that he did all this without much emotion, beyond a small smile and a nod of the head.
Decades later, I was fortunate to have an opportunity to expand my secular mindfulness training with a variety of local and international Buddhist teachers of note. I felt immediately comfortable in this setting and the sense of familiarity with both the teachers and their teachings was obvious. I still remember the moment when my brain spit out a thought that still makes me laugh to this day: "Holy crap, I was in a secret Buddhist high school program!"
I have read much about how mindfulness got introduced to the west back in the 70's and 80's. Many of these reflections focused on attempts to transparently bring mindfulness into health care and education that were met with a resounding thud. As a result, many of these teachings were secularized and introduced in a more covert fashion. Nearly a half century later, this continues to be a necessary approach in many sectors. To be honest, a lot of our secular understanding (and acceptance) of mindfulness and meditation practices probably is owed to the challenges these early practitioners faced.
Now, let me be clear, I'm not saying that Mr. W was certainly a Buddhist, or that he was deliberately sneaking Buddhist principals into our classroom. Still, it has been hard to ignore the realization that so many of the lessons we had there are core Buddhist or Hindu teachings. Similarly, Mr. W, himself, was a good head shaving and a brown robe away from being a white clone of Thich Nhat Hanh.
Where Mr. W engrained the idea that perception, which is mailable, is the primary determinant of our reality, my Buddhist, and secular mindfulness teachers, brought to me the complementary concept of "Beginners Mind". Instead of challenging your perceptions and seeking alternative interpretations of one's reality, Beginners Mind is anchored in taking the opportunity to look at something as if you have truly never seen it before.
In my trainings, we explored Beginners Mind by quite literally looking at things through an alternative viewpoint. Ever wonder why some people take better photographs than you? It is not necessarily because they have been professionally trained. Instead, they may be simply seeing things in a way you are not. The trick here is to not try to see it through their eyes (which would be "Perception is Reality"), but instead to let go of how you normally line up the photo and instead just explore the subject. A Beginners Mind looks at things from different angles and distances. It studies the subject as parts and as a whole. Because the thing being studied is new to the Beginners Mind, preconceived notions of what something is or how it should be seen are thrown out the window.
While my mindfulness teachers planted the seed of Beginners Mind, it was certainly the birth of my son, Master X (I also remember his full name), that allowed that seed to grow and flourish. Every day over the last five years has been an opportunity to see the world through a different and naive perspective. Even when my son has formed a good understanding of a portion of his reality, we are only a few moments away from an observation or question that shows that there is still much to learn and explore in this world. Watching my son, I can see the wonder of exploration in his eyes and he has taught me lessons about our world that either I have long forgotten or never learned in the first place. Occasionally, I will even try to share a moment of his perspective, which can simply be facilitated by just getting down to his level and seeing how it looks from that angle (as a tall person I can sometimes even get this by seeing things at my colleagues level).
Personally, these teachings, I fear, can sometimes make me seem a bit flighty. For instance, it would not be unusual for me to get in a disagreement with my wife and seem quite rigid in my belief on the matter and completely shift to her side the next day. This is rarely me capitulating, but rather me taking the time to consider the situation from viewpoints other than my own. Unsurprisingly, my initial perceptions are not always entirely accurate, and the thoughts and behaviours those perceptions drove not always helpful.
Professionally, it can seem more like a gift. It allows me to highlight alternative interpretations for situations my clients are in (perception) or to simply ask questions, many of which may seem a bit odd on the surface, that may promote a fuller understanding of the situation they find themselves in (beginners mind).
Facilitating this on your own is not hard. All you really need to do is accept the possibility that your perception of your reality is either incorrect or, at the very least, not identical to the perception of others. Once you can accept that, seeing things in different ways is really not that hard. This may be a mental exercise, where you try to consider how others may be feeling, or a physical one that has you simply getting down lower to the ground and seeing how someone else sees the situation.
Photo used under Creative Commons license. Source here.
Photo: Perception Author: Quinn Dombrowski. See the side panel for additional copyright information.
Michael Decaire is an Ontario-based psychologist and psychotherapist. He writes on topics of wellness, mental health advocacy, and professional practice.
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