The study of how we see helps us to see.—Richard L. Gregory
One does not see with the eyes; one sees with the brain. —Oliver Sacks
The Illusion of Duality and the Practice of Lucid Dreaming
The teachings on emptiness and illusory form are intended to cumulatively destroy the illusion that there’s something really out there, completely independent of us. That illusion of independence, at the heart of dualistic perception, is the foundation of non-lucidity, and eventually all our suffering. But as you engage in lucid dreaming and the practice of illusory form—looking out at the world and reminding yourself, “This is a dream”—you gradually cut through this illusion. You will realize that beyond illusion is the limitless perception of the clear-light mind
Science and the illusion of duality
Once again, science can expose this most intractable illusion of duality. As we talk about the process of seeing, it is difficult to determine whether a visual perception belongs to neurology, psychology, physics, or even pedagogy, because they all get mixed into the picture.
Representationalism and the Dominance of Visual Perception
Understanding the illusions of life is easier if we understand the captors that have trapped us in those illusions. In the case of visual perception, our captor is the prison warden of representationalism. Representationalism is the nearly universal view that our senses accurately and passively represent the world “out there.”
But as psychologist Sue Blackmore writes, “The process of perception is not a passive process of observing the world “as it really is.” After all, there is no world “as it really is.” Rather, perception is a process of analyzing features of the visual image (or input from other senses), and constructing models, or hypotheses, about the outside world on the basis of this analysis.”
The physicist Arthur Zajonc makes a similar thesis: “Cognition entails two actions: the world presents itself, but we must “re-present” it. We bring ourselves, with all our faculties and limitations, to the world’s presentation in order to give form, figure, and meaning to that content. The beauty and productive images we craft on the basis of experience are images only – fruits of the imagination.”
And from the field of philosophy, Thomas Metzinger adds, “The conscious brain is an ‘ontology engine,’ it creates a model of reality constructed from assumptions about what exists and what doesn’t.”
The Belief in the Camera Theory and Dualistic View
The problem, of course, is that this engine is stuck in reverse. Because at the deepest level of the clear-light mind there is no ontology. Ontology only appears to exist at the most superficial levels of perception, the shallow psyche.
You innocently assume that what you perceive (appearances) corresponds to what’s really there (reality), hence representationalism is also known as the correspondence theory. I like another term, however: camera theory, the belief that my eyes act like an objective camera, taking snapshots of the world and then accurately representing it. Representationalism describes the dualistic (in Western terms, Cartesian) view that something is solid, lasting, and independently out there.
The neurologist Antonio Damasio refers to representationalism as naïve realism. He writes: “The problem with the term “representation” is not its ambiguity, since everyone can guess what it means, but the implication that, somehow, the mental image or the neural pattern “represents,” in mind and in brain, with some degree of fidelity, the object to which the representation refers, as if the structure of the object were replicated in the representation . . . When you and I look at an object outside ourselves, we form comparable images in our respective brains. We know this well because you and I can describe the object in very similar ways, down to fine details. But that does not mean that the image we see is the copy of whatever the object is like. Whatever it is like, in absolute terms, we do not know”.
The World Exists in Your Mind
The idea, as startling as it is profound, is that you do not passively re-present anything. You actively co-construct your perceptions of the outside world, and in a deep sense the outside world itself. Your mind doesn’t exist in the world; the world exists in your mind. Everything is internal to awareness. You’re just asleep to this process, and therefore a victim of it. To transform yourself from victim to victor, you need to understand the unnerving data about what’s going on at these preconscious levels.
“It is difficult to explain to a layman that there is a problem in how we see things,” the Nobel laureate Francis Crick acknowledges.
Observes James Kingsland: “Intuitively, we believe the flow of information through our minds to be in one direction, from the bottom up, finding its way from the world into conscious awareness via our senses, when in fact most of the traffic flows in exactly the opposite direction. The brain’s rough-and-ready models of reality, established over a lifetime of experience, infer or prejudge the causes of the body’s sensory inputs, and it is these inferences, not raw sensory data, that are the stuff of conscious experience and behavior.”
The Dominance of Vision in Representationalism
Even though all our senses succumb to representationalism, vision dominates the other senses. Vision also predisposes us to be in the passive role of the observer (the unconscious position of serving as “camera”).
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The problem with seeing the regular way . . . is that sight naturally prefers outer appearances. It attends to the surface of things, which makes it an essentially superficial sense. We let our eyes skid over trees, furniture, traffic, faces, too often mistaking sight for perception. . . . Speed is another problem. Our eyes glide so quickly over things that we do not properly attend to them. . . it makes me wonder how seeing has made me blind—by giving me cheap confidence that one quick glance at things can tell me what they are.”
Visual dominance can be expressed in numbers: The visual cortex takes up about 30 percent of the brain compared to around 8 percent for touch and 2 to 3 percent for hearing. Sight, therefore, comprises up to one-third of brain volume and about two-thirds of the brain’s processing resources. The visual cortex receives up to a billion signals from each of your retinas every second, or two billion per second total, while the rest of your body sends only an additional billion to the brain (three billion per second total).
The Illusion of “Out There”
You are inherently a visual being. At the same time, vision is arguably your most re-presentational sense, the one that most powerfully creates the illusion of “out there.”
As Susan Blackmore says: “Our intuitions about vision are wrong. Mega wrong.”
Once again, there is no “out there” out there. But that it is the mind’s eye, or way of seeing, that is blind to reality, and not the senses themselves. The senses don’t split the world into self and other. It is the mind that blinds and binds. We talk about the wisdom of “coming to your senses” in meditation, because you use the senses to ground yourself in the present moment. Left alone, they bolt you to reality. Meditation turns that bolt.
Deconstructing Representationalism in Hearing
All our senses succumb to representationalism. If you have a scientific bent, you can deconstruct the representationalism that exists in your sense of hearing, by remembering that words are just compression and rarefaction waves that strike your ear, that cause your eardrum to vibrate, that transmit electro-chemical impulses to the auditory parts of your brain, that are mixed with signals from other parts of your brain, that you impute meaning upon. Words are just vibrations. “Good” or “bad” are not intrinsic to sound waves, but rather characteristics we impose upon them.
Defamiliarizing Words to Strip Away Meaning
You can extend this illusory speech practice by listening to words in your native language and trying to “defamiliarize” them back to pure sound. Take a word like “dog” and repeat it out loud for a minute or two. You’ll see how repeating the word neutralizes its initial representation, stripping the meaning away from it. You begin to hear the sound differently. Next try a more loaded or charged word, something highly offensive, and repeat it like you did “dog.” See how much longer it takes to strip the meaning away from these heavy words.
The Projection of Self onto Sound
Stephen LaBerge has participants in his lucid dreaming programs listen to a recorded sound-word over and over, without being informed what the word is. The task is to see how many words people can hear within the repeated sound. The word he used for the exercise I attended was “words” itself. Try it and see what you hear after a few minutes. Our group came up with some two-dozen words that we all heard, none of which were actually there. People heard “sword,” “wear it,” “wore it,” “swore it,” “score it,” “square it”—or “its,” “squirts,” “heads,” “quartz,” “forehead,” and “Lawrence,” to name a few. This auditory Rorschach test demonstrates how we project ourselves onto sound: We hear things that aren’t there, like spooked inhabitants in the haunted house of our own mind.
Spiritual Double Vision and Non-Dual Vision
When you lose spiritual sight of the clear-light mind, your physical sight becomes impaired. You develop a kind of spiritual double vision, where the world is now seen in terms of self and other. But non-dual vision is restored when you return to the level of the clear-light mind. The double vision is corrected, and you finally see—as never before.
Trungpa Rinpoche wrote: “You experience a vast realm of perceptions unfolding. There is unlimited sound, unlimited sight, unlimited taste, unlimited feeling and so on. The realm of perception is limitless, so limitless that perception itself is primordial, unthinkable, beyond thought.”
The Limitless Realm of Perception
There are so many perceptions that are beyond imagination. There are a vast number of sounds. There are sounds that you have never heard. There are sights and colors that you have never seen. There are feelings that you have never experienced before. There are endless fields of perception. . . . Beyond ordinary perception, there is super-sound, super-smell and super-feeling existing in your state of being.
Training in Meditation for Supernatural Perception
These can be experienced only by training yourself in the depth of meditation. . . So meditation practice brings out the supernatural . . . your perceptions become super-natural.
Supernatural perception is the open perception of an awakened one. Most of us, however, are children of the damned, and we block the open flow of sensory awareness, appropriate it as our own, and (in Rinpoche’s words) “shut any vastness or possibilities of deeper perception out of or hearts by fixating on our own interpretation of phenomena.”