Perceiving how we Perceive

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Perceiving how we perceive
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Photograph by Gayatri Krishnamoorthy

This article examines two basic aspects of mental perception which can be part of our training and educational processes – to live wisely on earth.


By Seetha Ananthasivan

A human being is part of the whole, called by us “Universe”, a part limited in time and space.” -- Albert Einstein

Gandhiji spoke of the need to follow a development path where we would be a part of Nature, not apart from Nature in the early 20th Century. Several others like Thoreau, Rachel Carson and Schumacher, the Club of Rome Report and more recently, the IPCC report have alerted us that the unrelenting human activity on earth will cause a range of crises that will be terrible for humankind. The media does its bit, even if it is a tiny bit, to disseminate information about pollution, ecological degradation and climate change.

If such alerts have been coming to us for over a century, how is it then that the majority of people do not seem to be at all pained or even concerned at the havoc we are wreaking on Earth’s ecosystem, without which we cannot live? Is it that we find it difficult to be conscious that
we are a part of the whole, “limited in time and space” - hence, unaware of our limitations, we live in an illusion of comfort and plenty?

I remember reading a long time ago about a conversation between Arnold Toynbee and Bertrand Russell. They spoke of their understanding of history, and how at every phase of growth when humankind acquired a new skill or faculty, they seemed to have lost another. For example, when our ancestors first learnt to write, human memory seemed to deteriorate. When humans learnt agriculture and storage of food became easy, they began living in villages, towns and cities. This transition, it is said, caused the human’s sense of smell to become less powerful.

During these few hundred years when reductionist science and technology has taken over our lives, have we lost our intuition “to be aligned to Nature’s ways” and “to see the larger picture”? The Native American proverb that “we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children” or the Vedic concept of “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam” - the world as one family - came from earlier eras. At least some aspects of all religions also were concerned with infiniteness and being part of a larger world.

There is another Native American injunction: “when you do something, think how it affects the seventh generation from now”. These kinds of statements are hardly heard today, since we have forgotten to look deeply into ourselves, into Nature’s ways and into the future of our modern civilization.

A ‘Good Life’ for 9 billion people

Today, in schools and colleges, there is hardly a mention of the importance of “the whole” – even about the whole human being – there is mostly a study of the parts, often without seeing their connections to other parts. So, do we need to understand how we perceive – or do not perceive – the whole?

Is our difficulty in seeing the whole picture, in addition to the Cartesian mind-body split which has governed our education, economic and other systems, responsible for our alienation from Nature?

No doubt political and socioeconomic transformation are needed if we are to look at a basic ‘good life’ for 8 to 9 billion people on earth by the middle of this century. But we would also need to look at issues of cognition and mental perception to understand the faculty of perceiving the larger picture that we would need as a civilization – and not leave ‘seeing the whole’ to a few philosophers, poets and thinkers.

This article examines two basic aspects of mental perception which can be part of our training and educational processes in schools, colleges and elsewhere.

Perceiving how we Perceive
As far as sensory perception is concerned we know we see with our eyes and the nervous system. But mental perception is very complex – affected by our identity, needs, our belief systems and much more.

The eye cannot see itself – we can see our eyes only in a mirror, we can imagine it or we can listen to others speak about our eyes. Similarly, we seem to be able to perceive many things outside us, around us and then interpret or find meanings in the way we perceive things. This ability makes us “intelligent”, and this unique ability perhaps has made us anthropocentric as human beings.

But we are generally not in touch with how mental perception happens. Certain ways of mental perception have become habitual to us and we do not seem to be conscious of any other way of perceiving. On the time dimension, we only see things as they are today, not as they have been
or as they will be in future. On the space dimension, we are aware only of what we have seen or experienced: hence mental perception and cognition of the larger reality of the whole planet and whole life seems to elude us.

Object Perception & Process Perception
“When you see this paper, can you see a cloud?” – said the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. We have become used to seeing things and objects, which seems but natural, since that is what we see! But as Thich Nhat Hanh says, when we see this paper, can we see the cloud, the rain, sun, the forests, the cutting of trees, the factory that makes the paper, the paper traders and finally the paper in your hand – we can call this “process perception”.

A major preoccupation in nursery and primary education is on learning the names of objects. Then we relate it to the person to whom it belongs, for what it is used, how much it costs and so on. We are thoroughly trained for ‘object perception’.

When we see an object, say a bottle of water or a mobile phone, can we go from ‘object perception’ to include ‘process perception’? Can we invite children to look at a bottle of water and wonder where the water came from, where the plastic came from, how it was made into a
bottle, how much power is used and how much wastes are created by the bottling factories? Does the factory deprive the local people of water for their own use? Where do the bottles go after we throw it in the waste bin?

An aspect of process perception gives us the important ability to distinguish between root level problems and end-of-branch problems. Most of the time we keep addressing issues at the end-of-branch level - a well known example being the institutionalised way in which we cure symptoms or diseases rather than build immunity. Medical colleges do not include courses on “Building immunity to diseases” through food and lifestyle.

Such process perception needs practice to become a way of life. We also need process perception to look at ‘living’ plants and animals. What has gone into the making of a kitten – the kitten has her parent genes – and what else? Food converted to bones, blood and muscles and fat? The food in turn comes from other plants or animals… which comes from the soil, seeds, water and innumerable organisms…

Ultimately, focusing on process perception leads us to the wonder of life itself.

Known Space and Consciousness of the Whole
“Think global, act local” has become a green slogan. But while children today get to see a lot of the world directly as well as through the TV and books, the habit of perception seems to need a special focus to help them ‘Think Global’.

From ancient times we have heard of mystics – Buddha, Christ, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Ramana Maharishi and many more – whose mystical experiences give them the ability to see the whole, and realize what could be beneficial for the whole of mankind. Mystical experiences however are too complex to be part of education or training.

Book based learning in class rooms and urban living has perhaps created the biggest fragmentation in our minds. Learning experientially - being in open spaces and wilderness, being with animals and relating to different people - in indefinable ways fosters deeper understanding.

At a simpler level, even in classroom situations, children respond to ‘beckonings’ to expand their understanding and sense the importance of seeing the whole picture. But such understanding cannot come from books and purposive (exam-oriented) learning. Learning through themes and hands-on projects help in fostering holistic thinking. Teachers and students can attempt to look at the fantastic and apparently infinite web of life. This can be done in multiple ways – but learning from actually being with Nature possibly has no substitutes.

When adults themselves are concerned with larger perspectives, raise issues and discuss situations with children, they pick up much more than may be evident to us. Great teachers rely on conversation and discussion to foster wisdom.

Humberto Maturana said, ‘Love is the only emotion that expands intelligence’. Understanding perspectives about the whole earth, the whole biotic community or whole city, country, etc. is not enough. We need to go beyond academics, which is focused on teaching-learning without
feelings, without experience and without soul. Learning in ways that touch us as whole human beings will help us see the whole picture. It may also lead us to a more meaningful good life.

Seetha Ananthasivan is the Founder- Director of Bhoomi Network and Prakriya School and the Editor of the Eternal Bhoomi Magazine.