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One thing in life that has always fascinated me is how every one of us sees reality in a different way, from a unique perspective, and how those perspectives can give rise to infinite possibilities. If everyone on the planet witnessed the same event at the same time, no two people would see that event in the same way. So, although we all exist together in the here and now, in a sense, we’re all living in our own separate personal realities, with everyone’s version of reality intersecting to make up this intricate web of  a communal experience we call life.   

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Infinite Realities 

Every one of us receives about 400 billion bits of information every second of every day, yet we only consciously perceive about two thousand bits of that information. To put these numbers into perspective, this is the same as having 10,000 cinema screens in front of you, all playing different movies, but only being able to watch one. So how do we decide which of these movies we should watch? What pieces of information do we decide are important enough to enter our conscious awareness and become our reality? And why do I choose to watch one movie (my interpretation of reality) while you choose to watch a different one? Well, this isn’t something we do consciously, rather it’s an unconscious process in which our brain’s filter into our conscious awareness only what they deem to be important to us. The parameters our brains use to make these decisions are made up from both genetically, hard wired instincts, and conditioned reactions we’ve learned through life experience. 

 

Perceptual Hierarchy: A walk in the park 

We have an in-built perceptual filtering hierarchy. Using this hierarchy, the brain prioritises events in the outside world by categorising them into levels of importance. At the top of the hierarchy are things that pose an immediate threat to our life. This is followed by things that could potentially hurt or injure us. Next on the list is hunger, closely followed by things that sexually arouse us. Underneath this are the things we consciously focus on. And below this is everything else.

To illustrate how this hierarchy works think of yourself walking down a forest path. As you wonder down the path, you consciously pay attention to the beauty of the brightly coloured flowers that give off such an intense aroma that they seem to transport you to some other place, leaving you in a type of waking trance. As you carry on down the path you suddenly stumble over a root that has risen above the ground. This quickly snaps your attention back into the present moment, allowing you to regain your balance. In this case, your conscious focus, which was on the scent and look of the flowers, is overridden by your body’s survival instinct. So as you trip, you completely forget about the flowers, as your awareness is drawn to something that could potentially do you harm. 

Now imagine, just as you recover from stumbling, you hear the sound of a wild animal growling behind you. Your awareness is refocused again, this time being taken away from the protruding root, and focused on the growling sound behind you. Because you think your life is in immediate danger, your brain overides all other perceptual awareness and brings this to the surface of your attention. As you slowly turn to face the wild animal, you realise it’s only a small dog on a leash. The dog’s owner pulling on the leash, looks up at you to apologise, and as he/she makes eye contact, you notice how beautiful he/she looks. Again, your awareness has shifted. Once you realised you were in no danger of being eaten alive, your brain re-evaluated your surroundings and brought your awareness to a lower level on the perceptual hierarchy. 

After saying hello to the dog owner and maybe exchanging numbers or arranging to meet for a tea or coffee, you carry on with your walk. Now that all the excitement is over, you drift back into that other world, noticing how vibrant the flowers are, until your mind is pulled back into the present for a second time, only this time there’s no danger to your life. This time it’s an empty feeling in your stomach, a feeling of hunger, that’s snapping your awareness back into the present moment. 

 

A fluctuating state of mind 

For most of us, our awareness is in a constant state of fluctuation, moving up and down the ladder of perceptual hierarchy, and because we’ve all learned to see everything a little differently, each of us will see the world from a different state of perceptual awareness. For example, you might have an exaggerated fear of bees because you were stung as a child, and learned that bees can really hurt you. Whereas my two year old daughter hasn’t been stung by a bee, nor does she even know that a bee could hurt her, and for that reason is content to happily chase them around the garden. Now imagine, you’re in a car and my daughter happens to be there too. The window is slightly open, and just as you drive onto a busy motorway, in flies a bee. Your state of awareness will be dramatically different from my daughter’s. And because your state of awareness is so different, you would both have completely different experiences of the same event. Yours being an experience of fear and terror, and my daughter’s being an experience of fun and adventure. 

 

Changing our perceptual filters 

So the question is, Can we change our perceptual filters? And the answer is yes, we can. Changing our perceptual filters requires us to look at a situation or event from a different perspective. To do this we need to first become aware of how we currently perceive the situation. Once we are aware of how we’re seeing things, we can concentrate on looking at the situation from a new angle, a fresh perspective. How do we do this? We use some simple visualisation techniques. My favourite is to imagine the event from another person’s point of view. So let’s take the example of a bee flying in through the window of your car. As you sit there, you know you can’t just jump out of a fast moving car. So, instead, you put yourself in my daughter’s shoes and you try to see things from her perspective. You think to yourself, “oh, hello mr. bee, I’m so happy you’ve joined us today. We’re going to the park, you’ll love it there.” Getting into that frame of mind, becoming playful and meeting the situation assuming the best outcome rather than the worst, has a powerful effect, not just on our own behaviour, but also on the behaviour of the bee. 

 

In the same way reality responds to our state of being, so do the things within our surroundings. this is a bit like walking into a room where there has just been a big argument. Walking into that room, you immediately feel uncomfortable and stressed. Whereas, if we walk into the same room just after an uplifting event has taken place, a child’s birthday party, for example, we respond by feeling happy and uplifted. 

 

So changing our perceptual filters not only changes how we see an event, it also changes how the event unfolds in response to our perception of it. In relation to the bee in your car; it flies in through the window, and instead of attacking you, as you try to swat and kill it, it flies around for a few seconds, you wind down all the windows, and it flies back out. 

 

One of the best and easiest ways of changing perspective, when dealing with another person, is to simply try see the situation from their point of view. So If you get into an argument with someone, pause for a moment and ask yourself why is that person reacting the way they are. Doing this, and really trying to think like the other person, develops empathy, and as empathy develops, it gives birth to compassion. Compassion is probably the most powerful perceptual filter, a perceptual filter we should all work on developing. 

 

Try experimenting with different perceptual filters and notice how you’re better able to deal with the more difficult things in life. For those of us training in the warrior traditions, it’s essential that we learn to alter our perception. Doing this gives us new ways of looking at situations that we would otherwise see as impassable mountains on our path, in both combat and in life. 

 

Learning to change our perceptual filters opens up infinite possibilities, possibilities we would never have considered had we not learned how to see things from different perspectives.

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