Act 1: Western Science
How light becomes sight (the very brief version):
1. Light, in the form of photons, contacts receptor cells on the rods and cones of the retina of the eye.
2. Through various electrical and chemical processes, these impulses are transferred (at points being rendered upside-down, and crossing over, left to right, and right to left) along the optic nerve into the part of the brain called the thalamus.
3. These impulses then make their way to the visual area of the occipital lobe of the brain. This is where what we experience as “seeing” begins.
4. In the temporal lobe of the brain the impulses/images are interpreted in the context of various associational networks, producing the rich and textured experience of what we call our “vision.”
Act 2: Yoga
From Swami Savitripriya’s translation/commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (III: 21-22)
Through the practice of Becoming the Object of the point where the light that is reflected off of the physical body you are looking at meets your eyes’ power of perception, you will be able to suspend your visual awareness so that any object, or portion of any object, will dissolve and disappear from your sight; enabling you to look into, or through, any gross physical form.
This explains how you can also suspend awareness of the sensations of sound, taste, smell and touch while you continue to remain involved in outer physical activities.
Act 3: Artistry
Lila is a standard poodle—curly-black fur, a prancing bundle of excitement and joy—who I periodically take walks with. Lila’s human is my friend Deborah Fryer, a brilliant film-maker whose artistic eye is truly sublime. Check out her work at Lilafilms.com.
It may be true that what we see is already gone, but somehow it seems true, also, that—at least potentially—we have a hand in creating what we see, as a film-maker does in creating her or his films; or a yogi in choosing what layer of the visual universe to perceive, at any given moment.
Seeing: The Encore
In the main three acts of this play, I presented western scientific, yogic and artistic responses to the question “what is seeing?”
And now, as an encore to this conversation, consider—via Ted Norretranders’ The User Illusion—that our brain receives, through our primary sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin), over 11 million bits of information every second; but can only process—transform into conscious experience—at most 40 bits per second (and in most cases 1-16 bits per second).
In other words, most of what we experience, via input to our sense organs, remains on subconscious and unconscious levels.
Our conscious experience—which defines our image of the world and ourselves-in-the-world—is the product of immense amounts of filtering, which distills raw experience into something “manageable.” (The information that gets discarded en route to this formulation of our world Norretranders refers to as “exformation”). What we experience “directly” is an illusion. We’re actually experiencing a simulation, constructed by our unconscious mind, via its various filtering protocols.
Norretranders has been taken to task, by a couple of statistically-savvy reviewers, for the 11-million to 40 bits comparison that he uses to illustrate his point. Apparently what he chose as measures of sensory input versus processed input resulted in an exaggeration.
Nevertheless, the basic principle stands: what we perceive consciously, and project as our world, represents only a tiny fraction of our sensory (not to mention extra-sensory) experience.
Creating Our Own Worlds
In a very real sense, then, we do “create our own worlds”—in the way that a sculptor creates a sculpture: by a process of elimination. What determines what “makes the cut” into our conscious reality? It is the meaning that we make of our lives, our preferences and intentions, many of which, for most of us, remain largely unconscious.
So do practices such as qigong and sitting meditation increase our capacity to be more fully conscious—to process more of our experience; or do these practices simply change our filtering protocols, and in this way create a new world and new me-in-the-world? Or perhaps a bit of each?
Meditation & The Information Age
Tangentially, Norretranders claims that the “information age” is stressful not because there’s too much information, but rather because there’s too little. Most of our information, here in the computer age (and more generally in the age of literacy) is focused within the very narrow bandwidth of written/spoken language, excluding all other varieties of sensation.
When we meditate, in silence, and in a way that gradually reduces inner chatter, we are perhaps not only relaxing our minds, but also opening a space in which we can become more conscious of some of the other “bandwidths” of sensory data. Similarly, in tuning into sensations associated with qigong practice, we’re inviting the feeling aspect of ourselves to become more conscious, allowing body sensations a place in the construction of our world.
Deciding What To Remember
In contemplating this post, I recalled what was certainly one of my more bizarre dream-time experiences. This was some fifteen years ago, after I had returned home from a longish meditation retreat. It was early morning, and I was floating in that space between sleeping and waking, watching the content of my mind.
And I became aware, at some point, that there was a part of my mind that was “deciding” what portion of my dream-experience was going to be brought into my waking-state as a memory; and what portion was not.
When I woke, I remembered seeing that decision-making process … but of course did not remember what I had decided not to remember.
Seeing: ReWrites Our Genetic Code
For the next installment of our seeing series, here’s cell biologist Bruce Lipton introducing the “new biology” now replacing Watson & Crick’s theory of DNA-control with a model in which it is our perceptions and beliefs which determine which aspects of our DNA will become active, and have the power to actually rewrite our genetic code. How cool is that?
In the old system—which as it turns out was never actually experimentally substantiated—the DNA is postulated as the main control center, out of which comes the RNA and then the proteins, which are the building-blocks of our cellular structure.
In the new model—known as epigenetics—the flow of information originates not in the DNA but rather in environmental signals, read by the cell membrane (the “brain” of the cell). These signals catalyze the creation of regulatory proteins, which affect which genes will be activated.
The environmental signals which begin this whole process are a function of our (clear or distorted) perception of the environment that we live in—i.e. our network of beliefs—which determines to what degree our cellular structure is unfolding within a “growth” mode, and what degree it’s unfolding within a “protection” mode.
And what is the #1 growth-promoting environmental signal? Love.
For a more fleshed-out version, enjoy Biology Of Perception. For the detailed version, check out Mr. Lipton’s book, Biology Of Belief. The haiku version: there are no limitations imposed by the genes.