👁️Nothing You Perceive Is Real

👁️Nothing You Perceive Is Real
Photo by Victor Freitas / Unsplash

Nothing you perceive is real.

We see the world not as it is but as we are. Since childhood we are socialized to feel, think, and act in certain ways by our parents, friends, teachers, strangers, schools, institutions, culture, and society at large.

I'm a straight white male from a high socioeconomic status rural town; as a result, I perceive the world differently from others.

This truth hit me more deeply than ever this last summer.

I was sitting at a coffee shop with my brother, talking about our goals for the future of our businesses. One of the Indonesian coffee shop workers sat down and shared his life dream with us. His eyes were baggy, and his back sagged in tiredness.

He explained he was in love with an Indonesian woman on the nearby Island of Lombok.

But tragically, he had to work for the next FIVE years at the coffee shop to afford to bring her and his parents over and give them a house.

My brother and I tried to devise alternative options like going to school, starting a business, etc. But none of these would work. He had very little money, couldn't make more by traveling to another country, and didn't see any other way.

He had so few options because of his nationality and socioeconomic status.

My brother's and my U.S. nationality, by contrast, has opened many doors.

We perceived our future options differently because of our options. He could only see a future working at the coffee shop. But I was seeing a future filled with business opportunities, adventure, and joy.

That's why it's imperative in this article we explore:

  • Why we see the world Not As It Is But As We Are
  • Why Everything You Know About Reality Is Therefore False
  • How Attaching To Labels Causes Suffering
  • And The Solution

Let's get right into it!

We See The World Not As It Is But As We Are

The Cycle Of Socialization

You have WAY less control over your feelings, thoughts, and behaviors than you think.

This is because of the cycle of socialization.

The cycle of socialization begins before you are even born with the institutional, cultural, socioeconomic, religious, and political backdrop you are born into. It continues with first socialization through individual contact with parents, friends, teachers, and strangers. It goes further with interaction with institutions and your culture from school, hospitals, the police force, stores, and more. And finally:

Punishments and rewards perpetuate systems of inequality.

How does socialization affect you?

System 1 And System 2 Thinking

Socialization deeply changes your conscious and subconscious feeling, thinking, and behavioral patterns. According to Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, we have two modes of thinking in the brain: System 1 and System 2.

System 1 thinking is:

  • Subconscious
  • Concrete
  • Associative
  • Rapid
  • Effortless

Think of your first impression upon seeing someone;

Driving after you have done it for a while;

Getting angry after reading something in the news.

System 2 thinking is:

  • Conscious
  • Abstract
  • Rule-based
  • Slow
  • Effortful

Think of solving a difficult math problem;

Doing the right thing when it's the hard thing;

Not eating the peanut butter when you see it (maybe that's just a me thing lol).

The cycle of socialization deeply impacts our System 1 and System 2 thinking. As a result we literally perceive the world differently from other people. Just as I saw so many more options for my life compared to the Indonesian coffee worker.

But it gets even crazier...

Social Identities

Another way socialization changes the way you perceive the world is through the social identities you have.

Social identities are identities we give to ourselves and absorb from others in society.

Social identities are:

  • Constructed not innate
  • Context dependent
  • Intersectional: combinations of social identities can lead to different effects than social identities on their own.
  • Reinforced by power dynamics, privilege, and oppression

Some examples of social identities are:

  • Age
  • Religion
  • Gender
  • Body Size
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Nationality
  • First Language
  • Sex
  • Socioeconomic Status
  • Disability

Alongside System 1 and System 2 thinking, the social identities you have profoundly impact your perceptions of the world.

For example, as a white straight male from a high socioeconomic status, native speaker of English, and with U.S. nationality, I have been playing life on easy mode. It's like playing Mario, but I ALWAYS have the fire flower. That's because in the context I'm in, these are all dominant social identities. They give me unknown advantages compared to others with subdominant social identities.

There are many obstacles in life I simply avoid because of my social identities.

So summing up, socialization causes changes in our System 1 and System 2 thinking, and ingrains social identities that change how we feel, think, and behave in the world.

But there's one last nail in the coffin that shows why nothing you perceive is real.

Your Mind Creates Your Perceptions, Even Your Own Mind

Everything that you perceive through touch, smell, sight, hearing, taste, and more, is a creation of your mind.

Most of the time we aren't consciously aware of this. But here's the crazy thing. Even when we bring conscious awareness to this fact, it's our mind doing so. It's the ultimate breaking of the fourth wall.

And what influences the way your mind works?

The cycle of socialization!

You can't prove anything you see is real. Because we see the world not as it is but as we are. Nowhere is this more clear than in the way we label things.

Labels like chair, goal, food, give us shared categories from which we can interact with others in society.

If we didn't have labels we couldn't cooperate with other humans.

And we would be overwhelmed by conscious awareness. Unable to label anything as anything, we would struggle to make sense of our sensations. So, to act in the world, we must label things.

But as we now know socialization profoundly impacts our labels.

My label for what counts as good, bad, or even what signifies a table could be different from yours.

This isn't even taking into account language, which has a MASSIVE impact on how you perceive the world and the labels you use.

For example, the Eskimo's have more than 50 different ways of saying snow depending upon the type of snow outside. In comparison, I have less than 5. As a result, they perceive snow much differently than I do.

Why Is It Important To Recognize The Fact That Nothing You Perceive Is Real?

What I am about to tell you could change your life forever.

It certainly changed mine when I realized it. Don't diminish the power of an idea. Remember, your mind creates everything, even your mind. So, changing the ideas you believe can completely change the way you feel, think, and behave in the world.

Here it is:

Your judgment of events affects you more than the events themselves.

What causes suffering is not only events, but our expectations of how reality should be clashing with how it is. This is called attachment. You have attached a portion of your wellbeing to a facet of reality, but reality doesn't bend to your will.

Reality is constantly changing.

For example, if you have been socialized to believe failure is a bad thing, you will become distraught anytime you fail.

Of course, evens can still hurt you, like becoming paraplegic, for example. But even in this case, what's going to affect you MUCH more than becoming paraplegic is your attitude about being paraplegic. If your attitude sucks, it's going to suck. But if you continue trying to love life anyway, you can make the most of a difficult situation.

What problems arise when you label reality without realizing this?

  1. Labels take away nuance. This is because labels must generalize a series of parts into one thing. For example, Republicans are evil.
  2. Our labels are created using language. Language by definition is inadequate for encapsulating reality because it reduces all sensory experience into an auditory, or visual medium in the case of text. Different languages describe the same things differently, have different rules, etc.
  3. Labels can change meaning based on the context you give them in and the person.
  4. Labels make reality seem permanent. By labeling something, you imply it has a certain essence that makes that thing that thing. But reality is constantly changing. Nothing is permanent.
  5. Things with the same label can be different. One "Maple tree" isn't necessarily the same as another.
  6. Labeling can lead to Confirmation bias, the bias to validate our preconceived beliefs. For example, if we label someone as malicious we might be biased towards seeing subsequent acts as more malicious.

Clearly labeling reality has a lot of problems with it.

If we aren't aware of our labels, we can suffer greatly when our judgements conflict with reality.

But the solution isn't to drop all of our labels. We couldn't exist in the world if we never labeled. We would be overwhelmed by sensory input.

So what should we do?

What's The Solution?

One of the best mindsets I have adopted regarding this issue comes from Mahayana Buddhism.

The Mahayanists have a tenet called Sunyata, which stands for emptiness. The essential idea is there are no fundamental unchangeable building blocks of reality. No THING exists. Because labeling something as a THING implies it has an unchanging nature.

But everything is constantly in flux.

As a result, our labels can never accurately describe reality.

One Republican isn't the same as another Republican. One human isn't the same as another human. Etc.

As mentioned earlier, the solution isn't to drop all labels.

But ingraining this idea can make you a MUCH more empathetic, open minded, and curious individual.

When you realize how much your perception of the world is built from socialization, personal experience, which effect your system 1 and system 2 thinking. you become much less judgmental of those with different ways of feeling, thinking, and behaving.

The secret is to know when to prioritize system 1 or system 2 thinking depending upon the context.

This requires both active open-mindedness and mindfulness.

Active open-mindedness is the purposeful constraining of system 1 thinking to go against automatic impulses and be more open to new ideas. It's great for theorizing, making inferences, and doing the right thing when it's the hard thing.

Mindfulness is the purposeful constraining of system 2 processing to be more open to insight and presence. It's great for overthinking and stopping yourself from rationalizing bad behavior.

Another key solution is to identify situations in which your intuitions are likely to lead you astray and prepare for them.

For example, my brother used to have a chocolate addiction. When we used to go to the stores as kids, he would eat my portion of the chocolate like a hungry Goblin. Knowing this, he crafted his environment in college to avoid his addiction. He never kept chocolate in the house. He didn't bring spare change with him to buy chocolate at a vending machine. He crafted his environment to prepare for the situations he knew could lead him astray.

You can apply this same reasoning to all situations in which your intuitions can lead you astray.

Finally, journal.

Journaling helps you uncover your characteristic feelings and thought patterns. Once you are aware of them, you can work to actively alter them to become more in line with your values. This isn't an easy process.

But by golly is it worth it.

Realizing nothing I perceive is real has profoundly changed my life.

I have become more open-minded, curious, empathetic, playful, and more.

I'll leave you with one last quote to finish off this article:

"If you don't look at things through your concepts, you'll never be bored. Every single thing is unique. Every sparrow is unlike every other sparrow despite the similarities." - Awareness Conversations With The Mystics