The devastating effects of false perceptions on our ability to deal with problems
Just minutes before starting to write this article I was browsing my Twitter feed, as I usually do during the day and came across a thread discussing the idea that good things happen to positive people. Someone else had joined the thread and responded to the original tweet saying something like : and sometimes bad things happen to positive people too. I can’t say I felt the need to ‘correct’ anyone’s point of view but I did feel the need to join the conversation making a simple observation: THINGS happen to people but the way we perceive those things makes them positive or negative.
Of course I had a short back-and-forth with one of the people in that conversation because I assume he felt he needed to elaborate on his comment trying to clarify to me that, and I quote, ‘remaining positive of mind in a negative situation is very tough & it gets very tiring, Also, no guarantee of a positive outcome‘ (sic). What got my attention really fast was the attitudes both these people had towards the same idea and how each was looking at the situation through the filter of their own subjective perception, coloring everything according to their mood and state of mind. One was aiming to motivate with a quote about how positive attitude attracts positive things and the other one replied based on his life experience and I am fairly certain based on his current situation, with something ‘negative’ aimed at taming the previous’ ‘unrealistic notion‘. What made me stop and join the debate was the fact that in my mind I was already preparing myself to write this article dealing pretty much with that type of situation so allow me to dive right into it.
When something happens and that wheel starts turning in our mind and we begin to analyze and filter out information, we instantly set in motion a chain of reactions that will ultimately determine whether we suffer or we’re happy.
Things do happen, every day to every single one of us. We wake up, brush our teeth and stain the mirror with tooth paste; we make coffee and spill sugar while pouring it into the cup; we rush into a room and slam our toe into the corner of a couch; we go to the doctor for a routine check-up and leave with a devastating diagnosis; we burry a child, a family member, a friend; we lose everything in the blink of an eye and have to struggle to put food on the table. Yes, things happen and there’s nothing we can do to stop them. We can merely try to cope with them, overcome hardships and wait for the next thing to happen.
We never think all problems have the same importance and we don’t dedicate the same amount of energy or time to solving each and every one of them. We are able to scan them, analyze them, we pass them through our own filters and determine their importance, gravity, impact on our present and future, compare them with previous situations, we sentence them to a certain type of treatment and then we decide whether we can solve them or not. A lot of thought goes into it and a lot of energy that we may not even be aware of. We are absolutely sure of our ability to deal with certain things and we draw from our experience and knowledge in the process. But there is no doubt that most of us have felt overwhelmed, unable to cope, depressed, defeated, unsure and gloomy in spite of our decades of experience in ‘solving’ problems.
The process of thought that I mentioned above is much more complicated and important than we think or realize. When something happens and that wheel starts turning in our mind and we begin to analyze and filter out information we instantly set in motion a chain of reactions that will ultimately determine whether we suffer or we’re happy. Although maybe unaware of it, we sentence ourselves to a presumably inevitable outcome and even before our mind’s finished working and we move one single muscle in our body, our whole future course of action is already set in stone and our ‘fate’ sealed. And all of that happens in fractions of seconds sometimes.
The other day I had the opportunity to watch a BBC documentary titled ‘The day the dinosaurs died’ . I highly doubt it’s necessary for me to explain what the documentary was about. I will however summarize the arguments and discoveries presented during the show to make my point. The program was filmed across three continents and is presented by paleopathologist professor Alice Roberts and evolutionary biologist Ben Garrod. Garrod joins a team of scientists led by Professor Joanna Morgan and Professor Sean Gulick on board an expedition to dig into the place the asteroid hit 66 million years ago, beneath the Yucat Penninsula, 24 miles from the coast of modern day Mexico.
The purpose of the expedition was to understand how and why a nine-mile wide (15 Km) asteroid was able to wipe out 75 per cent of Earth’s animal species and everything within a 600-mile radius. As a visual comparative, the asteroid impact was much like a grain of sand smashing into a bowling ball. You’d never think it could cause that much damage. But it did, thus the intrigue of scientists as to what factors contributed to the devastation that followed in the immediate hours, days and weeks. How could such a localized event change Earth forever like it did?
So, what exactly happened? The asteroid was traveling at a whopping 40,000mph when it hit the Earth in shallow water vaporizing instantly and creating a 120 mile crater, 20 miles deep. The energy it hit with was equivalent to roughly 10 billion Hiroshima atom bombs, creating a radiation fireball at 10,000 degrees that instantly wiped out everything within 600 miles, sending out a shockwave that was felt around the world and setting in motion the biggest tsunami in history. And these were just the first 10 minutes after impact. All the molten rock from deep in the Earth’s crust that was lifted higher than the Himalayas into the air at impact, later started to pour down from the Sky. Not long after impact the cloud of thick dirt, ash and dust completely blocked out the sun. Earth became a big grey ball, temperatures dropped drastically and life began to die. In this new cold and dark world food ran out of the oceans within a week and shortly after on land. With nothing to eat anywhere on the planet, the dinosaurs were doomed. The chain of events is no secret to scientists but why and how did everything happen if the asteroid wasn’t even that huge?
The irony of it all, as scientists in the program point out, is that
it wasn’t even the size of the asteroid or the scale of the blast
that made dinosaurs extinct.
The answer lies within the chain reaction set in motion by the deadly impact and where the asteroid struck. You see, had the asteroid hit in deeper waters the amount of Earth crust lifted into the air wouldn’t have been as large and the atmosphere wouldn’t have been as affected by the cloud of ash and dust. Sun would’ve been able to penetrate through the layer of dirt maintaining life. Had the asteroid struck in the same place just at a later or earlier time when the tide was higher, the outcome would’ve been different. In the crust at the impact point there were large quantities of gypsum. What that meant was that right after impact, when crust was displaced into the atmosphere, the gypsum contributed to the creation of a sulfur cloud and all the elements combined became dense enough to stop sun light from penetrating the Earth’s atmosphere.
The irony of it all, as scientists in the program point out, is that it wasn’t even the size of the asteroid or the scale of the blast that made dinosaurs extinct. It was the place where it hit, which made the reach of the devastation global.
At this point I can only imagine you, the person reading this, thinking: what am I reading? Wasn’t this article about problems and what not? What’s all this dinosaur talk? Why is this entry so long? I am sure if you’ve come this far reading, you’ll hang on a bit more for me to make my point.
After watching the documentary I was first of all impressed by the events depicted. I knew the short version of the story but it was exciting to get the details. I love to learn things. I am an avid consumer of information. So this was very satisfying to me. But after a bit it dawned on me that I can see a parallel between the story of the dinosaurs’ demise and certain Buddhist concepts that rule my existence and I instantly felt the urge to share my ideas with anyone willing to listen (or read).
See, we like to categorize events in our lives based on how they affect us. We have joyful moments, happy moments, exciting moments, terrifying moments, tragedies, depression, suffering etc. No one is free from these but we all have one thing in common: we want to solve things, find solutions, fix what’s broken, mend wounds, end suffering and be happy. Needless to say it’s easier said than done. Many of us don’t ever stop to think what it is that makes some problems bigger than others. What is it that makes it easier to find solutions for some things but impossible to deal with others? What’s the main thing that renders our ability to deal with problems useless? PERCEPTION
The way we perceive things is basically the way we see them through our mind’s eye. But our mind is never quite pure or calm and doesn’t have 20/20 vision. Our mind is like a jungle, filled with so much vegetation and movement everywhere that it’s very easy to get lost or eaten alive by predators lurking in the shadows. Our mind is a place that’s unfamiliar and many times hostile yet we never worry about navigating it with blind certainty that we know the way. The mind is like a small pond that someone constantly drops pebbles in. The stones hit the bottom and raise dirt, they muddy the clear water and create ripples that spread all across. Before the ripples reach the other side another pebble is dropped. Now if you tried to look at your reflection, it would always be affected by the mud and ripples so you could never see your real face, but a mere distorted version of what is real, an ever changing and familiar version of something constantly the same. When situations happen, when problems arise we rely on our perception to evaluate them, categorize them and ultimately decide whether we can or cannot solve them. But how accurate is that perception? What are the consequences of false perceptions? To give a straight answer, it’s SUFFERING.
“For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.”
― Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace
We suffer a lot of the time because of the way we interpret situations and events: ‘my boyfriend/girlfriend broke up with me, I was in love, my heart is now broken. I used to do everything with them, now who will be by my side? I’ll have to sleep alone, which means I’ll feel lonely. I hate evenings now, and I hate waking up alone. My days are now grey and I can’t help but remember the good times we spent. I am unhappy‘ That scenario is quite typical but useful to clearly examine how perception affects the way we see a problem. Because we cling to the idea that someone else was making us happy, we cling to the idea of company, we start imagining a future filled with negative things and thus we actually cause ourselves suffering based on something that hasn’t happened yet or something that we’ve already lived and cannot be changed and that determines the way we act from that moment on.
The way we perceived the notion of a ‘break-up’ rippled across our thought process muddying it and distorting it. We can’t even begin to look at the situation from a different perspective: ‘maybe our relationship wasn’t good for us, maybe the other person wasn’t happy, maybe I wasn’t all in. Maybe I was causing them pain or maybe they were causing me pain. If they want to leave then why would I want to keep them near? They clearly don’t want to be with me. Maybe it’s better for the both us. Now I’ll have more time for other activities. I’ll be able to meet other people. I am not alone at all, I still have my friends. My family is always there’. But none of these thoughts can penetrate through the dense cloud of ash and dust created by that false perception we automatically deemed authentic and reliable and never questioned. So we suffer.
In Buddhism we say that attachment is the root of all suffering and many misunderstand that saying. It’s not about being indifferent or cold, or not being emotional. It’s not about not feeling love or compassion. Attachment is damaging when we cling to notions that are in no way real or authentic. Attachment is for example, us dwelling on past experiences and feelings that were temporary and muddied by our perception, like saying: ‘I’d be so lonely without you‘, not realizing that we interpret loneliness as a negative feeling that causes suffering and distress, that depresses us and that we fear. We condition ourselves to automatically go into a ‘suffering state‘ the moment we decide we’re lonely. But realizing that loneliness is only real when we refuse to see clearly the reality is a difficult solution to a problem we deem unsolvable. Sure, one can see friends, or read, or watch movies, or cook, or meditate, or paint to occupy their time and mind but we decide that unless we have THAT PARTICULAR thing we WANT we’re lonely. So our reality is different from what actually is. The problem might in fact be small, but once we interpret it through the distorted lens of our false perception we drop that asteroid in the shallow water and we set in motion a devastating chain reaction of events that causes destruction. The little grain of sand breaks the bowling ball.
Master Thich Nhat Hahn touched on the topic of perception in his book Being Peace, where he said: ‘For things to reveal themselves to us, we need to be ready to abandon our views about them.’ Most things are never clear to us due to everything we think we know about them: ‘if I don’t have money I’ll be unhappy, I’m less than others if I can’t afford to dress well, success means a career and lots of money, being alone means being lonely, you can’t be religious and believe in science at the same time, getting old is scary, etc’. Unless we manage to look beyond the notions we think are real, the reality won’t reveal itself to us. And that translates into suffering.
By suffering I don’t mean emotional and physical pain alone, but rather everything that burdens us and steals our peace. When someone is stressed for example, they get physically ill, they’re unable to focus, they lose their patience, perform badly at work or school, fail to reach their goals and eventually end up hurting. So feeling stressed is part of our daily struggle, thus falling under the concept of suffering as I’m using it here. It’s obvious that our day-to-day life does not lack causes for suffering if we apply that same reasoning to other situations we encounter during our lives: money problems, health problems, romantic problems, relationships, friendships, career etc
The little 9 mile asteroid didn’t have the size or power to wipe out life on Earth by itself, but the ripple effect it caused in combination with the environment in which it impacted proved to be deadly on an epic scale. Pretty much the same thing happens with us when problems occur. A situation in reality might be quite insignificant, but add to it the notions that we cling to, the false perception of what it means to our existence, the fear for our future, the memories we so cherish from our past, the hypotheticals and the anxiety and that problem has just displaced from the deep crust of our mind a wall of dirt higher than the Himalayas that will soon block out the light and kill al life from our being, causing suffering and despair.
If the ocean of our mind is shallow and resting upon the toxic gypsum of false perceptions, every problem that arises will be just like that asteroid falling 66 million years ago. Unless we learn to clear our mind and keep it that way, unless we strive to give up what we think we know about things, unless we look beyond what is obviously not real, we will always be on collision course with everything around us and every single situation will be an extinction level event.