Perhaps you’ve wondered, as have I: “Do I perceive my concepts or rather do I conceive my percepts?” What? You haven’t? Well, if not, try this. Have you ever said: “I’ll see it when I believe it.”? Unless you are reading too fast, you’d have stopped just now and wondered whether I had that backwards. “Doesn’t he mean”, you thought: ‘I’ll believe it when I see it?'” Well, thanks for asking, but no, I don’t. Certainly seeing engenders believing but contrarily, wonder a moment with me whether in fact we only see what we already believe.
Now, I wasn’t there so I can’t absolutely vouch for the following story, but I’m told (by someone who also wasn’t there) that when the pilgrims sailed up to present-day Virginia, the native American Indians didn’t see the big boat with its hugh sails. Missed it entirely. However, once the smaller landing boats were launched and rowed towards shore, they saw what was happening. How could that be? One explanation is that the natives couldn’t perceive the big boat because they couldn’t conceive the big boat. Contrariwise, they perceived the small boats because they had already conceived, built and were using on a daily basis similar sized craft. Voila. Perception consequent to conception. Seeing only what we believe. Hmmmm.
Take butterflies, for instance. Not any, but rather the ones which hatched just now from our Science for Kids kit. Our entire family watched for three weeks while the mail-order grubs fed on a gelatin, then grew into caterpillars who proceeded amazingly to weave their cocoon and develop through the stages of chrysalis to the hatched butterfly. I’m here to tell you that, though we watched, we never really saw. We only appreciated. Had we really seen, we’d have been awestruck.
(When was the last time you were actually awestruck? Great word, eh? Rare event. Forget the last time, can you think of any time you were awestruck? Or is the phenomenon one of more “primitive”, atavistic peoples whose intercourse with the divine was more routine?)
No. We watched the metamorphosis of the butterflies in our kitchen over the past three weeks, but we never really beheld the event. How do I know this? I know this because it never overwhelmed us. Impressed us? Yes. Overwhelmed us? No. How do I know the difference? Because I care for many people in my psychiatric practice who see every day events all too deeply and, thus seeing, swoon into the varied social dysfunctions we term mental illness. Too intense a perception, if not counterweighed by conceptions (ie a counterbalancing abstraction) becomes imbalanced and causes disease.
“Who are the insane?” I was once queried by a manic patient who instructed me as follows: “They are those of us who took one step beyond and chose to stay.” Over romanticized or not, this idea permits a glimmer of respect, yea, awe for those deemed dysfunctional in our abstracted society.
If my family and I really saw what transpired as the butterflies did their (awful=awe-filled) thing; if we had been so constituted as to really be able to perceive fully, then we’d have been brought to our knees in wonder and awe. We’d have been spellbound to the point of dysfunction. We would have ceased all other worldly activities. Therefore, thank God our internal editor threw the breaker-switch into concept when the percept surged past normal threshold. While one’s soul reaches out constantly to taste the world, onw’s mind pulls it up short, like a mother slapping the wrist of her child who ceaselessly reaches for objects in a store.
Recently, I was meandering though the woods in search of soul nourishment when I chanced upon a birch tree, that splendid guardian of whiteness amidst a dark wood yet it too failed to overwhelm. Or rather, I failed. For not a microsecond after the initial perception, I “saw” only my concept; the object had evaporated. All that remained was what I knew: betula alba the name more than the whiteness of the birch. The experience of the birch was slammed into a categorization which included Latin terms for genus, species and family. I actually lost the pure perception. Couldn’t bear it. Couldn’t sustain it. Stared down by the perceptible natural world, I blinked.
Perception means to grasp or pull through and thereby to behold the essence of something. Conception means to form an opinion or thought. Note that the latter springs from the mind whereas the former originates from the object. Perception involves a dialogue, while conception involves a diatribe. One process is “with”, while the other is “upon” or “at”. Listen to your own revealing language. Do you talk to or with a friend. Make love to or with a spouse? I wonder what pulls us inexorably away from the moment as we trade experience for abstraction. Much more is lost than potential poetry.
Born with 20:20 vision, I never really “saw” until mid-way through college. One afternoon, my artist roommate (everyone should have one at one time in their life) asked me: “What color is our wall?”. We had been talking about art and he suggested that determination of “good” art was not a solely matter of individual opinion but rather more appropriately left to “trained” specialists such as artists like himself. Hence his simple question about the wall color. I should have suspected something. Too simple. So I thought (first mistake), what color is it? The answer was as clear as the earth is flat and so I answered: “White” because I thought (again, not “saw”) which color we painted it a few weeks earlier. He smiled and graciously encouraged me: “Look again”. A few pathetic responses later I finally began to see (with his coaching) the variegated dance of shadow and light playing upon that stage of white. In truth, the wall was not any one color being composed rather of an infinity of color thereby defying definition.
You artists reading this are not impressed. You have been seeing more than your loved ones all along. The thesis of this article is self-evident. Abide me though, for true perception eludes most of the rest of us. Were it not for our ability to abstract (ie remove ourselves from) our experiences, we would be like deer before the oncoming headlights. Mesmerized. Dysfunctional. To wonder at what morning dew does to spider webs, to harmonize with the overtones of that infernal mosquito’s drone, to experience the bouquet of taste in a glass of good water… If we truly saw all this, the abundance and subtlety of our surroundings would so enchant us that we’d be rendered crazy – frozen in dialogue with what the soul craves yet the mind perpetually abstracts.
Do you perceive or conceive those you love? Are they beheld by you or rather defined and constrained?
Perception of another is essential for love, whereas a concept of another is predicated upon a self-orientation, a form of instinctual narcissism. Too often in looking at another, we see only that of us which reflects back. Monks, in contrast, chant to train their ears so as to better hear the word of God. They perceive while they conceive. Neat trick. Helps with ascension. So would the ability to retain genuine perceptions using reverence and awe. Why not practice it with someone you love?
To your health,