A story is told of a group of blind men who heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.
The story of the blind men and the elephant brilliantly illustrate the limitations of human perception. The power of perception is that it seems so real to the experiencer. Yet the way things seem is not necessarily the way things are. “Reality is an illusion”, said Einstein, “albeit a very persistent one”.
We all see and experience the world differently because we all have a unique experience of being in the world. Our perception is shaped by our prior experience which forms the filter through which we look at life. That filter is made up of thoughts, beliefs, ideas, memories, hopes dreams etc. Frits Perls once said:
“We live in a house of mirrors and think we are looking out the windows.”
We do not see things as they are, but see them as we are. Cognitive scientist Anil Seth argues that our brains hallucinate our conscious reality. It is a natural human tendency to think that we can trust what we are experiencing to be the truth, or the ‘way things are’. This tendency though to cling to our way of seeing things and defend it at all costs is at the root of so much conflict in the world. But the truth is that we are like the blind man who thinks he knows the truth of the elephant but only knows his experience of one small part of it. This realisation invites humility in us and an openness to being wrong as we recognise our fallibility. It also invites us to be more tolerant of alternative ways of thinking and imagining.
How we pay attention determines what we perceive. Rod Tweedy writes, “the kind of attention we bring to bear on the world actually alters the nature of the world we attend to”. Iain McGilchrist echoes this when he says, “Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world”.
It is critical that we learn to question our perceptions both individually and collectively and develop the capacity to see and think with greater flexibility and imagination. Our perceptions determine our possibilities. In fact, perception is the assessment of what is possible. The architecture of our minds, formed through our past experiences, often present a picture of limitation as to what might be possible in our lives. But this perception of limitation, this inner ‘programme’, is not ‘reality’, but a belief held in our minds that is creating our particular reality.
The challenge of living a larger life requires the willingness to let go of self-limiting certainties. Certainties are like walls that we put up around ourselves to protect us. But those walls soon turn into prisons that limit our freedom. The walls shield us from threat and provide some security but they also shield us from the beauty and joy of life and all its possibilities. The creative attitude is opening into uncertainty and the unknown, going beyond the walls of our minds. This creates anxiety and insecurity but it is in uncertainty that freedom and possibility exist.