"Most of the emotion that disturbs your mind has incorrect perception as its basis – there is a gap between perception and reality."
~ Chip Conley
Take a look at the above picture – how many black dots do you count?
There are 12 dots in the image, but most people can't see all 12 dots at once. The black dot in the center of your vision should always appear, but the dots around it will likely appear and disappear. This is because we humans have pretty bad peripheral vision. If you focus on one dot, you'll notice everything around it is blurry. As a result, your brain has to make its best guess about what’s going on in the fuzzy periphery. Because there's a regular pattern of gray lines, your brain makes an assumption that it will be more of the same (gray lines) and therefore it "misses" the other black dots altogether.
Interestingly, our brains do this ALL of the time in everyday life. They take tiny bits of information and then instantly fill in the rest of the picture (based on guesswork and our conditioning, biases, etc). We see a facial expression in a meeting and immediately make assumptions about a person's emotions. We read one line in an email from a friend and start to tell a story about what they're thinking or feeling. We see a disturbing news headline and conclude that the world is ending. Tomorrow.
A central theme throughout the eight week MBSR journey is learning to recognize the role that our perceptions and assumptions play in how we experience stress. We begin to see how mindfulness helps train the brain to pause and observe the whole picture, which often reveals a clearer understanding of what is actually happening, instead of our snap judgments or assumptions. In turn, we can navigate situations with less reactivity and far more ease.
Just two nights ago, I held Class 2 for the current Winter MBSR cohort in the studio. As I welcomed the class, there was a crescendo of shockingly loud “CAWING” sounds caused by the thousands of crows that descend each night at dusk to roost in the trees along the waterfront and the streets just outside of our building. I captured a brief video from inside the studio. Check it out:
During the opening meditation, I invited everyone to pause and embrace the sound of the crows as an anchor. Afterwards, one person shared that they experienced three different phases of relating:
Phase 1 – they hadn’t noticed the cawing until I mentioned it.
Phase 2 – As soon as their attention shifted to the cawing, they became irritated by it.
Phase 3 – When they were invited to focus on the sounds as an anchor for meditation, they found it surprisingly pleasing.
When we dug a little deeper, we discovered assumptions at play. Underneath their phase two irritation was the judgment “this is a problem.” Their brain took the small bit of present “cawing” data and swiftly (and unconsciously) made the assumptions that: A) I, the instructor, didn’t “like” the sound either and wanted it to stop, and B) the sounds were going to persist throughout the rest of the class, causing great disruption.
Interestingly, as soon as they were invited to get curious about the sound and use it as a present-moment anchor, their experience radically shifted. When we peel back the layers of our assumptions/interpretations and experience an “event” for what it is, we often discover there isn’t actually a “problem” here at all. We can shift from judgment to curiosity and instantly find ourselves in the midst of a very different experience.
When you notice you are in the midst of something that feels stressful or causes emotional reactivity, you can get in the habit of pausing, observing your perceptions at play, and choosing to question them:
Am I making any assumptions here?
Are they true?
Is another perspective possible?
These questions can create the little bit of space you need to perceive situations more accurately, check your emotions, and make wiser decisions accordingly.
I know many of you are already naturally making these discoveries in everyday life, thanks to your mindfulness practice. Feel free to drop your own experience in the comments below!