Originally posted on 05-20-07:
Each of these visual illusions, which I mentioned yesterday, besides being entertaining, includes a lesson on perception that can begin to broaden our ideas about “reality.” We can become more aware of the way that the brain makes simplifying assumptions about incoming sensory data, and provides us with a picture of the world that is, for the most part, consistent and useful. These illusions also demonstrate how inaccurate that picture can be when the brain’s assumptions don’t match a particular situation: straight lines can be interpreted as curved, stationary images can be interpreted as moving, etc.
Visual illusions can give us a way to see the brain’s operation in perspective; to distance ourselves somewhat from our usual enmeshment in its processes.
Meditation can also give us a perspective that we couldn’t get otherwise. If we try to focus our attention on one thing—our breathing for example—we will soon see how the brain can shift its attention to something else, despite our intentions. It has its own list of priorities, and watching the breath is not high on that list.
It turns out that, as I’ve mentioned earlier, our intentions vary depending on the situation in which we find ourselves. A whole series of experiences and situations may have brought us to the decision to try meditation, but that doesn’t mean that we can simply sit down and do it, anymore than a decision to lose weight will result in weight loss. To successfully meditate, we must continue to reinforce the idea that it is the most important thing we can do at any one moment.
I consider any attempt at meditation successful even if we learn nothing more than this: that our intentions are not in control of our brain—they reflect a sub-set of brain activity, and control shifts between a large number of sub-sets as situations and priorities change.
The perspective meditation can give us on our brains’ processes can be invaluable. We can come to appreciate that whatever sub-set of brain activity is in control at any given moment, its control is temporary. Something—either in the external environment or in the brain’s continual re-evaluation of priorities—will result in a shift of activity to another sub-set, and our train of thought, our mood, will shift as well. Sadness will shift to happiness, depression will shift to exuberance, boredom will shift to interest. All our states of mind, our concerns, are temporary.
If we can learn to pay attention to these shifts—and we can—we can develop a habitual response to them: “Aha! Another shift!” A new sub-set of brain activity can develop, the “recognition-of-attention-shift” sub-set, that will be triggered any time a shift occurs. With practice, just as in learning to meditate or lose weight, this new sub-set can get promoted on the brain’s list of priorities, and it may become able to shift attention from sadness to happiness, for example.
We can develop a new perspective on our own mental activity, become less emeshed in it, and our brain will have new choices available.