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How "Real" is Your Reality?

Purposeful Wanderings - Bradford L Glass - March 2022

Newsletter - 3.22
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“Believing is seeing” – a new slant on an old saying

I used to think reality was … real. The thoughts in my head were my thoughts, right? And everything I saw looked real to me. I never wondered how real “reality” was. Now I do. I began to question the idea when I noticed how difficult it was to have constructive conversations with those holding viewpoints different from mine. You’ve been there, I’m sure. You hold your position strongly, yet you see how strongly the other person holds theirs, too. It’s easy to see the contention here, but it’s not so easy to see how there are “two realities” at work. If we don’t explore that deeper level – underneath the differences – we miss the opportunity to learn and grow beyond our often-fixed perceptions … and the arguments that commonly ensue.

Here’s where my curiosity has led me. (Curiosity is a wonderful thing; plus, it has become so much more fun than thinking I’m right.) We don’t see life “as it is,” but “as a reflection of what is.” That reflection is unique to each of us. Over time, life’s lessons and experiences create a “prevailing viewpoint,” a way we see and think, a reflection of “what is.” Unbeknownst to us, this reflection became what we know as “truth,” despite the fact that it distorts what we see. It’s like those amusement park mirrors that contort your body into odd shapes. In the park, you know it’s a distortion. But here, you don’t know. You believe the image is real and clear. It’s not.

The viewpoint we adopt feels real to us, just because it embodies our life experience. Two contrasting examples: if life has led you to see what’s possible in each situation, then your non-judgmental curiosity opens your world to broadened perspective, sharpened perception, a growing compassion and acceptance for others (and yourself), new learning and greater resilience. If, however, life has led you to see what’s wrong in each situation, you’re likely to pull in the edges of your world as a protective mechanism, seeking perceived safety from life’s many threats.

Other common viewpoints, each from learned ways of thinking, each creating its own reality: classical science (it’s all rational, linear); fundamentalism (it’s all literal, not open to change); tribalism (what others say must be true for me, too); superiority(I’m always right); victim (I’m always wrong). Without conscious awareness, you may not even know one of these shapes your reality … or which one! No right or wrong; they’re just viewpoints. But – each has consequences. If it’s all rational, you tend to deny emotion. If you’re always right, others may shun you. If nothing can be changed, you don’t learn much. If you follow others, you may end up on a lot of dead-end streets. If you always see what’s wrong, you’ll find it. If you always see what’s possible, you’ll find it. Consequences.

Viewpoints are simply stories. Each of us casts ourselves in a story … of our own [perhaps unconscious] choosing. My reality is no more real than yours … or than anyone else’s. It shows up as real to me, yet it has no independent truth of its own. Mine is one of many possible stories – a story I’ve created by how I’ve learned to see and think. In fact, it’s not even the story of my life, but the life story of my thinking! I like my reality. I’m comfortable inside it. Yet, if I become attached to it, or worse, unaware it’s a story, I miss opportunities for learning, growth and change.

Our old lessons embody the thinking of others. They have to; it’s where viewpoints come from! But when we try to live the thinking of others (science, religion, politics, family history, media), consciously or not, we lose sight of, and trust in, our own thinking – the one thing that can eliminate the distortion. We are free, in each moment, to become aware of our story … at which point its illusion is gone! It takes awareness (to recognize the distortion), acceptance (to see with clarity and non-judgment), and courage (to choose what is genuinely your own). The big potential here: the more real your reality is, the more possibility life holds, simply because your choices aren’t being clouded (or made) by unconscious thoughts. The world will always be filled with other people’s ideas. It will always be filled with [often compelling] stories. As humans, we’ve related to stories for hundreds of thousands of years. As a result, we’ve gotten pretty bad at distinguishing truth from fiction. Question: which serves your life better? And are you willing to take on the practice of self-reflection that leads you to the choice?

Exercise: What’s your life viewpoint? A good place to start is to get to know your viewpoint today. You may already know. You may think you know. It may match one of those mentioned in the article. It may be a hybrid. It may be altogether different. Your viewpoint is lodged in your unconscious “thinking,” so using that same thinking to find it is unlikely to work. It’s perhaps easier to look for the shadows it casts in your life. Where do you struggle? What do you sense is missing? (ideas from above: emotion, friends, learning, self-trust, etc.) What lessons did you repeatedly hear as a child (or later, as an adult) that formed “who you think you are?” These questions take you underneath the “you” you may take for granted, and therefore never question. If you struggle, ask those close to you; they may see a “you” that you alone cannot. Dare to go deeper. Get to know.

What’s possible? Think for a moment what it might be like if you could greet every situation in life with curiosity. No judgment, no preconceived notions, just wonder … at “what is.” I love curiosity as a life viewpoint. Although I could be guilty of pushing it, I’ll simply offer that curiosity is our natural state … which we use very well as children, until one of those old lessons teaches us to fear and to control rather than to be curious. We then often forget that how we see is a choice. Time for a change. See Life Lessons below. You might examine a few of your challenges, struggles or difficult conversations, and compare how you approach them today with how you might approach them with curiosity alone. What would be different? Just imagine … vs. censor.

Life Lessons from [Human] Nature: Worldview is a society’s viewpoint, an unconsciously-but-collectively-held set of beliefs and assumptions about how life is perceived to work. By living, then passing on, its beliefs, a society acculturates its members into programmed ways of seeing and thinking. Over time, this way of thinking becomes invisible, unconscious background to life, convincingly creating a sense of what’s true, what’s possible, what’s not – a [distorted] view of “reality.” My favorite example: European and Polynesian worldviews of 1000-2000 years ago. Polynesians were voyagers – guided by a culture of curiosity. Exploring into the unknown, they discovered almost all the Pacific islands (in 10 million square miles of ocean), relying on awareness … of winds, waves, stars, birds. They listened to their world; in response, it taught them all they needed to know. They were storytellers, creating detailed accounts of their voyages as they sailed (remembering winds, tides, waves, stars, birds and time) … so when it was time to return home, they absolutely knew their way … by playing their story backwards. Mostly, we can’t imagine that depth of conscious thought or knowing, so far have we strayed from this, the true nature of our humanness. By contrast, Europeans of the same time were afraid to sail over 300 miles from shore until they had invented instruments to “knowthe unknown.” Their fear led to a culture of control (which, sadly, frames western viewpoints to this day!) When the two cultures inevitably met, the European control nature led them to suppress and dominate Polynesians, calling them primitive. (I often wonder how Europeans might have fared in uncharted seas with a “command-and-control” mindset. Talk about “primitive.”) Yet, both are just stories. Just viewpoints … but with consequences (“winning” for Europeans; cultural loss for Polynesians). Perhaps herein lies the promise of our self-reflective journey.

Book of the month: The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy. Although labeled a children’s book, even the author claims it’s for children from eight to eighty. It’s not so much about reality as it is reality itself. It’s a delightful story … about life, learning, love, perspective, truth. It’s about fear and courage, living in the present moment, finding self-trust. I love this: “One of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things.” If you’re on Cape Cod, you’ll find this book at the Market Street Bookshop in Mashpee Commons; 508-539-6985.


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