Each of lives in and must manage two worlds. Contrary to what one might expect, a mind clear of thought (mental clarity) informed only by direct sensory-perceptual experience (touches, sights, sounds, smells, tastes) interacts with and manages the real world. The mental juggling of ideas, thoughts and concepts, on the other hand, creates virtual realities (worlds), like “My shoulder should not ache” or “Having money is all important.” Of course, logic-based thinking, structured for mental arithmetic or planning a vacation, is useful. But, for how many moments of our lives do we need or use formal logic? Even an extensive trip only needs a few thought-seconds worth of reflection before the plans are complete. Our two worlds are separated only by the difference between a mind clear of thought and one engaging with it.
Four definitions are required to understand the truth of the above paragraph: Concept, Percept, Virtual and Reality. Using Dictionary.com, these are:
· Concept – a general notion or an idea (like a thought). Conceive means to form a notion, opinion, purpose, etc.;
· Percept – the mental result or product of perceiving. Perceive means to become aware of, know, or identify by means of the senses;
· Virtual – being something in essence though not in name;
· Reality – (philosophy) something that exists independently of ideas conceiving it.
Psychology’s two selves theory, which also forms some of the basis for the field of behavioral economics, relies on the difference on how our brain’s two hemispheres process information. The right brain processes sense-perceptions in its direct contact with reality that’s, as defined by the dictionary, “…independent of any ideas.” It does not interpret (make meaning about) what it encounters. The left brain, in contrast, transforms sensory-perceptual experience into concepts and interprets them (i.e., ideas and notions) to create a plausible, but virtual, reality – one only “…in essence.” If you have any doubts about these functions, please read Gazzaniga’s excellent article about research that used patients who had their brain hemispheres surgically separated to minimize intense seizures. Through our sense-perceptions as well as our thoughts, we develop two separate and distinct views about the world, including about ourselves; “who we experience ourselves to be” in contrast with “who we think we are.”
When we define ourselves by our sense-perceptions we are what we experience. So-called virtual reality experiences made by using images shown, for example, by a head-mounted display (HMD), like appearing to be standing alone in a snow-covered field or peering off the top ledge of a tall building, are real experiences (as defined by the dictionary). To accept the reality of these images, a person must ignore their thoughts and recent memories of being in a room full of fancy computer equipment and accept only what his or her sense-perceptions provide. Even if we might think or remember otherwise, the dictionary definition assures us that we remain in reality when our experience is accepted as valid—even if that tell us that we are looking down from a great height.
The greatest benefit to aligning with sense-perceptions and away from conceptual understanding is openness to the experience of the full range of living. Gender, for example, is often boxed in to two conceptual categories. Those two boxes do not to allow for the entire range of observed gender characteristics, some according to preference, some to anatomy, biochemistry, psychology, etc. An “open” world trivializes the rigidity of the categorical boxes that originate from language itself, including those that also support egoism, racism, genderism, nationalism, etc. A creative and flexible view, one in more accord with the full expression of life, becomes more available with this type of openness. Empathy—experiencing others for who they uniquely are—may increase. Insights, those unbidden flashes of wisdom that arise, may also appear more often when mental ruminations are not blocking its path.
Language, the currency of the left brain’s conceptual processing, so pervades our life that we believe it describes reality. By definition, of course, language constructs a virtual reality. Virtual realities, including those nasty, over-arching ones of skepticism of what’s truthful, self-centeredness, phobias, etc., all originate here. Another harm from language is that it fails to specify anything as unique—like each of us individuals for example, or even any common object, like the lamp on my desk. The word “lamp” describes a large, general category of objects that produce light. Saying “It’s a lamp,” does not identify a specific one on my desk. The problem with lies in the fact that everything in the world is specific and unique. By accepting ourselves as a category (“soccer mom,” “hard worker”) we also lose our uniqueness our personal authenticity. Further, the individuality and uniqueness of others is similarly denigrated (like “young,” “multiracial,” “smart”). Come to think of it, everything loses its individuality because words cannot account for uniqueness.
Those who “buy in” to language take on lives lived as if they themselves are a category—like “depressed,” “important,” “football fan,” or “internet star.” This bargain involves losing one’s authentic self in exchange for becoming an artificial persona aligned to a category that seems beneficial. This deal with the devil requires the persona to dedicate himself or herself to the demands of the category and deny the openness that all lived-experience can offer. The rules of the category become paramount. Unfortunately, with the loss of one’s authentic humanity the persona’s their full capacity for empathy also diminishes. Rules come to matter more than people.
The practice of mindfulness is the process of paying attention to sensory-perceptual experience. It’s the only way I know of to return to reality. Initially, some find the practice of mindfulness difficult since virtual reality is so engrossing and actual reality so impossible to define by words. Many even allow thoughts to ruminate for hours in the hopes of understanding something new and important. But, research suggests that mind wandering causes more harm than good. Eventually, those who practice mindful attention can and do return to reality, accepting sensory-perceptual experience for the truth, and the oddities, it offers.
Though many think otherwise, the exit from virtual reality makes us happier and more content. Phobias lessen when fearful thoughts diminish and sense-perceptions dominate awareness. The pain that’s been in our shoulder will still exist but unnecessary worry will not. The felt sense remains with no bother at all. By making the shift from thoughts to experience, people get better. My own sense is this is how placebos work—by encouraging the release of thoughts and the return of one’s attention to their sense-perceptions. Granted, not everyone can make this mental shift but then again placebos only work in about one third of the people who take them.
There seems to be good reason to improve your relationship with reality—with your sense-perceptions: enhancing mental flexibility, increasing insightfulness, appreciating uniqueness, improving authenticity and empathy. There also seems to be good reason to decrease your reliance on the virtual world of thought-based reality—by minimizing the stereotypical thinking that maintains ego-centric greed, authoritarianism, antisocial behaviors, and the wide variety of forms of discrimination (racism, genderism). Becoming mindfully attentive takes a bit of practice. But there is little downside to losing virtual reality and a significant upside to increasing contact with reality.