Learning to See
Sometimes I really do think truth can be stranger than fiction. And I am also convinced that the longer I live, more I realize how little I know. And I am decently educated. What this means is the amount of knowledge available in our world today is mind-blowing. And even more amazing is the rapid growth of new knowledge. Since so much of the new knowledge comes from the sciences, it means I get further behind in terms of what I know.
I try to familiarize myself with some emerging research that yields interesting or worthwhile knowledge. But I also realize this is like putting my finger on an elephant and assuming I know very much about that big animal! But it is fun to touch the elephant. At least I know there is one!
I am slowly working my way through a recent book, Incognito, that basically talks about the process of how humans function. It focuses on what I would call the mind/brain phenomenon. Now I know enough science to know that the brain is physically in my head. The book’s author, David Eagleman, tells us the brain is “three pounds of the most complex material we’ve discovered in the universe.” The brain is located deep inside our head.
The mind is the process of the brain at work. The mind is not the same thing as the brain. The mind is the brain at work in thinking (and maybe more!). One of the ways I like to think about the mind is that it is the result of the brain processing all the stimuli and chemical reactions going on in our bodies. We know that the brain gets neurological stimulations from all over our body and from the world out there. The mind is the result of processing something into an understandable pattern.
And I know the mind can play tricks on me. One of the classic tricks comes with the story of a walk in the woods. As you turn the corner, ahead you see a big black object on the ground. You are not sure but that it moved. Your brain is processing a huge amount of information: size, color, movement, etc. And then you think: bear! Your heart beats faster, the hair on your neck bristles. And then, you laugh. It is a log!
In his book Eagleman talks a great deal about vision. He says a couple things that are fascinating to me. In the first place he says that we “must learn to see.” And the second thing he tells me is that vision is not a picture of things, as they exist “out there” in the world. Our vision is not like the camera. In fact, our vision---our seeing things---is constructed. In a very real sense, I make up my world.
This is hard to believe because I assume the way I see things is the way they are. Furthermore, I assume the way I see things is the way others see them---at least, other normal people. I know there are nuts who do not see the world correctly, i.e. like I do. But they can be dismissed as not normal. And of course, I am normal! But then, I realize a color-blind person “normally” sees things in a way that I don’t.
This seems like a long way from anything spiritual. But in fact, it seems to me very close. So much of spirituality is “how we see things.” I do think most of spirituality is a matter of interpretation. We construct our spirituality. For example, if I believe in prayer, I can engage the prayer process and feel like I am beginning to connect with God. But what are my keys? What would make me mentally conclude that God and I are connecting?
Let’s say that my praying begins to center my attention. I notice that my breathing slows, my heart “begins to feel warm,” and I sense “Someone” is there. If I also am religious, if I believe in God and prayer, all you are telling me makes perfect sense. You are I are on the same wavelength. What that means is simply that we are constructing our view of the world in similar ways. If enough of us get together (maybe in a church), we can feel like this is perfectly normal.
However, someone else (like the color-blind person) perhaps will interpret the “prayer stimuli” differently. Slower breathing is nothing more than relaxation. That feeling of warmth is nothing more than a sense of well-being. This person is seeing things quite differently. And that person perhaps claims not to be religious.
Am I worried that spirituality seems to be a mental construction of mine? By no means! The more I learn about how I function as a human being---how my amazing three pound brain works and gives rise to the mental process---the more I feel humbled and exhilarated. I come with the ability to “see.” But the “seeing” is learned. What I “see” is interpreted and constructed.
Does this mean I “make up” God? The answer is yes and no. No, I don’t make up God in the sense that I “make up” a God who does not really exist. In faith I affirm God does exist. But who God is, how God works in the world…all that stuff…is “made up.” It is made up in the sense that it is my vision of God---my way of having learned to see.
So for me God is loving. That is my interpretation. That is my vision of God. And I have had experiences where I “felt” that Divine Love. That’s how I have learned to see.