I have been leading a retreat in Italy and learnt two things yesterday, each concerning my perception of the world that I thought I was seeing accurately.
The first came after I spoke about the purpose and value of ‘doing something for Lent’, which these daily readings for the past few weeks have returned to regularly. How doing something and not doing something can help re-orientate our minds and hearts, shift old patterns and even, without doing violence to us, trigger or enhance deeper levels of transformation. I assumed that a fair proportion of the hundred or so people I was talking to would have done something or given something up. It was a naïve assumption because when I asked for a show of hands of people who had a Lenten practice, and expecting at least fifty percent, only a very few did so. Now maybe they misunderstood me. Or maybe they were applying the warning of Jesus not to parade your good deeds before men. I don’t know. We misperceive our misperceptions too.
If I was right I had made a mental misperception. Later I was given two powerful digital art works made with striking colours and dynamically abstract. As I looked at them longer I saw a face in one. In the other I saw a shape that reminded me of an extra-terrestrial, though I didn’t say this to the artist. After a third look it struck me that the face I saw was very familiar and I did mention this. The artist looked at me, surprised that I had not recognised myself. When I looked at the other painting the alien merged into a new composition and I saw a different view of my face there too.
To become aware of our misperceptions of reality is always humbling and can also be humorous and enjoyable. In more serious matters where our reputation or privileges are challenged by acknowledging our mistakes we may pretend we always saw things correctly and were misunderstood in what we said before – or we simply deny and evade the embarrassment. As effective leaders know, it is always better to admit mistakes and if necessary say ‘sorry’ but it takes a contemplative detachment from ourselves and our image to do this.
One of the values of an ascetical discipline is the humility, the down-to-earthness it brings. We never practice them perfectly because, even if we are consistent, a measure of self-congratulation can always creep in. But the humble fidelity to what we set out to do nevertheless creates a detachment, an optimum distance from ourselves and our subjective view of the world. It allows our powers of perception to function within the flow of events rather than creating a model of reality that we defend at all costs even when it has been exposed as false.
This personal trait, which we can all be subject to without knowing it, also affects the collective psyche. Electorates who have made a big mistake, which is pointed out to them by subsequent events, rarely see reason and change their mind. To change our mind is the essence of human development. Like snakes we grow skins of perception that we have to learn to shed without regret when the time is come; just as, one day, we have shuffle off our mortal coil and enter naked into the kingdom where we see with perfect vision because we no longer objectify reality.
Instead of looking at it (and getting it wrong much of the time) we see with the eyes of the artist who made both us and the world that we are ever one with. Ultimately, we see because we see that we are seen.