Sunday, January 09, 2011

Direct Perception

'Direct perception' is the act of perceiving something directly i.e. without any intermediary lenses. This implies that when perception is not direct but is through intermediate lenses, it is not perception of reality but is perception of a function of reality. For e.g., if someone criticizes us, instead of either accepting or refuting it merely on the basis of facts, we get angry or feel depressed. Thus we perceive the criticism as an attack on our ego. Thus, we perceive the criticism through the lens of our ego thereby making it indirect perception. There are so many verses in the yoga sutras that point at this. Krishnamurthi, one of the most exalted thinkers of the twentieth century, spoke about this again and again. Entire branches of zen buddhism are devoted to this. Why? What are the factors that prevent direct perception? What happens when direct perception does not happen? Lets dig deeper.

There are many external and internal factors that prevent direct perception. On a foggy wintry morning, we cannot clearly perceive what lies ahead. Is this what is being referred to? Well, trivially this is also connected to direct perception. But, in reality, we cannot do too much about these things. Ultimately we can only perceive information that reaches us. May be technology can help us in overcoming some or even many physical limitations. For a moment lets set aside all limitations of technology and assume that we somehow have the capability to overcome all physical limitations thereby eliminating external factors from affecting perception. Would we then be able to do direct perception? The answer, according to yoga or any other eastern philosophy, is a resounding no.

The principal reason for this is the corruption of the mind. Whatever we perceive has to necessarily pass through the mind. If the mind alters the information that passes through it, then the perceiver will not perceive reality. For e.g, the numbing poverty in India. We look at so many lepers / beggars on the road. We hardly feel anything for them. If they approach us for some alms, we usually shrug them off while a person from a first world country may be moved at the plight of the child. The difference is not that they are more compassionate than Indians but one of direct perception. There are so many of them that it is demanding to respond calmly to each one of them. But, the fact is that our past history of seeing many of them conditions our present when we are dealing with a beggar. Thus, our perception of the beggar in this moment is done through the lens of our past encounters. This imperfect perception necessarily leads to insensitivity which is one of the most intense forms of suffering.

Consider this conversation between two friends, Mr.Gogo and Mr.Popo. GoGo has a hearing machine that changes everything that is told to him into something totally different.
PoPo: You have bananas in your ears.
GoGo: Yup, I like hot lemon flavoured chinese soup.

PoPo: Are you mad? I said, you have bananas in your ears.
GoGo: What, there are martians on Anna salai? You must be kidding!

PoPo: Why are you blabbering nonsense?
GoGo: Yup, I am going to a concert today.

On many occasions, something similar happens with all of us. While reality is one thing, our mind makes it appear to us as something totally different. For e.g., the same event is viewed differently by a communist, in another way by a hindu and in a totally different way by a scientist. For e.g., look at the Kumbh Mela - a divine event for a hindu, an interesting agglomeration of primates in massive numbers for a scientist, and an utter waste of time and resources for a communist.

Why is there this difference? If everyone concerned has all the needed information, then the only difference is their minds and hence its their minds that make things appear differently. Most individuals have minds that are biased in certain directions. A hindu wants to interpret things that favor hir belief, a christian hir own and so on. Naturally, none of them actually discover the truth for a mind that is priorly biased in a certain direction can never arrive at the truth. A weighing machine that has a zero error can never measure accurately.

Ramana, the great seer!

Thus, direct perception is that perception that is not corrupted by any prior biases of the mind. The above examples of biases, namely communism or hinduism are all a manifestation of a root bias. This root bias is explained in many ways by different people. It may be explained through ego, or the sense of me that is different from the rest of creation. This makes a hindu feel he/she is different from a muslim (imagine the violence parents unleash on kids when they marry a person of another religion). It may also be explained in terms of memory. We constantly react and respond to memory. If two of us have a fight today evening, neither of us are free to give each other a warm hug in the morning, thereby we do not perceive that moment directly and instead we perceive it through the lens of yesterdays fight. When this bias leaves the individual, the mind is cleansed of all impurities and direct perception becomes a reality. Patanjali points at this in many ways:
a.) smrtiparisuddhau svarupa sunya iva arthamatranirbhasa nirvitarka - (Samadhi pada: 43)
When memory is cleansed, it is as if the sense of self has left us and this state is called nirvitarka samadhi. The sense of self is the major reason for prevention of direct perception. Thus, when memory is cleansed, direct perception becomes possible.

b.) rtambhara tatra prajnya - (Samadhi pada: 48)
People who have reached the highest state, are continuously in touch with absolute reality. This means, all of their perception is direct for absolute reality can never be known through any other form.

c.) pratyaksa anumana agamah pramanani - (Samadhi pada: 7)
Pratyaksha (direct perception), inference and reference are ways of obtaining right knowledge. Patanjali places direct perception at the top of the three ways of obtaining right knowledge. The other two forms may be used to understand that our normal means of understanding are actually flawed. Direct perception is eventually the only way of arriving at the truth. No scriptures or vedas, which are simply references, can actually help us discover the truth.

To conclude, only direct perception puts us in touch with reality. A kiss from ones beloved cannot be received via a messenger. It necessarily needs to be direct. So is perception of reality. If we cannot perceive reality directly, then we live our lives in falsehood and thereby cause suffering to us and people around us. And in order to perceive directly, we need to have a relentless quest for truth and must be willing to set aside all our preconceived notions and our own built up sense of image of ourselves.

PS: This was a write up I prepared as part of a presentation on Direct Perception in my yoga class.


Sandhya said...

Hmmm ..Interesting read Patha..

Anonymous said...

Hi Partha,

Nice one. Whenever there is a negative emotion - finding fault, fear, worry, self pity and so on,
direct perception is missing as well.
One practical usefulness of this research - how to get the direct perception - will help us become happier people. (Ofcourse if you are in touch with self, then you are happy).

tell us how to get there :)