One of the most fascinating things about life is that each person lives and experiences life through a unique set of filters which create a one-of-a-kind “reality.” One’s personal world view may or may not bear much resemblance to what is actually going on. For example, a person who is colorblind “sees” different colors than the majority would identify. One who is prejudiced against a particular group of people ascribes attributes to an individual of that group that may or may not be true reflections of that person. We rely heavily (perhaps too heavily) on what we “see” while seldom checking whether our perceptions are accurate. Perhaps this is why one of the first rules of effective communication is to get verification from the other person that what you heard is what they said. Sometimes we read so much between the lines that we can’t really hear what is being said.
In addition to our personal perceptual twists and turns, there are multiple layers of external influences that color our view of reality. Parents typically teach their children to view the world as they do — spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically, politically, financially, etc. What is familiar seems right or normal — sometimes even when being manipulated or abused by others. One’s gender, social status, place in history, religion, culture, ethnicity, social norms etc. all color our sense of reality and tend to present us with a “we are right and others who don’t agree with us are wrong” point of view.
Human consciousness can be either a myopic and stagnant point of view or a living and potentially evolving state of awareness and wisdom. What we see and experience in this world is an accurate reflection of our state of consciousness.
As a philosophy major in college, I was first introduced to the thought that there are multiple levels of human consciousness and the possibility of ascending to a higher perspective — like climbing a mountain and seeing new vistas unavailable at lower altitudes. This mind altering awareness came to me when studying Plato’s allegory of the cave found in The Republic, which explores the nature of justice. Plato describes prisoners, representative of the mass of humanity, sitting in chains that limited their focus to the wall in front of them. Between the prisoners and a fire that burned behind them, puppeteers walked with puppets and objects that cast shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners. Seeing and hearing shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see was their only reality. They knew nothing of the real causes of the shadows and echoes that formed their reality. One of them was released and was then able to see the puppets and the fire and to recognize the world of the prisoners as merely shadows — reflections of a larger reality. As he further ascended out of the cave, he was blinded by the sun until acclimated to the light. When he returned to share his discovery with the remaining prisoners, he was blinded by the darkness and was therefore perceived as inferior by the others due to his lesser eyesight in their world and his strange tales that did not match their reality.
How often do we shun and vilify someone with an enlightened point of view that challenges our sense of reality? How often do we shoot the messenger in an attempt to silence the very thoughts that could set us free?
Being introduced to Plato’s allegory of the cave was the first time I had ever questioned my own sense of reality. During our discussions, my brain sometimes hurt from being stretched so much as we speculated about reality and reflection. Was I, like the prisoners in Plato’s cave, accepting without question or discernment what I perceived in life and what I was taught by my parents and teachers? Did I have myopic vision, as Plato’s prisoners did, that blinded me from entertaining other points of view? Did I even know how to think for myself? I wondered if we were all just brainwashed by what was familiar to us and whether or not our reality was simply being manipulated by others for their advantage, rather than for our mutual highest good. How were we to know what to challenge and what to accept as true? I had lots of questions and each question seemed to birth others in its wake. I had never really thought about any of this before.
Do you ever question your sense of reality? Or, do you assume that “your reality” is reality? As Plato suggests, the world we perceive through our senses is an inferior mock-up of what is really going on. He further proposes that reality can only be comprehended through the mind and that true teachers do not transfer knowledge to their students, but rather serve as wayshowers pointing students in the direction of apprehending for themselves what is real and important. Plato believed that those who are enlightened in a society bear a moral responsibility to serve the rest of society by showing them the way to ascend to a higher perspective. Who are your teachers? Where are they leading you? Are they empowering you or blinding you?
Plato’s commentary on the human condition cautions us that reality is not always what it seems to be on the surface. He urges us to keep our minds open to possibilities beyond what our senses can experience. Is your thinking boxed in or are you curious and learning all the time? Do you pay most of your attention to the minutia of daily life and the current political and social scene, or do you contemplate the really big questions of life like:
- What does it mean to live life successfully and how well am I living my life?
- What kind of relationships am I creating, promoting and allowing in my life?
- What is the purpose of human life?
- What is the purpose of my life?
- Where does our breath come from?
- Does God exist? And, if so, how does that inform my life and how I live it?
- Is there a whole lot more going on here than meets my eyes?
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