How is it we can muddle through life and not be perpetually gripped by all the beauty and mystery around us? How is it the gaze of our attention rests MOSTLY on our daily struggles, on stories of suffering and fear, punctuated by advertisements that propel us toward infinitely new, fleeting desires, and hours of mindless amusement after long days of stress and work.
It’s not as if we wake up and consciously decide, man, I *hope* I’m not immersed in a beautiful sunrise this morning. Or transfixed by the concert of tastes in my first meal of the day. Or lost within one of the of great books available to all humanity. Or caught within a well of gratitude for loved ones. Or captured staring at the bark of a tree, wondering how many millions of years of evolution led to such a marvelous design. No – we don’t actively decide to ignore these things. It just seems to happen… until something shakes us, and forces us to see our own blind spots. We suddenly realize we might be limiting our view. If we are lucky, our awareness subsequently expands.
Why does this blindness happen? Consider Aldous Huxley’s point about the nature of our mind, which suggests our brains have evolved to limit what we perceive to aid our goals. This is an insight that hit him while using mescaline (a psychedelic).
“As Huxley describes, under the influence of psychedelics you can become entirely absorbed in the folds of your trousers: ‘I looked down by chance and went on passionately staring by choice, at my own crossed legs. Those folds in the trousers – what a labyrinth of endlessly significant complexity! And the texture of the grey flannel – how rich, how deeply, mysteriously sumptuous!’
The mind works to “screen out all those perceptions that do not directly aid us in our day-to-day struggle for existence”. We don’t normally pay any attention to the splendor of something like a chair because if we were to do so, we’d never have time to do more important things, like feeding ourselves. The brain normally screens out “noise”, even though plenty of that noise may well be very interesting. Huxley suggests his experience with mescaline re-opened his sense of wonder and allowed him to make contact with an “other world”. He might have lost some of his senses (“There seems to be plenty of it was all I would answer when the investigator asked me to say what I felt about time”) but others are marvelously heightened. He says the drug allows him to access a “sacramental vision” of reality where objects glow with significance.”
– Sam Jordison, on Aldous Huxley’s ‘Doors of Perception’
Breaking the Spell
Despite the context of Huxley’s words, the advice here is not to run off and do psychedelics (although, be my guest…). Rather, it’s to point out an embedded insight, which I posit is accessible to any person, any time, in the right frame-of-mind, sans mescaline:
It is absolutely fucking miraculous, that we are alive, that everything around us is alive, and animated, and right NOW is the culmination of billions of years of chained events, which we are all connected to.
If you have reasonable health, a clear mind, food, shelter, and access to books and the internet, art, and music, then you may as well be the richest person alive. You are a human being. You can set goals, you can think, you can learn, you can grow, you can love your friends and family. You can do more good than harm in the world. What a privilege. These simple things are the source of all sustainable wellbeing.
Be aware, your mind is a loyal servant, and will restrict attention to only what is essential to accomplish your goals. It seems essential then, to anchor goals in a rich diversity of good values. To stay inquisitive and curious about the entire world. To avoid a rut of routine, and stagnation, to avoid being lured into defense against boredom with vapid entertainment and soul-numbing greed, hate, and fear. To gently remind yourself of these things again and again.
Meditate. Exercise. Sleep well. Listen to others with your whole heart. Watch your cravings. Cultivate your aspirations. Be grateful.
Most importantly – watch carefully for the limits of your own views, which you will reliably discover throughout the course of your life.
Embrace the opportunity to recognize the edge of your perception and expand your horizon.