We have lost the ability to see. The majority of us allow ourselves to passively go about the day without pausing for a moment to ask what exactly it is that we are perceiving.
The depth of our ability to perceive is virtually infinite. Pause for a moment and focus on an object. You could theoretically spend a lifetime evaluating the infinite amount of data contained in that one object. With each passing moment of intentional perception, there is a process by which that object can reveal some new quality to your perception.
Many of us feel a lack of meaning within our lives because we have been conditioned to close our eyes to the meaning written into the very fabric of the world. The solution to our proverbial blindness lies in the practice of mindfulness.
What is Mindfulness?
Although there are many interpretations of what mindfulness means, it essentially entails a process of being mindful of why something becomes the object of your intentional perception. Why do we intentionally fixate on objects, people, and ideas?
For example, when I enter a room, what are the first things that call out for me to perceive them? It could be an aesthetic painting on the wall, or my gaze could be directed immediately out the window to a sunset. Yet, the more my gaze pierces into the object of my perception, the more qualities it reveals to me.
However, we cannot be in a constant state of radical mindfulness, as that would make our brains feel like they are overloaded. Rather, the purpose of mindfulness is to ask oneself, “HOW am I perceiving the world around me, and is it in a meaningful manner?”
Mindfulness and Relevance Realization
Studies in the field of cognitive science have proposed that our perception focuses on objects to a lesser or more substantial degree through a process called relevance realization.
Relevance realization is the process by which our mind attempts to pinpoint what matters in any given situation. This can stem from deciding between two types of food based on nutritional value or deciding fundamental beliefs after exposure to new ideas.
What relevance realization points to is the fact that human beings have a mindful consciousness that can predict outcomes, abstract meaning from objects, and ponder information to realize whether or not it is relevant to ourselves. We have a radically unique ability to bring relevant information to the forefront of our consciousness and explore what that information means. Yet, to become more mindful, we must explore the processes that cause us to find value in the world.
The Processes of Mindfulness
We perceive the world through patterns of signs and symbols. When we look at an object in the world, the meaning that object has to us is pointing to something else.
For example, a stop sign, although just a combination of metal, paint, and red and white, points to the command “stop.” We don’t have to think particularly hard when we see a stop sign; the command that it embodies is immediately and relevantly apparent. Yet, the word “stop” is just a symbol the English language has created and uses to signify that someone ought to end whatever they are doing, whether that be in their mind or physically. Meaning words are symbolic as they signify something in the objective world. When we use the word “dog,” it doesn’t make a dog anymore or less of a dog; we just use the word to signify that there is a dog in the world.
To become more mindful, we have to recognize how our mind begins to perceive the world, which is through pattern regularities. Everything that we perceive is a sign that points to a symbol (word or number). We make sense of things by observing these patterns consistently and conforming our minds to the objective world.
Once we observe pattern regularities, we form a prioritization of value. We tell ourselves that “some signs and symbols are more important than others.” For instance, I know that there are patterns of behavior that are signs of dishonest behavior. When the pattern of someone’s words does not correspond to what I know to be true in the world, I would say that they are dishonest. Honesty is something that I have prioritized high in my value prioritization, so I would say that the patterns, signs, and symbols of honest behavior are more valuable than dishonest behavior.
However, my perception does not end with how I prioritize value. After I have realized that “some signs and symbols are more important than others,” I compartmentalize my values into an ethic.
An ethic is the belief that myself and others OUGHT to prioritize value in a certain way. With honesty, I do not believe that only I should be honest, rather, I believe that other people OUGHT to be honest as well and avoid dishonesty.
Each of these three processes reveals that our perception is mindful and moving towards something. We are not just passively taking in information and data—our perceptions are highly intentional.
But how can we meditate on these processes to become more mindful? The answer lies in how we intentionally interact with the world to form values.
We are always prioritizing things as either more or less valuable. The question becomes, what is our highest value? Whatever our highest prioritized value is, it would follow that everything we encounter would be seen through the lens of whatever we value most.
For many, the value they prioritize most is power. Not always in the sense of having power over people, but having control over money, success, and relationships. When power becomes the highest value, we begin to interact with the world in a way where everything is through the lens of utility. We begin to only take from the world and lose sight of the possibility that the world is a gift.
Yet, if our highest value is love or willing the good of others above our own, we can interact with the world in an authentic manner, treating reality as something to accept, not as a world that only serves the self. We must ask ourselves whether or not we are intentionally perceiving the world as love or the world as power.
By accepting that our perceptions do not make the world what it is but only help us make sense of it, we begin to see that there is truth, beauty, and goodness written into the fabric of the world. The world calls out to us to perceive it authentically—we just have to open our eyes.