Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Thoughts on perception

From Wikipedia:

"Perception (from the Latin perceptio, percipio) is the process of attaining awareness or understanding of the environment by organizing and interpreting sensory information. All perception involves signals in the nervous system, which in turn result from physical stimulation of the sense organs. Perception is not the passive receipt of these signals, but can be shaped by learning, memory and expectation. Perception involves these "top-down" effects as well as the "bottom-up" process of processing sensory input. Perception depends on complex functions of the nervous system, but subjectively seems mostly effortless because this processing happens outside conscious awareness."

     It is interesting that the biggest hurdle in changing our perception of things lies in the fact that we are often unaware of what influences it in the first place.  As explained above,  perception occurs outside conscious thought yet it can be changed through training and experience. Our perception is the product of years of development in the physical, mental and emotional levels of our being; it is affected by our environment, both physical and social; the people who we interact with; our schooling and religion or lack thereof.  Some of these things we might have some actual knowledge of their origin; some have deep relations with our childhood that we have forgotten yet a sole memory surfaces ever slightly, making us wonder where it came from and why does it make us feel in such a way.

     If we are not cognizant of what makes the nuts and bolts of our perception, how can we change it to our benefit? This is a tough endeavor, especially since many of the things that make our view of what the world is and what happens in it are rooted in our ego (never mind Star Trek, the ego is the final frontier and the toughest one to overcome).  As such, we might think we want them changed, while inside we scream to be left alone.  No scarier thing to face than the death of the self... But back to the problem at hand, recognizing gaps in our perception and how to bridge them somehow.

     Ronald B. Adler on his book Looking Out, Looking In states there are four steps used in matching meaning with our experiences: selection, organization, interpretation and negotiation. Selection deals with what stimuli we choose to pay attention to or ignore; organization entails  arranging these in some way we can use; interpretation of our perceptions to make use of the stimuli received; and negotiation which involves our interactions with others and their own perceptions.  Many variables can have profound influence on any of these.

     Applied to the study of martial arts, now that we have compartmentalized  the makings of our perception it might be easier to identify areas where our previous knowledge and experience is lacking. For example, let's look at selection: how do we discern a true attack from a feint, which techniques work for us personally, etc.  What about interpretation? Understanding and properly recognizing precursors of violence are largely based on our training and experience (or lack thereof).  Many steps of the development of perception correlate and fluidly evolve and change, like being kicked in the face in sparring (stimuli) can make someone ignore previous training (selection) therefore breaking down previously thought of and practiced responses (organization) and alter how that person continues the fight (negotiation). The process of effecting changes to our perception can be a result of long study and life experience, or something sudden and unexpected.

   Awareness in battle

  My friend Dan Djurdjevic wrote a great article on Legend and the martial arts  that describes the type of influence perception can have in our understanding of what we are learning or hope to learn.  The stories of past masters and their incredible feats notwithstanding, the real abilities displayed by some teachers can be perceived as "magic" or "supernatural" due to our lack of knowledge regarding what is really happening.  A person who trains 30 + years at doing one thing will be able to do it so effortlessly that it might seem almost impossible to someone who has no idea what it took to achieve such skill.  As Michelangelo said once, "If people only knew how hard I work to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all."

 Breaking concrete is one of those "magical" karate skills

     The martial arts in Japan have several methods to achieve clarity of perception, rooted in such terms as zanshin (combat awareness), mushin (no self mind) and fudoshin (immovable mind). All the methods to augment our capacities of perception and find these lofty states of being we sometimes try to emulate from our instructors, but without having put in the time to develop the experience and understanding necessary to really make them a part of us we end up with an incomplete picture, or worse still deluding ourselves into believing we have gained an understanding. Even teachers can be guilty of this, which does not bode well for the students who might follow...

 Zanshin, "remaining mind"

      During training as well as in everyday life it is important to maintain awareness (zanshin), and let any situation at hand develop while keeping an objective mind so as to best perceive as many factors involved as possible. Hard to do with all the things that threaten to disrupt our mental and emotional balance each day; but practice and study can go a long way to filter the stimuli we receive into a more cohesive and useful pattern of perception to aid rather than hamper us.

     Perception... it is all pervasive yet we go through life mostly oblivious to its grip on what we do, think and feel.  Let us not forget that during our waking moments anything could bring about a momentous change in how we perceive ourselves, others and the world around us, be it through providence or our own efforts.


1 comment:

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