Look around you. What do you notice? There are endless things in both your external and internal environment that you could notice. Given that you can’t possibly notice everything, why do you notice what you do? What you perceive from among all the stimuli in your environment is biased by your preferences, and your preferences are conditioned by past experiences. (Previously in “Dharma Wisdom e-Teaching,” I addressed how preferences become habituated.) Therefore, before you can consciously form a mental impression of what you perceive, your options for responding have already been limited by your preferences. Mindfulness practice can help you break your habit of prejudicial perception and help you meet each moment of life with intention.
The Buddha taught that perception is one of the five aggregates that comprise each moment of experience. The five aggregates are matter, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.* The way these aggregates coalesce in a moment can create suffering, or not. You can affect whether suffering occurs by developing new habits of perception, thereby changing what you notice in the future.
It takes effort and practice to break old patterns of perception. You are essentially developing a new relationship to “pleasant” and becoming mindful that what matters in life is something greater than “happiness,” which is fleeting. You are discovering that “pleasant” and “happiness” aren’t reliable sources of well-being. And you are developing the capacity to meet pleasant and unpleasant moments of life equally, which conditions future moments of perception and leads to a sustained sense of well-being.
Mindfulness Practice for Working with Perception:
-In your daily life, be interested in perception and in what you notice. Is what you notice causing suffering or not causing suffering? Take one person that repeatedly upsets or frustrates you, such as a co-worker, and cultivate noticing something positive or neutral about them.
-Cultivate a “don’t know mind” around perception. Notice how quickly you make a story of liking or disliking something that draws your attention. See if it’s possible for you to just notice that it’s getting your attention and keep a “don’t know mind” about it instead of immediately drawing an opinion.
-Practice perceiving each moment of your life as a dharma moment. Right now, rather than focusing on your preferences regarding the present moment be interested in the quality of your mind. Are you restless, frustrated, defensive, in a good mood, feeling generous, etc.? Notice how the quality of your mind is affecting what you perceive.
Working with the Five Aggregates in Meditation Practice:
Notice when one of your senses makes contact with a stimulus. The stimulus has to be sufficiently strong to attract your attention, so notice if the strength of that stimulus was due to it being pleasant or unpleasant. Be aware that you’ve only noticed certain aspects of that stimulus. Watch how your mind layers views, opinions, and reactions upon that stimulus and sometimes upon yourself. Finally, notice that you are conscious of this relationship between your mind and the stimulus. Reflect on the fact that you have the possibility of bringing this kind of awareness to each moment on your cushion.
For further study, listen to Phillip’s talk on Preferences, Perception, and Practice.
*You can find an excellent, concise explanation of the five aggregates in What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula (Grove Press, 1974).