Do we really see things as they are or see what we want to see? Recently I listened to an audio talk given by Ajahn Sister Vayama who is the abbot of a Buddhist monastery in Australia. When I first listened to this talk a year back I was tremendously affected by it. I vowed to practice many of the things that Sister Vayama talked about and may have even done so for a few days. As time passes, many things that inspire us ,when we first encounter them, slowly slip out of our minds and are soon completely forgotten.
Fortunately I stumbled across the talk and listened to it once again and I can tell you I was equally impressed this time round as well. The talk is about how we filter whatever we encounter in the present moment through our past experience. The past experiences are sometimes good and at other times bad. Our past influences our perception, feelings, thoughts and our actions. Sister Vayama gave a great example of this phenomenon. It goes something like this: let us suppose someone donates a few green plastic chairs to us. This act of charity can be perceived in different ways. If we like the people who gave the green plastic chairs we might say to ourselves that it was a very thoughtful gift. Then we might start attributing different qualities to the chairs. For example, we might say that the chairs are so comfortable, colourful and pleasing to the eye. We may also add that they are so very light and can be easily carried from place to place. We might even say that they match the décor as well as the nice garden. We start having warm and fuzzy feelings towards the people who donated them. The next time we meet them we might greet them effusively, thank them profusely for their kindness and enquire about their welfare and so on and so forth. Now imagine a situation where the chairs were donated by people who we did not like in the first place. We might start telling ourselves, how thoughtless it was of them to give such cheap plastic chairs. The green colour might not only look ugly but actually diminish the beauty of the surroundings. On top of everything the chairs may feel very uncomfortable and make us doubt if their shape would suit anyone’s back? The lightness of the chairs, instead of being a virtue, could be considered a handicap because they never would stay in one place. The poor chairs are the same in both scenarios. It is our previous experience with the people who donated the chairs that influences how we perceive the gift, the feelings and thoughts that are aroused in us and ultimately how we act.
I am sure all of us at one time or the other have been victims of the above phenomenon. Every event that we encounter in the present moment is filtered through the past and influences our perceptions, thoughts, emotions and behaviour. In his fantastic book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner, refers to this as the ‘Halo Effect’ which he defines as “the tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person- including things that you have not observed” (italics mine). The emotions that are attached to our first impressions of a person generally shape our interpretations of that person’s subsequent behaviour. By the way, Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fantastic book. Get it and read it if you can. It could potentially reduce your habitual way of thinking.
Kahneman coined an acronym, WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is), to describe what we can do to overcome this tendency. Mindfulness training helps you do exactly that—see things as they are and not through lenses of our preconceived notions, prejudices, likes and dislikes.