How We Learn To See
We all grow up learning to see the world in our own unique way. Our picture is shaped by what we learn from our parents and from our interactions with the world. For most of us, that particular picture limits our ability to “see” outside of the frame that our picture is hung within. For many, the image of the world that was learned was further impacted by traumatic and painful experiences that further narrowed how they were able to view the world and what new experiences they were able, or willing to, let in. The less able we are to see the world with new eyes the more stuck we are in our current paradigm.
The experiences that created our worldview are literally etched in our brains in the form of mental models, schemas, or neural pathways and also embedded in our bodies in the form of armor and conditioned responses whose initial purpose was to protect us from further harm. In the west, the tendency is for our mental models to form within the framework of a self-limiting and separatist ego that isolates us from others and from new experiences in order to maintain its integrity (image of itself). We use both the way that we think and the way that we inhabit our bodies to define our separateness and to protect ourselves. The more trauma we experience the more this is true.
So, how does one peek outside this box that we have come to inhabit? How can we change the way we see and experience the world so that the painful self-limiting picture we have developed can open itself to new thoughts, images, and experiences that allow us to literally and figuratively let go of the pain that has shaped our world and our experiences?
Learning to See Differently Through Mindfulness
One way is to shift from ego-based western thought to a more open and interconnected framework like Buddhism. I only use Buddhism as one example of how we can change views by learning to experience the world in new and different ways. It is not the only way. Sitting meditation or mindfulness, for example, teaches us to view thoughts as empty, to see all humans as interconnected, and to view compassion as that which binds us together.
As one engages in sitting he begins to experience the world and himself differently. Through flashes of insight and awareness gradually he begins to experience and interact with the world in dramatically different ways. Mindfulness can support opening to pain that we've keep hidden away, to learn to accept ourselves exactly as we are with compassion, to use that compassion to connect with others who have also experienced pain, and to reduce our isolation.
Using Somatic Practices
Engaging the body through somatic practices like centering provides another path to self–awareness and more freedom. As you learn to experience your body at rest you also, by contrast, notice the conditioned responses and armor that has formed to protect the Self from further harm and pain. Learning to be fully present and recognize when we respond from old patterns allows us the opportunity to make new choices rather than to continue to be reactive and guard against new experiences that might help to chip away at old narrow ways of experiencing the world creating a paradigm shift.
The Intersection of Science and the Mind
Neuroscience is teaching us much about how the mind operates and how we learn. Scientists have been able to outline for us how repeated experience carves out neural pathways that become our way of "seeing" the world and creates habits based on those repeated behaviors. They've also shown us how, through changing our behaviors and practicing new skills, we can create new visions of the world and new habits more in line with a new and more desirable Self-image.
The change from Newtonian physics to Einstein's physics did not come with the flick of a switch. Over a period of time anomalies occurred during research that led to new thoughts and questions and therefore new possibilities. Eventually, these little glimpses of a different worldview coalesced into a whole new paradigm that makes us wonder how we ever lived under what was, up until then, the only way to view the world.
By slowly changing our habits and behaviors we too can eventually discover anomalies that open us to new questions and awareness and carve out in our minds eye a new way of seeing and being in the world.
Dr. Dan holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Seattle University, completed doctoral level work in Counseling Psychology at the University of Southern California, and holds a Master’s degree in Psychology. He brings a wealth of experience from his background as a school psychologist, mental health counselor, marriage and family therapist, coach, and special education administrator. He has worked in the mental health and educational fields for the past 30 years.