Perception and the Mystery of the Unknown

If you are seeking true Reality, since Reality is All, it must be here, now.
If you are seeking your true Self, since you are here, your Self too must be here, now.
Whatever word you are using for ‘That’, you may not see It, you may not know what It is, but for sure It must be here, now.
No need to reach It by any progressive practice.
And what is here, now?
An amazing amount of manifold perceptions that appear and disappear in the boundless sentient space that you are.

What is perception?

The word ‘perception’ comes from the Latin percipi, which is formed by the prefix per- (‘through’, ‘by means of’) and by the verb capio, whose ancient indoeuropean root kap- means ‘to receive’, ‘to take inside’, ‘to contain’. See for example the Greek kaptein (to take, to understand), the Latin caput (head) and capere (to take, to contain, to grasp, to understand), the German haben (to have) and haupt (head, to capture), the Italian capo (the head), captare (to pick up, to receive) and catturare (to capture).

So, if we provisionally rely on the viewpoint of both contemporary science and common sense, the term ‘perception’ means to take what is ‘out there’ into oneself through some means of knowledge. The per- (‘through’, ‘by means of’) is quite relevant here: actually the so-called sense data are not taken inside just as they are, because they are processed by some intervening means of knowledge (sensory channels and thought) that inevitably change them. Therefore we don’t simply receive bare sense data as they are, but rather build up an inner description of them: perception is a mental construct. Moreover, each perception singles out one aspect of reality that appears as if it were separate from the Whole: thence a dualistic and delusive description of reality arises which we mistake for reality itself, bringing forth a sense of separation, lack and alienation that is the source of all our suffering.

There are three main aspects that coalesce into perception, namely sense data, conceptual thought and attention. We usually believe that bare sense data (i.e. colors, tastes, odors, sounds and tactile sensations) are the ‘objective side’ of perception, i.e. what is ‘given’ out there. But this is not the case at all. In order to explain, let’s briefly analyze visual experience according to the psychology and physiology of perception.  First of all, we never actually see objects like trees, clouds, houses, cars and so on. In fact, we can only see light. Light is a narrow range of frequencies belonging to the wide spectrum of electro-magnetic waves. Beyond this narrow range, higher and lower electro-magnetic frequencies (like, for example cosmic rays, infrared rays, radioactivity or radio waves) are totally invisible to our eyes.

When light comes across any object, some frequencies are ‘absorbed’ by the object according to the specific ‘vibrations’ of its atomic structure, while other frequencies are ‘rejected’ (i.e. reflected) by it. Only the latter reach our eyes, so we are unable to see both the objects and the light frequencies that fit their atomic vibrations: we can only see what objects reject, which is somehow similar to a photographic negative image. When light reaches our eyes, it energizes the optic nerve, where electro-magnetic stimula of light are ‘translated’ into electro-chemical pulses, which activate the nervous system in such a way that a magic show of colours appears in our consciousness. Therefore colours are quite different from the electro-magnetic waves that originate them, although we could assume that one and the same wave-pattern is traveling along different ways of transmission (i.e. electro-magnetic and electro-chemical pulses). But this ‘translation’ process goes even further, because we don’t see mere patches of colours: our brain adds lines, edges, patterns, forms and perspective, according to some instant interpretative rules, such as, for example, “interrupted colour means ‘behind’”, “uninterrupted colour means ‘in front’”, and so on.  So what we call ‘bare sense data’ are actually a mental construction at the end of a complex process of translation operated by our nervous system.

This process of translation-interpretation becomes more and more complex with the activation of the second aspect of perception: conceptual thought based on language. In perception, through names and concepts we organize sense data in patterns that we recognize as separate objects (houses, cars, trees, and so forth).  According to Constructivism, every experience is an interpretation of bare sense data through language, therefore we cannot perceive what we haven’t a word for. Moreover, all that is perceived through different names appears as a fragmented set of discrete entities. In the field of linguistics, Benjamin Whorf writes:

“We say ‘See that wave’. […] But without the projection of language no one ever saw a single wave. […] Scientists, as well as all, unknowingly project the linguistic patterns of a particular type of language upon the universe, and SEE them there, rendered visible on the very face of nature. […] Segmentation of nature is an aspect of grammar. […] We cut up and organize the spread and flow of events as we do, largely because, through our mother language, we are parties to an agreement to do so, not because nature itself is segmented in exactly that way for all to see […] We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds – and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language.[…] We are constantly reading into nature fictional acting entities, simply because our verbs must have substantives in front of them. We have to say […] “A light flashed”, setting up an actor, […] “light”, to perform what we call an action, “to flash”. Yet the flashing and the light are one and the same! […] By these more or less distinctive terms we ascribe a semi-fictious isolation to parts of experience. English terms, like “sky, hill, swamp”, persuade us to regard some elusive aspect of nature’s endless variety as a distinct THING. […]”

Thus English and similar tongues lead us to think of the universe as a collection of rather distinct objects and events corresponding to words.

In Indian thought, the ancient precursor of this constructivistic perspective is the concept of nāma-rūpa. Nāma means ‘name’ and rūpa means ‘perceptible form’. They are joined together in one compound word just to emphasize that we can only perceive a form through a name.

No name, no form.
Many names, many forms.

So our perception of a multiplicity of separate entities comes from language. The Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad says:

“Now, all this universe was then undifferentiated. It became differentiated by name and form: it was known by such and such a name and such and such a form. Thus to this day this universe is differentiated by name and form; so it is said. ‘He has such a name and such a form.’ […] He who meditates on one or another of Its aspects does not know, for It is then incomplete: the Self is separated from Its totality by being associated with a single characteristic. The Self alone is to be meditated upon, for in It all these become unified. Of all these, this Self alone should be known, for one knows all these through It, just as one may find an animal which is lost through its footprints.”

Later on, Śaṅkara and advaita-vedānta mantained that the illusory perception of multiplicity arises by superimposing concepts (stocked in memory) on ‘what is’ now, in such a way that the indivisible Whole appears as a mass of discrete entities limited by their names. Superimposition (adhyāsa) and limitation (upādhi) through names and concepts are the origin of māyā’s illusion.

For example, a rose seems completely different and separate from garbage or from a thorny branch.  Nevertheless, that which now we call ‘rose’ was in fact a thorny branch fifteen days ago and in another fifteen days, it will be garbage.  A rose even seems separate from water, from the earth, from the clouds and from the sun, and yet it is literally made of the nourishment absorbed from the earth, the water sprinkled from the clouds and the light of the sun, which warms it.  ‘Rose’, ‘branch’, ‘garbage’, ‘water’, ‘earth’, ‘cloud’, ‘sun’ are only different names assigned time and again to one, indivisible process that we call ‘universe’, where no particular form can be isolated from the Whole just as in a river no single eddy can be separated from the current’s overall motion.

Even our own bodies are nothing more than a continuous flow of water, food, air and solar heat, which passing through us becomes ‘us’, so that it is impossible to strictly separate the ‘interior’ from the ‘exterior’.  Therefore through language our thought assigns specific names to various aspects of this huge, indivisible process called ‘universe’, giving rise to the perception of many different forms.   Each word is like a ‘frame’ that traces a conventional as well as arbitrary edge around some aspects of the Whole, differentiating an ‘inside’ as opposed to an ‘outside’ and thus creating the illusion that a specific form (for example the ‘rose’) is independent and separate from all other forms identified by different names (‘cloud’, ‘branch’, ‘earth’, ‘garbage’, ‘water’, ‘sun’ and so forth).

Moreover, names are static, incapable of capturing actual movement, just like photography, which is obliged, for example, to show a man running by means of many different photos of men frozen in motion.  Thus, after creating an illusory multiplicity of fixed and separate entities through language, we mistake this inadequate description of reality for reality itself, whereas the universe is just one formless process that appears as an amazing expanse of different, but not separate aspects.

The third aspect of perception is attention. This word comes from the Latin ad-tendere (to tend to), which implies a tension towards an object to be reached.  Attention is the precondition for perception to appear. No attention, no perception.  For example, when our attention is focused on reading a book, we fail to perceive the traffic noise, though our ears are well-functioning. Equally, we tend to ignore a regularly repeated noise, because attention is diverted from that specific perception by the so called ‘habituation process’.

Attention is quite different from awareness.
Awareness is the boundless sensitive space where all perceptions appear and disappear.
Attention is the name we give to the awareness of a single perception.
Attention is particular, awareness is global.

Attention is an imaginary narrowing of awareness through the channels of sense organs and conceptual thought, such that, in order to perceive something, it must ignore everything else. For example, in visual perception attention can see the figure only in contrast with the background, which goes unnoticed.
So we read the words and ignore the page.
We see the movie and forget the screen.
We miss the forest for the trees.

On the contrary, the light of awareness encompasses everything.  Actually the narrowing of awareness into attention is only imaginary, because awareness, like space, is boundless.

An analogy can help us to understand this point.  When you look at this room, your visual field is wide open. If a piece of paper with a small central hole is interposed before your eyes, you can see only a small portion of the room through the hole, therefore you get the impression that your visual field has been dramatically narrowed. But actually it remains wide open just as before, because it includes non only what is seen through the hole, but also the entire surface of the paper before your eyes. However, since you can see only a fragment of the room at the moment, a narrowing of your visual field seems quite apparent, though deceptive.

Similarly, awareness can be equated to the overall visual field that encompass both the paper and the hole, while attention is like the illusory narrowing of sight just into what appears through the hole.  Attention can only be focused on a single fragment of reality at a time, so it must shift serially from one point to another, giving rise to the dualistic perception of many discrete entities.  Awareness is global and motionless, so it encompasses any movement, including every shift of attention.

In order to see the difference between attention and awareness, you can try the following experiment:
Gaze upon the door handle in your room: there are both attention (= your eyes are exclusively focused on it) and awareness (= your consciousness is present). Now turn your eyes towards the window handle: again, while gazing upon it, there are both attention and awareness. While you were shifting your glance from the door handle to the window handle, were you conscious and awake?
Yes, of course. So, during that short time span, there was awareness (= you were present and alert) without attention (= your eyes were not focusing on any specific spot). Thus there can be awareness without attention, while no attention is possible without awareness.

Attention is irregular and discontinuous, awareness is constant.
Attention must select its object, awareness has no choice.
Attention implies effort, awareness is effortless.

Unlike attention, awareness:
…cannot be practiced, because it is spontaneous,
…cannot be stabilized, because it is steady,
…cannot be expanded, because it is boundless,
…cannot be deepened, because it is bottomless,
…cannot be developed, because it is already complete.
It is just like endless space.

Awareness is ever present: if there is concentration, we are aware of it; if there is distraction, we are aware of it as well. As Leo Harthong says: “No matter where you turn the spotlight of your attention, the floodlight of awareness is already there.” When a dancer is spotlighted on the stage, we actually see both the dancer and the light, yet the emphasis is laid only on the dancer, while the light goes unnoticed, though no dancer would appear without it. Similarly, attention emphasizes only the perceived object, neglecting the light of awareness. Nevertheless, every single perception points directly to its ever-present background: the very source of attention itself, that is the undeniable fact that we exist and are aware (existence-awareness). Whenever you ask yourself “Do I exist?”, you can immediately verify with absolute certainty that the answer is “Yes”.  Did you need to ponder on the answer, or the evidence of being was there before any thought? If you were not already present, how could you even think at all?  The sense of being (which the mind translates into the words “I am”) is the precondition for everything to appear: if first of all I am not here, then no perception, no sensation, no action, no thought can be experienced.

So existence-awareness (the fact that I am and that I know that I am) is prior to the appearance of anything else.  This sense of being is an undeniable actuality: even in order to negate it, one must first be there. We cannot avoid even for one moment being and being aware, since we don’t ‘have’ existence-awareness: we are it.  The sense of being is a too simple and immediate evidence for the thought to grasp: it is a non-conceptual awareness.

However, we can check that even awareness of being comes and goes: for example, when we are in a faint or in deep sleep, we don’t know that we are, though we obviously continue to be as well.  But since any change can be perceived only by virtue of a changeless background, who or what notices the coming and going of the sense of being? This Presence is the bottomless ground of everything, the unknown Source of awareness itself, so perfectly whole, full and non dual, that it has no need whatsoever to divide Itself in two (‘being’ and ‘awareness of being’). Since thought and language come from It and after It, as limited aspects of the Whole they cannot ‘com-prehend’ It, just like a room cannot contain the entire building to which it belongs.

It is an ineffable Mystery

Both words ‘mystery’ and ‘mysticism’ come from the indoeuropean root mu- (to shut one’s mouth): in the presence of What outreaches mind’s understanding, the only response is silence, wonder and awe. What could be more mysterious than non duality itself? Beyond any possible explanation  – and following the example of Tony Parson’s words –  we could say:

the Unknown appears as the known,
Being appears as becoming,
the Changeless appears as change,
Oneness appears as multiplicity,
the Self appears as individual egos,
the Boundless appears as the limited.

The Sanskrit word advaita means ‘non-dualism’ and points to the simple fact that in reality separation does not exist: there are differences, endless differences, but no actual separation. Not even the boundary between subject and object is real: the terms ‘consciousness’ and ‘world’ refer only to two different perspectives (in first or third person) describing one, indivisible reality, just as ‘ascent’ and ‘descent’ are two different words for the same slope, depending which way one is going.  For example, one single experience can be defined either as ‘hearing’ (if described in terms of the subject who hears something), or as ‘sound’ (if described in terms of the object heard). However, in the actual experience of hearing, one cannot establish a precise boundary where sound ends ‘out there’ and hearing begins ‘in here’: in fact, there is just one, immediate experience and only later on, in order to describe it, the thinking mind says “I heard a sound”, creating a deceptive subject/object duality.  ‘Non dualism’ does not even mean ‘monism’.  Indeed, monism affirms unity and negates multiplicity: in other words, it excludes pluralism, whereas nondualism never excludes anything at all.  Non dualism embraces everything: the one and the many, being and becoming, identity and difference, the personal and the impersonal, the absolute and the contingent, harmony and conflict, pleasure and pain, life and death. This revolutionary perspective – albeit evoked by both the enlightened experiences in many spiritual traditions and some ‘holistic’ developments in advanced contemporary science –  resists any attempt to describe it by thinking, because the way language works is intrinsically dualistic (omnis determinatio est negatio).

What is the relationship between the absolute and the contingent, between being and becoming, between unity and multiplicity?  We could equally ask: what is the relationship between the dancer and the dance?  On the one hand, they are just one and the same being, an indivisible whole.  On the other hand, there are some differences:  The dancer exists without the dance, while the dance cannot occur without the dancer.  The dancer knows the dance, whereas the dance cannot know the dancer. The dancer is always one, while the dance consists of manifold, ever changing forms.  The dance is nothing but the dancer’s activity, just as the waves, though inseparable from the ocean, are only a temporary expression of its overall movement and can never reach its abysmal depths.  Thus we are the dance of the universe, which observes itself through our eyes. That being the case, teaching people how to become what they already are would be as arrogant and fool as teaching waves how to become water.  Moreover, as we have seen, any attempt to understand the Mystery through concepts and words is doomed to fail.  Why then to speak at all about What cannot be described?  We could equally ask:  Why do we sing under the shower?  Why do we gaze at the starry night sky?  Why do we dance? These actions happen quite spontaneously, not in order to reach some future goal, but just for the fun of it: they have no purpose whatsoever beyond themselves. Just so is Life.  Likewise, this communication doesn’t aim at understanding any truth, let alone at describing the Mystery of What we really are: it is just a play of words and concepts, performed only for the fun of it.  We don’t need to understand the Mystery of the Unknown, simply because we are it.

Actually, in one’s direct and immediate experience (as it naturally unfolds in the boundless, sentient space of awareness), sense data, thoughts, perceptions, attention, separation, self-identity, suffering, the dualistic stance and even the idea of non duality, all are just ephemeral phenomena arising and passing away in and as the mysterious Aliveness of the Unknown. Nisargadatta Maharaj skillfully expresses the core of all this communication in  a few brilliant sentences:

I do not negate the world.
I see it as appearing in consciousness,
which is the totality of the known
in the immensity of the Unknown.


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