When a person sees reality as it is, unvarnished and in its true glory, there comes an intense feeling of pleasure and connection; it is an instinctive realization that this is how life is, that there is something in the experience that is ineffable and requires neither intermediary nor pre-conception. Examples that come to mind include the beauty of a sunset, or a piece of music that touches some deep chord; it might be the glimpse of something special in the landscape; or it might be simply the streaming wetness of a tropical downpour. Innocent perception is present in all of that, just as it grips the adult revisiting the fairground ride, the mother stroking her baby’s skin or the gardener entranced at the fluttering antics around the bird table.
‘Innocent’ is defined as having the quality of simplicity, lacking in sophistication and self-consciousness, of being unacquainted with evil. Here I use the word to emphasise the immediate, pristine and uncorrupted nature of perception where our experience is unclouded by thought, habit, parental or social conditioning, where the busy chatter of our minds has temporarily subsided as we allow what is outside us to penetrate within. To be innocent is to be open to experience, to surrender with spontaneity and to revel in the feelings of intense pleasure that comes from intimate connection and a sense of belonging.
The strength of connection that occurs with innocent perception derives from the quality of our surrender. Also, we are dealing with unvarnished truth, not with a simulacrum, not with humbug. That in itself is a cause for joy. It is relatively passive and doesn’t engender action, projects or energetic involvement. Often in the immediacy of our experience, innocent perception simply evokes wonder, humility and gratitude.
Often in the immediacy of our experience, innocent perception simply evokes wonder, humility and gratitude
Our perception of reality is easily distorted by the need to compromise with the orthodoxy of parental conditioning, the pressures that issue from friends, a loved one, the local peer group, or with an institutional viewpoint. Youngsters can often drift, ungrounded in their grasp of reality and susceptible to the prescriptive views of their family or friends. The media with their pundits and trend setters often establish versions of reality that are flawed, biased and then thoughtlessly absorbed and copied. The fantasy created by others may be welcome but comes at a price, in that its function is to provide us with a temporary and convincing second-hand reality; a bogus reality that serves to disconnect us from our own. When we fail to see things as they are, it is often down to mistaking the form for the substance, e.g. the attractive person who lacks inner integrity, the car where style masks poor reliability, the career where money and prestige rather than satisfaction are all that matter. Whereas the commonly-held view is that a successful life is one where the job is central to our identity and definition, there is a different truth: the psychological key to a truly successful life lies not in the prescriptive goals of society but in making a meaningful connection with reality. Innocent perception is a powerful gateway to that end.
Innocent perception offers an important way of understanding and accepting the impermanence of reality, seeing the constancy of change not as a threat, but as a vibrant aspect of life
Innocent perception offers an important way of understanding and accepting the impermanence of reality, seeing the constancy of change not as a threat, but as a vibrant aspect of life, a necessary concomitant of healthy living to be rejoiced in. As such it should be a basic part of the educational curriculum, with the aim of encouraging its growth and cultivation throughout the life-span. Where the ego is in charge – and western culture is very concerned with developing a strong ego – the virtues of patience, humility, openness and surrender, all intrinsic to innocent perception, are likely to be poorly developed. When the core values of a business culture are about competition, winning and being a high achiever, the likelihood of innocent perception will be less.
Innocent perception provides the wellspring for idealism, as young people, relatively untainted by the materialistic pressures of society, seek to convert their vision into action and to make a difference. And later as youth moves into adulthood, those who have found and nourished their idealism and are able to express it with truth and generosity, will find that that their capacity for innocent perception remains undimmed.
The conditions necessary for innocent perception require, as previously suggested, a willingness to suspend our everyday beliefs and the endlessly rehearsed patterns of familiar thought and expectation. As a state of being that comes from surrender rather than exploitation it seeks nothing save connection. It is a state of feeling that owes everything to a capacity for letting go and being prepared to fall into a perceptual abyss where the familiar, the comfortable and the known have to give way to a new understanding of what reality is really about. It leads us out of our comfort zone, occurring at the least expected moments, and creates indelible memories, whose vividness and intensity set them apart from everyday living. For example, the experience of new sounds, smells and sights on holiday can greatly stimulate our capacity for innocent perception and provide us with a sense of liberation, as we abandon, even for a short period, the perceptual habits that encrust and distort our understanding of life. As innocent perception gains a foothold, there is a throwing of caution to the winds where we let ourselves go, sometimes leaving us vulnerable to the whiff of romantic attachment, the lure of extravagance and a desire for change.
Conditions that inhibit the expression of innocent perception are often associated with the stress occasioned by powerful exertion, where the mind is intently focussed on strategies for survival and gain. For the soldier in battle, weary and blitzed by incessant noise and the horrors of combat, there is scant chance of innocent perception being grounded in such an arena. For the city trader, whose adrenaline is caught up in the risky spin of financial speculation, there is little room for innocent perception. Likewise the bleak and ugly gang feuds of the inner cities may long ago have caused their members to abandon innocent perception.
Where innocent perception has been neglected, or made absent through ignorance and has become confined to those backwaters of consciousness where it is barely more than a distant memory, problems can arise; there is the possible descent into actual pathology, as the grey fog of depression wraps the individual in a cloak of disconnection and loneliness. It is in such times that we are prone to the ersatz of addictive behaviour, as we struggle to make sense of our existence and regain a feeling of wellbeing. Yet all too often the simple creative pleasures of life are sufficient to re-establish connection and remind us that our birth-right was to be at one with ourselves, and that the changing face of reality needs to be constantly recaptured for us to truly feel alive.
In short, innocent perception is not the prerogative of childhood, but available to us throughout our lifespan. It is intrinsic to our sense of connection and understanding of reality. It brings with it an undeniable truth that goes to the heart of things. It is to be found in all areas of human activity, where openness, spontaneity and surrender are in evidence. It is central to the integrity of healthy relationships, to artistic endeavour and to a vision of life where idealism and courage have pride of place.
© 2009 Nick Halpin