Reality is the bedrock of existence and is paramount in its challenge to our understanding of life. Cultures, societies and groups often create their own versions of reality, demonstrated in the beliefs, values and behaviour of their members. Alongside these shared interpretations is a personal understanding of life based on the integrity and acceptance of our feelings. An awareness of both will enable us to retain our humanity and evolve.
Change, creativity and influence are the hallmarks and basic dynamics that inform reality.
For some, reality as defined by society is all that counts; it is with this version that the individual transacts his or her business and is encouraged to entertain the beliefs, opinions and knowable facts that support his life. In other words, the individual is immersed in a reality created by society that he or she accepts as genuine. It is largely understood in cognitive terms, and the formative process of education plays an important role in interpreting what is taken to be true and verifiable. Rational decision making and a pragmatic understanding of cause and effect are considered essential if the individual is to negotiate a successful path through life. Reality as endorsed by society is a well-defined perspective with its authority often buttressed by an historical narrative, ritual celebration and mythological roots.
Some totalitarian societies have narrow and highly prescriptive views; others allow the individual greater autonomy. To survive, whatever the culture, he or she needs a basic understanding of how it operates and of the reality it has created. The limits and discrepancies are rarely addressed, the consensus being that there is no alternative and any challenge would be deemed foolish; an issue frequently encountered by artists, scientists and the like as they seek to extend the boundaries of their work and of our perspective on reality.
Our understanding of reality is changing. Over the past several centuries there has been an exponential expansion of our knowledge base resulting in a keener sense of the limitless potential that awaits discovery. The efforts of the artistic community have sought to engage us in the excitement of new and provocative creation. Likewise, the march of scientific inquiry is on the move as never before.
Some aspects of that reality may be hotly disputed such as global warming, our ability to nourish an ever increasing population and the extent to which resources are being terminally compromised by exploitation and pollution. Meticulous scientific observation has put paid to the notion that our habitat is relatively stable. The growing consensus is that our environment is changing at a pace without precedent. We can take nothing for granted. Our common understanding of reality is being challenged in radical ways as never before.
Change, creativity and influence are the hallmarks and basic dynamics that inform reality, yet that description barely does justice to the conscious relationship that we intuitively establish with it. Change is of course evident in our everyday life, just as creativity has facilitated the extraordinary variety of cultures spawned across the planet. The reciprocal influences that shape reality from the micro level of quantum physics to the bigger picture of gravitational attraction have resulted in a dense web where we now know that cause and effect offer at best only a partial explanation.
Alongside the social, literal reality to which we all have to subscribe, if we are to lead lives that share in a common purpose, is the personal reality of our feelings. This individual sense of reality, multiplied over many billions of people, is based primarily on our emotional response to existence. It could be described as consciousness, our immediate and instinctual awareness of being alive. It is an emotional connection to reality that operates at a level where rational thought is secondary. For instance, our reaction to a beautiful sunset is immediate and may require an interval before we can find words to describe the experience. Cognitive appraisal follows on from the affective, often losing some of the immediacy and spontaneity of the original connection in the search for expression, but nonetheless confirming for ourselves and to others that we are in touch with our surroundings.
Our capacity to respond to reality is limited. How we engage with it determines the immersive extent of the experience. Some have an emotional perception that is wide ranging, penetrating and effective; others are less involved, less connected, remaining relatively detached, their emotional responses more muted. Emotional perception may cause us to stray from a conventional response and invite a situation where we feel exposed and unsure of the reactions of others. In our surrender to the power of feeling the unexpected spontaneity of our reactions may cause others to question our behaviour. We live in societies where emotion is carefully monitored for signs of unusual or irrational reactions.
To understand reality as perceived by our feelings, we need to submit and surrender to their authority.
To understand reality as perceived by our feelings, we need to submit and surrender to their authority. That reality cannot be fashioned to our liking or brought easily under our control. The traits of humility, patience and acceptance will ease the activity of our awareness, but feelings are rarely without unpredictable consequences. For instance, falling in love entails a readiness to surrender to our feelings, to accept their direction and to follow where they lead; sometimes causing us to step far away from our comfort zone and embrace an uncertain future.
Reality has the effect of variously encouraging our capacity to perceive, causing us then to react, process and integrate our feelings in different ways. The child usually perceives reality through a window that is supported and conditioned by the outlook of its family; reaction, process and integration are often restricted by values, attitudes and anxieties that remain implicit, perhaps unconscious or rarely articulated. In contrast the perceptual capacity of the adolescent, as his or her identity becomes a matter of intense importance, is usually deeper, sharper and more passionate. It includes a wider picture, as the pressures of establishing individuality take over and the struggle for independence is fought with tenacity. Finally, for the adult the perception of reality will generally be wider ranging and may involve a deeper commitment to the welfare of others, a more generous approach to a reality that may be overwhelming in its demands as family, friends and society make their needs known.
Frequently we encounter an obstacle that prevents or inhibits the expression of our reality. Its nature will vary. It is common to approach it from a well-tried viewpoint without pausing to think and asking ourselves if we couldn’t see it from a different perspective. We are creatures of habit. But such an obstacle could also be viewed as a challenge, an opportunity to see if we could arrive at a better response, based on a more encompassing perspective. How do we do this? We step back and switch to a different perceptual state. We have three: ‘innocent’, ‘passionate’ and ‘generous’, all accessible and each providing a fresh perspective. Flexibility is important. In switching between states we circle the obstacle, viewing it in different ways until we reach an integrated solution.
An example might be where we have planned to deal with some outstanding household chores. Suddenly we remember we have a relative to visit. We feel stuck. The tasks have assumed paramount importance. Our frustration makes us feel tense. Is there a way forward? We try switching away from our desire to finish the housework to a different perceptual state. We step back to recollect the good times spent as a child with that relative. We now realise that it costs nothing to act in a more generous spirit, putting the chores to one side where they will keep for another day. The act of stepping back, reflecting on our options and reaching a more integrated decision was made so much easier once the whole picture was available.
The key in such an exercise is the willingness to switch between perceptual states, and the confidence to accept that the right answer is often only apparent once we have done this. With practice, as we switch between states, we learn how best to deal with an obstacle. As we refresh our take on reality and thus reframe it our perceptual confidence increases. Once the obstacle is properly understood from different angles we are then faced with an ethical issue: What kind of decision should we take? Because the obstacle has caused us to deploy all of our perceptual ability in arriving at a solution the ethics of choice will now be more straightforward, based not on a partial viewpoint but on the totality of our perception. In so doing we have determined the nature of our personal reality to its optimum extent and arrived at the best possible response. Note that in abandoning our knee-jerk response and seeking a solution that is more comprehensive and better matched to the issues involved, we may find that the ethical outcome is a tough one. It may take us beyond our comfort zone and ask us to make a conscious stand where previously none had been envisioned.
The emotional perception of reality lies at the heart of our humanity. It results in lives that are exciting, challenging and fulfilling.
The emotional perception of reality lies at the heart of our humanity. It results in lives that are exciting, challenging and fulfilling. We have only to consider the work of the scientist, the writer, the poet, the artist or indeed of anyone for whom intuition and their individual sense of reality cries out to be expressed, for us to appreciate its potential and a more complete vision of life. In our surrender to a personal version of reality lies also a responsibility of ensuring that its existence is safeguarded, demonstrated and defined with care. At all times it behoves us to recognise that personal perception functions best when it is tempered by an awareness of ethical values and a determination that it be expressed with grace and sensitivity.
Reality is not to be confused with technical wizardry. When that is the case then every attempt to astonish the unwary and innocent results in a plethora of images and artefacts whose only purpose is to amuse, distract and exploit. Reality is too important for such gestures. It is in its essence the prime link to our understanding of existence and no amount of chicanery should persuade us of the contrary. We are surrounded by the novelty of virtual reality, the subtle messages of the advertising industry and the immensely powerful role of the media, as they seek to instil versions of reality that are compelling but often empty of merit. Healthy scepticism provides us with a valuable corrective. We should balance the carefully constructed social reality of life with the deeper connection that is available to each of us through our feelings. Both versions of reality have much to tell us.
© 2015 Nick Halpin