Perceptions, Truth, and Our Narratives

Recently I saw a foreign film titled ‘Anatomy of a Fall’ which was one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a story of a couple with an 11 y.o. son who is mostly blind following an accident.  Both are writers but she is much more successful than he is having published three books and working on a fourth when he hasn’t written one.  Early in the film, the couple have a terrible argument while the child is out walking with his dog, Snoop.  A little while later, he falls from the third story of their chalet and dies. The questions are: did she push him over the balcony, did he accidentally fall or did he commit suicide? All three versions of the truth are possible. 

I think the film poses questions on how we arrive at the truth.  How do our perceptions affect our decisions? What is the narrative we create to make meaning of any event?

What is perception? It’s the most immediate derived sense of an object: It’s a flower, it’s a car, it’s a person. There’s a mild impact, a contact, a sense of ‘ah’—for example, when something strikes the eye. There’s an immediate flurrying or movement around what it is.

A sitting figure, possibly engaged in reflective meditation
Photo by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Perception is one of the five aggregates, how we are composed. Not literally how we’re composed but more like processes.

It’s not simply awareness or subjectivity but includes all six senses.  Perception helps us interpret the world for us.  Uninterpreted, the world is a confusion of sensations. Once we have understood our perceptions, we can communicate with each other.  ‘This is what I saw. This is what I believe.’

When I hear a plane, I feel a yearning to fly and it feels wonderful, but to another person that sound may feel intrusive or irritating. If you’ve fought in a war, a helicopter may trigger negative affects, but to a kid, it could be a feeling of wonder.  You could be expecting a sweet taste, but it turns out to be sour.  Seeing what you think is a snake in your path, but it turns out it’s a rope.  There is a sense of relief when you know what it really is. 

These things come automatically.  We draw conclusion based on our perceptions such as feeling angry when you get cut off in traffic but you later realize they’re rushing to the hospital. You don’t have control over these perceptions.  They come almost automatically, and we often feel it in our bodies before it registers in our minds.

A messy room to one person is cozy and relaxed while to another it’s sloppy and sign of carelessness.   It depends on your background, your culture, your age.

In the movie, I perceived she was innocent. But that decision came from a wide array of sensations and thoughts. How do I know I’m perceiving accurately?  Where are my biases?

Perception comes automatically. We don’t have to think about it. Our history determines how we perceive it. Our internal makeup, how our brains work, how our minds work.  This is how we perceive the world in a particular way. 

Perceptions are meanings, so they are subjective and depend upon, first of all, functioning sense faculties which are limited and conditioned. They can’t give us the truth; they can only give us pieces that work for us or against us.

The boy is in an excruciating position.  His father is dead, his mother is accused of killing him and if convicted, he’d be an orphan.  He says he ‘can’t imagine his mother as a murderer’. He didn’t know his father tried to commit suicide months earlier until the trial during questioning of his mother.  Is she telling the truth? 

He remembers a conversation he had with his father 6 months earlier where his father told him that his beloved dog, Snoop, could die suddenly and he should prepare himself. It would be hard, the father says, but he should be aware that can happen. The son didn’t understand why his father was telling him this until the trial.  After listening to his mother’s testimony and the prosecutor’s questions, he believes his father was talking about himself.  Is this true or is the son trying to put together a believable narrative for this terrible event?

Just like the boy in the movie, we make choices on what we believe or can imagine. Through our social and cultural conditioning, we create a narrative that fits and that makes sense.  But is this based on truth or facts?  

This is a good example of the benefit of allowing our narratives as well as our thoughts, hopes, dreams, worries, fears, and anxieties into our meditation.

We often play an event over and over in meditation and in life. When we journal, we then have the space to examine our biases, and how our conditioning affects our choices and decisions. If we allow them to play out in meditation and then journal or reflect on them, we’re more likely to see how we’ve created a narrative that isn’t true. We can see into it a little deeper, see it clearer, clarify what exactly happened, and how our conditionality affects our perception and what we believe.

In the movie, I said to myself: “I believe this is what happened.  I believe her.  What did I base my belief on? How do I come to believe something?  Some of it is subjective, some objective. Some inside, and some outside, conditioned by my experience and prior beliefs.  We have belief systems, a framework in which we place new beliefs conditioned by past experience. 

It seems like a tangled web of opinion, belief, perception, evidence, conjecture and so much more. Our meditation practice encourages us to examine these.

I read somewhere that the story will go away when we’re finished with it.  Some stories repeat over and over even when they’re painful and we wish they would go away.  In Reflective Meditation, we allow the story to come back again and again. We don’t push it away, we work with it, muse over it, and contemplate it until we have enough understanding.

In the movie, the jury decided who was guilty. In our lives, we’re the jury. We experience difficulties, hopefully, less stark than the ones in the movie, and we have to decide the ‘truth’ for ourselves.  If we’re not aware of our perceptions, we can be judgmental, critical even when it’s not appropriate for the situation.   Like being cut off in traffic. 

Holding your perceptions lightly is good advice. Go against your own stream of conclusions, and decisions.  Look closely.

I invite you to pose some of these questions to your own experience.

Photo by he zhu on Unsplash

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About Erica Dutton

Erica Dutton is an experienced teacher and practitioner of Reflective Meditation. She has dedicated herself to sharing this practice so others can succeed in meditation, see their experience as important and valuable, and realize the benefits.

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