The Lens Through Which We Experience the World
The waves crashed clumsily off the rocks in front of me, foaming in a swirl of blue and white water that lapped up against my now-frigid ankles. After a day of jumping between back-to-back virtual meetings, I could feel a lingering frustration as I watched the waves lazily gliding towards the shore. To my left, a large palm tree stood idle, throwing its shade at an obtuse angle, and leaving me to stand marinating in the hot Hawaiian sun. Just a few feet away from me, a thumbnail-sized crab shifted uneasily back and forth in the sand. My thoughts were quickly thrust back to the hurried meetings, frantic messages, and bottomless inbox of the workday.
A few minutes later, I emerged from my ruminations and looked back up at the scene around me. Its beauty seemed to be mocking me. I looked away unimpressed.
And then down, ashamed.
"My mind sucks right now." I thought sadly.
Contrasted against such a beautiful setting, the poor quality of my mind was placed in front of me. And I recoiled from the sight of it. It was painfully obvious that it was my mind, not my surroundings, that wouldn’t let me appreciate the beauty of the scene around me. These moments of dissonance between our surroundings and our subjective experience reinforce a fundamental truth: our minds are the lens through which we experience the world.
The Glasses We Can Never Take Off
Every sight, sound, smell, taste, sensation, thought, and emotion we experience is generated within our own brains.
Take our visual field, for example. At its core, our visual experience is just our mind trying to render the closest possible approximation of our surroundings that it can muster. When we look out into the world, we are seeing our brain's attempted replica of reality.
This is most apparent for people like me who wear glasses. Without them, my brain produces a blurred version of my surroundings. When I put glasses on and my vision is restored to 20/20, I witness a more accurate representation of the world around me. This is because my glasses prescription has specific properties (cylinder, spherical, and axis) that act on the information that is coming into my eyes, so that I end up perceiving things more clearly.
Just as glasses are the literal lens through which I see the world, our minds are the lens through which we experience our moment-by-moment existence. And like glasses, our minds have different properties that influence our subjective experience. These properties go beyond mere moods; they are the characteristics that determine how we interpret, interact with, and respond to the world around us. They include our sense of groundedness and presence in our surroundings, our general disposition towards other people, our inclination towards gratitude, our relationship with our thoughts and emotions, and how skillfully we can control our attention. All of these characteristics shape our quality of mind.
With a better quality of mind, my experience at the beach would have been completely different. I may have felt the warmth and saltiness of the ocean breeze, noticed the playfulness of the crab as it skittered across the sand, felt gratitude for the chance to work from such a beautiful place, noticed my ruminations early on and diverted my attention from them, or soaked in the vibrant blues of the ocean and sky. Though my surroundings wouldn’t have changed, my subjective experience would have been dramatically different. And of course, this lesson applies not just to picturesque moments on the beach, but to every waking moment of our lives.
These experiences have taught me that polishing and refining my mind is just as important (if not more) as my efforts to improve the external conditions of my life. After all, even a masterpiece like The Mona Lisa will be unimpressive when viewed through blurry glasses, and even the most ordinary and mundane objects can be beautiful when viewed in perfect resolution.
Asking A New Question
For most of my young adult life, I’ve been focused on answering one question: what do I want to do and achieve in my life?
As I’ve started to internalize the role that my mind plays in shaping my experience, I’ve come to believe there is an equally important question that I haven't been asking myself. How do I want to be in the world?
Instead of eliciting professional mountains to climb, this question focuses on the mental characteristics I want to embody during the journey. They are my desired "mode of travel".
Here are some of the answers I’ve come up with so far:
I want to meet everyday challenges with grace and ease instead of stress and anxiety.
I want to be deeply present in the company of friends and loved ones.
I want to feel kindness and compassion for everyone I interact with.
I want to appreciate the beauty in ordinary moments of life.
Unlike professional goals, which require changing the external circumstances of my life, these goals are focused on improving the quality of my own mind. There is nothing I can change in the external world that will make me respond to stress differently, be more present, feel more compassion, or more deeply appreciate subtle beauty. These are properties of my mind. Luckily, there are ways to build these mental inclinations.
Shaping Our Minds
In an upcoming post, I’ll discuss how meditation provides a “gym for the mind”. Similar to how we can isolate specific muscles during a workout, different types of meditation can train our minds in targeted ways and cultivate specific mental characteristics. By deliberately shaping our minds in this way, we may start to find that the things we are searching for in life — happiness, abundance, beauty — are accessible to us right now, in this little moment, exactly where we are. Thanks for reading, see you next time! Mark Inspirations for this article:
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