From Into the Mirror: A Buddhist Journey through Mind, Matter, and the Nature of Reality by Andy Karr © 2023 by Andy Karr. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.shambhala.com
I’m sitting in one of my favorite Halifax restaurants. If you ask me what I see, I would describe the scene something like this: “Jenna, the young owner of the restaurant, is seating customers as they come in. There’s a group of hipsters sitting at the communal table, engrossed in a very serious discussion. My friend Terry and his wife are dining with another couple at a nearby table. Some students at the bar are drinking and having a rowdy time. My partner, Lynn, is sitting across the table from me, looking lovely. A familiar-looking waitress is coming over to take our order.”
Well, that’s not really what I see. What I see is only shape and color and texture. “Jenna,” “owner,” “friend,” “hipster,” and all the rest, are things that I think.
The process of perception is much subtler than it appears to be. In the first moment, there is sense perception. In the second moment—almost instantly after the sensation—a conception arises. These two experiences mix together as though they are one thing. In the narrative above, I have taken the sense perceptions and the conceptions to be one, mistaking my conceptions to be part of the world.
When I look at Jenna, in the first moment, I only see shape, color, and texture. That’s visual form, pure sensation. What appears is not a woman or an owner or a restaurateur. These qualities are appearing to thinking mind. They are objects that appear to conceptual mind. Thinking blends the perception and the concept together. This is superimposition: a conception is superimposed on a sense perception.
To get a feel for how conceptions appear, bring to mind one of your parents (one who is not presently with you). Examine what arises in your mind. You’ll probably experience thoughts about that parent, but there will also be something that this thinking seems to be directed toward. There will be a vague mental image of the parent, most likely in front of you. Maybe it will be vaguely like an image from a photograph, or it might be an image from some past experience. The image might not be well-defined at all, just an abstract blotch. The mental image won’t be like a visual image. Compare the mental image of your parent with something you can see visually.
Here’s another example. Listen to your current environment. You might hear a car or a refrigerator or a bird chirping. Note how you mix perceptions with conceptions. You hear sounds. You conceive of cars, refrigerators, and birds.
The technical term for such a conception is a generality (or to use the awkward Buddhist philosophical lingo, a generally characterized phenomenon). Generalities are what we superimpose on sense perceptions.
These examples seem pretty innocent. No doubt Jenna also conceives of herself as “Jenna” and as the owner of the restaurant. You might wonder, What’s the big deal? So what if we mix sensations with conceptions?
The first problem is that not distinguishing conceptions from perceptions prevents you from experiencing things with a fresh, beginner’s mind. In the restaurant scene I described, this might merely cause me to overlook some of the richness of a night out. But consider what happens when you encounter a more emotionally charged situation, such as meeting with enemies or with friends.
When you see someone whom you think of as an enemy, the concept drives you to act in a certain way, even if that is not the most skillful way of relating to them. By reacting to your conception of enemy, rather than the person before you, you might miss an opening to improve that relationship, or you might overreact and make things worse. Likewise, with someone you conceive of as a friend. When you react to your conception of friend, rather than to the person, you might take them for granted, and damage the relationship by being insensitive to how the person is feeling at that moment, or you might miss an opportunity to deepen the friendship.
Conceptions are like maps of the sensory world. They are abstractions. When you can distinguish sense perceptions from conceptions, you see both the road and the map. Some maps are well-constructed and accurately reflect the terrain: that person in front of you might act the way you would expect an enemy or a friend to act. Some maps are distorted: the person might act quite differently than you expect. It’s good to keep your eye on the road, even when you have some confidence in the map. There are countless stories of people running off the road while consulting their GPS.
Another problem is that superimpositions mask sense perceptions, dulling them, as though you are looking at an image through gauze or smudged eyeglass lenses. Generalities eliminate the brilliance of the sensory world. When you distinguish the sense perceptions from conceptions, the sensory objects will appear more vivid and richer in detail.
Finally, when you mix perception and conception and take them to be one thing, you are not seeing things the way they really are. Distinguishing them and recognizing the nature of each of them is glimpsing genuine reality.
In superimposition there is some connection between the sensory world and the conceptual world. However, much of the time, these two worlds go their separate ways. You might be brushing your teeth when images from an Instagram post arise in your mind, provoking extended discursive thinking about the contents of that post. Tooth-brushing continues in one world, while your attention is riveted to a succession of generalities in the other. When the worlds of perception and conception are not connected, that is distraction.
When we begin to practice shamatha meditation the extent of our distraction becomes really obvious. New practitioners often feel discouraged when they see how hard it is to stay with the technique and let their minds come to rest. They feel that they aren’t meditating properly because they are continually distracted and can’t stay with the method. They think they are failing at meditation. This is a misunderstanding. Instead of feeling discouraged, this experience should bring joy! Seeing your distraction is one of the more important insights a practitioner can have.
The practice of meditation helps you recognize the distraction that normally flies beneath your radar. When you recognize that you’re lost in thought, you learn to let go and return to the sensory world (until the next generality arises in your mind and jerks you away). Gradually, if you continue to practice, you will learn to see distraction more quickly, and following the technique will become easier. You become more skilled at recognizing distractions and letting go of your conceptions.
At this point, it’s important to not treat distraction like something that needs to be suppressed. Distraction is an opportunity to look further at what is arising in your mind. Surprisingly, one of the best times to do this is when you experience a painful emotion. Usually, hurt and angry or resentful feelings consume us. If you look directly at your experience at such a time, you will find yourself face-to-face with the source of your painful feelings. You think there is someone else causing you to feel wretched, but if you look directly at what is appearing before you, you might see that it’s not the other person but a generality—your version, or projection, of the other. At that very moment, the cause of your pain is the map, not the actual terrain. Seeing this could give you some space to breathe.