Experiencing life is all a matter of perception: physical events exist only in our mental awareness of them. There is a popular Ch’an koan which asks: “if a tree falls in the woods, and there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?” The answer is no. What we call sound is only a disturbance in the atmosphere until it reaches something that can “hear” it, and a mind that can interpret it as a noise. A manmade mechanism left in the forest can detect the level of air disturbance, but it is not a sound until a mind defines the reading or recording as such. Colours exist because there are eyes to see them, and a consciousness to identify the electrical response of the cells as an image. Scents are only random molecules, without a life-form interpreting them as an odor. The senses make the physical world exist within the mind.
Our perception of reality is dependent upon what we are. Your computer screen displays a group of tiny dots that you perceive as an image, yet a creature with far superior vision only sees the pixels. You, with your inferior abilities, can interpret what you see because of your limitations, while the information is lost to the other creature. You have the ability to distinguish colours, whereas many animals cannot, and depend on other sensations that are beyond human capabilities. Scents and sounds exist for many life-forms, which do not exist to man because we are unable to even imagine them because there is nothing for our brains to use as a reference. We can prove that these sensations exist, but we cannot experience them, for they are outside the realm of human reality.
Every species experiences the world in a unique way, not only because the senses provide different levels of perception, but due to the way each consciousness interprets the information. We can watch a dog at play, and project our human explanations onto its actions; but in truth, we have no conception of how the animal’s mind really works. We can determine cause and effect in animal behaviour and predict a sequence of events, but we do not know what the creature is actually thinking, nor how it comes to certain conclusions.
You may be a cat owner, and consider it to be your somewhat loyal, and rather independent pet. This is your perception; but perhaps the cat sees you as its obedient, though rather unruly pet: rewarding your servitude with affection. From a feline perspective people may be somewhat difficult to manage, and occasionally react violently during training; but after all, humans are very large, mindless animals: being incapable of rational speech, having no interest in engaging in the activities that define cats as the superior intellect, and behaving in much the same way as the even simpler ants. It is a remarkable feat that a cat can teach such dangerous predators anything at all.
In reality, of course, it is rather unlikely that cats apply much reasoning toward their association with humans, and merely exist within a mutually beneficial relationship, while directing their thoughts toward concerns that are exclusive to felines. They experience life in a way distinctive to their species, and attach a different meaning to everything, because it is subject to their perspective. You can contemplate what alien thoughts might be going through your pet’s head, just as your cat sits and stares at you: but neither of you can know what it is really like to be the other.
All life perceives the world only from a perspective dictated by physical and mental attributes. Every species has evolved its own structure, and all life-forms are genetically programmed to behave in certain ways. Humans share a great deal with other primates, yet the differences are profound. Although it is questionable as to whether our art, culture, and technology represent positive attributes; they certainly demonstrate that the way we reason in the abstract is unique among the creatures on this planet. No other life-form perceives reality in the same way as humans.
There is more to this than just the differences between each species, for each human is unique within the species. Even if you cloned two people and raised them in identical environments, they would still develop into different individuals. No two people can occupy the exact same location at the same time, therefore, everyone’s experience of existence is from a distinct perspective. One may just hear a sound, that the other misses; one may glimpse a movement from the corner of their eye, whereas the other doesn’t. Each experience leads to the formation of synaptic pathways within the brain. The very first divergence from a common experience means the “wiring” of each brain is forever different.
Just as each mind is unlike any other, every person’s cellular structure is specific to them. Differences in genetic design, and events that influence the development of cells, ensure that everyone perceives the world with dissimilar sensory abilities; and the specific physical construction of the brain dictates how these perceptions are presented for interpretation by the consciousness. For instance: you and I have quite different eyes, not only in size and shape, but with a distinct number and arrangement of receptor cells, which transmit an electrical signal to our brains. When looking at a poppy, we will both see a different image due to the quality of our vision, and each of our brains will receive input signifying the colour red; but “red” is dependent upon the number and condition of our receptor cells, the physiology of the eye itself, and how our mind interprets the electrical signals. We can both identify the hue as “red”, but the sensation of the colour can only be experienced personally; the actual perception is unknowable to anyone else.
Beyond this, there is also a mental, or spiritual, aspect to the “experiencing” of red. Continuing with the poppy example: suppose you are a veteran of the second World War, and poppies in general invoke memories of wartime service. Seeing that specific shade of red now can have an emotional element, perhaps a sense of melancholy, which is a part of your experience of the sensation. I, on the other hand, may connect that particular hue with a treasured childhood memory, and have a sense of contentment when exposed to the colour. Neither of us may be consciously aware of this link between past and present encounters with red, yet it has become unique to each of us in the way we experience it now.
This spiritual element, to our perception of the world around us, is caused by our prior experiences, yet it differs from reality in that it is an abstract manifestation of these experiences, and is ever changing due to the influence of additional empirical input. A person may have a fear of spiders without ever having had a negative encounter with one. The phobia may be due to an abstract psychological connection made to an event only remotely related to spiders, which subconsciously manifests itself in this way. Each encounter with a spider modifies the person’s response, either by reinforcing, or moderating their perception of it. Other experiences may appear to have nothing to do with spiders, yet may cause a greater change in attitude: accomplishing something that causes an increased feeling of self-confidence, for example.
Our perception of the world is not only unique to each individual, but is also particular to each event perceived by that individual. Every experience is new, in that it is never exactly the same as prior situations; innumerable interim causes have affected each subsequent perception. This brings us to one of the fundamental concepts of being: a realization of the fact that every sensation is a chance to undergo something that will never be repeated. To phrase this in a way that is also compatible with religious beliefs:
“One must truly appreciate what it means to have the opportunity to exist in this form. To have an awareness of all that is around you, and to experience all the sensations of human existence, is not a gift to be wasted. You perceive the world in a way that is unique to you as an individual. From a mystical perspective, it does not matter what form you may believe that you have had, or will have; it is still unlike the one you are in now. Therefore this is the only opportunity you will ever have to experience existence in this way. Whether you believe in an “afterlife” as a different life-form, another humanoid, a perfected recreation of yourself, or an ethereal being/force; it still means that you will perceive things from a completely different perspective. If you feel that there is no existence beyond your present form, then this is obviously the only chance you have to experience it.”
Realizing the significance of your life, because every specific sensation is available to you only once, and never again, leads one to understand that life has great value. In the infinite passage of time, you have this brief moment to know what it is to exist in this form. Every sensation is to be appreciated for the reason that it cannot occur the same way again. Eventually, and usually without warning, your life will end, and the opportunity is lost for all of eternity. This is not to say that one should stop and savour every minor event that is part of life, but one should occasionally realize the significance of what usually seems mundane.
You may be standing in the rain waiting for a bus. You have nothing constructive to think about, so your thoughts revolve around things like “I wish it wasn’t raining at this particular moment” and “why hasn’t the bus arrived yet?” Of course, these thoughts lead nowhere; but they are part of the “self-annoyance” we like to engage in during these situations. Rather than focusing on negative and pointless musings, you can view your delay as an opportunity to be more aware of your surroundings. Notice the sound of the rain, and that it is the sum of the impacts of each individual drop that creates the overall sensation. Consciously switch between hearing the localized strikes, and the total effect. Recognize that the denser atmosphere changes the qualities of sound, and alters the way you perceive odors. Notice how you can simply sense the heaviness of the air. See the way each raindrop breaks into droplets as it strikes an object, and the overall visual sensation created by the countless droplets bouncing off the roadway.
You can encounter an interesting phenomenon by taking this further. First realize that you are appreciating existence through your awareness of the sensations you are experiencing, and are part of this moment within the flow of time, rather than just an observer. You absorb the situation, without having to concentrate on one particular sense, because you have a heightened awareness of all the sensations. Allowing yourself this level of “appreciation”, can have a result similar to that brought on through meditation; yet superior, in that you are acutely aware of everything around you, and are capable of actively participating in the moment. Meditation is based on introspection, and often requires a level of concentration which blocks out a portion of the physical realm in order to achieve a sense of personal contentment; whereas appreciation allows a person to discover it without significant mental effort. Beyond this basic level of inner peace, there is a form that is almost euphoric, which encompasses one’s entire body; achievable when you truly feel within the “moment of experience”. Accurately describing it with words is difficult, but people always recognize the sensation of reaching such a level. The state begins as brief, rare events; but can be sustainable over a long period, and progressively easier to attain, as one becomes more familiar with the process.
Although the obligations of day-to-day life make it impossible to live every moment without distraction, there are always opportunities to appreciate existence. Long drives can permit you to enjoy the shapes and hues in the clouds. You know that it is only water vapour, yet your perceptions give clouds substance that exists only within your mind. You can be traveling through a rural area, and realize that the general impression of “green” that you are receiving from your peripheral vision is only an illusion. It is actually the sum of millions of colours, that are only discernible when you allow yourself to be aware of them.
Try observing animals; particularly those who haven’t been genetically interfered with by man. You will find that, due to the way they experience the world, many of them cannot detect your presence; particularly when you remain still. You may not be able to explain the idiosyncrasies of the creatures you are watching, but it is pleasant to speculate on why they perform certain actions. I recall watching documentaries that stated two specific animal traits were unknown to naturalists. The first pondered over where baby Garter snakes go in the winter, since the communal snake pits only contain animals born in the years prior to that season. The second questioned how adolescent Richardson Ground squirrels become independent. You will find the snakes they are looking for balled together inside steep dirt faces with a southern exposure, above bodies of water. The fact that each ball contains only a few of practically the same size, suggests that they are of the same brood. You will find that the young Ground squirrels have no choice as to when they gain independence. The mother determines their maturity, and begins leading them on long, circuitous journeys; never stopping for those who tarry. These trips are repeated, until every offspring has successfully become “lost”. The reason laymen know such things, and these particular naturalists do not, is because the scientists see nature as a job, whereas others see it as an experience.
The simple principle, of appreciating the opportunity to experience existence, leads to many, more complex, concepts; and consequently is one of the keys to understanding life. The basic realization of the value, of all the individual events that are summarized as “life”, is considered by many to be a self-evident truth. Unfortunately, although all people are aware, on some level, of this concept; most do not live by it. To know the means to gain a reprieve from even a single moment of the stress and unhappiness so many burden themselves with, and yet continue to practice the aforementioned “self-annoyance”, is self-defeating; and a loss of irretrievable chances to experience existence in a positive, and ultimately palliative way.