During my trip to Bali some years ago now, I stumbled upon a book shop where I found The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry. I was on my way to India for the first time from there and as a huge lover of poetry and Indian culture all my life, I bought the book. The other day I was reading from this book and I came across a poem that reminded me of the Yoga Sutras about perception. The poem, by Dagdu Maruti Pawar, is as follows:
I never see you
in Jeta’s garden,
sitting with your eyes closed,
in the lotus position,
or in the Ajanta and Ellora caves,
with your stone lips
sleeping the last sleep of your life.
I only see you
breathing gently, healingly,
on the sorrows of the poor
and the weak,
going from hut to hut
in the life-destroying darkness
with a torch in your hand,
giving their suffering—
which drains their blood
like a contagious disease—
a whole new meaning.
Immediately I began to think about how powerful perception is and how it can be the answer to so many of life’s challenges. In the Sutras, Patanjali said, “Due to the differences in various minds, perception of every object may vary” (IV-16). What I see when I look at a painting, a person, or anything for that matter, can be perceived completely different from how someone else sees it. You see this in your everyday life when you think someone is attractive and your friend doesn’t or when you see someone driving a car that you couldn’t even imagine ever buying. That’s why although I love the paintings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Gauguin, you may not agree in the slightest.
Perception doesn’t just apply to objects, of course. How we perceive ourselves and others directly affects the ways in which we treat ourselves and the world around us. I am a yoga teacher. I am a woman. I am American. These are all true things in a sense, and thus, these attributes put me in categories that I may or may not want to be in. These labels can also create a division between me and others. Race or country of origin, for example, is something most people use to identify themselves and those around them with. I don’t need to elaborate on how many issues this has caused throughout the history of human beings.
The solution to division lies in the following questions: Who are we if we have no identification? What if I didn’t identify with my thoughts and my body? What would I be left with? Patanjali says you are left with universal unity. Once you detach yourself from all things you identify yourself with, you realize yourself as the pure “I,” the true Self. There is no difference between you and me when you shift your perspective in this way. We are all the same. Once you stop identifying yourself with your body and your mind, you will also stop identifying others that way as well. Through this perspective, you will see that nothing separates us; there is unity among everything.
In the poem, the author’s perception of Buddha is that he is always alive and always inspiring, omnipotent and omnipresent. To others, he is a mere statue that is to be revered, sure, but that the Buddha is not actively influencing and helping those who are suffering. To the author, The Buddha is an infinite symbol of compassion and hope. This is how he chooses to process Buddha’s death and thus, can live a content life without suffering. Others walk pass his statues and have long forgotten how to ease their own suffering, even though the answer lies right in front of them in the garden and in the caves.
This pertains to all of us. If we change our perspective about something or someone, things change. It is very easy to get depressed when life throws hardships your way. A death. A breakup. A job loss. But the truth is, you can either look at it like something bad happened to you, spiraling you downward into anger and despair, or you can look at it as a challenge. You can decide how to view what happens in your life. That is the power we all have and must remember to use.
For example, I had a good friend who did not get a job he really wanted. He was really disappointed and beat himself up about it pretty good. I comforted him, telling him that this was not a failure, but rather a learning experience, and that he needed to shift his perspective of the events that occurred. Instead of sulking, he took my advice and ended up getting an even better job that forced him to move to the city he long wanted to live in. Today we both laugh at that moment. He is so happy that he didn’t get that job, as his current one opened up so many opportunities and changes he was actually ready for (even though he didn’t realize it at the time.) Life is funny like that, isn’t it? Perhaps that is why detaching from all these thoughts about how we define ourselves does indeed help us live a more content life. When we take things as they are and do not cloud them with labels, social paradigms and expectations, we can then see the truth that lies beneath the surface. The truth that is leading us toward something greater.
I will never see myself or the world around me the exact same way as you or anyone or anything else in this Universe. Concepts of love, hate, and fear, for example, have infinite versions and are expressed in a myriad of ways. Attending a party, each person describes the events of the evening in a varying ways. Watching a film, one person will relate the plot in a different way than someone else, not to mention how many opinions are developed from it. This is something you will indefinitely deal with throughout your lives. The key to living a happy and harmonious life, however, lies within your ability to understand that perception is merely a product of the mind. You can control your mind. You can control how you view everything. Use this incredible power to help end suffering, just as The Buddha still does today.