There is a myth or theory about “Invisible Ships”, our ability to perceive something totally new to our consciousness. See link below for details, but the basic idea is that when explorers approached virgin coastlines in their tall ships, the indigenous people were unable to see them, gave them no recognition. The hypothesis is that because this form on the ocean was so unfamiliar and outside of their experience, the mind was unable to take it in and could not perceive it. The extension being that our ability to name, to categorize, to identify something in our perception is essential to our actually seeing it, re-cognizing it or seeing it again.
When something unfamiliar enters our field of perception, we may experience anxiety, discomfort or a sense of threat. This is our natural and adaptive biological response to potential threat in the environment. The mind needs to identify the thing, to be able to understand it and determine the nature of threat. We search for information, memory, knowledge to help us decide how to respond. If it is truly something new to our senses, we may apply knowledge from the nearest thing to it that we have experienced. And we may be quite mistaken. But the anxiety will be relieved, rightly or wrongly.
One of my students related this to the process of projection in our relationships with other humans. The less familiarity we have with someone, the more we project our “stuff” onto them, for better or worse. This
“invisible” perception may alleviate or exacerbate our sense of threat, rightly or wrongly.
Many years ago, I was running alone in the foothills in the middle of the day, winding my way further into the hills. I heard another runner approaching and then coming up beside me. I assumed he would continue ahead, but he slowed and began to run along side me. I felt really uncomfortable. Why would another runner slow his pace to mine? I felt a sense of threat throughout my body, hair standing up on the back of my neck. But then he spoke to me, and he had a Swedish accent, a Norwegian lilt. Immediately my mind was put at ease. He’s Swedish, probably a harmless visitor. I began to quell the upwelling fear that persisted in my body, talking myself into safety. Then I realized, Wait! How hard is it to fake a Swedish accent and why should that disarm me anyway?! I was back on alert, but still running further into the foothills with this stranger. I turned on my heel and ran back down the hill figuring even if he pursued me I was running in the right direction. To this day I feel (not think) that I saved myself from an attack that day.
As we walk around the neighborhood, the community, the world, what do we perceive? what unconscious or even conscious assumptions do we make? what of it is accurate? what of it is adaptive? what of it is self-limiting or self-defeating? Take time to notice your own physical and mental reactions to people you meet, and then decide how you want to respond.
In order to be present to our actual experience, our direct perception, we need to be aware of the mind’s need to label, name, categorize, define, recognize, and be willing to rest in the uncomfortable uncertainty of not knowing. We can then explore the present moment with our senses and with healthy curiosity. This is truly “beginner’s mind”.