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Perception and the Movement of the Heart

Martin LeFevre: The meaning of the word ‘perception’ has deteriorated in English. Its small scope at present extends from ‘my perception,’ implying everyone has different perceptions, to the pejorative ‘immaculate perception,’ implying that unmediated perception doesn’t exist.

Even so, a question I heard recently has stayed with me: “Can perception and the movement of the heart be one?” As a result I’m asking, what is perception, and what is the movement of the heart?

Clearly, perception through the lenses of conditioning and experience is not actually perception at all.  And perception in terms of ‘narratives,’ which is taken as a given in the media and ‘the marketplace of ideas,’ is distortion and propaganda to one degree or another.

So is there such a thing as direct perception, and what enables us to have it? Direct perception is unmediated by conditioning, experience and knowledge. Then why is it pejoratively called ‘immaculate perception?’ Is it because so many are jaded, and so few are able to look with fresh eyes?

Perception, in the deeper sense of the word, is always new. The etymology of the word may be helpful.

The Latin root is percipere, which means to “to receive, understand,” from the prefix ‘per’ – “thoroughly,” plus capere, “to seize, take.” So to perceive has both a passive and an active connotation, since we both receive and seize an insight in the act of thoroughly understanding something or someone.

However the word has come to mean a completely secondary thing, along the lines of “a mental image, a concept.” It’s become even more depreciated, since perception is now synonymous with opinion, as in “my perception is…”

So what is direct perception? When you look at the color and movement of new green leaves dancing in the breeze, do you look with eyes that have seen spring growth in years before? Or do you look anew at the color, light and shadow as the leaves tremble in the late afternoon sun?

To look anew one has to be passively aware of past experience, which includes not only all the times one has looked at trees in spring – the usually subconscious accretion of habitual observation — but also the labels and knowledge one has accumulated about trees, color and light.

When I lived in Oregon I knew a very smart fellow that I’d sometimes go on day hikes with during the rainy season. Being locally raised, and scientifically minded, Don knew the names of every tree, plant and fungus we came across in that wet clime in winter.

At first I enjoyed learning about the flora, but I soon realized that rather than enhance perception, as so many learned people believe, knowledge, when it’s primary, is an impediment to perception. Don couldn’t see anew, but only through the lens of his knowledge.

The same thing applies in a much more difficult way about personal and culturally conditioned experience. The vast majority of people don’t even realize that they’re looking through the grimy windows of the cumulative past, and that they’ve lost the most precious gift we have as human beings – the capacity to look and see as a child looks and sees — with newness, wonder and questioning with respect to nature and the world.

So given that perception requires an ending of the past, what allows it?  Passive awareness of the whole content of prior experience, while looking beyond the borders of the past into the unknown present, is true perception. It is the lifeblood of the mind, heart and brain.

One can look at anything this way, even the most disturbing things within or without. Indeed, the darker and more ‘bad’ things are, especially within us, the more important it is to face and remain with what is. The very act of doing so breaks down walls and dissolves dark matter.

Perhaps the main reason America has become such a dark land is that we’re taught and told to look away, to ‘think positively’ when faced with so-called negative things within or around us. But that has only nurtured the rot of division and hate, which has grown to monstrous proportions, so that children are massacred in school, and teens are shot for ringing the wrong doorbell or driving up the wrong driveway.

So what is “the movement of the heart?” It is to feel, to respond inwardly, even when there is nothing one can do or the suffering is on the other side of the planet. In believing that some atrocity has nothing to do with us, we have much more to do with it than we realize.

One sees very little “movement of the heart” in America at present, except in a sentimentalized and marketized way, as shallow as the “Inspiring America” at the end of Lester Holt’s news show. But with a bit of reflection, most of us know what the movement of the heart really is. We need to stop neglecting it, wherever we live.  

One last question. What is the relationship between perception and insight?

Unlike the colloquial use of the word perception, when we say, ‘Anna is very perceptive,’ we mean she has discernment and understanding. In that sense, perception is the same as insight.

So sensory acuity of the body plus attentive observation by the mind/brain is the fountainhead of insight. And insight in turn is the wellspring of a flowering human being.


Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue.

Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.