Perception and the First-Time Idea

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is a bestselling book by art professor Betty Edwards. First published in 1979, it isn’t only about learning to draw, but about how to see. Edwards’ main thesis is that beginners tend not to draw what they see so much as a set of symbols based on labels and expectations acquired from past experience. In other words, they don’t really look attentively at what is before them; at the shapes, colours and tones — all qualities that are meaningful to the right hemisphere of the brain. Instead, the left hemisphere, which is about language and categorisation, dominates, rapidly summing up what an object is according to well established rules of thumb. It sees a ‘face’, or ‘tree’, and then we draw somewhat automatically according to these rules.

Without being taught how to really see things as they are, beginners rely on a set of symbols practiced repeatedly during childhood. Edwards’ calls this ‘the “tyranny” of the childhood symbol system’, and says it explains why beginners of any age produce child-like drawings in terms of their realism. The aim of exercises in the book is to learn how to set this symbol system aside by bypassing the left hemisphere’s dominance. They do this by presenting the brain with a task the left hemisphere won’t handle.

A classic exercise, widely known, is to turn an existing picture of an object or person upside down, then draw it. When an image is upside down, we see the shapes and the areas of light and shadow, but the image doesn’t call forth the immediate labels and categories that we’re familiar with, such as ‘foot’, ‘hand’, or ‘cup’. Instead, the right hemisphere gains influence, and we’re better able to see the shapes that are actually there.

All of this brings to mind a fundamental premise in A Course in Miracles: that we only see the past when we look through the eyes of the ego. The drawing example — of one hemisphere of the brain perceiving according to past learning, and the other perceiving what is actually there — provides a nice analogy for the choice between wrong-minded and right-minded perception. The Course’s early workbook lessons emphasise that we generally don’t see anything as it is now. As lesson seven says, we see only the past:

‘Look at a cup, for example. Do you see a cup, or are you merely reviewing your past experiences of picking up a cup, being thirsty, drinking from a cup, feeling the rim of a cup against your lips, having breakfast and so on? Are not your aesthetic reactions to the cup, too, based on past experiences? How else would you know whether or not this kind of cup will break if you drop it? What do you know about this cup except what you learned in the past? You would have no idea what this cup is, except for your past learning. Do you, then, really see it?’

Not only do we see objects according to past associations, we see each other, or relationships generally, through the distorting lens of the past. This suits the ego perfectly since our continued identification with it relies on us keeping the dark lessons of the past alive; lessons about inadequacy, shame and guilt.

All self-doubt relates to the past. Ultimately, beyond our childhood experiences, self-doubt stems from a belief that we have separated from God. When we perceive with the ego, we see from the perspective of past experiences which reinforce an unworthy and vulnerable self-concept related to this belief. In contrast, the Holy Spirit helps us perceive things from the perspective of eternity, where there is no time, no past, and no separation. This kind of perception is the closest we can get to what the Course calls the ‘sphere of knowledge’ which lies beyond perception altogether, and which informs the Holy Spirit:

‘All healing is release from the past. That is why the Holy Spirit is the only Healer. He teaches that the past does not exist, a fact which belongs to the sphere of knowledge, and which therefore no one in the world can know’ (T-13.VIII:1-3).

With the help of the Holy Spirit, we leave the horizontal axis of time, and avail ourselves of a vertical axis, stepping, if only for a moment, into eternity:

‘Fear is not of the present, but only of the past and future, which do not exist. There is no fear in the present when each instant stands clear and separated from the past, without its shadow reaching out into the future. Each instant is a clean, untarnished birth… No darkness is remembered, and immortality and joy are now’ (T-15.I.8 :2-4; 7).

What this means in practical terms, is that when we find ourselves uncomfortable in a particular situation, we can be sure that some aspect of our past and associated self-concept has been activated. We might notice familiar ruminations or remonstrations running through our head: ‘Here they go again!’ or ‘I always do this!’, are familiar favourites. We’re likely to feel victimised, frustrated, angry or anxious. If we can pause for a moment and ask the Holy Spirit for help to see things from the perspective of Now, as if we are encountering a particular person or situation for the first time (without the baggage of history), we can experience some relief.

Seeing without the past also means no longer feeling at odds with others. Instead, we remember our shared need to know Who we really are. If we find ourselves reacting familiarly in the face of someone’s all-too-familiar putdowns, aggression, selfishness, or impatience, we can step out of the chain of time by seeing their attack as a call for help. As the Course says, ‘Frightened people can be vicious’ (T-3.I.4:2). If someone doesn’t come from a kind place, it’s because they feel guilty or inadequate, having identified with their ego and past, and remembering this can help us take things less personally.

No Regrets

It seems an easy enough task: When we don’t want to feel victimised and at odds with others, we ask the Holy Spirit to help us see without the learning of the past. The desire to move on, however, also reflects a desire to remember our unity with God, and the ego will resist this:

‘I see only my own thoughts, and my mind is preoccupied with the past. What, then, can I see as it is. Let me remember that I look on the past to prevent the present from dawning on my mind. Let me understand that I am trying to use time against God. Let me learn to give the past away, realizing that in so doing I am giving up nothing’ (W-52.3:2-6).

Because we don’t know who we’d be without our well-worn patterns of thought, perception and behaviour, we find it hard to step out of history’s shadow. In fact, the closer we come to uniting with the wholeness of our Self, the stronger our ego’s attraction to perceiving things according to the past. And so, we can alternate for a while between feeling free of the past and once again experiencing its effects. Yet, at least we can notice that the voices/lessons of the past aren’t quite as convincing as they once were:

‘Now you are shifting back and forth between the past and present. Sometimes the past seems real, as if it were the present. Voices from the past are heard and then are doubted. You are like to one who still hallucinates, but lacks conviction in what he perceives.’ (T-26.V.11:4-7).

Here it’s important to draw on the progress already made, on the experiences that stand as witness to the light that has led us this far:

‘This is the borderland between the worlds, the bridge between the past and present. Here the shadow of the past remains, but still a present light is dimly recognized. Once it is seen, this light can never be forgotten. It must draw you from the past into the present, where you really are’ (T-26.V.11:8-11).

One of the challenges in letting go of the past involves the relief we feel as we relinquish old habits, including behaviours based on ingrained ‘shoulds’, ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’ that have kept us feeling sacrificial, perfectionistic, or intensely driven towards some form of worldly accomplishment. Moving forward often involves going against these outgrown ego-ideals, but once we feel free of them, we can become depressed at the thought of how much time we spent in their pursuit. ‘Youth is wasted on the young’, is an adage that springs to mind. We feel something valuable has been lost in the past — if only we’d known better back then.

Such regret is also a tool of the ego, since it keeps us wedded to the chain of time, gazing back longingly into the past. There is, of course, benefit in looking at the past — to process and address wounds, for example, to recognise patterns, to see what has been helpful and what hasn’t. But a desire to change the past gets us nowhere. It takes us away from the only meaningful time there is — Now — and from the choice between whether we experience the present with the ego or the Holy Spirit.

Like the biblical story of Lot and his wife being cautioned not to turn back to see the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as they escaped, the Course cautions us not to regret leaving the past behind:

Would you not rather greet the summer sun than fix your gaze upon a disappearing snowflake, and shiver in remembrance of the winter’s cold?’ (T-19.IV.A.9:6).

Photo by Lum3n

Books by Stephanie Panayi

The Farthest Reaches of Inner Space

Alchemists of Suburbia

Above the Battleground: The Courageous Path to Emotional Autonomy and Inner Peace

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume One

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Two

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volume Three

Reflections on ‘A Course in Miracles’: Volumes One to Three

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