When I was a kid, I used to calculate the age I would be when the year 2000 came along. It seemed so distant to me in 5th and 6th grade. I could barely imagine what it would be like to be that old. Now that it’s more than ten years further on than that, it seems like the years have passed in barely the time it takes to scratch an itch. In time’s true relative form though, it seems like eons since September 11, 2001.
I had only been a Buddhist for about three years on 9/11 and truth be told I really didn’t know what it all meant. I had no vocabulary yet to process what happened in a meaningful spiritual way. During this transition time, I was somewhat groundless in that regard. Of course, now I understand that’s part of the point.
What is ten years in progression of time for the universe? In the progression of time for humanity? In the progression of time for a single life? This concept of a decade is human-made, a construct with no literal meaning in terms of how long it took the ash to clear from the skies over New York or how the earth at Ground Zero heals itself. This is the way in which we with our limited senses delineate past, present and future. Still, I join many others in this country who are taking special time to reflect on the deeper meanings that can be gleaned from this tragedy.
My vocabulary is more extensive now. I have more connection to the principles of suffering, compassion, emptiness and ego-clinging, but still there is no inherent message to be coalesced from the attack and the injury and death the followed. There is only interpretation of experience based on your own symbols and circumstances.
Every person’s response to 9/11 and it’s tenth anniversary will be unique, but genuine. Some people will celebrate the remembrance of someone who died on that day. Others will look at their lingering scars and bow in gratitude for being alive. Some will suffer from survivor guilt and wonder what kind of karmic debt they incurred from their fortune. Others, who have bigger problems of their own won’t think of it at all, but simply continue with the tasks of their daily living.
Whatever your response is to the anniversary of 9/11, our world has still be changed by it. Wars have been fought, suspects have been detained, entire civilizations have been indelibly altered by the events of that day. As if by the flapping of an enormous butterfly’s wings the winds of the entire earth have changed their course and we all go on. We practice and love. We support and build. We carry with us the destiny and the legacy of everyone who was impacted by this disaster – both allies and enemies. We are strong enough for this burden, when we lift it together.
I welcome your reflections and memories below.
In my training as a speech-language pathologist, I learned about something called categorical perception. The best way to describe it is to consider two speech sounds that are close to one another, for example “ee” as in “heat” and “ay” as in “hate”. The position of the tongue for these two sounds is very close; only a small shift or glide is needed to move from “ee” to “ay”. The practical implication for this when we speak is that the tongue never truly lands in exactly the same place reliably. Therefore we are almost always actually hearing something that exists somewhere between a pure “ee” and a pure “ay”. Yet we never perceive this. Our perceptual system automatically assigns what we hear to either the “ee” or “ay” category depending on the context and where on the continuum between “ee” and “ay” the tongue happens to land.
In terms of meaning, it is practical to be able to tell the difference between these sounds. Categorical perception allows us to understand whether someone is saying “Low income residents will be given heat subsidies” versus “Low income residents will be given hate subsidies. Our ability to navigate slight differences in articulation of speech sounds helps us to understand speech even when the speaker has an accent that is different from your own.
In our neurology class, we learned about the concept of “referred sensation”, which is where we feel discomfort in a part of our body that is distant from the site of the actual disorder, irritation or injury. Because of this default of perception, the professors and clinical supervisors reminded us frequently not to take patients’ descriptions of the location of their discomfort at face value, but instead to conduct a full examination.
After engaging in clinical practice for some time, I began to understand the myriad ways in which perception leads people astray. We never hear our own voices the same way in which others do. When helping people through vocal rehabilitation, sometimes their voices return to old non-functional patterns because their perceptual systems are telling them that the new vocal pattern is not “normal” and therefore sounds “strange”.
The evidence for the lies that perception tells is all around us. Consider the research regarding crime witnesses. It appears that more often than not two people witnessing the same crime will disagree on the details and at times the major elements of what they saw.
Given these conditions, why is it that we trust our perceptions when it comes to our physical environment, our bodies and our identities? Why do we trust that when our eyes tell us we see a solid object that it is in fact so? Why do we invest so much in our perceptual interpretation of our preferences and what is “good” and “bad”. In this circumstance it makes an enormous amount of sense instead to make a practice of questioning our perceptions whenever we recognize we are becoming convinced that they are incontrovertibly true.
Do you have any episodes of faulty perception that helped you recognize a moment of prajna? Comment and share!
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