See The Screen
When we’re watching TV, at a movie, or using our devices, we tend to focus on what is on the screen rather than the screen itself. Next time you’re watching something on a screen, try including the screen itself as a part of what you see. Notice what it feels like to include the screen in your viewing experience. This simple practice is a powerful metaphor for how our minds can get sucked into the content of our thoughts rather than taking a bigger view and looking at the nature of our awareness itself.
— Mindfulness Everywhere
See The Screen
Use this principle of mindfulness to find awareness.
As I type these words I see… words. The background is a solid color that creates an all-encompassing backdrop. This makes it difficult to take my focus off the letters that pop up when I strike a key. If I look to the top of my screen I have ~20 tabs open in my web browser. If I look to the bottom of the screen there is a black bar that runs across with all my program icons arrayed on it and the time and date. So, when this week’s prompt tells me to See The Screen, where am I supposed to look? Well, when I read these words I’m looking where I’m supposed to look, but I’m not seeing what I’m supposed to see. This is the paradox of mindfulness.
One easy way to see my screen is to turn it off and stare at the blackness.
But that’s not really the point, because we don’t have the luxury of “turning off the screen” when it comes to mindfulness practice. Instead, See The Screen asks us to look at the contents of the screen without getting attached to it. In other words, allow the imagery to simply be itself without getting lost in it, analyzing it, or prescribing meaning to it. It’s an insanely difficult practice, because it means re-framing our entire conception of reality.
Can you look at these words without reading them? Can you see these abstract shapes without transforming them into symbols? Ask yourself: where do these words exist? In reality, you’re staring at a screen — these words are just little specks of light being arrayed in a particular pattern. It is only in your mind that this arrangement of pixels gets interpreted as having deeper meaning.
Just like a digital screen, our mind is a space in which mental contents get arranged. Particular arrangements of these mental contents can create subjective experience, like thoughts, feelings, and sensations. And, just like it is difficult to stop ourselves from ascribing meaning to the imagery on a screen, it is difficult to see through the reality created by our mental constructions.
This idea is well described by Donald Hoffman in his Interface Theory of Perception. He states that our conscious awareness is akin to a user interface, like an operating system in a computer. In his words,
We’re inclined to think that perception is like a window on reality as it is. The theory of evolution is telling us that this is an incorrect interpretation of our perceptions. Instead, reality is more like a 3D desktop that’s designed to hide the complexity of the real world and guide adaptive behavior. Space as you perceive it is your desktop. Physical objects are just the icons in that desktop… We used to think that the Earth is flat because it looks that way. Then we thought that the Earth is the unmoving center of reality because it looks that way. We were wrong. We had misinterpreted our perceptions. Now we believe that spacetime and objects are the nature of reality as it is. The theory of evolution is telling us that once again, we’re wrong. We’re misinterpreting the content of our perceptual experiences.
As Hoffman says, our subjective reality needs to hide the complexity of the universe in order to keep us sane and surviving — we would be completely overwhelmed by the immensity of our place in the cosmos. Our limited consciousness simply could not handle the true awareness that our bodies are composed of trillions of cells, and those cells are composed of quadrillions of molecules, and those molecules are composed of quintillions of atoms, etc etc etc…
But we are capable of seeing through the facade. Not by literally seeing each individual atom in each individual molecule in each individual cell. Because all of those things are illusions created by our minds. Instead, realize that all of those things are merely imagery passing by on a screen. In Hoffman’s words again, “Once we let go of our massively intuitive but massively false assumption about the nature of reality, it opens up new ways to think about life’s greatest mystery.” The mystery that Hoffman is referring to here is our consciousness. But this mystery is not a problem to be solved, it’s an interface that allows us to exist in the world.
Consciousness is a miraculous tool that we tend to underutilize. The good news is that it is relatively simple to open up the incredible reality-constructing power of our minds. All we need to do is appreciate the nature of our awareness as distinct from reality. When we separate our subjectivity from our mental constructions we gain a whole new level of control over ourselves. We can achieve mastery over the thoughts, feelings, and sensations that compose our realities when we learn to See The Screen.
So go watch a movie and see if you can let the images pass you by without holding on to them. Forget about the plot, or the characters, or the drama. Look past all that and just See The Screen. It’s harder than it sounds.
Thank you for reading!
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