Perceptual Shift

“We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are.”

Anais Nin, French essayist and memoirist

“This is it?” asked Vince. “Doesn’t look like much to me.”

I had to admit, the old house didn’t seem as imposing as I had remembered it being. Over the years, I had entertained my buddy Vince with tales of the old two-storey “mansion” that stood alone near the river a few miles from our farm. I had told him in ominous tones how the family had suddenly departed – for reasons unknown – leaving behind many fascinating and disturbing possessions. Moreover how – left unattended for a few minutes – I had wandered into the dark and foreboding structure as a child, nearly falling into a water-filled cellar.

Over the years, the old house had been the source of many ghost stories and the occasional nightmare, but now as I stood before it – a grown man – it seemed anything but imposing. In fact, it was a rather humble one-and-a-half-storey farmhouse with a sagging, cedar-shake roof and broken windows.

Once inside, we found the floor covered with leaves and rotting debris. As for possessions, we found a pot, a broken chair, a doll’s head and a rickety bed frame. A cast iron stove had fallen through the floor and into the cellar which was, in fact, filled with water. It seemed evident that the family had left the farmhouse for a brighter future elsewhere.

It always amazes me how the passage of time and a broader awareness can change so many of our perceptions. As our perceptions change, often our values shift along with them.

William R. Miller, writing for Spirituality & Health Magazine, penned a fascinating article a few years back entitled The Moment that Turns Your Values Upside Down. Miller writes of a transition or shift in perception and awareness that moves us away from ambition and ceaseless striving toward a life of greater meaning. He called this transition a “quantum shift.”

A quantum shift could be defined as a transition between two distinct states of thinking and being. The first state of mind could be defined as habitual, reactionary and unconscious, while the second state might be described as self-aware, expansive, and inquiring. A quantum shift typically happens later in life and is often (though not always) preceded by a traumatic or life-changing event – one that prompts a radical reassessment of life, values and perception.

Miller writes of research conducted over a number of years with men and women from various walks of life. Participants were interviewed and asked to list the five most important values of life – the most important to the least important. Before this quantum shift, the first and most critical value for men was wealth – the accumulation of money and possessions. The second was a sense of adventure – to go out there and conquer the world. The third was achievement – tied to the often damaging perception that as men, we are what we do. The fourth was the pursuit of pleasure, and the fifth was to be respected by peers.

After a quantum shift had occurred, the list changed dramatically. Same questions – same men. The top value went from making money to spirituality, which wasn’t even on the list initially. The second was personal peace – less anxiety, less stress. The third was family. After the shift men began to ask the question, “What is important for me in my life?” The fourth value was purpose. In essence, why am I here? How can I make a positive difference in the lives of others? The fifth value was now honesty. Not just honesty as in not breaking laws but “How honest am I with my feelings?”

For women, the change was even more astonishing. Before the shift, the highest value was family. Not surprising as women in our society and culture are often raised to be good mothers, good daughters – to support the family unit and care for children. Second was a sense of independence. The third was career. Understandable as women were once made to feel they had no right to a career as their obligation was to the family. The fourth was fitting in – the need to be liked by everyone. Fifth was attractiveness – not just “It is nice to look nice,” but value as a human being based on looks and approval by others.

The top value for women after the shift was personal growth. It had moved from caring for others, doing the right thing and fitting in, to “How am I growing as a human being?” and “How do I feel about myself?” Next was self-esteem: “Am I worth anything?” “Do I have something of value to contribute?” Third was spirituality – a sense of connectedness to something greater. The fourth was happiness – women having once believed their happiness was unimportant. Last was forgiveness – of others and of past perceived failings.

Miller noted that most everything in a participant’s inner world shifted from extrinsic to intrinsic (more spiritual/less materialistic): emotions, values, self-esteem and personal growth, significant relationships and interpretations of the past, present and future. These dramatic shifts did not happen overnight. Though a triggering event may have initiated the change, the event was only the catalyst. It was not uncommon for participants to describe the experience of transition as still going on even a decade later.

Notes Miller, shifts come even to those not seeking it, not even aware of a need or possibility for such profound renewal. Perhaps, he states, life enjoys taking us by surprise, tapping us on the shoulder and reminding us just how little we know about all that is possible.

Sir John Lubbock, the English biologist and politician, wrote, “What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” A shift in perception can provide us with a fresh set of eyes.

Perhaps a willingness to revisit old perceptions – old haunts, if you will – creates the ideal state for a dramatic reassessment of what we once held as true, real and undeniable.   

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