Mark Nepo's Weekly Reflection: What It Means to Perceive

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There was a particular moment of perception that transformed me completely. I had had a bone-marrow sampling and a spinal tap during the same hospital visit. Afterward, I was sent home a bit battered and told to lie still for six to eight hours, because moving before the spinal fluid had a chance to regenerate would cause a migraine. Well, it was hard for me to be still, and every time I moved, I was thrust back down on the couch in pain.

It was as if the force of life was insisting that I be still. When I was, I finally looked out the window to see an apple tree in my front yard. I had seen this tree a hundred times, yet never really looked at it. Now, unable to move without inducing pain, I was forced into a moment of indigenous perception. Seeing the apple tree freshly, it came alive, and I listened to the tree for the very first time.

Strange as it was, the apple tree spoke to me, not in words but with a bare presence that said, “When you survive this, there will be no more making things up. When you survive, you will only bear witness to the truth of things as they are.”

There is no explaining such a moment of apprehension. You can dismiss it if you want—as some have—as an hallucination due to the medicine or the pain. But I know the truth of that mysterious moment and it has shaped my life to this day.

I called my experience with the apple tree a moment of indigenous perception. What do I mean by this? Let me unfold it this way. Taking in the sea completely with our mind allows us to grasp its enormity, while taking in the sea completely with our heart allows us to hear the ancient sea speak. This is the crucial difference between modern perception and indigenous perception.

Modern perception expands our horizon and timeline, while indigenous perception allows us to relate to everything, more deeply, as a center of living unto itself. This is what the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber expanded on in his naming of the I-Thou relationship. When we receive life this thoroughly, everything we encounter appears as a living center unto itself. Then God or Divinity appears in the unrehearsed conversation between living centers. This is another way to understand the gift of perception. It brings to life the conversation between living things.

When forced to be still—when forced to stop thinking and planning and worrying—I apprehended the apple tree as a living center unto itself. Doing so, I was able to experience the tree, rather than outline and grasp it with my mind. And, as Buber would say, God spoke through the tree in an unrehearsed moment of conversation with life.

When open to life this thoroughly, perception is the courage to cross the invisible wall between us and life, ten times a day, with no expectation of what we might accomplish. It takes courage because the wall always seems bigger before we take that first step.

But step we must, even if our effort of perception is only for a minute. We must step into the garden of our heart, into the walk with our dog, into the woods for a run, or sitting down to journal, or taking a shower to let the water of Eternity rush through the showerhead, briefly erasing our fears.

Let one small perception lead to the next, knowing that letting things in completely is traveling as far as going around the world.

A Question to Walk With: Describe a moment of seeing life as it is and your struggle to accept the truth of what-is.

This excerpt is from my book, Drinking from the River of Light (Sounds True).

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