The Tortoise Model of Perception
We normally think that the world comes to us during perception. For example, light enters your eyes; the electrical impulses go into the brain, where an image is created. Owing to this model of perception, John Locke claimed that the mind is tabula rasa or a blank slate at birth. As a child acquires more sensations, he or she acquires the concepts necessary to know. In this post I will contrast this idea to the one given in Bhagavad-Gita in which our senses “go out” to the objects to create perception, like the tortoise draws out its limbs. The yogi who withdraws the senses is said to be like the tortoise who draws its limbs inward. The senses going out to the world entails that ideas are not coming after we get the light into our eyes. Rather, ideas exist before we even let the senses interact with the world. In fact, we choose which part of the world we interact with based on these preexisting ideas.
Table of Contents
The Analogy of the Tortoise
Bhagavad-Gita 2.58 states that “One who is able to withdraw his senses from sense objects, as the tortoise draws his limbs within the shell, is to be understood as truly situated in knowledge.”
Now if you are a classical empiricist, you are likely to say that I cannot withdraw the senses from the sense objects, because the objects are coming into the senses rather than the senses going out into the objects. For example, the moment I open my eyes, I cannot help the fact that light will enter my eyes and create a perception. The whole process is automatic, and I cannot interfere with it. This means that the very fact that the world exists entails that I must see it; I have no choice in seeing.
The practice of meditative process changes this idea, because one begins to gain control over their senses. Even when your eyes are open, you do not see everything. You rather see what you want to see because you direct your eyes toward what you want to see. Therefore, meditation is not just mind control, but also – and to begin with – sense control. If we cannot withdraw the senses from certain types of objects, then it would be impossible to focus the mind on the desired things. In a simple sense, the senses “seek out” what the mind is looking for, and it is possible to modify the senses such that they stop seeking certain types of things, and begin seeking certain other types of things.
This idea can be understood by anyone through practice, and I will not delve into that practice here. I will here explore the consequences of this model of perception where sense control – i.e. our ability to direct our senses toward particular types of objects – entails that what we see is what we want to see. For example, a serious spiritualist loses interest in the activities of materialistic people. It is not that he changes his mind to not thinking about it, but even the senses to not see those things.
The Reflection of the Self in Nature
The classical empirical model of observation believes that because the mind is not biased toward seeking certain things, all empirical observations of nature are unbiased. This is false at many levels. Everyone is biased toward certain things they seek in life. Each person wants to see a self-reflection and matter is the mirror in which we see ourselves. If the things we see are discordant with the nature of the self, the attention shifts from that image to something else. Therefore, the observer is the bias in the observation; because you are particular individual you will seek certain things in the world.
The idea that the mind is a blank slate doesn’t explain why we want to see. Why should anyone be interested in anything? What is the necessity to see when not-seeing is equally possible? The short answer to this problem is that we see because we seek; we are naturally attracted to certain things and naturally repelled from other things because there is an innate tendency in each person. So mind isn’t a blank slate – even at birth. Some children are naturally attracted to art, others to music, yet others to reading, and so forth. And these attractions are not fixed; they can keep changing over life but there is always an attraction to something (until a person has become totally detached from the world).
So perception is always biased; we cannot say that I’m observing the world as it is, because we are seeking out certain things we want to observe, and neglecting other things. This fact does enormous damage to the idea of classical empiricism—i.e. unbiased observation. You can no longer say that I observed the world as it is; you can however say that I choose to observe certain parts of the world. The experience I have is the outcome of what I choose to observe, and I can change that. To change our experience, however, we don’t have to change the world; we have to rather change the self which seeks different things. Once the self has been modified, it will see a different set of things. Therefore, my experience is modified when the mind and sense are modified because they seek different things.
Choices and the Problem of Causality
Once we understand that choice plays a key role in perception, we can ask: Why cannot I experience everything that I want to experience? Note that under the notion of a blank slate, where the experience is forced upon us and we have no choice to knowing the world, this question never arises; since we don’t have choice we cannot say that I see something that I desire. But once we acknowledge the role of choice in perception, we come across a new problem, namely, that I desire to see certain things, but those things are not available to me. So, someone can argue that there is after all no choice because I’m compelled or limited to see even that which I don’t want to see.
This requires a distinction between free will and freedom. Our freedom is defined by a limited set of things that we can see, and our free will is defined by the choice of what we want to see within that limited set. So the fact that I cannot see everything that I want to see doesn’t entail a lack of choice, because there is still choice within the afforded freedom. The fact that our freedom is not infinite doesn’t mean that the freedom is zero. There are many degrees of freedom; the right question to ask is how we can expand our freedom beyond what it is right now. And the short answer to that question is that freedom expands when we use our freedom correctly. So, there is a law of nature – called the law of karma – which automatically expands our freedom based on previous correct use of freedom.
Therefore, even if one is desirous of better material experiences, one has to be more responsible with choice within the currently afforded freedom. This naturally means that our prior use of freedom expands or limits our current freedom. We are compelled to face adverse situations in which we cannot find the things we seek because we haven’t previously used the freedom appropriately.
From Perception to Mysticism
Regardless of how much freedom we have, if we keep changing our desires, no amount of freedom will seem to suffice. Thus, even the rich and powerful seem to be unhappy due to incessant and changing desires. Even if our desires are fixed, we may still not find what we are seeking due to the previously created karma. Therefore, the sane approach to happiness is to stop seeking our reflection in the world, and be situated in the self, or content with the knowledge of what one is without worldly validation in terms of a reflection.
If you cannot find what you are seeking, should you change the nature of the self to align with the world? Or should you remain unhappy with the fact that you cannot find what you are seeking? This conundrum leads to the mystical solution to the problem namely that one must be situated in the understanding of the self even when that understanding is not validated by the world. Therefore, you don’t change the self to align with the world, and you don’t remain unhappy with what the world is. This mystical solution depends on withdrawing the senses from all that is undesirable, and focusing the mind on the self or the true nature of the self without an external validation.
The essence of yoga is to be situated in the true understanding of the self even without an external validation, and without the frustration that leads to changing oneself constantly to find happiness through alignment with the world. This is a very hard proposition because each of us seeks external validation for who we are. Being situated in this world without being validated by the world is not easy, which is why the person who seeks external validation – e.g. through name, fame, glory, wealth, power, acknowledgement, appreciation, etc. – is said to not truly know himself. We are entangled in this world because we are dependent slaves to external validation.
Freeing oneself from this entanglement is equal to freedom from the need for external validation. Only when one obtains the independence from the need for validation does one truly discover the nature of the self and can be constantly situated in that knowledge.