What is Real (And What is Water)?

If you’re like me, you are often caught in conversations about what is really going on, about what is real. So, what’s real?

There is a story about a turtle who dropped into a pond and encountered a fish. “How’s the water over there,” he asked. “Huh?” asked the fish, rather puzzled, “Water? What water?” 

The story indicates that the things we’re deeply immersed in are often invisible to us. The fish, without an experience of being out of water, didn’t have an understanding of water. 

Reality is a squishy thing. What we perceive is a function of our beliefs, learning, experiences, senses, and socialization. It is as much about the internal filters with which we see the world as it is the world outside us. 

The writer Anais Nin said, we don’t see the world as it is, but as we are. In India, the concept of maya suggests that reality is something we project onto the world rather than the other way around. A well known Indian story describes a group of blind men who are brought to an elephant and each asked to reach out and to declare what they have. The man holding the tail says it is a rope. The man holding an ear, says he has a fan. The one grasping a tusk believes he has a spear. The one with the trunk finds himself with a snake. They all have a piece of the puzzle but the whole is unseen to each one alone. 

We are all caught in some version of this story as we hold different experiences and perceptions of what’s true. The deep political divides we experience are an example of this in play. Our perspectives may very well clash with a very different reality that someone else holds. We might assume they are misguided or even deceptive, but it could be that their filters are simply different. 

A lesson in the story of the blind men is to listen and share what we see to arrive at a fuller understanding with others. If we couple this with the concept of maya, we also recognize that our projections have a lot to do with our identity. In rejecting the views of others, we are also rejecting who they are. 

David Brooks, writer and columnist focuses on finding the middle, says that a lot of problems in the world are because we don’t feel seen. This suggests that the problem is less about seeing reality than seeing people. 

The classic expression of empathy is walking in someone else’s shoes and seeing with their eyes. Yet, the need to get there is as much about listening to someone’s voice and hearing what is in their heart. From this understanding, we can better get to agreements. This course takes grace and wisdom (https://spiritualsushi.com/what-the-wise-ones-know/). 

In my leadership development work in the world in conflict zones, we found that a way to deal with groups locked in disagreement was to set aside debates of what should happen but to get people sharing who they were and what they cared about. This enables empathy and the desire to find mutually beneficial outcomes. Theodore Roosevelt the pragmatic president observed, ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’

To help us get better at seeing, I have with others launched a project called “I See You” (https://cometta.co/i-see-you) that is about getting people to share perspectives using images. While describing the meaning of images they see, people are really describing themselves. Rather than just hearing what they think about things, we also hear who they are and what matters to them. And when we do, it invariably widens our own worldview. Turns out that being a fish out of water can help us discover what lies beyond our own little ponds.


#perception #conflict #empathy #unity

8 Replies to “What is Real (And What is Water)?”

  1. Lyndon,
    Thank you for this wonderful blog.
    Your understanding and wisdom continues to amaze me.
    Thank you for the mark and the gift you are sharing with me and the world!
    With heart,

    PS: If I had an airplane I would capture your messages and float them all over the universe.

  2. When I have a disagreement with someone or an uncomfortable feeling pops up, I attempt a pause. I consider (even briefly) that my perception may be skewed. Usually this is enough to allow me to soften to other “realities.” Thank you for this post. I value the wisdom here.

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