The Perception Puzzle

They say perception is everything, but what makes up our perceptions? Experiences, ideas, surroundings, family, friends, co-workers, height, weight, intelligence, etc all contribute to our perceptions. Some of what we perceive we’re aware of, like a fly darting towards our eye, while other perceptions are subconscious. Regardless, all perceptions shape who we are and who we will become.
Not only do our perceptions shape who we are, but who we are shapes our perceptions. For example, I have a student who stands six feet six inches while I’m five feet six inches and needless to say our ‘perceptions’ are quite obviously different. He wants to find a better way to take my head off and I want to find a better way to ‘chop him down to size.’ He looks at the world from the top down and I look at it from the bottom up. We both see things differently.
In martial arts, when we learn self-defense movements against a partner, we need to be able to adapt to each other’s body types. Working with someone who has a similar body type and mindset tends to be a bit easier, but real conflict rarely comes customized. The more varied the people we work with, the more our perceptions are shifted and the better we are at dealing with the unexpected.
Understanding a situation from multiple angles also gives us more options in life. Whether a conflict is with a co-worker, a family member or a stranger, being able to perceive a situation from another’s point of view can often help us de-escalate a situation.
Many years ago I was coming to a stop at a red light on my way to see a movie with a friend. A man approximately 20 years my senior was unhappy with my speed, crossed the double line, cut me off, came to a halt and got out of his high end Mercedes Benz just as I came to a stop.
He was well dressed and walked towards my driver side window without saying a word. I knew he was angry, but I knew his anger could not have been with me, so I rolled down my window and pointed out the obvious to a man who was obviously smart enough and successful enough to recognize such.
I said, “Sir, would you like me to get out of the car and have an altercation with you at a red light at 9PM on a Saturday night?” Wordless, he turned around and walked to his car and drove away at the green light. I never even unbuckled my seatbelt.
Although I could not have articulated what transpired in real time, upon reflection, this is how I perceived my mind making the decision to engage the man verbally. First, I recognized that he was not an immediate physical threat as much as he was angry, wanted to vent and I was his convenient excuse. We’ve all been there. Second, I recognized that he was well dressed and seemed more interested in berating a younger man over going to fisticuffs. Lastly, for a man in a rush, a fight and potential police presence wasn’t going to get him to his destination any faster.
What does that have to do with perception? When we perceive, we’re not only using our five physical senses, we are also using our intuition. Our intuition is capable of leaping to conclusions without conscious thought. Often times it is our previous perceptions and understandings that help guide these intuitions.
Could this have gone wrong? Absolutely, but this story highlights the positives of having a clear head and perceiving a situation for what it is and how it can be resolved rather than being resolved to deal with the situation as someone else dictated.
One of the most powerful early lessons in the study of martial arts is learning to attack targets on our own body reflected in a mirror. Knowing what can be attacked teaches us what we need to defend. Perceiving our vulnerabilities in an honest manner helps to illuminate another’s. When our perceptions are clear and accurate, we see more of life’s opportunities and can take better advantage of them.

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