Is it possible to identify reality? It depends on the context and who is doing the identifying. The formal definition of reality includes, “that which exists objectively and in fact.” However, reality is often a subjective “fact/truth” when we move into the realm of human knowledge and external experience. So, what do I mean by reality often being subjective? I'll provide a few examples.
My sister and I are 16 months apart. In a fairly objective reality, our observations in terms of external life events, family behavior, schools, teachers, neighborhood, relatives, family residence and decor, pets, neighbors, etc. should be quite similar, given the closeness in our age. And yet, it is not unusual for us to have a conversation about our childhood where we describe entirely different external realities. How is this possible?
When I am facilitating organizational trainings, I often use a perception exercise as an ice-breaker. I ask each person in the training to think of the color blue and hold that color in their imagination. I then go around the room and ask each person to describe their color. It is rare, unless I am working with a very large group, for there to be more than two people who describe the same shade of blue. I merely asked “think of the color blue,” not “think of a shade of blue.” How is this possible?
Our perceptual filters enable us to focus, take in external information via our senses and process our perceptions in order to understand our world. Without sensory filters, we would continually be in a state of information and sensory overload. Our unique biology and external environment interact to create our personal reality. This reality is rarely an objective truth, even though it sure feels objective to us. Given the subjectivity of our sensory filters and the subsequent meanings we attach to our perceptions, it is not unusual for us to powerfully disagree with others regarding reality. That is the reason why it is not unusual for accident and crime witnesses to report entirely different accounts of the same external event.
The following Zen tale elegantly speaks to perception and reality. Enjoy!
Once upon the time there was an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied.
The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the old man.
The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
“Maybe,” answered the farmer.
The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out.
“Maybe,” said the farmer.