Wise Perspective: Seeing Things Clearly

Photo by Hakon Grimstad

View is the light or attitude in which we regard something – the particular vantage point framing what we observe and how we respond.

In the ancient tradition from which modern mindfulness emerges, Right View (or correct understanding) means seeing things clearly. Secular Buddhist, Stephen Batchelor simply calls it perspective. Its one aspect of embodying mindfulness in a principled or ethical way. Our understanding of the way things are becomes the scaffolding for our practice, and at the same time, our practice helps us develop better understanding – its an evolving and reciprocal process.

I appreciate Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s definition of right view as “a series of working hypotheses”, which we put into practice, not only to see for ourselves if they are valid, but also to fully understand and embody them. Experienced teachers, trusted texts, and a practice community can help provide checks and balances in this process. Over time, we may find we no longer need this scaffolding, and as Thanissaro Bhikkhu puts it, “eventually you have to abandon even the most skillful qualities of the mind”. This is why developing wise perspective requires both effort (dedication and gentle persistence over time) and mindfulness (attending non-judgmentally to what is important).

Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them… When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them. – Maha-satipatthana Sutta: The Great Frames of Reference

Wise perspective is part of a path to liberating ourselves and each other from the unsatisfactoriness of an unexamined life. We come to understand more directly that, because everything is interconnected, our actions have consequences (even after we die). We learn what causes the unsatisfactoriness in our lives. For example, we begin to see for ourselves that all worldly things are impermanent and can’t provide us with lasting satisfaction, and this helps us let go of the grasping and clinging that causes us to suffer. We also begin to understand on an experiential level that much of the assumptions, beliefs, and associations we make about ourselves, other people, and the world are overly personalized, over-identified, and even downright fabricated. When we see through these useful and not so useful fictions, we begin to let go of misguided views that can lead to harmful actions. Finally, wise perspective is understanding what we have to do to eliminate suffering for ourselves and others, in every moment and every situation.

The Secular Buddhist Network offers a secular reinterpretation of what they call appropriate view, “The constantly revisited perspectives and working assumptions which promote the flourishing of human beings as individuals and at a societal level. This includes the recognition of the individual and social causes of suffering, our capacities for transforming ourselves and the world, and the interconnectedness of natural processes and deliberate action. Appropriate understanding also entails a sense of openness toward and appreciation of varied views and perspectives, and a willingness to look anew at our experiences, including our habits of mind.”

In order to have a view, we first must be willing and able to perceive something. The practice of mindfulness helps us bring kind and non-judgmental attention to moment by moment experience, developing in us the courage and skill to explore what is pleasant and unpleasant, wanted and unwanted, as well as  neutral phenomena we might normally overlook. If we bring a beginner’s mind and suspend judgment, we can gain some objectivity about what we observe. With patience and diligence we may begin to develop insight, clearing away the obscurations that keep us in ignorance so that we can respond with greater compassion and wisdom.

“Our happiness and the happiness of those around us depend on our degree of Right View. Touching reality deeply — knowing what is going on inside and outside of ourselves — is the way to liberate ourselves from the suffering that is caused by wrong perceptions. Right View is not an ideology, a system, or even a path. It is the insight we have into the reality of life, a living insight that fills us with understanding, peace, and love.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

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