How our Listening Filters Create our Reality and Limit Us

One of my most vivid memories from my childhood is when my grandmother mistook me for my father. I first thought she had gone crazy, but I was relieved when it was diagnosed as cataract in her eyes. Within a few days and after a small surgery, I was back to being her grandson. That was an easy fix — I thought at that time.

I had no idea that many years later, I was to discover a kind of cataract — in my vision and listening. The cataract which I am talking about are our listening filters. As I shared briefly in my article about Listening, these filters helps each one of us create our own perceived reality which helps us in making every decision — big or small — of our lives. However, unless we know the various listening filters at play, we don’t see our reality as a perception but as the absolute truth.

Whenever we see or hear something, we select what to pay attention and what to ignore, often subconsciously, based on a certain set of filters. A simple example could be someone speaking our name. Even if we are in a crowded room, we will instantaneously pay attention if someone utters our name, even if they are behind or far away from us. Our filters make us give more attention to our name than any other word.

Similarly, other listening filters make us pay more attention to certain things and ignore others. They can make one of us cry and another laugh on hearing the same story. They allow us to make sense of the situation in front of us, which creates the foundation on which we base our decisions.

listening filters color our world

What color does your world look like?

What are these Listening Filters?

1. Parents
Our parents are our first contact with humanity. As we grow up, our parents influence us the most. As we try to understand the world around us, our parents tell us stories to make it easier for us to navigate it. Everything that we consider as our most basic self – our religion, language, values, our political affiliations — are shaped by our parents more than anyone else.

Subconsciously we learn to listen to the outside world through them. Depending on what our parents think, and how they act, we learn to make our own choices, and judge other’s choices. We either end up see the world as they do, or rebelling against them and view the world contrary to how they see it.

2. Values and Beliefs
We filter everything we see and listen through our values (how we define right & wrong), and political, religious and other strong beliefs. For example – If a person has suffered racial discrimination in the past, he is likely to filter all future interactions with suspicion and caution.

If we hear what is in tune with our values and beliefs, we feel relaxed, joyful, and get an ego boost which can easily be seen in our body language. When we hear or see something contrary to our beliefs, we are surprised and might even feel pain and shock. We feel our muscles tightening, which can develop into stress, frustration and anger. Again, this is visible in our body language.

3. Culture – Language, Society, Religion
We behave in the world according to the religion we follow (or not), the languages we speak and are spoken around us, and the norms of the society we live in. Whether we are direct or vague in our communication, whether we are disciplined in our daily dealings or not, whether it is polite to accept a gift or not, and other subtle things in our daily life — are shaped by the culture of the land we live in.

4. Intentions, Expectations and Mood
We enter every conversation with an expectation of the outcome. For example – my expectations are very different when I talk to my colleague at work compared to when I run into him over the weekend. Similarly, my expectations differ when my wife calls me up at our usual time and when she calls up unexpectedly during the middle of the day. What we listen in these different circumstances is shaped by what we expect to happen.

Our listening is also shaped (or filtered) by our mood. At the end of a long day when we are tired, if we don’t get our expected response in a meeting, we might easily get frustrated and angry. But if we get the same response at the beginning of a day when we are fresh and energetic, we might respond in a totally different manner. The difference in both these cases is our mood impacting our listening.

5. Personal Prejudices
We all have certain personal prejudices, which can be racial, economical or something even more subtle – like the way one dresses. We listen and treat people differently based on these prejudices, most often on a subconscious level. An example is considering one colleague more ambitious than another based on how they are dressed. Another example is how we listen when we are approached by a homeless person on a street. Do we trust them when they approach us for money, or think about whether they are just going to use the money to get drunk?

We all have such personal prejudices formed over the years which live in our subconscious and give us a filtered view of the world around us. We are likely to ignore anything that opposes these prejudices, and very likely to agree and bond with anyone who shares the same prejudice as us. For instance, if we have a personal dislike for a person, we are likely to be dismissive about his ideas. On the contrary, when we interact with people we admire, we might behave over-optimistically in situations which warrant more caution.

We Don’t See Things As They Are, We See Them As We Are

We Don’t See Things As They Are, We See Them As We Are

Does everyone have the same filters?
Absolutely not. Just like our fingerprints, each one of us has unique listening filters. Based on our past, we all filter how we experience the present and make meaning of what we see and hear. Furthermore, our listening filters are changing (or evolving) daily based on new people we meet, successes and failures we have, and prejudices we form.

Our listening filters give each one of us a unique view of the world around us. These filters are almost like glasses through which we view the world. We put on our black glasses, and then complain the world around us is black. Not only that, we argue and fight with others wearing red glasses that the world is black and not red. Sounds silly, isn’t it! Yet we all do it.

What can we do about them?
Every decision we make, whether it is trivial or a life changing one, depends on how we assess the situation. Our listening filters help us create this assessment, which in turn limits the options in front of us. If two people act differently in the same situation, the difference is in their assessment of it. Reality is the shaky foundation on which we all rest our decisions.

As you read this article, and understand it through your own filters, don’t be led to believe that there is something wrong with having them. Instead, they are very useful in giving us a set of options in each situation which help us navigate through life. However, we are normally blind to the fact that these filters give us our perspective of life in each moment. If more aware, we are likely to understand how others see things differently.

Knowing that others may see the same situation differently can help us stay humble in challenging times. Being aware that our listening filters limit our available options can give us a big picture view and bring a smile on our face in stressful situations. In doing so, we don’t have to throw away our coloured glasses through which we view the world, we just have to be aware of them. And perhaps, try different ones for a while.

Making an attempt to sincerely view a situation from the other person’s point of view is what Real Listening is all about. If we can do so, we will make our conversations a bit more constructive, our days a bit more fun, and our relationships a bit more meaningful.

My Four Probable Answers to What Exactly is Reality?

1. Agreements
Reality is just an agreed notion, either by a large number of people or by someone for whom we have the illusion of being an expert. For example – If a majority of people believe in a superstition or a religious practice, it is considered the truth in that part of the world. People are killed, children are raised, and wars are fought over such widely agreed beliefs. Similarly, if an expert says something, people tend to believe it as reality. If a doctor says you are ill, then you must be. If a scientists makes a remark, we take it very seriously even if it is totally opposite of what we believe in.

2. Standards Set by Average People
Most of the time people make rules just because they would be out of a job if they don’t do so. This is mostly true of people in power, whether they are in a government or in a school, college or a company. Most of the standards about what we should do, what we should not do, and how to do something and how not to, are made by some group of very average who are nominated (or elected) for that position. And it is amazing to see how so few people question them and live their whole lives driven by those standards. Watch the below video to get amazed.

3. What our mind/brain tells us?
The human brain takes in all perceptions from the outside world and forms a reality for us through our thoughts and perceptions. It is reflected in the ‘real’ world by the words we speak and write. What we observe is ‘instantly real’ for us? This is why we are so amazed by magic or optical illusions. But when someone explains the reasoning behind, we see a different reality. Why? Only because our brain changed our perception of reality on seeing the proof behind the magic? But in that moment, that illusion was our reality?

4. A Mirage and a Mystery
Life is at best, a mystery to humans, one bigger than we have the potential and capacity to understand. See this bizarre “Double Slit Experiment” done by Quantum Physicists to get the shock of your life. Who knows if there are multiple realities where every possible outcome is played out in a parallel universe. Each of us will observe something different depending on our frame of perception.

Still 5 more Lessons of Wisdom from the Peaceful Warrior

Peaceful Warrior doesn’t seem to stop amazing me everytime I watch it. Depending on what state of mind you are in, this movie presents you different insights from the wonderful dialogue delivery and scenes depicted in the movie. For me, this movie is much more than just a movie, it is a piece of art – a wonderfully scripted and executed version of the book – The Way of the Peaceful Warrior

Start Looking Inside for Answers
Traditionally we have always looked for answers to our questions in the outside world. We do so by seeking knowledge, advice, different tools, technologies and products from the outside world. But after a momentarily phase of satisfaction, we tend to come to the same questions sooner or later. This movie, at various different points, depicts that the answers to the most difficult of our questions actually lie inside, which is very difficult and confronting for most of us to believe. But if we start seeking inside and getting present to everything in a totally new way, we can be amazed by the things we discover. I guess this power we get from the inside is the same stuff highlighted by different religions and philosophers and spiritual leaders, albeit in very different ways.

Keep a Good Sense of Humor about Ourself
A wonderful strength to have is to keep a good sense of humor, especially about ourselves. Many times we end up taking our lives too seriously in the quest of goals and achievements, and miss a lot of fun and happiness in the process. Having a good sense of humor about ourselves certainly helps take things lightly and not let them become stress or tension. If we can laugh at ourselves, we can blunt out the edges of jokes targeted at us, and everyone can have some good fun. Life is too short to take yourself too seriously, and if you can be the reason for some good laughs, you should be proud you are proving helpful in providing others a few moments of happiness.

When a person can no longer laugh at himself, it is time for others to laugh at him. —Thomas Szasz

When a person can no longer laugh at himself, it is time for others to laugh at him. —Thomas Szasz

If you Get what you Want, You Suffer. If you Don’t, you still Suffer
The biggest lie we say to ourselves is – “If I get this result, or achieve that goal, I will be happy.” When we tie our happiness to the outcome of our goals, like most humans do, we suffer when we don’t get what we want. But even if we get what we want, we still suffer, because then there are bigger goals and milestones waiting as time moves on. Time doesn’t stop at the instant where we won something and are jubilant, and since time always moves on, we can’t hold on to that victory. The whole cycle repeats itself over and over again.

Life is beautiful in its surprises and unpredictability. We can never predict what is going to happen or not, but if we tie ourselves to ONE goal or result, we will miss all other unexpected results and joys life will throw in the way. Being in a space of being ‘not sure‘ what to find will allow us to welcome everything that comes our way. And this is a fact, whether we accept it or not. It is true that we will never have control over what happens to us in the future. It is the JOURNEY what brings us happiness, not the DESTINATION.

Life is about Absolute Vulnerability
This movie depicts wonderfully that true courage lies not in victory or perfection, but in absolute vulnerability. The ability to step out of our comfort zones and get into zones where we are fully vulnerable will decide how alive we feel in every moment. It is also very often called as ‘living on the edge‘ when we are aware of every step and every breath we take with our full attention without letting the unnecessary clutter of the past and the future getting in the way. And it needs courage to live life like that, and can lead to a truly amazing experience of life, rather than just living for results and achievements.

There is No Starting or Stopping, Only Doing
When Socrates asks Dan to resume his training after the accident, Dan had no clue how was that even possible, or where to start? To this Socrates said, “There is no starting or stopping, only doing.” The only thing we have, and will always have, is “right now“. Everything else we think we have or aspire to have is just an illusion. Right NOW, this moment is the only reality, and in this reality there is no starting or stopping, but only doing. If we can pay all attention to our doing and throw out everything else in our mind, we can achieve a new level of performance in what we are actually doing and will most likely end up producing amazing results.

What is Reality?

In my experience over the last 28 years of education, work, entrepreneurship, social activism and living in Delhi, Jaipur and now Bangalore, I have seen my beliefs change many times. My idea of right and wrong, how to treat people, how to earn money, how to live life have all gone through tremendous changes as I have met different people from all age groups, occupations and different sections of society. Politicians, armymen, social activists, judges, entrepreneurs, economists, software engineers, students, artists, police officers, government employees, senior citizens, foreigners and more – It has been a wonderful experience meeting and interacting with them.

As I have seen varying point of views about all topics from different people, I sometime wonder what reality is? What is wrong for one person is only right for another? Most of us are very narrow in thought and limited in our circle of education and employment, and these two areas shape our thoughts and emotions. I wonder at the powerful meaning this simple quote by Einstein captures –
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.

realityPhilosophers like Immanual Kant and John Locke, both suggested centuries ago that reality is something we construct for ourselves. I somehow wonder – Is the world we see while awake any different in perception from the world we see (dream) while asleep? Everything is created as an image in our minds, whether our eyes are open or closed. In dreams too, we see and interact with people, we have emotions like anger, love and they appear very real to us until we wake up. Dreams can make us scared, sweat like we would do with normal emotions, all while asleep.

The illusion comes, and many problems of life, when we start believing what we see as the ‘ultimate reality‘ rather than just one frame of reference our mind has decided to show us. Indian philosophers in the past have spoke of this as ‘Maya‘. It says that we deceive ourselves when we think that the objects we see are the objects themselves.

Most of our reality is shaped by our senses of vision, sound, touch, smell and taste. And it is scientifically proven that our senses can only comprehend a fraction of the physical realities of light, sound, etc. Furthermore, there are many more realities which we have no way (or senses) to understand and measure like magnetic field and electric charges. Other animals sometimes can detect these in varying quantities, like dogs have a better sense of smell and sound.

Another example to highlight that everything we say and believe as truth is only an illusion is the “Earth is a sphere” discovery. In ancient times, it was believed that the earth is flat. It was so much a part of everyone’s reality that ships used to go a certain distance in the ocean and then come back due to the fear of falling off the surface of the earth. Everything we believe and see right now is nothing different from this example.

I would even say that the concepts of space and time are totally shaped by our mind, even when it is very ‘real‘ to us with scientific proof. But we can’t hold space and time like we can hold a table or a chair, and so they are more about some concepts we have created rather than an ‘absolute truth’. Now contemporary physics have begun to validate this viewpoint too, though I will need to spend more time researching to make a credible claim on that.

As human beings, we are conditioned to see our culture, language, politics, religion as reality, which is only an illusion. This illusion is then passed on from generation to generation. Without even knowing, we spend all our lives driven by this ‘reality’. It takes real courage to question and challenge these beliefs and assumptions and bring in a more mature perspective on how to lead our lives.

I will end with this powerful quote around the same question I started with – What is Reality?

What we call reality is an agreement that people have arrived at to make life more livable. ~Louise Nevelson