When we use such terms as “consciousness” or “mind” it often tends to give the impression that we are talking about a single, monolithic entity; but this is misleading. Our own personal experience reveals that the mental world is tremendously diverse. Moreover, when we examine each moment of cognition or mental experience, we realize that they all relate to either internal or external objects. For example, if we examine a moment of perception we find that it takes on an aspect of whatever object happens to be its focus in that very moment. And since we often form false impressions based on distorted perceptions, we can say that some of our perceptions are valid while others are not.

Broadly speaking, we can identify two principal categories within the realm of consciousness—that is, our subjective world of experience. There are those that relate to sensory experiences, such as seeing and hearing, where the engagement with objects is direct and unmediated; and there are those where our cognitive engagement with the world is mediated via language, concepts and thoughts. In this model, perception is primarily understood as a direct experience of objects at the sensory level. This occurs through the mediation of sense data but involves no judgement about whether the object is desirable or undesirable, attractive or unattractive, good or bad. These judgements occur at the second stage when conceptual thought comes into play.

Let us now relate this to our personal experience. When we look at something, in that first instant of perception we have a direct, unmediated visual experience of the object. If we then close our eyes and think about the same object we still have its image in our mind, but now we are engaging with it at the level of conceptual thought. These two experiences are qualitatively different, in the sense that the conceptually created image involves conflation of both time and space.

For instance, you see a beautiful flower in one corner of a garden. The next day, you see the same species of flower in another part of the same garden and you think to yourself, “Oh, I have seen that flower before.” In reality, however, these two flowers are completely distinct and exist in different parts of the garden. Also, the flower you saw yesterday is not the flower you are seeing today. So although these two flowers were separated in terms of space and time, when the moment occurs in your thoughts you are conflating both time and space and projecting the image of the flower that you saw yesterday onto what you are seeing now. This blending of both time and space in our thoughts, which is often mediated through language and concepts, again suggests that some of our perceptions are valid and others are false.

If it were simply the case that these distorted or false perceptions had no negative consequences, this would be fine. But it is not so. Our distorted way of understanding the world leads to all kinds of problems by creating confusion in our mind. This confusion influences the way in which we engage with the world, which in turn causes suffering both for ourselves and for others. Since we naturally wish to be happy and to overcome suffering, it is vital to recognize that a fundamental confusion in our understanding of the world (including our own self) lies at the root of much of our suffering and difficulties. Furthermore, since our experiences of happiness and suffering and the fundamental ignorance that lies at the root of our suffering are all mental phenomena, if we genuinely wish to pursue the fulfilment of our natural aspiration to attain happiness and overcome suffering we must come to understand at least the basic workings of our inner world, namely the world of consciousness.