What can we learn from sensory deprivation about accessing other ways of being? How can we avoid the domination of visual processing, the consequent desire to own everything we see, and the ‘blind instinct’ to pin everything down into permanence in the realities we create in our minds? What we see, we want to possess and fossilize, and then that becomes our reality. Quite naturally we fear its loss.
For urban dwellers in the developed world, the allure and provocation of visual signals pulls us out of our true nature. In modern life, the monopolizing visual sense can generate synthetic conditions in which we ‘see,’ but more importantly ‘are seen,’ and interpret everything to suit us. Whereas the non-visual senses – listening/hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling – receive concrete data that needs no interpretation as it is invisible. In a series of articles soon to be made into a book, I will explore the ancient senses that I believe link us with our innate divinity.
Our true nature is both visible and invisible, never limitable to man-made concepts like space and time, or to merely seeing and being seen. I believe our responsibility in the visible world is to live with unconditional love and compassion so we can convey the lessons of humanity to others, and to revive our divine energy in these days of shocking social deterioration and urban isolation. In simple terms, our senses are out of balance. By closing down the visual sense and ‘going inside,’ we can make contact with our higher self and the vast magical land of the invisible.
The ‘I’ and the physical eye operate in a similar way. As mentioned, the visual sense is the most dominant in our consumerist acquisitive societies. Diversity and pluralism overwhelm us with choices, alternatives, get-out clauses, and so on. If we cannot see something, there is a possibility that we consider it not to exist, or at the very least to have no validity. We need proof either with the naked eye, or in writing, to make things valid because our trust in others and in our perceptions of reality is so weak.
It is no wonder then that we cling desperately to the ‘self’ as proof that our flesh and blood actually exist. But in that clinging, there is a possibility that we may have lost all contact with our true self; that our divine flame is either guttering or extinguished altogether.
In respect of the above, the visually impaired are fascinating. If we take away visual data from human existence altogether, then how do we make sense of the world? I have had the privilege of working with visually impaired children and adults as a Music Therapist. They have taught me so much about concrete communication, which contributes to my own spiritual insights, and helps me to step beyond the straitjacket of duality which most of us wear.
Before writing in detail about my professional experience, I would like to bring attention to a film, which movingly depicts how a person deprived of sight as an adult, makes sense of his new world. The title is ‘Scent of a Woman’ 1992, based on an Italian film released in 1974 Profumo di donna, (director Dino Risi, leading role Vittorio Gassman, based on the story Il Buio e il Miele by Giovanni Arpino). A colonel is injured in an accident, losing his sight entirely. He adapts badly to his disability drinking heavily and lashing out at everyone around him in an obnoxious way. He sees no reason to go on living, so he employs a young student, paying his way at a local university, to accompany him to New York to take his final pleasures before shooting himself.
Booking into the best hotel, he lavishes them both during their stay. In the hotel there is a dance floor, a small band playing Latin American music in the afternoon, and guests dancing formally. The colonel senses the fragrance of a woman sitting nearby them and somehow knows that she is alone. He goes to ask her to join them for a drink, and then to his helper’s incredulity, invites her to dance the tango with him. He knows the steps intimately and the floor clears to watch the spectacle. His partner is nervous at first, but soon relaxes and they stride out together confidently.
This scene has incredible nobility for me because of my experience of visual impairment. Apparently, all the blind colonel needs to make the impossible happen is the fragrance of a woman, his healthy body receptive to vibrations, and his kinesthetic memories of dancing the Tango, all of them concrete data.
Is it possible to reconstruct a visually accessed environment in terms of sound and movement? I know first-hand that this is what the visually impaired do to make sense of their world. A young female client blind from birth had never seen anything or anyone; she did not experience even feint patterns of light or shadow. She used sound as her environment, making mountains out of piano chords and snowy summits with her agile voice. She could create a journey in a ship by jumping high to make wave patterns and the rocking of the vessel, using her fingers and voice as the people on board.
She was happiest without words, entirely nourished by the vibrations of sound and sensing them in her body. No intellectual assessment or interpretation, only spontaneous integration with the stimuli.
Jiddu Krishnamurti, spiritual teacher and visionary, said, “The description is not the described; I can describe the mountain, but the description is not the mountain, and if you get caught up in the description as most people are, then you will never see the mountain.’ Of course, my young client had never seen a mountain and never would be able to do so, so instead she could sense it made of sound and smells, and her own bodily movements in space. This can teach us just how attached we become to words and their meaning. Being receptive to only the sound of the word can liberate us so we are able to revert to our true spirit nature beyond mere symbols.
Colonel Slade on the other hand, had seen many mountains and had lived their descriptions, but was now dependent on memories of mountains. Would he be content with this vagueness when he had made mountains so permanent in his life? Would his awareness of mountains gradually dissolve if it could not be refreshed? Would his sense of loss, of the living reality that everything is impermanent, finally hit home and bring him to an awakening, or would it be utterly unbearable. Or, would he now be consumed by the description of himself as a blind helpless and pitiable being, and fail to see that he was not the described, he was not those words. It would seem that his decision to kill himself in some way represented the final irreversible permanence: in other words, he would no longer be there to be seen.
Although occasionally troubled by the language and words of her carers and therapists, which she was often unable to interpret, my young client was completely happy, and reasonably well-adjusted in normal life. But she became aggressive if she was not allowed to move her body through the air, or blocked from feeling the vibrations of sound because this was the only way she could be certain that she existed. So, in terms of her inner spiritual life, she was not beleaguered by dialogue from either her demons or her false angels, not attached to concepts and theories, and not hampered by the acquisitive ‘I’ or ‘eye.’ Whatever she needed to affirm her identity came from sounds and smells, touches and tastes. Words were not symbols, which developed an intellectual reality of their own to her and caused her to live in an abstract world of the mind.
The visible. The invisible. A famous blind and deaf phenomenon Helen Keller, who eventually learned to live in the visible and audible world said, ‘ the best and the most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt in the heart.’ This spiritual view of life comes from a grueling heart-breaking training to learn to live in the world of the sighted and the hearing from early childhood. Her adaptation is testimony to our ability to overcome anything if the divine flame in the heart is strong and we do not allow our senses to be out of balance.
As the world is designed for the sighted, it is impossible for the majority of the non-sighted to make sense of it. They experience existence more directly, more concretely, often from the higher self. This is an inspiration. Many of us have learned to access the higher self through meditation or prayer, which invariably entails closing the eyes and focusing our listening. But how we struggle with distractions in the form of words – notions, speculations, justifications, judgments, criticisms, ad infinitum.
We naturally want to escape from this relentless barrage of concepts, so look for a path leading away, taking us out of ourselves. It is ironic that all we need is already located inside us if only we can quell the noise of our minds and just be in silence and stillness. The blind cannot escape and have no desire to usually. They are content to finger the complex textures of an item on and on, or jump continuously to experiment with their balance or to mingle with concrete energies.
In spiritual practice we aspire to go beyond words and other habitual interpretations of reality. We can learn to sink down into the firm yielding of now and here, of the great still silence where we too, like the visually impaired, can detect vibrations and use other tools accessible to humans such as clairvoyance, perfect pitch, telepathy, that we once utilized. Colonel Slade’s tango with a beautiful fragrant woman almost pushed him over the edge, sending him to lock himself into his room and prepare his gun. Then he felt the love of his young accomplice in angry invective about his cowardliness and self-pity, and knew he could play a useful role in his young life. He could settle for concrete stimuli in time, and found wisdom behind his irascible intolerance. He could still believe in questions and their answers, somnambulating around the visual world learned from memory, at least for a while longer.
The questions the congenitally blind may pose are mere sound-play empty of meaning: hearing their own voices, imitating other voices, projecting the sounds their being can create to chart their environment. They are not desperate jabs at understanding existence, of ‘seeing’ through or behind impressions, of ‘understanding’ and interpreting everything as those of the sighted, because they know there are no questions, so there are no answers.
They are not separated away from existence because they cannot see to measure and compare, to judge and sort, to speculate or criticize. We sighted need to accept everything and step beyond duality to reconnect with our divine origins. Whereas the blind are embedded in existence; they cannot easily move around in their concrete environment as we do in the virtual worlds we invent.
It is difficult for those who have always been able to see the world to imagine the world of the congenital blind. They are like ghosts using their body form as an instrument to detect their environment. They become concrete in the same way that what they perceive best is concrete. They do not take what is visible and transient deep inside them and make it invisible in order to learn lessons and connect with the invisible world. They are invisible already.
They are usually calm and steady because everything is already lost in their world; they can hold on to little and describe nothing. Voices come and go, textures and temperatures are continually changing beyond their control. There is no light or shade. There are no models to imitate except vocally; and they are often excellent mimics because of their exclusive audio focus. We usually pity them, their deprivation of the treasures of the visual, such is our pride in being visual ourselves, but their insight into life is extraordinary and their link with the divine I believe functions strongly.
My blind client knew my inner thoughts. She had clairvoyance without doubt, and she could predict my future. As a music therapist I was one of the few people she wanted to be with all the time because I could make soundscapes for her, and she could use instruments and her voice and body to converse with them.
Our environment can provide concrete data such as resonance, smell, texture and temperature, taste and kinaesthetic awareness, none of which are open to the same kind of interpretation as visual data perceived only by the physical eyes. This data is invisible, the dimension and substance of our spiritual origin. The shaman in primitive tribes enters into a trance to connect with the world of spirits to access wisdom of the elder ancestors. He or she can no longer ’see’ in the physical sense. Soothsayers and seers have traditionally been visually impaired. We are told by Buddhist Masters that during our time in human life we are living in a dream world in which everything is impermanent and created by our minds, so we are perhaps selectively blind ourselves because we cannot see reality, only an abstraction.
The blind colonel on the dance floor moving his own body and his unknown partner’s through space to the majestic rhythms of the Tango inspired by the fragrance she is wearing, is a moving feat to the sighted. There is no hesitation, no speculation, just beautiful bodies moving trustingly through space, responding to resonances and scents. This is surely an unconditional act. At first, he intends this performance to be his swan song – resonance, rhythms, fragrance, bodily accompaniment- all that he needs to shift to the invisible world. But soon he realizes that he can adapt, and at the same time can make peace with his true self.