Kaleidoscopic Senses

When we were born, our senses intermingle and we experience a synesthetic confusion. We see as we hear, as we taste, as we feel – altogether a kaleidoscopic experience. Most of us grow to gain independent, separate senses in order to make sense of the world around us. A rare group of people sustain the cross-activation of senses past the first months of birth.

They may perceive letters as having their own colours, colours as having their own smell and music having its own taste. Some even perceive days with topography such as Tuesday with a terrain ascending and turning to the right. Some are enveloped in different forms of light, like seeing little circles or vertical bars getting brighter and whiter with higher pitches of music.

Jacques Lesseyran recounts beautifully and tragically after his loss of sight:

I had no sooner made a sound on the A string, or D or G or C, then I no longer heard it. I looked at it. Tones, chords, melodies, rhythms, each was immediately transformed into pictures, curves, lines, shapes, landscapes, and most of all colours… At concerts, for me, the orchestra was like a painter. It flooded me with all the colours of the rainbow. If the violin came in by itself, I was suddenly filled with gold and fire, and with red so bright that I could not remember having seen it on any object. When it was the oboe’s turn, a clear green ran all through me, so cool that I seemed to feel the breath of night…I saw music too much to be able to speak its language.

It is remarkable how some can be so different and live so differently, silently in our midst. Do we want to experience life as they do? How interesting it will be to taste and see music!

Notes on Musical Hallucinations

The chapter on musical hallucinations in Oliver Sack’s Musicophilia fascinated me and here are some of my notes:

  1. Musical hallucinations can happen to anyone of us although it manifests predominantly in people who are old or have suffered peripheral or central injury (e.g. hearing impairment or epilepsy).
  2. Musical hallucinations can be obtrusive, unrelenting and be a great source of annoyance and stress. Most recounts were leaden with negative emotions, as one can expect. In most cases, drugs seem to have little or no effect and most individuals only come to terms with the condition several years later. What used to drive them up the wall has become accepted as part of life. This teaches us that acceptance/non-attachment and reconciliation with our physical discomforts or impairments can bring about sustainable living.
  3. Many patients recount hearing a series of notes or fragments of music, over and over again without pause. Often, these fragments consist of music from childhood or teenage years for which they no longer have taste for. One particularly sad case was a Jewish man who heard Nazi marching songs – those he had heard while growing up in Hamburg in the 1930s. Certainly, that must have conjured painful memories that can only add to the stress and annoyance of having hallucinations. In light of the tendency to recall involuntarily, our youthful musical exposure, in time I may hear fragments of church music or punk music. As an atheist, I doubt I’ll enjoy hearing songs of worship, even fragmentary. Yet, I shall practise non-attachment to what is beyond my control. As for the young ones now, I wish them luck hearing electronic music when they’re 80. (Musical hallucinations are more commonly, loud.)
  4. Many patients refused to relate their sufferings to others as they were afraid of being called mad. The stigma of mental illness is prevalent in most societies as people remain uneducated about the issue. When open discussion is not encouraged, fear and apprehension can only stay.

A Note on Existentialism

Hayden Carruth’s introduction to Sartre’s Nausea:

Existentialism is a recoil from rationalism. Not that Existentialists deny the role of reason; they merely insist that its limits be acknowledged. Most of them probably like to think that their speculations are eminently reasonable, yet not rational; and they emphasize the distinction between the terms. In particular, Existentialism is opposed to the entire rationalist tradition deriving from the Renaissance and culminating, a hundred-odd years ago, in the “cosmic rationalism” of Hegel.

[…]

Hegel submerged the individual consciousness in a grand unity of ideal mind. But for the Existentialist, who insists that reality is only what he himself knows and experiences, this is meaningless. Not only that, it is cruel and coercive. The Existentialist knows that the self is not submerged, it is present, here and now, a suffering existent, and any system of thought that overrides this suffering is tyrannical. “A crowd is untruth,” Kierkegaard repeats with choric insistence. Only in the self can the drama of truth occur.

Yet when the Existentialist looks inside himself, what does he find? Nothing. Looking back beyond birth or forward beyond death, he sees the void; looking into his own center, thrusting aside all knowledge, all memory, all sensation, he sees the chasm of the ego, formless and inconceivable, like the nucleus of an electron. And he is led to ask, as philosophers throughout history have asked: why is there anything instead of nothing, why the world, the universe, rather than a void? By concentrating all attention on this nothing within himself and underlying the objective surface of reality, he gradually transforms nothing into the concept of Nothingness, one of the truly great accomplishments of human sensibility. Nothingness as a force, a ground, a reality —in a certain sense the reality. From this comes man’s despair, but also, if he has courage, his existential integrity.

From this comes, too, the Existentialist’s opposition to humanism. Not that he is inhumane; quite the contrary, his entire preoccupation is with the sanity and efficacy of the individual person. But he insists that men must confront Nothingness. In a universe grounded in Nothingness, the anthropocentric vision of reality that characterized rational humanism from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century is clearly untenable. Mankind, instead of being the central figure on the stage of reality, the rational creature for whom the nonrational world exists, is actually an accident, a late and adventitious newcomer whose life is governed by contingency; and the proof, paradoxically, comes from rationalism itself, from the Darwinian idea of evolution. Whatever may be the case with trees and stones and stars, man the thinker is a by-product, a nonessential component of reality, and he and all his works cling to existence with a hold that is tenuous and feeble.

Beyond this, generalities must cease. Each of the great Existentialist thinkers pursues his separate course toward the re-establishment of the individual person in the face of Nothingness and absurdity. Sartre is only one of them. But clearly Existentialism, the confrontation with anguish and despair, is a philosophy of our age.

Cultivate self-awareness

Words of wisdom from the meditation teachings of Ajahn Sumedho:

The sensory world has a powerfully strong influence. Having a body like this with the society we live in, the pressures on all of us are fantastic. Everything moves so quickly – television and the technology of the age, the cars – everything tends to move at a very fast pace. It is all very attractive, exciting and interesting, and it all pulls your sense out.

[…]

There is always something better, something newer, something more delicious than what was the most delicious yesterday…it goes on and on and on, pulling you out into objects of the senses like that.

But when we come into the shrine room, we are not here to look at each other or to be attracted or pulled into any of the objects in the room, but to use them for reminding ourselves. We are reminded to either concentrate our minds on a peaceful object, or open the mind, investigate and reflect on the way things are. We have to experience this, each one for ourselves. No one’s enlightenment is going to enlighten any of the rest of us. So this is a movement inwards: not looking outwards for somebody who is enlightened to make you enlightened.

[…]

As a human being, we have a mind that can reflect and observe. You can observe whether you are happy or miserable. You can observe the anger or jealousy or confusion in your mind. You might blindly react to it, but if you are more patient you can observe that this is a temporary changing condition.

This is using wisdom by watching that impulse, and understanding it. That which observes greed is not greed: greed cannot observe itself, but that which is not greed can observe it. This observing is what we call awareness of the way things are.

Be True to Yourself

Words of wisdom from Seamus Heaney, taken from this beautiful article:

“Getting started, keeping going, getting started again — in art and in life, it seems to me this is the essential rhythm not only of achievement but of survival, the ground of convinced action, the basis of self-esteem and the guarantee of credibility in your lives, credibility to yourselves as well as to others.

This rhythm … is something I would want each one of you to experience in the years ahead, and experience not only in your professional life, whatever that may be, but in your emotional and spiritual lives as well — because unless that underground level of the self is preserved as a verified and verifying element in your make-up, you are going to be in danger of settling into whatever profile the world prepares for you and accepting whatever profile the world provides for you. You’ll be in danger of molding yourselves in accordance with laws of growth other than those of your own intuitive being.

[…]

The true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your lives. True to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally and keeps us most reliably connected to one another. Calling a spade a spade may be a bit reductive but calling a wooden spoon a wooden spoon is the beginning of wisdom. And you will be sure to keep going in life on a far steadier keel and with far more radiant individuality if you navigate by that principle.

[…]

Whether it be a matter of personal relations within a marriage or political initiatives within a peace process, there is no sure-fire do-it-yourself kit. There is risk and truth to yourselves and the world before you.”

The Illusion of Attention

It is a common complaint that one simply can’t focus. Yet, who or what is to blame? In this day and age, so many things require our attention all at once. For example, we’ve got notifications from our social media accounts, updates from news websites and mass messages from group chats. How is one supposed to focus on a task with the bombardment of information 24/7? These notifications, updates, messages all seem to require our attention immediately, yet do they?

Try this: Do a 1-hour workout and leave your phone in your bag/locker. After the workout, look at all you’ve missed, and ask yourself if any of it required your immediate action. Did it affect anyone greatly when you gave no attention?

It is likely that the above practice will allow you to see that immediate attention is unnecessary. The notifications, updates, messages, emails, etc. are illusory calls for attention. Furthermore, unless you hold a position of great authority/responsibility or your boss is from hell, you will not need to attend to work matters with such urgency. Remember, time is the greatest currency.

Now that you realise that this rush to answer, to look, to comment is nonsensical, turn off the notifications and unsubscribe, as much as you can. Be mindful about your time, your precious time.