(See #4 of this post for context.)
I have a friend who is anosmic – she has no sense of smell. How would you describe to her the scent of a grapefruit?
Exactly. And in trying to articulate why we’re here, I’m faced with a similar problem. If you can identify, or have had similar thoughts or experiences, then there’s little to explain. But if you don’t identify, then it’s like trying to explain grapefruit scent to an anosmic.
When everyone around you thinks one way, it’s often difficult to realise that you think differently. I don’t mean small differences like voting for a different party, or being a Goth instead of a Gym Junky, or even subscribing to a different religion. By thinking differently, I mean… Man, talk about grapefruits and anosmics. If you’ve smelt the grapefruit (metaphorically) this will all be obvious to you. But if you haven’t, you’re likely to think I’m an idiot. So be it.
Here goes. A few years ago, I had a whisky-fueled three-in-the-morning D&M about world views with two friends. I was what I pretentiously called a “rational determinist”, or in hindsight I’d call it “fervent toer of the standard academic research scientist line”. My best friend at the time was a devout Christian (which led to some full and frank exchanges of opinion) and the other person in the conversation called himself “more of a mystic”.
It transpired during the conversation that all three world views were internally consistent, just based on different, unprovable, initial assumptions. What gave us our different world views were the unprovable (and importantly, undisprovable) initial assumptions we had chosen.
The great ramblings of the conversation are thankfully lost to posterity, but here is a grand simplification of it, illustrating each of our chosen assumptions:
The Christian: God exists, and he loves me. I just know.
Me (with all the pomposity of the 5-sense scientist): There is no god, what a silly notion. Can you measure god? Well, then.
The Mystic: I am God.
Surrounded by scientists, I had listened only to the assumptions of science. I had never felt the kind of subtle knowings that the Christian and mystic had obviously felt. Because I’d never sensed reality with anything other than my physical senses, any world view that wasn’t a 5-sense superiority complex seemed fueled by flaky imagination and wishful thinking. I had filtered them out.
Several years later, I randomly (long story) took part in a 6-week beginners awareness meditation course. In it, we learned standard awareness meditation techniques, and were encouraged to practice at home. I am such a nerd that I did almost all the homework, and through the course, I stumbled upon another way of sensing the world.
I learned to pay attention to the physical sensations in my body, and to sense the really subtle ones, like still air on the hairs of my arms, and what your elbow feels like when nothing’s touching it. And as an extension of feeling those very subtle physical sensations, came a sense of what the instructor called the “witness”, and later, the “heart opening”, and eventually, glory of glories, the “Oneness” feeling. I didn’t get all of that in the 6 week course – it happened over the course of a few years of really quite sporadic meditation practice.
These were very very strong subjective feelings. I had to work hard to reconcile them with my 5-sense science mindset. But what I noticed in particular was that when I mixed with people who had not had those experiences, or when I paid attention to TV/radio/newspapers where those experiences were never mentioned, I began to doubt that the experiences were real. I didn’t have those feelings all the time, only every now and then, and mostly when I was meditating. When I wasn’t having the feelings, it was easy to dismiss them as imagination, construction, wishful thinking, fantasising.
Now, in hindsight, I recognise that process. It’s a common and pernicious one, where the cacophony of consensus reality drowns out subtle underlying awarenesses of personal and subjective experience. It’s the one that made suburban Australian boys wear their caps backwards and their jeans around their knees. The reality they saw glorified on TV and in music videos was “black gangsta”, so they forgot their pride and their own valid experiences, and took on someone else’s culture.
It’s the one that makes young girls dismiss the evidence of all the people they really know, and begin to use photoshopped models in magazines as their gauge of what’s a normal body shape.
It’s the one that made me forget my pride, and think I should reject the “naive” persistence of the idealist and adopt the more “grownup” pragmatism of the politically patient.
The point is that when everyone around you thinks one way, it’s really hard to listen to the little subtle feelings that arise from yourself. Sometimes those feelings are strong enough for you to sense them through the bombardment of external consensus (these ones of mine are very strong), but sometimes they’re not. And the thing is that now I think they’re the most important things you can sense in your life. They are your life, they make you who you are. And if you can’t hear them because everyone else’s realities are shouting louder, then you need to extricate yourself from the orchestra pit and go find a bit of silence to sit in. Which is what we’re doing.