I love post cards and I’ll tell you why. Since I was a boy I have loved both sending and receiving them, though it doesn’t happen much these days. The bright, small photos (and sometimes artwork) capture the spirit of the place and create a memorable impression. This mechanism occurs in our psychology as well: impressions rise to the top of our value structure and remain with us long after the initial impact has passed. Impressions are treasures of the mind. My purpose in this post is to provide an introduction to the field of sense and to amplify it with what others have written and said on this fascinating subject.
There are external post cards and then there are the internal ones, impressions. Not all impressions are equal. Some carry an inordinately influential weight. We carry them with us like magic talismans. They shine brightly in our memories. They enrich our emotional lives. They may be compared to color slides (also among my favorites), casting the luminous brilliancy of their captured images on the screen. My own perception of sense is that feelings on a deeper level, at the level of calm and silence, are distilled from those on the day-to-day, more turbulent, changeable, and temporarily passing forms. These deeper sensations invoke an abiding, positive presence which is continuing and supporting, and which supersedes those feelings which originate them. I count myself fortunate to have collected so many of these mental treasures in the course of my life. They stay with me. They give me joy and assurance. They carry with them the message that life, despite its turmoil and difficulty, is essentially worthwhile.
The image I have selected is one you probably know well, Stonehenge. The central area has been closed to visitors for years in order to preserve it, but those who wish to see it are given headphones where they may take an audio tour as they circle the site. Several years ago, on a cool, moist morning on the Salisbury Plain, I slowly navigated the perimeter, taking in as much as I could. I felt truly in touch with that ancient world, which, in a non-linguistic manner, spoke deeply to me. I now have post cards, both external and internal, to show for it, and am much richer by the experience.
Let me give you one more before I move on. This is my very first remembered impression, and one which has stayed with me through the years. I can remember standing in my crib at the age of perhaps two, the bright morning sun shining through a window on my left. The light filled my field of vision, overcoming all other objects in my field of vision. The brightness of the sun itself was everything. It was overpowering, all-sufficient, all-encompassing. I was far too young to interpret this in spiritual terms, but this vision had a deeply religious quality, as my later experience has shown.
The field of sense (differentiated from other fields of consciousness such as thought and action) is perhaps the most underappreciated, underexplored, and misunderstood of any of them, yet it accounts for the dynamic quality the fields possess and informs and resonates in them through subtle intuitive links. In order to enter more fully into it, we must expand our means of conscious perception to more acute levels and allow ourselves to be influenced by the depths of intuitive perception and the flow of natural forces (in both their external and internal manifestations). What is also required is a certain degree of trust—trust in a latent faculty which may be contacted and which will inform us with a deep, indwelling “natural” wisdom.
Originally I used the term feeling to describe this field, but after further reading and consideration it seemed inadequate to express the real nature and power of this realm of being. Our ways of knowing something reach deep by means of instinct and intuition. Sense is akin to the uncannily accurate perceptions which have become “hardwired” into members of the animal kingdom and, while this property exists in humans, it is frequently obscured by cognitive chatter. To be fully grounded these connections cannot be disregarded. They underlie the field of thought, and while we may describe a feeling or an emotion we may have at the moment, this is a more ephemeral manifestation of a deeper component of human nature, which is more grounded than fluctuating emotional states. It is the facility of sensing is the primary focus, though what are known as feelings play a part.
Our over-intellectualized and over-technologized culture of today has produced people which have lost touch with their inner being. To many of them, the feeling is that they are a head without a body; they have lost contact with what they feel. Psychiatrist Alexander Lowen has studied this phenomenon. He writes, “The feeling of identity stems from a feeling of contact with the body. To know who one is, an individual must be aware of what he feels. He should know the expression on his face, how he holds himself, and the way he moves. Without this awareness of bodily feeling and attitude, a person becomes split into a disembodied spirit and a disenchanted body.” This, too, was the subject of Erich Fromm’s inquiry on the alienated individual, where “the individual’s love is romanticized, his sex is compulsive, his work is mechanical, and his achievements are egoic.” The problem, on a more fundamental level, is that we remove ourselves from what David Abrams refers to as “perceptual reciprocity” which actively engages our senses with our environment. We do not need to explain our environment as much as to pay attention to its rhythms and textures, its ever-shifting patterns. To be in touch with one’s feelings is to aid in the integration of life forces, perceptions, and the overall conduct of living. Lowen has noted the schizoid’s inability to integrate feelings and impulses into goal-oriented activities. While it may not impair us to this degree, a neglect of these impulses will impede our progress.
There exists a sense of the tone or theme of life as a whole. A sense-impression may be gained from the holistic impression lending a tone or theme to our perceptions. Philosopher Colin Wilson has provided what is probably the best description of this process at work. He maintains that it ought to be possible to gain a level of optimism which is permanent, and that, if one makes an intense act of attention and concentration, it provides an image of sheer delight. Our fault is that we take too passive an approach. This results in a life which seems uninteresting. By our failure to confront life head-on we in fact leak energy; conversely, if we remain concentrated on any objective, we can recharge that vital energy. When you become so tired that you can’t complete anymore, the world turns into what Jean Paul Sarte called nausea. But when we go into those strange moods of happiness, for example, when setting out on a holiday, we discover that we are seeing thing in depth, in three dimensions instead of two. We are now completing quite vigorously. Why don’t we do this more often? It is because we look at life piecemeal, as if through a microscope, and do not view it in its fascinating totality. One’s mental state can be affected by what Wilson calls “under-floor lighting”, which can affect our mental state either negatively or positively depending on what has happened to us. The second [sense] level informs the first. Humans possess a faculty not possessed by animals of existing simultaneously on both these levels. With practice, we can immerse ourselves in that second stream until it becomes quite normal for us. Wilson’s “under-floor lighting” concept is important not only in and of itself but because it points to the multi-layered existence of the fields of consciousness, influenced and being influenced by each other.
Deep emotional experiences (peak experiences) reflect themselves in consciousness as a whole. To further call on the expertise of others, Abraham Maslow has noted that acute moments of ecstasy change the nature of experience. These can include being in love, listening to music, a creative moment, or “being hit” by a book or painting. We should try to remember how we feel that is different from other times, and how this makes us different people. All hunger for the emotional high ground, and it is worth seeking, considering the way in which it raises the quality of our consciousness as a whole. Tragically, drug-enhanced attempts at reaching this point have littered the planet with broken lives. Many who have been scarred by these excesses long for the relative boredom of normality.
The power of natural imagery in the description of the fields is well-documented and is particularly evident in the Celtic consciousness. Nigel Pennick notes the healing influence of a return to the wild. The prevailing theme of this mode of thought is that the external landscape is a representation of the internal one, and vice-versa: “As without, so within”. I am constantly aware of the time of the season, which, in a curious, continual way is influenced by the other parts of the year as it rotates in dramatic, poetic processing. The winter chill is informed by the promise of long, warm summer days. In the August heat I have felt a slight rustling of a cool evening breeze which built the anticipation of autumn days. The expansiveness of time in the realm of nature is a true wonder and mystery. The most constant source of sense perception we have is this cyclic progression of the seasons and, within them, a similar progression of the hours of the day, constantly informing our consciousness with their ever-changing, ever-renewing appearances. There is something in this grand pattern which holds us in awe in its completeness, fulfillment, regeneration of life from death, and mystery. The liturgical calendar, too, derives its power from the same form of cyclic progression (and is also a celebration of regeneration of life from death.)
“Every hour of night and day is a wonder.”
“One must labor for beauty as well as for bread.”
Henry David Thoreau, the champion of transcendental thought, utilized natural observation and imagery. To me, his supreme achievement was the direct and intimate linking of the moods of nature with the individual’s flow of thought, and serves as a primary inspiration to what is attempted here. To Thoreau, it was a vitalizing force which influenced thought, and as such is a powerful component of the notion of a field: “Live in each season it passes; breathe the air; drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of each….Be blown on by all the winds. Open all your pores and bathe in all the tides of nature, in all her streams and oceans, at all seasons.”
Intense familiarity with a locale also yields deep sense connections. Localism informs the creative work of artists, musicians, and writers, whose knowledge and deep feeling of place becomes identified with their work. The feeling I have of my hometown is different than that I have for any other. As I walk its streets, local scenes, well-worn into my memory, vibrate with the glow of intimate acquaintance. To me it is like no other place. It assumes an almost magical proportion. Celtic thought emphasized the paramount importance of orientation, including both place and time.
Relationships have their sense component. How many good friends have such an intimate relationship that they can finish each other’s sentences? How many instances of intuitive warning have been reported when a friend or family member is in danger? How many people dream of a loved one, and even speak to and receive messages from them? A network of good friends carries with it a web of sense connections. Surface knowledge of others deepens as these connections are made. Individuals are richer for the experience, and are fortunate to have it.
The root and soul of the religious experience has an ecstatic core. It is of this that the holy ones exclaim “Halleluia”, “Aum”, and “Amen”. It is essential to it. A migration of believers to such forms as Sufism and Hinduism, and within Christianity to Pentecostalism, has occurred. It was not that they had become less religious; they hungered for a spirituality they could taste and feel.
As we develop familiarity with what we sense, our perceptions of the world are transformed. Things we once focused upon fade into the background, while new perceptions take their place. As our senses are reawakened and energized, the natural environment begins to speak to us and takes on a life of its own. These impressions are studied in a branch of philosophy known as phenomenology. Philosopher Edmund Husserl first proposed in the early 1900s that our task is not to describe so much as to observe this reality. Perceived impressions creatively combine and recombine themselves in ever-changing forms. David Abrams writes, “The sensing body is not a programmed machine, but an active and open form, continually improvising its relation to things and to the world. The body’s actions and engagements are never wholly determined since they must ceaselessly adjust themselves to a world and a terrain that is constantly shifting. If the body were truly a set of closed or predetermined mechanisms it could never come into genuine contact with anything really new, could never be startled or surprised.”
What is the practical value of phenomenology? In it we develop the practice of responding appropriately, in real time, to each situation as it is encountered. True, our judgments always rely on what we have learned from past experience, but a sense-oriented approach helps us avoid our habitual responses which deny us the fresh opportunities and new approaches which could otherwise exist. We must become real beings, not automatons.
Sensing knits together the fields of consciousness. There is a blending, a unification, of the different modes of perceptions. Neuropsychiatrists study synaesthesia, a blending of the senses, as a pathological condition when people report “seeing sounds”, “hearing colors”, etc., but in our primordial, preconceptual experience they are, according to Jacques Merleau-Ponty, “inherently synaesthetic”. It is a primary layer of sense which underlies the division of separate senses. Again, I must note the conception of “layering” of the fields of consciousness, both between fields and, in this case, within the fields themselves. There is a creativity at work here, an open mode of conception which is under constant revision as its modes of action adjust themselves to ever-shifting impulses. It is the antithesis of predeterminism. In our sensing state we are left open to surprise, newness, and wonder.
In a psychological sense, aesthetic perception in the form of the peak experience is therapeutic because it integrates the splits in the person, as well as between persons and between the person and the world. These are also the experiences that make life worthwhile.
Expanded awareness via the field of sense also serves as a link to the ethical and social fields. Sensing makes us more aware of our ethical and social condition. Perceptual reciprocity causes us to see through the eyes of others, establishing a kinship not only with people, but with animals, plants, and the whole of the created universe. This is the dynamic presence that draws us into relation. Without this vital link we objectify and separate ourselves as sensual involvement is repressed. St. Francis’ kinship with animals was indicative of this reciprocity.
The sensory experience lies at the root of language. When the phenomenon of language is examined from the standpoint of sense, it yields fantastic insights. Written language appears to be a fixed form, but is actually an extension of a far vaster collective medium informed by all speaking bodies functioning as generative sites. Language is truly a collective experience. Furthermore, it has changed as it was transformed from oral to written form. Nowhere was this more acutely felt than in the Hebrew alphabet, where vowel sounds were considered the “breath of God” and were not written with the consonants but were eliminated out of respect and awe for the Creator who gave life to all, including human language. Even the name Yaweh is representative of the inhaled and exhaled breath, truly the breath of life. The Greek alphabet changed this to “a strictly intelligible, nonmaterial realm of pure ideas resting entirely outside of the sensible world.” In the Hebrew Bible, time and space are never entirely distinguishable from each other. There is the play of a participatory experience, a story being played out. In Abrams’ words, “It was only with the plugging of these last pores—with the insertion of visible letters for the vowels themselves—that the perceptual boundary established by the common language was effectively sealed, and what had once been a porous membrane became an impenetrable barrier, a hall of mirrors….Within alphabetical civilization, virtually every human psyche construes itself as just such an individual ‘interior’….For there is no longer any common medium, no reciprocity, no respiration between the inside and the outside….There is no longer any flow between the self-reflexive domain of alphabeticized awareness and all that extends, or subtends, this determinate realm.” We can only imagine how our communication, understanding, and perception have changed since the passing of the oral tradition and the bards of old. When language becomes a detached formal system, separate from the mechanical act of speaking, it deprives itself of that fresh meaning that imparts itself in speech, though, in his view it can never be completely severed.
Impressions are a store of positive value, and Wilson has written, can contribute to our “under-floor lighting” on a permanent basis. Like snapshots of a wonderful journey, or of family and friends, they impart deep joy every time they are “viewed”. Even with the passage of the years and changes in circumstances, their value cannot be taken away. We form them subconsciously; like latent photos they take time to develop, but eventually become fixed in the field of sense, taking on a presence of their own. Impressions may be transferred to written form in a sort of emotional diary to give them more concrete form.
Here is an example of positive value: despite the horrors of World War II, it defined the highest and best in members of that generation who gave their all to the effort. In the minds of many of these servicemen and servicewomen, their impressions of this time remain with them as a positive store of value. Others, of course, continued to be haunted by the post-traumatic stress of their experiences. The end of any period of great struggle may result in a tranquil recollection, and may also carry with it a residue of stress.
How many impressions do I have in store? Hundreds of which I am distinctly aware, but with further conscious unfolding it is hard to tell how many are possible. In any event, they serve as treasures of recollection, a repository of what has been beautiful, valuable, purposeful, and worthwhile. Their conscious value is inestimable, and I will carry them with me to the end, much like my treasured books, photos, letters, and music.
“Are you reelin’ in the years, Stowin’ away the time?”
—Walter Becker/Donald Fagen
Without a release to the “realness” of the field of sense, a depth in life is sadly lacking, for only in it do we exist in reciprocity (Abrams’ term) with the ever-changing elements of our world, with the mythopoetic image of everything that is, to enter once again into the mysteries of old. For to be truly mysterious and fascinating it must be beyond our power to capture and describe in, to automate it to the requirements of survival, which it is. To recognize and to live within that is to reconnect on a deeper level with the truth of life. An examination of Walt Whitman’s “A Song of Myself” clearly shows his conversive intimacy with the field of sense.
“…of life immense in passion, pulse, and power, Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine…”
I leave you with an image: Established gardens have traditionally been cultivated once or more frequently every year, for it was thought that the breaking of the soil’s surface was necessary for aeration and penetration of nutrients. This has been shown to be a destructive practice. In their establishment, plants extend networks of hair roots up to three times their width and establish a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, which break down nutrients in the soil and aid the root system in transporting them. Is there a metaphor here for the destruction of our holistic, symbiotic relationship with reality at the hands of our culture? I think there is.
If my heart could do my thinking
And my head begin to feel
I would look upon the world anew
And know what’s truly real.
—Van Morrison, “I Forgot that Love Existed”