Sunday, December 28, 2008

Learning to Appreciate the Senses

I suppose if meditation does anything for me is that it helps me wake up to my senses.  Commonly, we admit that there are five senses, but a friend who is a Occupational Therapist tells me that there are seven of them.  (OTs list some seven senses, adding the vestibular or balancing sense and the proprioceptive or kinaesthetic sense to the common list of five, though on some research I find, not too surprisingly, that there are also the sense of pain, the sense of temperature and certain other internal senses.)  However, here, for the purposes of this post, I refer to the common senses of hearing, seeing, smelling, touching and tasting.

Learning to See: 

How often have you travelled the same route to work and never really noticed this particular beautiful shop facade or that particular beautiful little park.  In other words, we block out a lot of things from our consciousness due to our taking care with our driving (a practice much to be advocated indeed if you use a car) or our daydreaming or our preoccupations with our cares and worries.  I remember an old teacher I once had always quoting the following quip: "None so blind as those who fail to see."  In other words there are a lot of things we fail to see.  In like manner with the other senses, too.  There are also a lot of things we fail to hear; that we fail to smell; that we fail to touch and indeed fail to taste.  And so meditation can awaken us from our self-preoccupation, from our "egocentric slumbers" if I may rewrite a famous phrase from Kant. (Kant had sad famously that the Scottish philosopher David Hume had awoken him his "dogmatic slumber" with his new emphasis on empiricism, that is testing the validity of everything through the senses.)

Who have taught us to see the world differently? So many indeed.  But once again, it is salutary to realise that there are as many ways of seeing the world as there are people in it.  However, the practical and pragmatic among us will realise that they all intersect at some very obviously and commonly accepted pictures of reality that we all accept - otherwise the workaday world would grind to a halt in chaos.  Be that as it may, we need some others to call us back to a deeper awareness of different levels of reality as it were.  I'm referring here to philosophers, writers, artists of all kinds, theologians, scientists of all varieties and visionaries in general who see the world through different optics as it were.

For the past few days I have been reading a lovely little book by Alain de Botton which one of my brothers bought me for Christmas, namely The Art of travel (Penguin, 2003).  I have read two or three of his other books already and have discussed them in these pages hitherto.  However, this is a travel book with a difference - one that teaches us to journey anew, to travel not to seek the rare and wonderful, but rather to travel by opening up all our senses, even if we only ever travelled 5Km down the road.  That reminds me of the well-known story, once again about Kant, namely that he had never travelled more than 40 miles outside Königsburg, yet from reading he had an extremely detailed knowledge of other places around the world, to the point that he could fool people who had visited some place into thinking that he had visited there too.

In my younger days I used travel more than I do now.  I remember travelling with many different friends, some of whom used drive me mad because they wanted to take in so much in this or that city.  They were often so rushed and so preoccupied that they failed to take in the little things around them.  This is what de Botton is about in this book, teaching himself to be very much an awakened traveller, one who is aware of all that is going on around him.  I've been to many cities and sure it's nice to take in the cathedrals, castles and churches and famous galleries and other public buildings, but I've often found that walking about, say in the Jardin du Luxembourg and then sitting and reading for an hour or two on a seat in that wonderful park is a very rich occupation indeed as one can learn much by looking about one, observing, watching the people go by, observing how people interact and how they smile and then meditatively closing one's eyes and breathing in the very breath of life.  Travelling is all about awareness, not about how much one sees - it is essentially about how one sees what one actually does end up seeing.

De Botton starts with that potent question, "Where should we travel?"  I suppose the Irish of the Celtic Tiger years, a phenomenon now just a rotting carcass, would have been travellers to the fashionable lands of the sun.  Perhaps many of them travelled because it was trendy and fashionable to do so, to sport a tan and to visit places only those with money could.  Again a poor reason to travel.  Our author argues, instead, that we should journey for one reason only - that is, in search of happiness.  I'd rewrite that myself by saying that we should travel in search of self and that the destination does not matter at all.  What really matters is how we make the journey, how open we are to all the life has to offer around us.

De Botton brings a novel called A Rebours by J-K Huysmans as his guide for the first part of this little book.  The effete and misanthropic hero of this novel is an aristocrat called le Duc des Esseintes who really feared travelling and all the discomfiture he'd have to put up with.  For the Duke reality must always have been disappointing.  This impossible hero remained in his villa and surrounded himself with a series of objects which facilitated the finest aspect of travel namely its anticipation. He had the itineraries of the major shipping companies  framed on his bedroom walls and even had an aquarium filled with seaweed to give him the sense of travelling by sea.  As our author says, "Des Esseintes concluded, in Huysmans's words, that 'the imagination could provide a more-than-adequate substitute for the vulgar reality of actual experience.' " (The Art of Travel, 27) 

In the section called "On Travelling Places" De Botton brings the French poet Charles Baudelaire(1821 - 1867) and the wonderful American artist Edward Hopper (1882 –1967) along as guides.  He writes about such an unlikely place as the service station and the more likely ones of airport, plane and train. Our author tells us that Baudelaire represents a new poetry of transience or a 'poésie des départs, or a poésie des salles d'attente.' (Ibid., 35 where De Botton is here quoting T.S. Eliot).  In this section our author turns to one of my favourite themes, mentioned many times in these posts, namely, our very smallness and insignificance in the scheme of things.  Another good lesson taught us by travelling:

And to think that all along, hidden from our sight, our lives were this small: the world we live in but almost never see; the way we must appear to the hawk and to the gods.  (Ibid., 41)

Then our author covers the themes of loneliness, solitude and even alienation in travelling and how this, then, is seen in the works of Baudelaire and Hopper respectively.

(De Botton has introduced me to the work of Hopper whom I'm reading up on and I'm looking at as many representations there are of his paintings on the web.  For this gift I am extremely thankful)


To be continued

Above "Automat" by Edward Hopper, 1927.

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