Scent of the Divine

 

between worlds

 

What can we learn from those deprived of fully or normally functioning senses about accessing other ways of being? How can we avoid the domination of visual processing, the consequent ownership of everything we see, and the blind instinct to pin everything down into permanence in the realities we create in our minds? Everything, and often everyone, we see we want to possess and fossilize, preserving them in aspic, making them permanent. These collections often become our reality and naturally, we fear their loss.

For urban dwellers in the developed world, the allure of millions of visual signals pulls us out of our true nature. We are provoked by their sight to make choices, to possess or reject. In modern life, the monopolizing visual sense can generate synthetic conditions in which we ‘see,’ but more importantly ‘are seen,’ and we interpret everything to suit us, on our terms. Whereas the non-visual senses – listening/hearing, tasting, smelling, feeling – receive concrete data from the environment, e.g. sound, scents, textures and shape, flavours and temperatures, etc. that need no interpretation as they are un-seeable, invisible to most humans.  In a series of articles soon to be made into a book, I will explore these 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, to merely seeing and being seen. Our sacred responsibility while inhabiting the visible world is to live out our unconditional love and compassion so we can convey the lessons of humanity to others. As well as to revive our divine energy in these days of shocking social deterioration and urban isolation. In simple terms, our senses are out of balance in modern life so 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,’ the ego, and the physical eye operate in a similar way. As mentioned, the visual sense is the most dominant in our consumerist acquisitive societies, manufactured 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 evidence 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 our true nature; that our divine flame is either guttering or has 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, contributing to my own spiritual insights and helping me to step beyond the straitjacket of duality which most of us wear.

 

scent

 

Before writing in detail about my professional experience, I would like to recount 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 by drinking heavily and lashing out obnoxiously at everyone around him. 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, his pristine gun in his suitcase, his practice at assembling and cleaning it copious.

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 where guests are 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, forcefully invites her to dance the tango with him. He knows the steps intimately and the floor clears to watch the spectacle. His helper is nervous at first but soon relaxes as they stride out together confidently, victoriously.

 

scent of a woman.jpg

 

Personally, this scene has incredible nobility because of my experience of visual impairment. Apparently, all the visually imapired colonel needs to achieve the impossible 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; unusually, she did not experience even faint patterns of light or shadow. She had no choice but to utilize sound and movement 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. I often envied her freedom from intellectual assessment or interpretation, craving 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 combined with her own bodily movements in space. This can demonstrate just how attached the sighted become to words and their meaning. Being receptive to only the sound of the word and not its meaning can liberate us, so we are able to revert to our true spirit nature beyond mere symbols. As we listen to music, imbibe the fragrance of toasted bread, taste a freshly picked ripe plum, finger fabric made from silk in the dark, words become redundant and shockingly inadequate except in the hands of a talented poet.

Colonel Slade on the other hand, had seen many mountains and had actually experienced 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 unendurable. Perhaps he was now consumed by the description of himself as a blind helpless and pitiable being and failed to see that he was not the described. It would seem that his decision to kill himself in some way represented the final irreversible permanence.

 

murasaki

 

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 as a child to be able to live in the world of the sighted and the hearing. Her complete 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 unsighted 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 unsighted, 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 an 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, and 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 themselves 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 onto little and describe nothing. Voices come and go and textures and temperatures are continually changing beyond their control. There is no light or shade. There are no models to imitate except vocally which means they are often excellent mimics because of their exclusive audio focus. We often pity them, their deprivation of the treasures of the visual, but their insight into life is extraordinary and their link with the divine I believe functions strongly.

My blind client knew my inner thoughts as I worked with her. She had the gift of 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 with her, and she could use instruments and her voice and body to act in them.

Our environment can provide concrete data such as resonances, smells, textures and temperatures, tastes and kinesthetic awareness, none of which are open to the same kind of interpretation as visual data perceived only by the physical eyes. These data are 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.

 

fragrance 4

 

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 find peace with his true self.

 

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Moongazing

Mariko Kinoshita, a Japanese artist, is highly culturally adaptable unlike many Japanese who still harbour suspicions about foreigners. This is to be expected when we consider that the whole country was closed to all foreign influence for a period of over 250 years between 1603 and 1868. 

But this work unashamedly evokes the very essence of Japan. Gazing at the moon through the pale fish of cherry blossom (sakura) is essential for the Japanese spirit. The kimono and white mask of a beautiful silent woman create the sense of mystery the world is so intrigued by.

In Japan, fully-grown adults can be seen weeping at the sight of sakura at its peak. We watch the national news several times a day to find the exact peak for particular locations and then rush to stand close and gaze by moonlight.  In fact, the first national forecast has been released today so people are already planning.

Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto is the moon god in the Shinto religion and in Japanese mythology.  This deity is male unlike in ancient myths of Greece or Rome, and its creator also male. Tsukuyomi was the second of the ‘three noble children’ born when Izangi-no-Mikoto, the god who created the first land of the Japanese archipelago.  It is said that he was born from Izangi’s right eye. After climbing a celestial ladder, Tsukuyomi lived in the heavens with his sister Amaterasu, the sun goddess, who also became his wife. Japanese myths are primitive and not limited by worldly classifications. The very origins of Japan are fantastical in a very eastern way which fascinates westerners.

I love Kinoshita’s painting and feel honoured to be helping this artist edge into the wide world. It is easy to see her unconscious heritage in the stillness and silent joy.

                                    Images courtesy of Mariko Kinoshita and Linden Thorp

 

Calling: to the white marble of Montpellier

Cover Picture

Calling

Sipping Rhone wine under the flounces

of the massive Lime-flower tree

aroma and scent trouble me.

The wine at its best, the flowers at their peak,

and yet my habitual absorption in

the sensory is being tugged at,

its tension overstretched like used muslin,

its once overwhelming newness wearing thin.

The perfection of sky balanced on untouched forests

almost eludes me at this time,

but the gist of your abstract words has already

dropped in the fine covering of flowers at my feet.

For someone is calling me from

the white marble of Montpellier.

A dream in our shuttered salon, the logs in the stove

like wands of alpine witnesses,

compels me to descend our mountain hairpins

on the weekly bus alive with grape-pickers,

my suitcases slotted between their stained baskets,

to the other North African haven of Montpellier. .

You demand why and who and how I must go down from

this ultimate haven of Cathars, catholics, shepherds,

but the gist of your question disappears

in the evening sizzle of biftek buried

in an armful of bay leaves and vine twigs.

For someone is calling me from

the vivid painted timbers of Montpellier.

The fierce row on the boards at bedtime,

your coarse tears extinguishing the candles

and unbalancing the stable slab of incense,

propel me out of your faithless fleshy cloisters.

You hurl bells, burn sutras in your ashtray,

demand and denounce my path to this ‘borrowed’ deity,

making last-ditch interrogations under a strong light.

But the gist of your spite is sucked

into the Lama’s Himalayan eyes,

dredged over the ample of his saffron robes,

as he welcomes me to the wooden temple in an orchard,

its specifications exact, my mission specific.

He has been waiting with his butter lamps and words.

‘‘You heard my calling. I knew you would come soon.’’

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Japan Teacher Project 22nd June, 2014 : Becoming an English Baby.

listening baby

One of the most difficult skills to acquire among the 4 major skills of language learning (reading, writing, speaking and listening) is Listening. If the learner is not living in the country of the target language, then it is exceptional that language skills improve. This is simply because the learner rarely hears the target language. There is such a contrast with how the Mother Tongue is acquired in this situation.

It is therefore vital that any students in Japan who are serious about improving their English to such a level that they can study abroad or consider using English in their future jobs, focus on listening during each day. My students are encouraged to create an English Environment which contains all-English landscapes and soundscapes, and visit it for at least 30 minutes every day. During their 15 week courses, the principal homework is Listening with tests every 3 weeks in class. It works in the following way.

At the beginning of the semester I explain to them in simple terms how babies acquire their mother language in general, and how they themselves acquired Japanese in particular. As Japanese education is based on Confucian ideals in which the learner sits back and allows knowledge to flow to them from their revered sensei or teacher, students often seem passive in institutions of formal learning by European standards. So, they find it interesting and inspiring that they did not need a revered teacher to learn their own language in infancy. They think deeply about the following. The fact that they spent the first 18 months or so of their lives listening to their parents and family members, storing up the sounds of Japanese even though their understanding was limited and primitive. They did not need a classroom or an erudite teacher to become quite proficient in Japanese communication skills by the age of 3 or 4. A baby spends several years listening and imitating the sounds it hears before it attempts to speak in coherent patterns.

So, if they want to truly improve English as a Foreign Language whilst spending the majority of their time listening and responding to Japanese, they have to become an English baby by developing a good listening habit every day to English. To promote this idea I assign them listening homework for each week between once-a-week lessons. They download sound files via the internet, which are either dialogues between students studying English, or short lectures given by me on the topic of learning English. Their weekly assignment is to listen many times to the sound files (about 5 minutes of natural native-speaker speech) for that week, and to complete 50 questions in written homework based on it without seeing the script.

The homework sheet is laid out to promote their preparation of unknown items of vocabulary, and they are requested to study it before listening to the sound file. This will prepare them for the words which may be new to them they will hear, and they are encouraged not to translate them into Japanese, but to use an English/English Learners’ dictionary of intermediate level and copy down the Simple English meaning into their vocabulary book or list. This is one way of practicing English, which they get very little opportunity to do in Japan. There is some chance that what meanings they copy and the way they classify their vocabulary will be retained.

They then listen to 3 sound files in this way and start to prepare for the listening test to be done in class. A few days before their test I send them the answers to the set of homeworks by email, they check them, and try to work out why they made mistakes. I encourage reviewing of homework and tests, which is often something alien to them.

The Listening test asks 50 slightly different questions about exactly the same sound files they have heard many times in order to do their homework. There is an element of memory involved in the test too. Memorising is something they rarely do in English because the majority of their English studies have been executed using the visual memory and not the auditory memory. The auditory memory is essential for learning how to communicate in English, or in any language.

For Japanese students who have had little exposure to English communication with native speakers, their first experiences are a shock: They are used to every word of English being translated into Japanese either by their teachers or their classmates. The Japanese collective spirit means that classmates who do understand and are not in the full firing range of this communication, will translate it verbatim into Japanese, and so the translation method destroys any real communication. The other worrying factor is that the interpreter’s translation may not be correct. In this way, so much energy and time are wasted.

It is an extraordinary thing that the communication, a complex combination of verbal and non-verbal signs, will often cause the person being communicated with to immediately avert their eyes, and desperately attend to the translation and commentary in Japanese given by a classmate. It is as if they are deaf and not even able to lip-read. Such direct communication, often coated in emotions on so many levels, will initially overcome them.

More about listening to come.

listen carefully