Against the backdrop of the brain as a filter of sensations, now let’s return to the question of whether you have a nose:
At this point you’re probably rationalizing, intellectualizing, and drawing inferences, some of which must be oh-so-obvious. Chances are that you’re thinking like this:
- “Well, I had a nose this morning and it hasn’t fallen off since then, so I probably still have a nose now.”
- “Why would I not have a nose? I suppose this could be a dream? Well no, this is definitely not a dream. I must have a nose.” (Fans of Westworld would like this, huh?)
- “Let’s see what I look like.” So you consult an internal image of your body in your mind. Although it’s astonishingly hard for us to visualize our own faces, you yet manage to reconstruct some semblance of your body and face in this image and satisfy yourself that this internal reconstruction or image of your body has a nose, and hence you ought to have one too.
But then you realize suddenly that all of the above ways to tell whether you have a nose are really inferior methods. These are second-hand techniques in which you let your intellect and rationalization get in the way of knowledge. At best these tell you inferred information, something you cannot know to be absolutely true. You begin to think there must be three broad kinds of knowledge: False knowledge that is patently untrue, can or has been falsified, Tentative truths or truths of convenience that have survived falsification attempts and are true to the best of your other knowledge, and finally, Absolute truths, or facts that you know to be indubitably true from direct personal experience.
Empirical science deals largely with tentative truths, but these are really inferior in quality to absolute truths, but yet are infinitely better than false knowledge, of course – At least they lend themselves to testability. Note that absolute truths also lend themselves to testability and fall within the scope of the scientific method. The difference is that the test and observation lie in the realm of personal experience. Science is concerned with testable statements about the external world of measurements and observations. Spirituality is concerned with testable statements about the internal world of direct experience. These are the twin pillars – the two legs – that support the pinnacle of human achievement and existence.1
When you’re done pondering all this, you start wondering how you might possibly experience your nose. What might be a direct first hand experience of your nose that would convince you that you have one? Every time you think about it, your mind conjures up an image of your face, or falls back on its trusted (really?) ways to infer your nose’s existence. What does it feel like know your own nose?
As you’re thinking about this, suddenly a butterfly that’s been flitting around lands on your nose and you feel its crawling sensation. At that moment, it hits you: That’s what it means to sense your nose – from the inside as it were.
“Well and good”, you think, “but what if that butterfly hadn’t landed on my nose, would I still feel it?”
And then, fortuitously, a whiff of air in the room hits your nose and you feel its gentle caress.
That’s when you realize that the sensation of the butterfly landing on your nose was a gross sensation, almost like someone had reached out and touched it, but that whiff of air that caressed your nose – that was much subtler. Yet you still felt it because by that time your awareness was acutely tuned to receiving sensations on your nose. Hmm, perhaps then you could tune your awareness even more until you can feel even the slightest whiff of air, or even your normal breath passing in and out your nostrils? Perhaps even more subtle sensations than that? What about the sensations of perspiration leaving your body, or the growth of hair? Why stop there? What about the sensation of cellular activity? Cell division by mitosis? Perhaps even the oxidation of fuel to generate energy in them? Are these even possible to sense? And what about the sensation of pure being? As a being of energy fluctuations, a constant changing of the guards in the temple of the elements? The subtle all-over vibrations that suggest the impermanence of all things material, the comings and goings of matter?
You see, the fact of the matter is that there are countless sensations on and within your body at all times, but under normal circumstances, we filter these out because that’s the only way we can carry out the countless activities that define our daily lives. In fact, we have done this filtering so often, ever since we were little children that it has become a constant habit, relegated to the sub-conscious. We see the truth of this every day as we ruminate on profound matters while walking in the park. We don’t consciously think about our gait or what we should be doing at any given instant to avoid losing balance. Yet a child who’s learning to walk can’t afford to do that. Every step she takes must be a calculated action. And every move a deep success to be celebrated at the forefront of her consciousness.
All this filtering and relegation to the subconscious is well and good when we need to carry out mundane tasks each day, but this constant filtering gets in the way when we’re trying to understand how the inner mind works. To observe and understand the mind at work, we need to see it in its full glory. We need to break the outer mind’s habit of intercepting and diverting these sensations before they reach our conscious awareness. And we need to consciously desist from reacting to these sensations (another habit). When we get accustomed to observing sensations and their complete life-cycles, we gradually get to see how sensations result in other sensations so we can observe and experience first hand the unobstructed chain reaction happening at the deepest level of our psyches. It is at this level that you will come experientially face to face with the fact that when we crave an object or feel an aversion to it, we’re really after the sensation it causes in us, not the object. With this realization you witness the quiet birth of a desire at its root, and with it, in a sense, your own everyday self as a sentient, likewise impermanent, desiring entity.
Sometimes, you’ll find it is easy to identify sensations that give rise to cravings and aversions for objects. This marks a major milestone in your progress as a meditator because you now understand experientially that it’s not the object of your desire you crave, but rather the sensations that attaining it will induce in your body. Other times it’s not so easy to identify the sensations that cause cravings and aversions. These are more diffuse feelings like guilt or shame, for instance.2 But with patience, perseverance and practice, you will eventually learn to still the agitated waters of your mind so much that each individual stream of sensations that feeds these complex emotions will be as clear as day.
Now the astute reader will point out a possible flaw in the above reasoning. Perhaps you don’t have a nose after all, and the sensation you thought you perceived on your nose was itself a hallucination. Well done! That’s exactly right. But the important thing is that you have had an experience of a nose and whether your nose is real or not, that experience was – you guessed it – undeniably real. There’s no two ways about it. You see, that is your core – the uncontaminated self-aware subject within you, and although you may rationalize and intellectualize endlessly about it, there’s only one way to know it and that is to experience and feel it. That’s where we’re going. These baby steps lay the foundation for your long and continuing voyage of self-discovery – one in which you will begin to explore your internal universe. Prepare to be amazed at the vastness of your inner space, compared to even the most breathtaking estimates we have of the outer one. With the tools and techniques you’ll learn through the disciplined practice of mindfulness, you’re learning how to put together a Hubble-like telescope. Except it will be pointing inwards.
Audacious minds forever have tried to taste
The universal juice through petty portals
That widened minds, their shackles shook, laid waste
Then turned inwards, and thus became immortals.
I wish you great success and, as Eliot once wrote in his own notes on The Waste Land, the peace that passeth understanding.
1 Science and spirituality are strong unifying forces of enlightenment, compassion and contentment based on testable claims. Religiosity, on the other hand, is distinct from spirituality. It is a divisive force of discontent, contempt and ignorant violence. It is based on the bedrock of untestable (note – not untested) claims.
2 With respectful thanks to my own teacher, Scott Vandenberg, for pointing this out.