"How calmly before I knew love, I have anatomized its mechanism, as the tyro who dissects the web-work of tissues and nerves in the dead!
"Lo! it lives, lives in me; and, in living, escapes from my scalpel, and mocks all my knowledge. Can love be reduced to the realm of the senses?" — A Strange Story, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton
The senses are fundamental to how we know the world, yet some people live well with one or more of their senses not functioning. Deaf actress Marlee Matlin, who appeared in Children of a Lesser God and What the #$*! Do We Know!?, became deaf at eighteen months. During the brief period when she could hear, she grasped just enough to get a grip on hearing life. More challenged are the prelingually-deaf who must climb a huge mountain to function in the hearing world. Again, there is the case of Esref Armagan, a blind Turkish painter. The world of science finds it hard to explain how a person born blind can paint what we see around us — fish swimming, old-fashioned windmills, houses bordering a lake with sailboats — all in proper perspective.
The first three years of life are essential in learning to communicate, as the infant has to build a superstructure of verbal understanding. One who has never heard a sound finds many obstacles in his path because we normally learn from the start by a combination of all our senses. Together they help us cognize and feel at home in our surroundings. Through these windows of our soul we recognize love and joy, as well as the pain through which we learn to adapt our judgment. Each sound, sight, smell, taste, or touch conveys an idea which the mind catches, works on, and sends off again.
The popular magazine New Scientist was bold enough to state that we actually have twenty-one senses, though it classified blood pressure, bladder stretch, full stomach, etc., each as senses, which we might reclassify under touch or feeling. Of the five generally accepted senses, Brahmanical and theosophical literatures say that hearing was the first to be developed by primeval humanity many millions of years ago, followed by great human cycles in which touch, sight, taste, and smell were each developed, to give the traditional order. That sight developed out of touch is not as strange as it may seem. Touch is still used by many insects and crustaceans who twist their feelers like a blind man finding his way by swinging his cane. Experiments using magazine and newspaper readers have shown that the eye uses well-defined patterns when scanning a page. Some readers start with a big caption, others are drawn to a dramatic picture first. Isn't it a small step to see us going through the pages with our "feelers" touching whatever we find of interest?
According to ancient chronologies the human race has at present passed the midpoint of its long evolutionary journey on earth. Over millions of years, as we continue to ensoul body after body, our senses will have more to do with our spirit or buddhi. To join the stream of spiritualizing nature, we will need other, subtler senses which will attract more refined thoughts, empathy, and compassion, and give us greater inner scope. As the millennia role by, foresight and intuition will evolve further. These are available even today, as in solo-yachtsmen who have awakened just in time to steer away from a floating container lost from a vessel or to take in sail when a storm threatened. In the future, stronger hunches derived from the spiritual forces of compassion and self-forgetfulness will help protect us and others.
However, there is the question Bulwer-Lytton asked in the opening quote: Can love be reduced to the realm of the senses? It is an accepted fact that an unborn child hears its mother, feels her love, and can communicate with her, which seems to intensify the loss suffered by the prelingually deaf. But who can tell? Would it surprise us if deafness were considered a blessing in disguise rather than a curse? The great inventor Thomas Edison found the loss of hearing in his teens far from devastating — he actually considered it a benefit to be able to think without having to hear all the chatter of the world. Similarly, other people are able to see advantages in their handicaps. It may even be that, freed from this body, the senses are more acute, as H. P. Blavatsky suggests:
The deeper the trance, the less signs of life the body shows, the clearer become the spiritual perceptions, and the more powerful are the soul's visions. The soul, disburdened of the bodily senses, shows activity of power in a far greater degree of intensity than it can in a strong, healthy body. . . . The organs of sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing are proved to become far acuter in a mesmerized subject deprived of the possibility of exercising them bodily, than while he uses them in his normal state. — Isis Unveiled 1:181
We do not know what path the soul of a deaf or blind person would take without that particular circumstance, but may rest assured that the higher self is not an avenging demon but rather a loving parent. The role we are given to play on the stage of life is designed to make us stronger and wiser. A temperate way of living in harmony with nature, when the inner senses harmonize with the outer ones, brings happiness and peace. How to know our destiny, how to perceive truth, does not so much depend on what we see or hear, but on the harmony and peace that comes from within.
(From Sunrise magazine, April/May 2006; copyright © 2006 Theosophical University Press)
Sunrise Back Issues Menu
The mind creates the abyss, and the heart crosses it.— Sri Nisargadatta