Six Senses (written 2017)

02/02/2017 09:08

In Buddhist psychology there are 6 senses. Seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling, and thinking. The last one is the only surprise if you are accustomed to the ordinary Western ways of looking at things. But this has been life-changing for me.


We see through the eyes. Eyes must see if they are open. In fact, even with our eyelids closed, we see: color, light, maybe shapes and swirls of movement. Our ears hear unless there is damage or we're wearing earplugs or perhaps place our hands over them, muffling sound. Even then it seems they contain the music of the seas internal cycling, a little like putting your ear to a seashell. Where our skin makes contact with something, we feel. The sense of touch can be numbed perhaps by cold or injury or anesthetic but “touch” is built in. If we haven't damaged the tongue or burned it, if we don't have a headcold that blocks our tastebuds, we taste. And whatever wafts into the nose is smelled. We can hold the nostrils shut or hold our breath. But again, barring damage, we smell via that sense door.


Yet, somehow we think of thought as voluntary and generated. But, like eyes that see, ears that hear, skin that feels, tongues that taste, and noses that smell, the mind thinks. Sleeping, it weaves dreams. Left to its own devices, it follows old paths and flits through fancies. It is a flea market of sensory impressions of what we've seen, heard, touched, tasted and smelled. Including language heard or read. And every sensory impression has come to us with an emotional loading...pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. These too take table space in the mind-market. The mind churns and turns and explores and sorts. It thinks.


When I understand thought in this way, it is less frightening to me to find that shocking or unexpected thoughts flit through. I am not responsible for what I smell walking by a stagnant pond, or what I see if I am witness to a bad accident. I am not responsible for the bit of muck turned up in the churning of the mind. Choice arises to some extent, of course, in what I expose myself to. Images that are disturbing, loud sounds that are uncomfortable, tastes that make me gag. We make choices based on our preferences if we can, although life doesn't always allow this. But if we're wise, we also make an effort to make choices acknowledging this hodgepodge, this flea market nature of the mind: we do not have to let everything in. Still, there will be horrible things that are taken in, because our senses were open and we were present when they took place, or in the name of staying informed, which, it can be strongly argued, is essential. Balance is key in this last case. We know enough not to keep eating the peppers that are scorching our tongues, tearing our eyes and causing turmoil in our bellies. Perhaps this should apply to how many reruns of a disturbing news story we take in as well.


Inspiration arises in the same way. Although artists speak of muses, since being exposed to Buddhist psychology and the notion of six senses, I think of this differently. There are many more sounds and sights out there than I could “invent”. There are many more ideas out there than I could “invent”. The mind gathers, through the senses, and does its thinking, as the eyes do their seeing. Sometimes wondrous things result and we are amazed at our own “inventions”.


When we sit in meditation, beginning meditators often think we have to stop our thoughts. Rather we find that thinking, like breathing, can be attended to and directed. Usually meditation begins by bringing these two things together: directing the thinking mind to the breath. It is like stopping at one table in the flea market. A quiet place where perhaps there is something simple displayed, perhaps just a bowl of water. And we rest there so that the chaos of the rest of the market, the colors and sounds and myriad of odors fades into the background and the mind just sits on the surface of this one object, examining it with infinite curiosity.


Like Alice through the Looking Glass, there's a door here out of the flea market entirely. It doesn't open on command, but it can't be found without the curiosity Alice was renowned for.