Coming to My Senses: Confessions of a Recovering Thinker

Rev. Master Mugo’s recent postings about vision, landscape, and soundscape reminds me of one the first articles I read about Buddhism. It was entitled Come to Your Senses!. I don’t even remember the author. It appeared in a poorly printed sort of magazine of metaphysics of the 1950’s that my dad had laying around the house. The article suggested that by properly using the senses one could eventually achieve Enlightenment. This was not standard cultural fare at the time and it caught my attention.

I walked around the house wondering if I was “properly using my senses” and speculating on what being enlightened would feel like. I asked my dad how to use the senses correctly and remember him saying something along the lines of “pay attention to what you’re doing”. Since I was a kid who ran a lot of fantasies in his head most of the time, this wasn’t anything new for him to say to me, so I disregarded it as a parental correction to my normal absent-mindedness. But something germinated.

By the time I went to college, Eastern philosophy was catching on and I enrolled in a survey class. The class was so full that it was moved to an auditorium. There was an excited buzz in the room. The professor ambled out to the podium, adjusted the microphone, and in a quiet tone told us that he was disgusted with the popularity of the class. He preferred the small classes he used to have and, frankly, he didn’t think many of us would get it. He said that the entire course could be summed up like this and, despite his obviously arthritic hands, the professor slammed a fist down on the podium and said: “Don’t think about it!”

Of course I thought about not thinking about it for the rest of the semester and beyond. I studied hard. I learned a lot. I was especially excited about learning that the discriminatory mind was considered a sense. I could justify thinking about not thinking that way. But the professor’s fist striking the podium had a significance that sounded beyond all that thinking and beyond my earnest attempts to acquire understanding.

Over the years, and with the benefit of a Zen practice, I began to see that acquiring in general seemed to get in its own way. It just pushed what I was after further ahead of me, like those old vaudeville comedians who drop their hat and kick it further away when they step to pick it up. Eventually, however, studying Buddhism became less and less an issue of obtaining something and more and more of recognising signposts left by those who went before.

The same evolution has seemed to occur with my senses. Early on, it was natural to reach with my senses, particularly seeing, hearing, and thinking, but none were ignored. Over time, it has seemed better to let them be, to let them do their job, to not push them or cut them off. I’m finding, for example, that relaxed vision sees more, relaxed listening hears more. For me, this non-forced sensory opening up seems to encourage a general open-endedness in my perspective that is beneficial. Not just relaxing, or informative, or helpful, or assuring, but, well, more human. It reminds me that we are not just homo sapiens (those who know) but homo sapiens sapiens (those who know they know).

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