Trailing clouds of glory – Awakening and training our inner senses
Man, afraid to be alive,
Shuts his soul in senses five;
From fields of uncreated light
Into the crystal tower of sight;
And from the roaring songs of space
Into the small flesh-carven place
Of the ear whose cave impounds
Only small and broken sounds;
And to his narrow sense of touch
From strength that held the stars in clutch;
And from the warm ambrosial spice
Of flowers and fruits of Paradise
To the frail and fitful power
Of tongue’s and nose’s sweet and sour;
And toiling for a sordid wage
There in his self-created cage.
Ah, how safely barred is he
From menace of Eternity.
The Cage: by Martin Armstrong
This is the first of a series of short articles in which, as Martin Armstrong’s fine poem suggests, I shall be looking at how we might push back the boundaries set by our five senses. I shall attempt to describe what I mean by our “inner senses”, and I shall say why I believe that it to be important that some of us take the time and trouble to train our inner senses to the point at which they become a useful part of our everyday lives. In the second and subsequent articles, I shall describe the initial stages in the process of awakening and training these senses.
Those of you who know something about this subject will appreciate that this training (mostly a self-training) is by no means easy, nor is the describing of it a simple matter. This is partly because we do not yet have an adequate Western terminology for what might loosely be described as our spiritual anatomy and physiology, but it is also because we know very little about our inner senses nor about the process of training them. So, let us be clear about one thing. What follows is not the definitive statement on the inner senses. It is merely a Scotsman’s exploration of a subject which has fascinated him all his life. It is true that other traditions, mainly eastern, have much to teach us, with their relatively sophisticated vocabularies, as well as their detailed descriptions and prescriptions, but I happen to hold the view, possibly a minority one, that we would do better to evolve our own vocabulary, descriptions and prescriptions, if necessary from first principles. This is not to suggest that we ignore other traditions, certainly not, but rather to advise that we do not follow them slavishly. These traditions, after all, evolved in other cultures in other times. And while I recognise that some of the descriptions and prescriptions are relatively recent and close to home, e.g. the writings of Rudolf Steiner and Alice Bailey, I am sure that these worthy people would be the first to encourage us to go beyond what they have written, and try to explore and authenticate for ourselves, building on what has gone before, yet at the same time evolving our own methods and terminologies to reflect our own direct experiences. If there are no adequate words in the language, then we coin appropriate ones, while giving due weight to what others, be they Indian, Tibetan or Austrian, have already worked out for us.
Esoteric knowledge has been around for a very long time, yet we are still in our early infancy so far as the development and use of our inner senses is concerned. The chances are that we are going to get a lot of things wrong before we get them right, and it is in this spirit that these articles are written.
Let’s get straight to the point. Our inner senses are organs of perception. They are, in this respect, no different from our familiar five outer senses of seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling. Each set of senses, the inner and the outer, allows us to perceive and experience certain aspects of the world and ourselves. Our outer senses are the organs of perception of our physical body, whereas our inner senses are the organs of perception of our soul, in that what we experience through them arises from within, not from without.
This begs the question: what do I mean by “soul”? The honest answer is that I am not entirely sure I would know how to describe the soul. It is a bit like trying to describe time. Although I know time when I see it, I probably could not find the words to tell you what it is. By the same token, although I am reasonably sure that I know what my soul is, I am equally sure that I probably could not tell you. Actually, I am not sure that it matters all that much whether I can describe the soul or not. At this stage, it is probably sufficient to say that the soul is one of those functions of the human being which cannot be described in terms of the physical body. To those of you who feel compelled to refer me to the voluminous literature on the soul, as well as to the various dictionary definitions, I can only respond by saying that I have yet to discern a consensus on the meaning of the term. It seems to mean one thing in one tradition, and something quite different in another. The fact that each of the traditions insists that their understanding is the correct one is not helpful at all.
There is clearly a semantic circle involved here, into which we have to break at some point. What I am proposing is that we develop the eyes and ears of the soul in order to know what the soul is. This is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. After all, we had to develop the eyes and ears of the physical body before we could know what the physical body was. That was the story of the garden of Eden and the evolution of self-consciousness. We would be speculating endlessly on the nature and structure of the physical body if we did not have the perceptual tools by which to perceive and experience it. What is the point of speculating endlessly on the nature and structure of the soul when the sensible thing to do is to develop the means to perceive and experience it directly for ourselves? (It is, of course, implicit in these articles that it is possible for us to do this.) So, can we suspend for a little while all debate about what the soul is, or indeed about whether or not we have one. Let us instead just begin with the simple proposition that through our outer senses we perceive and experience certain types of things, while through our inner senses we perceive and experience other types of things. This should ring a bell. We should by now be well acquainted with the idea that the structure and nature of the senses determines what we experience. Although it is of immense practical convenience to think of as the world “out there” as some how fixed and objective, yet what so often seems to us to be the same, regardless of who or what is doing the observing, actually depends very much on the observer for the “reality” it presents. As David Conway so eloquently points out:
“Only when we pause, as we seldom do, to consider how much the image finally presented to our consciousness depends on the structure of our brain and sense organs, do we begin to realise how personal and subjective it is. Far from being the mirror-image of reality we fondly supposed it to be, it is in fact a mere simulacrum, the extent of its resemblance to the thing itself (what Kant called das Ding an sich) determined by the processes responsible for its construction. Had my eye been equipped with a different set of lenses – perhaps those given to a house fly – then the smooth brown surface of my desk would be ridged and rugged landscape made up of dense wood fibres, with colours like red, green black and yellow competing with a dozen shades of brown. And had those lenses been sufficiently microscopic, then the entity I know to be my desk would dissolve into a swarm of unstable molecular components. The choice we have to make, therefore, in deciding which of these constitutes the ‘real’ desk serves only to indicate how naive it is to believe that our percept of an object reflects that object’s natural – and thus veridical – appearance.” (1)
Conway is talking here about the outer senses, but the principle is the same no matter what type of senses we are discussing. It is precisely because our inner senses have a quite different nature and structure that the world we “see” and “hear”, and otherwise perceive, through them, seems correspondingly different. I am acutely aware that we are still in this semantic loop, but please bear with me!
We know quite a lot about the nature of the things we perceive with our outer senses. We sometimes call them collectively the physical world. In essence, this is what scientific knowledge is currently about, and it is also the stuff of our daily lives. Most of us have the full use of our outer senses. It is through these that we see, hear, touch, taste and smell the world. We undoubtedly perceive a lot of the world, but, in my view, we do not perceive the whole world. We perceive only the aspects our outer senses are capable of perceiving. And it is because most people perceive in this way most of the time that they believe, with good reason, the world, and indeed themselves, to be physical and nothing but physical. This belief, that everything is ultimately physical in nature, and can be explained as such, pervades our lives. It informs our science, our economics, our medicine, as well as most of our social, cultural, and political values. Take science, for example. As with all other forms of knowledge, science is the product of the means of acquiring it. Ultimately it is we who are the means. Scientific knowledge can only be as good as our ability to acquire it. If, in the pursuit of science, we limit ourselves in some way, then science will be correspondingly limited. The fact is that we do not apply all aspects of ourselves to the process of acquiring scientific knowledge. We apply only parts of ourselves, mainly our outer senses, technological extensions to these senses, as well as the form of consciousness associated with the use of our outer senses. Telescopes, microscopes, barometers, thermometers, weighing machines, radar, and radio are just a few examples of vast number technological extensions to our senses. They extend the range and/or the sensitivity of our outer senses. All scientific instruments, even the most unlikely, are ultimately extensions of these senses. At the same time, the regular use of our outer senses seems to encourage us to think in a particular way, the way which understand things as essentially separate from each other, and which understands events and processes as sequential, moving in what appears to us to be the only possible direction of the arrow of time.
Conventionally, science does not normally admit to the existence of modes of perception or forms of consciousness other than those characterised and determined by the use of our outer senses. Therefore, limited as it is to this perceptual equipment and this form of consciousness, the world as understood by science can never consist of more than those aspects accessible through our outer senses and the consciousness associated with them. This is why the universe as described by science consists only of certain aspects of a universe which, although it clearly includes these aspects, far transcends them. In the same way, the human being as described by science consists only of certain aspects of a being which includes these aspects, yet far transcends them. Science does not normally employ any form of perception or consciousness other than that based on our outer senses to penetrate the nature of reality.This is why it does not normally admit to the existence of forms of reality accessible to us only through other modes of perception and the consciousness associated with them. It is hardly surprising that so many scientists, and non-scientists too, believe that those aspects of the universe which they happen to perceive and experience constitute the whole universe. The mistake they make is to use their relatively limited “map” to interpret a world which not only transcends the limitations of this map, but also transcends the comprehension of any one of us.
I am grateful to members Henri Bortoft and Emilios Bouratinos for recently pointing out to me that things are not quite as I have just described them. They showed me that one of science’s greatest achievements, especially in the 20th century, is that it has been able to transcend sense-based observations. One of the classic examples of this is the case of our senses telling us that the sun goes round this planet, when in fact the opposite is true. It was science which was able to confirm this counterintuitive fact. There are very many other examples of this, such as relativity theory and quantum theory. Yet, it is significant that in this context “sense-based observations” means the observations of our outer senses. I therefore stand my ground when I say that science remains a partial form of knowledge because its observations, and thus its deductions, ultimately have their roots only in our outer senses.
We have spent a lot of time developing those forms of experiencing and understanding which have their roots in our outer senses. This is why science is such a developed form of knowledge within its own terms. It has given us a lot to be grateful for. However, while acknowledging our continuing debt to science and scientists, we must also be prepared to address the negative side of the equation. We are, in my view, paying an increasingly high price for the fact that we have allowed a partial view of the world to dominate our understanding, our values and our behaviour. Civilisation is now based largely on materialistic values, with all that this implies. As we approach the next millennium, the world is characterised by insecurity, anxiety, materialism, short-term thinking, and lack of vision. It is not as if we can look to our political leaders for guidance. They seek to inspire us with a vision of low inflation, low interest rates, more cash in our pockets, and eternal material growth, as if these were the only things we really wanted out of life. Such a vision bears very little relation to the deeper nature of the human being. We are so much more than mere machines for producing and consuming goods and services. We cannot live without meaning, yet this is exactly what seems to be happening for many of us. For too many people, consumption has taken the place of deeper meaning in their lives.
If there is to be a fundamental transformation of our values, there must first be a transformation of the beliefs which underpin these values. Until our basic beliefs about the nature of the human being and the world change, there is unlikely to be a deep transformation in society as a whole. The question, then, is this: if our beliefs, knowledge and understanding are limited because we have hitherto limited ourselves to certain forms of perception and experience, and thus to the realities accessible through these forms of perception and consciousness, would it not be a good idea to attempt to develop and use other forms, and thus gain access to other aspects of the world and ourselves. That would surely herald a significant advance in human knowledge, and almost certainly transform our basic beliefs about the world and ourselves. The question, of course, is: how do we set about doing this? This is the point at which, in my opinion, our inner senses come into their own.
The problem, of course, is that we are in the position of the blind man trying to understand what it would be like to see. No amount of explanation could ever really tell us the true nature of the experience of seeing for ourselves. Similarly, if we have not experienced our inner senses in full operation, it is very difficult to know what the experience would be like. However, all is not lost. We are not entirely in the dark.
Let us start from where most people are. Most people’s experience of their inner senses is comparable to that of a man, blind and deaf from birth, who is able to see and hear rather hazily for only a few seconds two or three times a year. He would not see and hear very much, and would be unlikely to make much sense of what he did see and hear. However, he might be inspired to want to know more about the world he had so briefly glimpsed, and he might want to know how to go about this. We are in a very similar position. Our “blind man seeing” experience usually takes the form of intuitive knowing. What I mean by this is knowing something without knowing how we know. This knowing seems to come from a place deep inside us, a place which feels qualitatively quite different from the normal thinking and reasoning processes of our brain. In my opinion, the experience of intuitive knowing is simply a manifestation of our inner senses in operation, albeit in a very unconscious and uncontrolled way.
The fact that I, and many others in my experience, have frequent flashes of intuitive knowing, as well as occasional bouts of telepathy and precognition, not to mention being able to see auras, etc. suggests to me that Wordsworth was right:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
from Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by Wm.Wordsworth
I believe that each of us is born with inner senses. However, as Wordsworth beautifully conveys, they have become virtually atrophied through lack of use. This is because we are born into a culture which even now only grudgingly recognises their existence. This recognition tends to take the form of an increasing, yet still modest, interest, by public and scientists alike, in intuition and other forms of paranormal knowing, such as telepathy and precognition. In parallel with this, ever since Fritjof Capra published The Tao of Physics, there has been a virtual avalanche of interest in the relationship between certain aspects of mysticism and esotericism, on the one hand – ineffability, unity, forms of consciousness – and certain aspects of science, on the other – indeterminacy, non-local connectedness, the role of the observer. This has, in turn, rekindled a widespread interest in some of the details and practices of esoteric training, including how we might achieve altered states of consciousness without resorting to drugs. This is all well and good, but there is something rather inchoate about it all. Unless I am very much mistaken, there has been very little attention given to how we might systematically develop and use our virtually atrophied inner senses. This is not to deny the existence of a large number of esoteric schools and groups around the world, each ploughing their own furrow, but I have the feeling that it is time that this subject became much less esoteric than it has been hitherto. Spiritual training should no longer be the province of the few.
I am convinced, by my own experience and by my faith in others, that we can have direct access to those aspects of the world and ourselves which are currently beyond the range of our perception. But we can only do this if we learn how to develop and use our inner senses. It is not easy to do this. It involves a lot of commitment and discipline. But those who are willing to make this commitment will find that they will slowly acquire the use of some of these senses. In the next few articles I shall outline how we might go about this.
I should like to conclude this brief introduction by stating why I believe that it would be a good thing if we developed our inner senses to a level of competence at which they would be a normal, useful part of everyday life:
1. Our knowledge and understanding of ourselves and the world would change fundamentally. This would influence profoundly affect the way we behave, both in relation to each other and in relation to the world. Science would be transformed too, since scientists would no longer need to be restricted to the modes of perception and consciousness associated with our outer senses with which to see and understand the world. Since science has become the world’s dominant knowledge system, out of which has grown many of the beliefs which shape our thoughts and behaviour, such a fundamental change within science would change much in its wake .
2. Personal growth and spiritual development. It is virtually impossible to make any progress in developing our inner senses unless we simultaneously develop as human beings. Our personal growth, our emotional maturity, and our spiritual development must all go hand in hand with specific exercises to develop our inner senses. So, embarking on the work of developing these senses automatically means that we must at the same time embark on a whole range of facets of our personal and spiritual growth.
3. The paranormal. This is a controversial area, I know, but I suspect that having the use of our inner senses opens up the possibility that what we regard as paranormal today will eventually come to be regarded as normal. This is because paranormal faculties, such as telepathy and precognition, tend to be enhanced by the process of cultivating the inner senses.
4. Healing, therapy, and medicine. There is clearly a lot that could be said here. Suffice to say that having the use of our inner senses is quite likely to give us much more direct access to much of what lies beneath surface symptoms, or behind emotional, spiritual and psychological problems.
5. Consciousness. This is a very topical area of investigation. I am totally convinced that having the use of even just a few of our inner senses will enable us to be much more conscious of much of that about which we are only very vaguely aware today, as well as that whose presence and nature we have to infer, or just take on trust. We would be able to stop talking about consciousness, and become more conscious instead!
Secret Wisdom: David Conway Aquarian/Thorson (1987) p.113
by Chris Thomson