Sensation: the key to the art of living

A dear friend made very helpful comments in response to Where to start?. He deserves a reply, and I need to express myself more clearly. Here is the second of a set of pieces in which I reflect on what he says.

One way in which I feel you may be going a wee bit fast is around the sense that you [are] perhaps talking about several sorts of things as [if] they are the same thing (maybe they really are all one thing but my sense of them is that they feel different.)

So, there’s the common-sense, ordinary world, experience of ‘sensation’. For me, this is different from the sort of sensation you describe in your vision of the finches. Sensation in this ordinary sense will take us directly to sex, and food, light and dark, the whole gamut of the sensory. This is not, of course, a world apart from the world you are describing but it is, I think, prior to it. And my hunch would be that most people most of the time never stray much beyond it. (This may be especially true of men.) But then as you say at the start of para. 4, ‘the majority of people have had a strong or overwhelming sense of a presence or a oneness with the world.’. Yes indeed, (although is it really a majority and not just many? [See this, ed.]), and this built on, I think, the categories of experience that are prior to it. For instance the simple business of being able to hear.

Here, he is referring to this paragraph from Where to start?:

… most of us, most days, have experiences that touch us momentarily. This morning, walking in the street where I live, I see two goldfinches fly down and start pecking amongst last year’s fallen leaves and twigs looking for the seeds they like to eat. I stop to watch them. They look so beautiful and alive, and they remind me of the happiness of some days in my childhood. I see how, from one perspective, they are living off scraps; but when I look longer I see that this is how all of our world is, that everything goes round, that they are not scraps, but particles of life in this form at this moment. I feel my poor old heart creak open and I feel love, love for those little, beautiful finches, and love for myself. And then I come home.

This gets to the heart of what I am saying. There are, as he says, the ordinary sensations: seeing the birds, hearing their wings. But several things happen beyond the mere senses:

  • I see beauty and vitality;
  • I am reminded of happiness as a child (and as I recall it again now, it is happiness because of intimations of oneness, belonging);
  • I have an insight into – I ‘see’ – how things are connected;
  • I ‘feel’ my heart open (a physical sensation);
  • I ‘feel’ love (an emotion: an interpretation of the physical sensation).

From the point of view of these writings, I am most interested in when I felt “my poor old heart creak open”. This is a physical sensation in my chest: an expansion, reaching out towards the goldfinches. It is love; but something rich and strange – the inner, visceral sensation – comes first: inchoate, before words, before thought, before interpretation; more complex than the word ‘love’ might suggest, more faceted, and more specific to this happening.

This physical sensation is life, and God, and prayer. I look at the finches and I am moved. Being moved is the important matter. I do not need to think about the experience, or make sense of it, or build a theology of it. I love. This is sufficient. So pause…

So much of our lives goes on in our heads. We see the goldfinches, we remember images of childhood, we make thoughtful connections. We observe, comment, compare, plan, make meaning. We miss the response of this body; we miss or pass too quickly by the moments of love or connection. All this time we are dead.

Throughout all of this the [goldfinch] remains my object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition.

But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the [goldfinch] I am drawn into a relation, and the [goldfinch] ceases to be an It. Martin Buber I and Thou (tr. Walter Kaufmann), p.58 (adapted)

The art of living is to be this body that responds, to stop thinking and to live, to stop feeling and to connect, to relate. Connection happens when we stop observing and thinking and open the gates of this body to admit the goldfinch. It is always particular: these very goldfinches (my sister and brother) whom I love, forgetting for now all the rest.

Because God is what you are, what the goldfinches are, what everything is, then this connection is God.

This is the point of Where to start?, Starting at the bottom and Feeling into this body. These are practices in being alive, in learning to know with the body. And they are more than practices: they are being alive.

I am trying to say the unsayable; Ludwig might object. Notwithstanding, James Finley says, “Spiritual direction is people sitting together talking about what no one in the room can say.” Please join me in this room.

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