Zen and the purification of sensation

December 4, 2007

I know a few things that POS normally stands for, but in the Zen world I remember reading of a phrase called "purification of sensation" that I want to write about today.

I can't claim to be an expert on this phrase, but what I think it means is this: You're in a calm state -- perhaps meditating -- and then someone says something, but instead of your brain hearing the words and then processing them into some meaning your brain has associated with that sequence of sounds, you just hear the sounds. It's like the old Peanuts holiday movies, the part where the parents talk, and all you hear is "wonk wonk wonk". In a meditative state you hear the sounds, but they have no meaning, they're just sound waves. But not only do you hear the sounds with your ears, you also feel them on your skin. This first happened to me at a seminar I was attending, and every time the speaker spoke I just kept hearing the sound waves and feeling them impact with the scalp of my head. It was very beautiful, and I didn't want it to stop.

My guess is that this is the way babies first hear sounds. In the case of words, they just come across as sound waves that they both hear and feel, and then as the wiring in their brains starts taking shape, they associate certain "wonk wonk wonk" sound waves with visual images of things like "mommy" and "daddy" and "toy". (Note: I haven't had this same experience with visual sensation, just sound sensation.)

Over time we start learning this audio+visual association thing, and we forget that sound waves sound like "wonk wonk wonk" if you don't try to associate any meaning with them. Then, as we're exposed to more and more sounds, the bodily "feeling" of sound waves gets lost ... I don't know why, other than in the hustle and bustle of everyday life the feeling of sound waves is not perceived as important to the survival of the physical being, or the achievement of "things".

Coming back from a long, quiet vacation

I had a similar experience in coming back from a long vacation this summer. As I drove back from the wilderness into more crowded areas the amount of external stimuli increased dramatically. It felt like it increased 1,000 times in magnitude, and at some point as I was driving I just wanted to pull off the road and shut down my senses. I perceived a lot of the signs on the side of the roads as visual pollution that was bombarding me, and I found it very disgusting. I'm sure my blood pressure went up 10-20 points. I was stunned to think that people live with this much stimuli on a daily basis -- and then we wonder why we're stressed out.

Getting back to my point, I think our bodies are so polluted by external stimuli that we shut down our senses to take in only what's necessary for our daily survival, and then we are then 180 degrees away from "purification of sensation".

Given this bombardment of external stimuli in most areas of society it's no surprise to me then that it takes a lot of effort to re-purify our senses, probably years of effort. In my case I've been lucky enough to slow things down and experience this sensation (or lack of sensation) both at retreats, and again on vacation this summer.

There's much more to this topic than what I've written here. For instance, did you know it's possible to keep your mind awake at night while your body falls asleep, and you can actually feel the sense of sound become greatly diminished as you fall asleep? That's very cool. But at some point, if you really want to understand this, you'll have to take the time to experience it for yourself. After all, in the words of some old Kung Fu episode, can I quench your thirst by drinking a glass of water when you are thirsty? :)

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