Personal Narrative

There is more to experiencing life than mere sight

Try this: stop, close your eyes, and focus on your other senses instead. You might discover a world beyond your eyes that you haven’t payed enough attention to.

Image credit: Disney/Lucasfilm

“Your eyes can deceive you – don’t trust them” – Obi-Wan Kenobi, Star Wars

We experience the world so much through our eyes. Poets and philosophers have talked about our eyes being windows into our souls, about a picture – perceived via our vision – being worth a thousand words. Those of us who are able to see normally (or with minimal correction to our vision) too often pity the blind and nearly blind for being unable to experience the beauty of a sunset or appreciate the artistry of a painting.

But Obi-Wan’s wisdom is known to anyone who has studied how easily our brains can be tricked by visual illusions. Our eyes can be deceived. As amazing a product of evolution eyesight is, it isn’t perfect by any means. And while it’s possible to have a profound experience looking at a photograph or inspecting a microbe through a microscope, we have other senses. And it’s possible to have profound experiences that are driven by our other senses as well.

Over the years, I’ve had profound experiences that had little or nothing to do with my vision. Not always good experiences, but there’s nothing in the definition of “profound” that requires the experience to be a good or pleasant one.

Hearing

Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd

I would hazard to guess that most profound experiences with respect to one’s hearing are connected to music. I’ve had several myself – the first time I heard Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, or being so moved by Holst’s Mars played live by a touring symphony in college that I was literally trembling in my seat. Lately I’ve been walking to a creek near my job and taking photos weekly from the bridge, but when I’m there I’ve been enjoying listening to the birds, insects, and small mammals, most of which I can’t see. But my most profound auditory experience to date had nothing to do with music. In fact, it was the absence of sound that made it so profound in the first place.

One summer while I was in high school (late 80’s, early 90’s), my father and I took a road trip around northwest Colorado, camping out of the back of our 1984 Toyota Land Cruiser for a couple of weeks. We had been camping in the Routt National Forest west of Walden, Colorado, when we set out for a day hike from the campground, heading west and up into the mountains east of Steamboat Springs. We hiked for a while to the sound of our crunching boots when my father told me to wait up. I remember asking him what was up, and he said to stop and just listen for a few minutes.

There was no sounds in the forest besides insects. No birds. No small mammals like ground squirrels. No people, either, but it was the lack of nearly any sign of life that made it so strange. The forest seemed essentially dead except for the trees and the insects, and not at all like the forests I was used to along the Front Range. I don’t know if it was just where we were in the forest, and I don’t know if the forest is any different today, but I remember being profoundly saddened by the forest.

We turned around shortly thereafter, both of us too saddened by the apparently dying forest with none of the usual forest sounds to really want to hike through it any more.

Smell

The light floral scent of my wife’s perfume on those extremely rare occasions when she wears perfume. The sweet odor of the Buchart Gardens rose garden. The sudden bite of cigarette smoke that rekindled the developing brain that was once tempted by nicotine addiction. All of these are profound smells, for one reason or another, that I’ve experienced over my life. Rather than go into detail on those, however, I’d like to share two other experiences instead.

Seamus, drying off from being bathed

My wife has a finely tuned, perhaps even overdeveloped, sense of smell. To give you some sense of what I mean, when the kids were little and got carsick in the car, I was tasked with the cleanup because otherwise I’d have not just the kids’ vomit to deal with, but quite possibly my wife’s as well. For years we had a cat we named Seamus. When we moved into our current house, we let him transition from a mostly indoor cat to an indoor/outdoor cat. One night we smelled a skunk. Given we see skunks around the house at least a couple of times a year and there used to be a den under our front porch, this wasn’t really a surprise. The surprise was the stench that Seamus brought into the house with him that night, and that I got to deal with because of my wife’s aformentioned hypersensitive sense of smell.

I’m happy to say that I had recently watched the Mythbusters episode on how best to remove skunk odor, and we had most of the ingredients for their recipe (my wife happily fled the pungent house to get the Dawn dish soap from the store). And I got to wash skunk stink out of an adult male cat’s fur for 20 minutes.

Not all profound odors are singular, however. I enjoy stopping and smelling the roses because doing so allows me to slow down and simplify my experience of life, existing purely in the present, for a short moment. The same thing happens when I’m hiking. Ever since I learned that ponderosa pines smell a bit like butterscotch or vanilla (they’ve always smelled more like vanilla to me than butterscotch), I literally stop and smell the tree trunk on most hikes. Doing so lets me step aside momentarily from my fatigue and aches, the hike’s destination, worries about thunderstorms catching me above tree line, and the like. The fact that I can find ponderosa pine on nearly every hike I take makes the experience, like that of stopping and smelling the roses, no less profound.

Touch

I suspect that most people don’t think of the word “profound” when they think about their sense of touch. There’s a lot about sexual experiences that is tactile in nature, I doubt that most would fall into the realm of the profound. And those that would qualify as profound are probably best left private.

So I’ve struggled a bit to find experiences from my own life where my sense of touch was primary. The fact I’ve struggled suggests that I should focus a bit more on how things feel and how my sense of touch informs my experiences. But there is one experience that I’d like to share.

In my sophomore year of college, I abandoned the Catholicism that I’d grown up with and became a neo-Pagan, with my connection to my Irish ancestry drawing toward what little I could find about the druids and recreated druidic religion. I’ve since wandered more into animism and viewing gods as anthropomorphic interpretations of natural forces than individual entities, but at the time I was generally polytheistic.

That spring, I cut a birch sapling from the Pennsylvania woods to be my druidic staff. I remember peeling the bark from the sapling to expose the rippling cream-colored wood within and running my fingers along the wood. I still have the staff, and I still run my fingers along it, feeling the undulations in the wood that are unlike any other texture I have touched.

Taste

Our sense of taste evolved as a safety mechanism to keep us from eating anything that was dangerous. Bitter usually meant poisonous, and if it tasted really nasty, that often meant that whatever we were eating was so rotten that it would be harmful instead of nutritious. As such, most profound taste experiences have to do with food. Of my two profound taste experiences that I’ll share, one involved food. The other – doesn’t, as you’ll see in a moment.

Chocolate bag from the Flagstaff House (image source: OpenTable)

When I was young, my parents would treat all of us to a nice meal once a year. We all dressed up for the meal, and my sister and I were allowed to choose anything on the menu so long as we actually ate it. One year Dad had earned a large bonus, so we went to what is still arguably the nicest restaurant in Boulder, Colorado – The Flagstaff House. I don’t remember what I had for my main meal, but I distinctly recall the desert I had. It was a simple “bag” made of dark chocolate, filled with fresh blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries, with a berry drizzle sauce arranged in a pretty pattern around the chocolate bag. It remains to this day one of the most amazing desserts, one of the most amazing foods, I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating.

In junior high, I developed a bad habit. Everyone in my family liked to pour drinks out of cans and into glasses, which left cans of soda (and occasionally Coors) lying around here and there with some dregs in the bottom. I’d grab the cans and drink the dregs from the can before I took it out to be recycled. One year, we were out camping when I came across one of my mom’s cans of diet decaf Coke that looked like it had been abandoned. I picked it up, counted myself lucky to have a can with a good quarter-can of Coke left in it, and promptly upended it into my mouth. And then dropped the can, sprayed the contents of my mouth all over everything in front of me (thankfully just trees and bushes and not my parents, sister, or the tent) and nearly vomited next to the picnic table. My mother had been smoking, you see, and she’d taken one of her empties, added a little water to it, and was responsibly knocking her ash into the can so she wouldn’t accidentally set the the campsite aflame. I still occasionally drink the dregs from soda and beer cans, but only from cans that I’ve poured myself.

As I mentioned earlier, profound doesn’t necessarily mean “good.”

In my life, most of my most profound experiences have been when most or all of my senses have been firing at the same time. But sometimes closing your eyes can let you focus on another sense and change your experience of an event in amazing and unexpected ways.

I’m not sure where I heard this, but it’s a great quote whomever said it. “The true voyage of discovery lies not in seeing new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” I think the same sentiment can be said of experiencing something common with your ears, nose, tongue, or fingertips.

Or, if you prefer a paraphrasing of Ferris Bueller, if you don’t stop and close your eyes once in awhile, you might miss something profound.

1 reply »

  1. As an artist I am visually stimulated by my surroundings – the small shoots from a bed of moss become a fairy forest, the intricate markings on a crescent butterfly’s wings a Rorschach test. But the sound of a small waterfall in a stream can lull me into a peacefulness found in virtually nothing else.
    I’ve been an avid birdwatcher for 30+ years but only in the last two or three have I begun to ‘learn’ their unique calls – one of my favorite being the call of a Redwing Blackbird which seems like notes sung through bubbles.
    Thank you for such a stimulating piece.

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