The Untold Story of their Inner Life
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We know what the senses can do for us. They bring us colorful images of the natural order through sight, offer up the harmonies of the universe through sound, tantalize us with the smells and tastes in the world of culinary delights, and wrap us in the textures of the physical world. But what about the other side of reality? This work explores the untold story of the secret life of the senses, the inner seeing, hearing and smelling that take us beyond the physical realm into a higher order of experience.
"In a world that is increasingly dominated by technology, it is important to reflect on the function of the five senses. Are the senses merely the portals of the material world, opening us into experience and desire, or are they a gateway beyond, an intimate opening into mystery and transcendence? This book awakens the heart from its material disenchantment, inviting us to venture beyond the threshold of our ordinary senses, to that spiritual world referred to in the famous lines by e. e. cummings: now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened."- M. Ali Lakhani, Editor, Sacred Web and author of The Timeless Relevance of Traditional Wisdom
"This work is a sensitive, poetic, often profound exploration of the inner world of the senses. Herlihy shows us that taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing offer more than raw data about the world or fleeting moments of pleasure and pain; they can be pathways to deeper realities and higher truths, ways of approaching God. Packed with fascinating excursions into the nature of perception, cognition, memory, consciousness, and intellect, this book is a significant addition to the spiritual bookshelf." Philip Zaleski, Editor, Best Spiritual Writing series and co-author of Prayer: A History
Ancient mysteries continue to haunt the psyche of modern mentality with their inscrutable questions. In spite of the advanced technologies modern science has made available to the general public that vir-tually set the pace and define today’s culture and civilization, and although scientists have explored deep down into the unpredictable laws of the quantum world in our search for the building blocks of matter hoping to find in the words of Stephen Hawkins “a unified theory of everything”, people today still have no clear answers they can believe with any certainty to give definition and shape to their earthly lives. We have relied on the human mind and its faculty of reason to think our way through the labyrinth of speculation and doubt that marks the centrepiece of the modern secular worldview. Simi-larly, the premier instruments of investigation supporting the scientific method are none other than the five senses that on their own or in tandem with the rarefied pieces of equipment attempt to document through empirical evidence the true nature of reality. In the end, we still rely on seeing, hearing, smell-ing, tasting, and above all touching to declare what we believe to be an objective reality.
This work is intended to make up a brief little book. After all, how much can you say about the five senses or the inscrutable sixth sense that we no longer believe in. It is true that the five senses make demands on our bodies without ever giving up their insatiable desire. This in itself is a commentary on their use and function that fairly summarizes the intense nature of their demands on the body. In addi-tion, the mysterious “ghost” of the senses keeps us guessing about whether the objectivity they offer the modern mentality is truly convincing. There is no denying that the demands of the senses ride us as though they were riding an invisible tiger, leaving behind in their wake an echo of disenchantment that keeps us wondering whether we are using these instruments of knowledge and perception to full advantage. We see, hear, smell, taste and touch the world; but for all of their demands, they never bring the satisfaction their experiences promise. They are the portals of pleasure as well as the in-struments of verification of the physical reality; but where is the resolution to their promise of certitude and where is the satisfaction that their desires foreshadow?
This effort is intended for a special audience. After all, the preface needs to address the needs of those who might be inclined to pick up this book in a bookstore and give it two minutes of their atten-tion before setting it back down again and passing on. Publishers, distributors and agents of all kinds tell us that the title is crucial and the effect on the mind of a potential reader can make or break a good book in the five seconds it takes for the title’s import to register as worthy for further attention. The two key words of the title, of course, are wisdom and senses. There is strangeness to their juxtaposition and intimacy in their close proximity. We do not normally think of the senses as wise, even if we ap-preciate their benefits and pursue their promises with relentless devotion and certitude. We may use the senses as instruments of verification for our scientific experiments and call upon the mystique of their supposed objectivity to identify once and for all the true nature, not only of the physical world, but also by some strange analogy the universal reality. But we do not usually call the senses wise. Wis-dom is for saints and Tibetan lamas and Indian gurus. The wisdom generated by the senses is knowl-edge turned inside out, exposing the eternal verities in the clear light of an eternal day, and not the routine and calculated facts that we encounter in the everyday world, much less the desires the senses serve that drag us deeper down into the world of the flesh.
This work is intended to explore the full dimensions of the five senses as portals and passageways into the interior of ourselves as a prelude to rising above ourselves in surrender and unity with God. Let us explore the vision of seeing by looking with both eyes upon the signs and symbols of the Crea-tor Who has given us the gift of sight. Let us listen to the revelatory sounds that abound within nature and that have descended in the form of verses of the Holy Book, the Quran. The celebrated Islamic poet and mystic Rumi writes: “Birds’ voices and the grove’s moody colours offer immortality when we enter the garden, you and I.” Let us taste the nutritional wonders of the created universe in remem-brance of He who has fashioned all created things from His own Hand according to the truth of their own nature. Let us smell the essence of things in light of their truth and remember the blessing of the paradise of which all earthly smells are but a pale reflection. Let us feel the texture and grain of things with our fingers, slowly and softly experiencing the touch and feel of the wondrous reality of this world as prelude and first step to experiencing the truth of some higher realm of experience. Let us walk to-ward the One Who has given us a body that stands upon feet that can make their way. According to Rumi, “Your head is but a lamp with six wicks: Without that spark, would any remain alight?” Indeed, what is the spark that will illuminate the six wicks of our senses; what will illuminate the light of the mind if there is no luminous source? Where is the spark the will ignite the smouldering embers of a darkened heart?
This modest book is intended to expose the mystery of the sixth sense and the intuitive knowledge whose perception can take us by the hand and lead us out of ourselves. The sixth sense is the apex and summit of the other five senses. When the Quran says: Vision grasps Him not, but He grasps all vision” (6:103), we understand the reference to vision as the Supreme Intellect of which the human intellect is a pale but certain reflection. The sixth sense is to the mind what the other five senses are to the body, namely a portal of perception to the mystery of the Unseen and the knowledge of God that would otherwise be unknown to the human mind. If there is a physical counterpart to intuition, it would be the heart which is actually the seat of the intelligence. Once again, Rumi writes: “Those with mirror-like hearts do not depend on fragrance and color: they behold Beauty in the moment. They’ve cracked open the shell of knowledge and raised the banner of the eye of certainty. Thought is gone in a flash of light.”
There must be more to the five senses than insatiable desire or a pseudo objectivity that explains away universal reality by reducing it to the sub-atomic world of atoms and molecules. In the profound darkness of the night, the time when people perennially turn inward in search of something more than the surface experience on offer to the senses during the daytime, myths give rise to meaning and leg-ends are born that people can listen to if they have sense enough to recognize the benefit of silence and see darkness as an opportunity for inner light. In the evening, sit under the stars and see what the universe has to offer. The stillness of the night is full of the most varied voices, sounds and whispers if you choose to listen and the black velvet of the night sky is perforated by specks of light as though the light of some eternal universe were hidden behind its plate of darkness. In truth the distant stars are but elegant fire flies that speckle the night with their phosphorescent beauty. The darkness itself con-tains sights and smells that come from everywhere to assault the senses with their mystery and their promise, from behind the tree, from under the ground, from the depths of the sky. During the daytime, the senses take up the cup of sweet pleasure and drain it dry. They smell the aromatic odors of the world; they delight in the provocative visions the natural world has on offer; they taste the nectar of every edible vegetable and fruit; but behind the formal structure of eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin lies a frightening array of sensations in the form of visions, silences, smells and experiences of taste and touch that have the power to rock our inner worlds with the secrets they contain and the wisdom they reveal.
To open your mind and heart to the true messages of the senses is to cross a mythic threshold and find yourself on the front line of spiritual experience. Nothing prevents the natural interaction of the physical world with the higher world of the spirit. There are no compromises, no stages of develop-ment, no pretending. There is only the perennial battle to lift the veil that separates us from the direct vision of the Divinity, to see the invisible, to hear the inaudible, to taste the intuitions of the mind with their direct experience of the supernatural and to bask in the feelings of certitude that shower upon the soul that is receptive to the influences of the spirit. The on-going battle of the soul that Islam proclaims as the ultimate challenge of the human condition takes place first and foremost within the life of the senses, as knowledge of the senses becomes wisdom with the power to transform the life experience into a journey toward transcendence of the human condition. The richness and diversity of the world is not experienced in purely physical, palpable, tangible and visible forms, but in view of its symbolic sig-nificance that all traditional people imparted to every river, mountain and star.
We go through life witnessing the world through the blessing of sight and we take wing and fly to-ward the vision of the Divinity witnessed through the “eye” of the heart. We listen to the sound vibra-tions of every created thing and incorporate their rhythms into the harmony of our waking moments, enriched by the sound of the cricket and the fluttering of the moth, enchanted by the cry of the pea-cock and enthralled by the thunder and lightning of heaven. We make our way through the world smelling the essence of things from the clove of garlic to lilies in a pond and thus become privy through aromatic smells to the very essence and soul of an object. We occupy our days with the re-quirements of eating and drinking to sustain the physical body, but even the mundane moments of our everyday life can take on the magic and mystery of some untold secret if we taste the world through the intuitions the mind makes available to us.
In addition, the preface is intended to give a taste, for want of a better word, of what is to come within the main body of the work. Like a drop of honey, the reader can sample the essence of the book in terms of content and style in a few concise words without being overwhelmed by the totality of the message. Throughout this work, we reflect upon and explore the possibilities inherent in the sentential experiences of the five senses, partly because we hope to expose the myth that the senses exist only to serve our human, physical needs and are only the expression of our insatiable desire for satisfac-tion of the body, and partly to rekindle the wisdom and love of God in counterpoint to the knowledge and desire for attractions of “this world” only. The superficial goal of the senses is to love and embrace the pleasures of this world. The more we embrace that which the world has to offer, the more we be-come entrenched in its superficial delights, merely stoking the flames of desire and leaving behind the cold embers of dissatisfaction. The inner goal of the senses is to love and embrace the Beloved as the object of our truest desire. The more we embrace that which God has on offer for us, the more we transcend the world and leave it behind, creating a burning within the heart that never dies, but rather becomes a cooling flame and a fireless heat, producing the alchemy of the soul as the sole expression not of the individual, but of the Divinity. In a famous hadith that actually represents the words of God, the Prophet said: “My servant never ceases approaching Me through voluntary works until I love him. Then, when I love him, I am the hearing through which he hears, the seeing through which he sees, the hand through which he grasps, and the feet through which he walks.”
It is incredible to think that we rely on the senses in so many ways without ever tapping their true reserves and without ever realizing their full capacity to reveal the inside story of our experience of the world. We eat, drink, smell the flowers and reach out to others without ever waking up to the secret import of these experiences and their effect on psyche and soul. We listen to music, for example, and what do we hear but pleasant melodies that make us smile or move us to their rhythm and beat; but the act of creative love generated by the creation of a beautiful and moving melody and the manner in which the music transports us to other realms are soon forgotten, if never fully realized. We live in the age of communication and are supposed to appreciate the power of words and their ability to commu-nicate meaning and message; but the power of sound to reflect sacred harmonies and to transport us through the resonance and vibratory qualities of sacred revelation, for example, are lost on our busy mentalities. We hear the sound; but we are not truly listening to the music. Just as the inner faculties of reason, intelligence, heart knowledge, consciousness, spiritual imagination and sacred instinct, all lead us out of ourselves and make transcendence of the human condition possible, so also the five senses and the complementary sixth sense are sentential instruments of knowledge and perception that we need to more fully explore and experience, if we ever wish to understand the universal mystery that underscores all existence. We must recognize this mystery as a fundamental truth of our existen-tial reality, if we are ever to achieve the knowledge of the true reality that all men, scientists included, unequivocally profess to be the ultimate goal of the modern, thinking individual.
Imagine the finger of God upon our sense of touch, the hand of God upon our hands. We could do no wrong and everything we might accomplish with our hands would contain the signature of the Divin-ity. Imagine seeing and smelling the world through God’s eyes and all on behalf of a mutual love be-tween the Divine and the human with which nothing can compare. Imagine the presence of the Divinity taking up residence within the human heart in fulfilment of the promise that the human body is the tem-ple of the spirit and that “the Kingdom of God is within you.” The Quran tells us explicitly that “God is with you wherever you are” and perhaps a little more ominously that “Allah comes between man and his own heart.” There is perhaps no limit to what humans can accomplish, provided our works are measured against the relationship we have with God. The human journey can become a spiritual ad-venture without taking leave of the reality of this world, by understanding the human senses and the ubiquitous sixth sense, not as instruments to verify the objectivity of the physical world, but rather as portals to a higher world of understanding that attempts to describe the presence of God in the world as well as in the human heart.
We are the bell that when struck resounds with the harmonies of a true reality that binds us to-gether into a seamless whole. We are the reed flute that when blown upon by the “breath of the Com-passionate” creates the voice and the soul of the virtuous man. When the human being plays its own delicate instrument and becomes its own reed flute, the sentient portals of the body, like the apertures of the flute, become capable of whispering of God’s mysteries. The senses have a story to tell and it will be told. They have a music to play whose reverberations will echo across the wide open spaces of a life well lived. They have a song to sing and it will be sung, so long as the earth abides and humanity is there to experience and absorb the wise messages the senses have to offer.
Now I will tell you without speech and with constant renewal
The ancient mysteries: Listen!
(Rumi, Mathnawi III 4684)