Sea Legs and Inner Ears

ocean storm Waltzing back and forth between the right-brain’s flowing cosmos and the left-brain’s key-tapping to make words, not yet being fully immersed in an all-senses state, I feel a dizziness that brings a memory to the surface, one that resonates across the decades:

We’d been on a long sailing trip, eating and sleeping on board, as well as struggling with sails during daytime squalls. I was glad for the Dramamine that kept me functional and comfortable – though still empathetic toward the machos who’d refused sissy drugs and kept bending over the side rails. I’d even thrilled to a big-waves interlude of sitting at the very point of the bow, rising and falling, racing through the sparkling clear horizon with the boat behind me, holding me up (eons before Titanic).

I didn’t mind knowing the drug inhibited a survival instinct that worked through fluids in my inner ear, a (re-trainable) instinct that favors creatures who keep their internal organs in proper relationship to gravity, their feet available to re-ground if necessary – by creating discomfort when sensory orientation signals in the brain do not match up. I long ago realized why Jean-Paul Sartre and Charlie Brown referred to nausea, and why others overwhelmed by intolerable experiences (real-time or remembered) might throw up, or blank out to keep from feeling the reaction. Only now do I see a correlation with the use of “Drama”(mine) to make outside experience match an inner chaos, so that The World, ironically, feels ordered.

Back to the sailing trip: the shock came when we finally arrived in port. I went to wash my hair in the dockside sheet-metal shower. All sudsed up, I tilted my head back to rinse – and fell into a loud uncontrollable crash against the wall. Literally shaken, I stood upright in the downpour, as still as possible, till my gyroscope restabilized. When I rejoined the group, stunned and impressed, I got polite smiles revealing boredom or confusion when I tried to relay my revelation, my brilliant insight that I’d become so accommodated to the sea-going motion that I couldn’t balance on dry land. I felt a little lonely, a little stupid (same root as stunned, stupefied), a little incompetent.

Later, I realized there’s no way, in standard speech, to give another person one’s own full physical experience and its visceral impressions. With more hindsight, some heightened meditation practice, and contemplation of virtual-reality equipment (with emotional-energy programming now available), I sense it’s getting more possible.

In the present moment, as I imagine someone reading this, I can feel the old isolation. It would take pages of high-sensory poetry to get near to that other-worldly sense of semi-inhabiting a form I could not operate, an experience that revealed itself in a rolling boom of sheet metal. On the other hand, anyone who’s had a similar experience could re-cognize and re-feel it. They could go beyond time, have a present-moment re-experience, like Proust tasting his Madeleine. For non-experiencers, the gap between words and felt-sense reflects the general problem of trying to share any subtle inner experience in a few words, which is the core problem of quickie wisdom on the internet or in daily conversation – frequently interpreted in ways unintended by the writer or speaker. Even silent transmissions of subtle energy are frequently re-interpreted by sensory frames of reference, made to fit known or imagined scenarios.

To get beyond the left-brain problem, one step beyond explanation is story art, designed to lead an audience through gut-level disorientation, sending them scrambling into deeper/higher consciousness for explanations. Stories have been used by teachers for millennia (e.g., Shakespeare,* as well as overtly spiritual teachers) not only because many audiences couldn’t read, but also because the stories could be understood at subtle levels, at varying depths of insight, with varying frames of reference; many favorite Rumi poems, for example, are mini-stories. There are abstract and surrealist painters – material and electronic – who attempt this transrational, subtextual expression, without a “cover story,” but the effect doesn’t usually register for me at such a safe remove. Overt horror and thriller stories or paintings might get close, for some audiences. Short stories, novels, and films with a fully believable and meaningful “twist” come close. But at the moment, for me, it’s the multilayered existential tales that captivate.

Maybe closest to this existential waltz among ways of seeing, without the grislier aspects of Kafka’s cockroach or the comical confusion of I Heart Huckabees, are Borges’s stories (I wrote earlier about these and related examples). A new one I found, since then, is Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. She lets you get your sea legs, set your gyroscope, and then shifts you to dry land. Or air. Even fire. Then back out to sea. It’s fun to feel the inner senses seeking the safety and satisfaction of knowing what’s going on, of feeling your identity in and relation to the story – an impulse that hasn’t been obvious till it’s upset by one form or other of sheet-metal kaboom. Koan-like, it forces the reader into transcendent space.

Ultimately, as I understand and sometimes feel the ideal that beckons me, there is no dancing between separate elements. Totality is the dream, where all experience is of a single full-spectrum reality. The meditation community already has its own definitions of total consciousness. The neuroscientifically inclined might enjoy Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (hint: per Nietzsche, the right brain is the rightful master).

In the meantime, as a writer of my own life and art, before the dream of totality is fully realized and consistent, these metaphors of balance and orientation, of shifting among elements, also form the story of inner evolution: beneficial change dismantles and dissolves old false stories that have organized and stabilized one’s sense of self, the world, relationships, and aspirations – while also removing the Dramamine delusions that blanked out the chaos of existence (sometimes a vitally needed temporary safeguard, to prevent nervous-system burnout or other catastrophic life-collapse – another reminder of Divine Nature’s habit of protecting the organism).

Once the restrictive, distorted patterns and heavy-weighted knots have safely returned to pure energy, learning to walk on dry land again can be exhilarating, even if others are bored or confused or disbelieving, even if it’s unnervingly unfamiliar to be perfectly still in the newly bright chaos, feeling the sudsy flow of higher consciousness rinsing off the dust of old worlds.

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* Shakespeare: Maybe everybody reading this has already encountered the view of King Lear as a metaphor for the experience of the tripartite (feminine) soul fractured by incarnation into a (masculine) material world. The part that was split off to sensual materiality (Goneril – reproductive, from the same root as genetic) by its very nature self-destructs; the part split off to intellect (Regan – ruling, from the same root as regent and regulate) is destroyed by materiality (Goneril kills Regan); and the part split off to love (Cordelia – heart, from the same root as core) is tortured and killed by society. This came to me after watching the Lear segment of a Canadian TV series on DVD called Slings and Arrows (of Hamlet’s outrageous fortune). When the Lear metaphor dawned on me, I suddenly remembered a scholar having said Shakespeare (or whoever wrote those plays) was spiritually a Sufi.