Several years ago we visited the asylum in San Remy that harbored Vincent van Gogh while he worked out some personal issues and hoped his ear would grow back. Looking through the flawed and inconsistent thickness of glass in the windows overlooking the fields and courtyard turned the olive trees, mown hay, benches, walkways, and people into undulating, indistinct versions of themselves, just like…a van Gogh painting. The heretical thought occurred to me that perhaps van Gogh wasn’t always painting his impressions or interpretations, but what he literally saw.
Perceptions are funny things. We depend on them to discover the apparent workings of the world and to fix our place in it. The ability to sense our surroundings is so important that our standard equipment includes five paired sensory apparati: we have stereoptic sight, stereophonic hearing, smell through two nostrils, touch with two hands, and can easily talk out of both sides of our mouth. To make sense of it all, we use a bilateral brain and are often of two minds. Reaching a consensus with ourself much less anybody else isn’t just a noble goal, it’s a flat-out miracle.
In the if-you-had-to-lose-a-sense game, touch for me had historically been the winner—or loser in this context. Smell and taste? Not my best, either. Fruity overtones and peppery-with-a-hint-of-regret were wasted on me; I bought wine if I liked the label. But sight and sound? Had to have ’em. I wanted to be able to see and hear my grandchildren as they grew up. Okay, I could sometimes do without the hearing. It wasn’t that good anyway. Neither was my eyesight, for that matter. It’s not just that it was getting worse with age—which it still is—but rather that my vision had never been very reliable, to be honest. It’s not that I couldn’t see; it’s more what I would or wouldn’t see. In most routine situations, I would typically see what I expected to and overlook what I didn’t regardless of what may or may not have actually been there. With those self-imposed limits on visual acuity, I may as well have done without sight after all.
That brought me back full circle to touch, which through the hands-on treatments I gave Diana became the sense that interested me most but with which I could discern the least. My experience with touch was exactly the opposite of my habits with sight: whereas I expected to see what might not be there, I didn’t expect to feel anything whether it was there or not. But in fact, after a while, I did. Heat. Cold. Bumps and thumps. Pulsing and bubbling. And I had no clue how to correlate what I felt with whatever it might be. I suspect it was like someone unsighted from birth suddenly being able to see and having no idea of what to make of it.
I was encouraged, though. It was apparent that as with most new skills, I would get better with practice, with experience. Why in no time at all I could have a sense of touch that was as highly developed as any of my other senses, which meant it could be…would be…dismally mediocre at best.
So that was rather disheartening. I wondered why, after more than half a century, I wasn’t more adept with my senses than I had been at five. It then occurred to me that my senses had actually been more acute at five and it was in fact the intervening decades that had dulled them. I suspected that more often than not I would short-circuit direct sensation and go straight to accessing a prior memory or association of something similar. I look at a Douglas fir and immediately dismiss it because what I see is just an earlier experience of one—which may have actually been a hemlock. When someone always reacts a certain way, is it really because he or she is “so predictable” or is it because I am predictably and simultaneously recalling an earlier incident time and time again?
While Diana and I were trying to weave a healthy future together we had the misfortune of witnessing a marriage near and dear to us unravel. Over the course of two weeks, I had a pivotal clash related to me by three different members of the disaffected family. Their stories were wildly divergent, barely hanging from the same fundamental framework though I’m sure each thought their version was the incontestable truth. So what really happened? That’s not just the wrong question; it’s an absurd one. It presupposes there’s only a single answer—and that it actually matters.
About this same time, Diana and I had the unexpected pleasure of wandering through the grounds of a retreat in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. We wound through the redwoods and salal, stopping at each in a series of benches inscribed with what turned out to be Buddhist precepts for training the mind. This was all new to me, yet somehow familiar. My first impression was the precepts were very similar to the teachings of Jesus, just worded differently from a tradition hundreds of miles east and hundreds of years earlier. Each precept was a provocation; each more confounding than the last. Part of the inscription on the final bench read: “Let me see all things as illusion”.
That phrase has stuck with me. I think a typical notion of reality is not only illusory, but elusory and delusory as well. It’s getting increasingly difficult—and less important—for me to know what’s “real”. I paint what I see. And I probably don’t see it clearly. Or hear it clearly. Or take it in clearly through any other sensory mechanism. And then I screen those inaccuracies through a complex series of conscious and unconscious filters that are likely even more inaccurate—not to mention inappropriate, historic, hysteric, and horrific. So what’s “real” is hardly relevant compared to what I make of it.
“It’s all in your mind” isn’t the put-down that I always took it to be. It’s simply a statement of fact. Whatever is in my mind depends completely on however I perceived it, however I interpreted it, and—this is likely the least stable variable in the equation—however I remembered it. That allows for millions of possible realities, so insisting I know what’s real just seems a tad presumptuous. I now try to think in terms of “This is how I imaged it”, which isn’t too far from “This is how I imagined it”.