This morning I found myself standing in the middle of the room, holding a sheet of paper. It was one of those moments when I get lost in what I’m experiencing.
In these times I feel like I am on the verge of something. I never know what ‘it’ is, exactly, but it really feels like I am on the edge of a cliff. I have a sense of the emptiness of the moment mixed with a feeling of extreme, unseen danger, but also a sense of excitement. It’s a bit like those dreams, in which the secret of the universe is revealed to you, with all the accompanying bliss and colour and music, only for you to wake up and immediately forget it.
These waking moments of mine, unfortunately, are nothing like revelations about the meaning of the universe – Douglas Adams has answered that one for us, anyway, and we all know the answer is 42 – but they are little personal epiphanies, that I would forget if I didn’t write them down.
This one with the piece of paper was, I think, the result of a conversation with Tony, one of the teachers on the Retreat I have just retreated from.
It suddenly felt like my brain was doing this really fast wizzy thing, switching back and forth between two sensory perceptions, two different neural messages. My brain was switching so fast, as it is always doing, but, because I was conscious of it, I had no interest or spare neural capacity to move, or do anything else other than explore and wonder at this miracle that is happening to us all, all the time.
It was a simple thing. These moments are, as a rule, but incredibly complex to describe.
I was holding the paper between my thumb and forefinger. It was my right hand, as it happened, but that is an irrelevant detail, inserted by me to give a greater sense of verisimilitude. It could have been my left hand and the brain would have been doing the same thing.
And now, as I write this, about which hand it was, I wish I hadn’t brought it up in the first place!
I suddenly became aware that my perception of touch had split into two. What is normally one sensation had become two.
The skin is our biggest sense organ, and it was, quite correctly, passing the message to my brain, at, or nearing, the speed of light, that I was touching a piece of paper. We have all felt this, the smooth, slightly silky touch of crisp white paper.
This normally is all we are conscious of, and is the information we need to interact with the world. I put my hand out and I feel a tree. I put my hand out and I feel a wall.
This is important for those of us who are blind, but it is important for everyone.
But, as well as this message, coming in to us from the world outside, there is also a message being sent to the brain that is more subtle to describe but equally important. The message is, “You are touching a thumb and a forefinger. You are touching the world, and the world is touching you.”
Standing in that room with my bit of paper, I found myself listening to these two messages simultaneously. I was watching my brain dart back and forth, putting these two sensations together into a perfect whole that both tells us about the world and also tells us about our shape and position in space.
Since then, I have spent the day obsessed with the sense of touch, which is a sense to which I still have access.
It has made getting dressed a long and absorbing business, I can tell you. When I walk in the woods, I feel the soles of my feet; when I hold a warm mug of tea to my cheek, I feel my face.
To mix and flow with the world like this seems a fantastic marvel. I need to try to maintain this awareness always.