Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Awakening The Senses

Come now: watch with every palm
how each single thing becomes apparent.
Don’t hold anything you see as any more of an assurance
than whatever you hear, or give those loud sounds
you happen to be hearing preference
over the sharp tastes on your tongue.
And don’t reject the assurance provided by any other limb
that offers some passage for perception, but
perceive how each single thing becomes apparent.[1]

It's not easy to understand this poem of Empedocles in a world where the constant misuse of the senses and the bombardment of data are so habitual. We may even believe that we perceive through the senses, but suffice to observe ourselves a little to realise we spend most of the time in the head, imagining how things are, how they will or should be.
Great teachers remind us that the possibility of being fully human can only be actualised with the practice of common sense (koinê aísthêsis, sensus comunis). But what is common sense? Today it is synonymous of being prudent, of following what is socially accepted. Curiously, those meanings are quite opposite to the original one.
The root of the misunderstanding probably started with Plato, for whom the senses were not a way to the truth, since these only show changing perceptions. All got even worse when Aristotle and his book On The Soul, where he assumes that "every time we look at a tree, we know we're looking at it, that every time we're thinking, we know we're thinking", because –as he says– every "biped animal" has common sense, a quality that resides in the heart and unites all the senses to give a coherent perception of reality. This blind assumption was later perpetuated when Kant used the idea of a sensus communis to justify humans perceive reality in the same way. Western thinkers have fallen in may intellectual traps since Plato.
There is indeed a discerning awareness that unites all the senses, including the mind and the heart. Pre-Socratic teachers also used to call it noûs, pure consciousness. Nevertheless, this quality is missing in our life, since it does not work through us if we don't become actively receptive.
The truth is that in ordinary conditions we wander asleep, perceiving through the murky screen of the mind, bypassing reality.
For more reflections on the subject see the link:

[1] Translated by Peter Kingsley, quoted in the book Reality.

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