Avoiding Sensory Overload in Order to Improve Spiritual Sight

Alternate title: Perceptual Isolation as a Way to Step outside the Streams of Consensus Reality

It seems to me that our culture is heading more toward hyper-activity and an ongoing need to be electronically plugged in.  These values are potentially at odds with contemplative and singular modes of acquiring view.  Now, every aging generation has lamented the simplicities lost due to change and the advances in technology.  And there have always been tradeoffs.  Cars are louder than horses.  But cars travel further and do not fill the streets with piles of horse manure.  So, as an aging man, perhaps my concerns are generational – without proper consideration for the benefits of a plugged-in future.  But it seems to me that such a future is programmed with sensory overload and lacks opportunity for contemplative isolation.

Regardless of trends, I feel the pursuit of individual vision is a perennial philosophy. I’ve felt for some time that in order to have creative or spiritual breakthroughs it is important to separate from the streams of habit and shared cultural perception.  Even an ongoing spiritual practice requires the ability to prioritize the sacred and to step outside of the everyday streams of group consciousness.

Cross-cultural vision quest methods often include some form of sensory deprivation, such as fasting, spending time in an isolated environment such as a cave or hole, or travel to isolated locations for a period of time.  Carl Jung reported that he required the isolation of his retreat in Bollingen in order for his creativity to coalesce, and reports that two weeks in isolation sometimes produced hallucinatory experiences.

In Oliver Sacks recent book Hallucinations (2012), Sacks states that it is well documented that sensory depravation causes hallucinations.   Sacks goes on to state that the brain can’t tell the difference between hallucinations and external reality.  But the brain can discriminate between external reality and the use of imagination (these findings were confirmed with the use of fMRI brain scans). You could conclude that hallucinations created by altered states are now proven to be as real as consensus reality.

Experience is often proof enough.  For example, John Lilly used his own experience as scientific laboratory.  Lilly literally wrote the book on sensory deprivation (The Center of the Cyclone – 1972).  Lilly set up elaborate tanks that allowed him to remain in isolation for up to 10 hours at a time.  He reported having hallucinations, and decided to enhance his hallucinations using LSD while in the tank.  He reported ecstatic, archetypal, and hellish experiences. He couldn’t predict the nature of his experiences ahead of time, except to say that on return his body always felt very small.  His experience inspired the commercialization of sensory deprivation tanks.

My experience with sensory deprivation tanks is limited. In 1980 there was a deprivation-dedicated salon located in Minneapolis. You got an hour in the tank, far less time than Lilly spent pursuing visions, but plenty of time to feel completely cut off from the world. On closing the lid and settling into float, my heart sounded loud as a drum. Within a minute, my heart was barely beating, and I could only hear a faint hum — the sound of my nervous and circulatory systems. There is no such thing as total quiet, except for the deaf.

While meditation came easily in the tank, I did not have a vision or hallucination. Just a pleasant feeling of being suspended in time. Because I am thin, I did not float perfectly.  That meant that I had to be very careful to avoid getting salt in my eyes.  It also meant I was unlikely to repeat the experiment.  But here’s the interesting thing.  I walked out of the salon on a cold and gray day in early February. The streets in Minneapolis were dirty and old snow was shoveled into piles. Not pretty.  And yet I was struck with the Beauty, like being reborn. I remember thinking: right now the Grand Canyon would be like an ayahuasca experience for its vivid color and sensation.  I was that open.

When I worked at the North Dakota State School for the Blind, I took a course in mobility training and spent several hours blindfolded in order to learn how to use a cane. The lack of vision forced me to focus more intensely on my other senses. I became more intuitive with space, feeling openings in the wall as I passed them. As you’d expect, the return of my vision made me more grateful for sight.

Ever since those early experiences, I’ve felt that a degree of sensory isolation was both good practice and an adjunct for additional shamanic methodologies.  For years I contemplated designing and constructing a salt free isolation tank. In the end, I decided that all you need is darkness, quiet or masking white noise, a comfortable bed to lay on, and a set of earplugs. Lying naked and warm, it’s possible to forget your body and feel the gateway to Universe.

Another way to separate from everyday cultural streams is to seek solitude in Nature. For many years I went on retreats to the Medicine dome in northern Minnesota. I rarely saw another person for days at a time.  For the first few hours it felt like sensory isolation as I shed my work-world routines.  As I settled in I would begin to experience the world through Nature’s doors of perception. I could literally feel the separation from my everyday life. The streams of work and culture could not reach me in this place of sanctuary. It felt like I was in a different world, free to explore the depth and meaning of experience.

Here’s an example that may communicate that feeling of separation.  As it happened, I was on retreat on 9/11/01, when the terrorist attacks hit the homeland.  On intuition, I went out to the car to listen to The Writer’s Almanac on the radio.  In all the hundreds of times I was up there, it’s something I did maybe three times.  I got a small dose of what happened.  My spirit helpers told me that it was necessary to give me some foreshadowing so that I wouldn’t be shocked by the events on my return.  With compassion, I did a healing shamanic journey.  As I continued my retreat I felt very distant from events happening so far away.  As a result, I have never felt the sticky quality of 9-11 that so many have reported.  But I did feel the closeness of spirits.  That’s what it feels like to step outside the everyday streams of time and culture into the quiet of an isolated sacred space.

At solstice we celebrate the returning light, as well we should. This is also a good time of year to experience the quiet dark. The long nights encourage visioning, curling up with the pregnant potential of winter stillness where seeds of light are dreaming. Just prior to this writing, I experimented with north latitude December deprivation by adding yoga breathing and shamanic shape-shifting to the depth of a senses masked and comfortable darkness.  The result was ecstatic and informative, vividly imaginal dissolving into connection with an imageless Beyond.  I  felt small returning to my body.

If you’re always hooked in to mainstream perception, that is the reality you’ll experience. There are hundreds of ways to tune out unnecessary sensory overload. Just ask Earth or Sky. It’s like what my parents said about eating carrots: it improves your sight.

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2 Responses to Avoiding Sensory Overload in Order to Improve Spiritual Sight

  1. Lora says:

    A lovely write, and a pleasure to read. I would like to write more, but I am now turning off the computer to listen to the rain.

  2. I floated at the home of a local yoga instructor a few years back and was blown away by my experience. After the session, I found my senses were heightened, my bothersome knee injury from college soccer felt better than it had in years, and the meditative state I achieved left me feeling blissful for days afterward. DISCLOSURE– I had a transcendent experience that was unlike anything I had been accustomed to in my years of meditation (ask me about it). THAT WAS IT! I had found something completely natural and effortless that I knew I wanted to bring to the masses. Conflicted, I begrudgingly schlepped back to my desk job in order to pay back student loans, but in the back of my mind I knew where my heart was.

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