In the first two posts I introduced the liberal arts and discussed various features connected with them. However, I have not yet discussed how a person might best begin their own study of the liberal arts. In this post, therefore, I will be considering this very important question. One of the most important features of the liberal arts is the recognition of the individual as a free and independent centre of mind and consciousness. Towards this end, imagine sitting in a forest under the shelter of an old oak tree, looking out upon the woodland before you. As you sit there contemplating the natural beauty of the forest around you, surprising as it may seem, you are already in possession of all of the main tools that you will need for the study of the liberal arts.
These tools are yourself, your mind and those tremendous natural faculties that the universe has endowed you with the use of. And the true magic of the liberal arts is that they will show us how to use these in order to begin to unfold our deepest potential.
Although this sounds straightforward, there is more to it than meets the eye. First, it is necessary to take stock of our natural faculties and the capabilities that they then extend to us. Second, it is a matter of taking steps to maximise our use of those faculties. For this reason, a study of the liberal arts best begins with the acquisition of a certain amount of self-knowledge. This entails coming to a reasonable understanding of who and what we are, together with the various faculties, systems and processes that we are fortunate to have the use of.
Relevant to this is the fact that although each one of us counts as an individual in our own right, we are all but miniscule parts of that much greater whole that is the real world. At this point, therefore, let us ask a key question. What does it mean for us to be a part of the real world? Most of us know what it is like to be a part of the human world. And although this world can seem to us to be all embracing, it is, nonetheless, a rather limited world.
Fewer people seem to have cognisance of what it is like to be a part of the planetary world. Embracing all life upon the planet Earth, this is the world of our planetary host, referred to by ancient spiritual traditions as Mother Earth. Beginning, perhaps, with James Lovelock’s, Gaia hypothesis, there is an increasing recognition among the various peoples of the world, that in universal terms, the earth counts as a living being in her own right. This represents a welcome alternative to the view of the planet earth as being nothing more than a ball of dead rock that has somehow become ‘infested’ with life. And it is welcome, because as a part of the real world, such views do no more than to depreciate the earth and everything that lives thereupon.
So, let us instead be sensible about this. Whether a living being or not, the planet Earth is certainly part of something that is so vast and incredible that it literally goes beyond our comprehension. This is the shimmering mystery of the real world, the first or original causes of which have intrigued every thinking person since the beginnings of human history. That the beauty and wonder of the green earth is all a part and parcel of this wonderful mystery, means that questions surrounding the true nature of Mother Earth will only be properly answered once we know more about this tremendous mystery. Consequently, in the meantime we can only conjecture or hypothesise in terms of what might or might not be.
Fewer people still, have cognisance of the real world which is the universe conceived as a vast whole. Referred to by Plato as the true, the good and the beautiful, an enlightened consciousness of this world represents one of the ultimate aims of the practice of the liberal arts. However, in the meantime, there is nothing to stop us trying to gain some kind of sensibility of the real world. Towards this end, cast your mind upon it and try to gain a sense of the fabulous depths of its timeless mystery. As you do so, allow your mind to rise up into the vast open spaces. You will soon realise that the real world is so utterly vast that it does indeed go beyond our comprehension.
When you do contemplate the real world, try not to make the same mistake that many others have made. This is to see the real world as something that is outside and separate to them. This is a mistake because we are all a part of the real world. Therefore, when envisaging the real world, do not forget to bring yourself into the equation. When you do so, you will soon realise that at the very heart of this tremendous world mystery lies you yourself. And what does this self say? It says very clearly I AM.
However, we cannot, like the god of Moses, say I AM THAT I AM, for to say that would be to imply that we are self-created. Very clearly, we are not. We are a result of sequential causes linked to the species of which we are a part. Because of this, we are all very much dependent upon the support of those other worlds that I have already mentioned, which are the human and planetary worlds. Therefore, to understand ourselves and our own capabilities we first need to consider the way in which these worlds do support and uphold our existence. As this is an important issue let us consider it further.
THE FOUR CHANNELS
As human beings it is very clear that we are not gods and we are not immortal beings, at least not in the way in which we ordinarily understand these words. We are all a part of but one of the many organic species that are hosted by the planet Earth. As such, whether we like it or not, we are all utterly dependent upon the support of worlds that are greater than ourselves in the universal scheme of things. This, then, brings us on to an important question. How, and in what way, do these worlds support us? This they do through four essential channels. As you may not have heard of these before, let me now explain what these are.
The first channel concerns the solid foods that we need to eat to survive. These are consumed, broken down and what is needed from them is then absorbed by our body, the rest being expelled as waste.
The second channel is similar to the first, although it deals in a different kind of matter. Because our body is by majority fluid, we need to be able to replace those fluids, which is done through drinking.
The third channel deals in a finer form of matter still. It takes the form of breathing. Because our body needs air to survive we need to be able to inhale and exhale gaseous matters.
Notice that each of the three channels so far mentioned deals with a certain state of matter: the first deals with solids, the second fluids and the third gaseous matter. As this is clearly a logical progression, this gives us our vital clue to understand the nature of the fourth channel.
The fourth channel takes the form of impressions that we receive through our five senses, each of which deals in impressions pertaining to certain stimuli:
through the sense of sight we take in visual impressions
through hearing we take in aural impressions
through the sense of smell we take in olfactory impressions
through the sense of taste we take in sapid impressions
through the sense of touch we take in tactile sensations.
Note that this fourth channel – sensory impressions – belongs to an altogether different order than the other three. Making use of the nervous system and brain, it handles those much finer electrical matters that still provide us with a vital form of nourishment, but this time not for the body, but for the mind and all that our mind is a gateway to. In simple terms, our mind ‘eats’ the experience that we receive through the senses, rather in the same way that our body eats, say, grains and vegetables.
In this context, colour, sound, fragrance, flavour and sensation are not just sources of information. They are a vital source of nourishment for the mind. After all, who does not gain edification from the sight of a majestic sunset, the sound of beautiful music, the taste of fine food or the wonderful fragrance emanating from a flower-filled garden on a summer’s eve?
As such, the real world supports and maintains us through four possible channels each of which deals in a certain type of food: solid food, liquids, air and sensory impressions. All four of these are absolutely essential for life. We could not survive without solid food for more than, say, a few weeks; we could not survive without water for more than few days; we could not survive without air for more than a few minutes and, surprising though it may seem, we could not survive without sensory impressions for more than even a single second.
For students of the liberal arts, these four channels offer vital indications of what is possible for us and why. They also help to guide us towards the making of choices that facilitate, rather than obstruct, our further growth as human beings. Therefore, for example, while we all understand the need to eat healthy, wholesome and nourishing food; to drink plenty of clean, fresh water and to breathe fresh unpolluted air, liberal arts students also apply this concern to the electrical impressions taken in through the senses.
This is for the simple reason that all four of these channels help to maintain our own individual sense of health and well-being. The first three channels do this with respect to the body, while the last channel which deals in impressions, does this for the mind. Consequently, to be able to maintain a healthy body and mind, we need to make sure that we are receiving the right quality of nourishment upon all four levels.
For some people this idea might come across as being curious – that the quality of impressions that we take in through our senses can have a direct impact upon our state of health. However, a little thought will soon convince us of the truth of this. Spending too long in an ugly, squalid environment can easily have a deleterious effect upon our mind state. A good example of this is the sprawling decay of many urban environments, which often lacking any sense of colour or beauty of form, do nothing but to sap our spirits.
On the other hand, if we find ourselves surrounded by stunning scenes of natural beauty, the complete opposite can then occur. We will find ourselves being uplifted by the tremendous natural beauty that is all around us.
Now, it could easily be argued that what seems ugly to one person might seem beautiful to another, But the point in this case, is not to try to establish some kind of objective scale of beauty. The point is the feelings that are being engendered in us by our environment. If these are positive, uplifting feelings they indicate that the impressions we are receiving through our senses are providing our mind with the right kind of food. Which, of course, is why we all love listening to good music, or hearing inspired poetry. It is why we love to look at beautiful artworks and to eat food that does not just taste good, but it also smells good and looks attractive to the eye.
DOORS OF PERCEPTION
Now it has sometimes been said that our whole lives are essentially meaningless and that any attempt to find some kind of meaning is simply a psychological defect on our part. However, anybody who says, thinks or believes this is somebody who has forgotten how to make use of their senses. Each one of us is a part of the real world and through the electrical impressions that we receive through our senses we can each establish a powerful life-affirming connection with the real world.
This, in itself, establishes a powerful lever of meaning from the very start. We can learn more about the real world in which we are participating and as a result become wiser and more enlightened beings. Now, while I respect the right of anybody to declare that their life is essentially meaningless, for me at least, this quest for knowledge, understanding and wisdom fills my life with such a tremendous sense of wonder, purpose and inspiration that whatever anybody else might say, I say yes to that!
However, in order to access these wonders, we do need to recognise that, due to the way in which we live out our lives, many of us have more or less lost our vital sense of connection with the real world. One of the consequences of this is that we no longer tend to appreciate the absolutely vital work that our senses do in enabling us to make a direct connection with it.
Because of this, not only are our senses not working as efficiently as they could be, but we ourselves are not properly engaging with the work that they do for us. Think what an eye does, of the incredible displays of colour, shade and form that we are privileged to witness through use of our eyes. Our eyes are so amazing, that if we viewed them as a technology, we would consider this to be the most amazing technology that the world had ever invented.
In this context, the full range of our sensory capabilities is of course absolutely tremendous. And, it is well worth time examining our sensory endowments as if they were a technology. How much would you pay for a pair of eyes if you didn’t have them? How much would you pay to actually be able to taste the flavour of your food? All of these are clearly priceless.
This knowledge, then, reflects back on the notion of each one of us being an independent centre of mind and consciousness. Our sense of consciousness is clearly supported and sustained by the continual flow of the electrical impressions that we take in through our senses. This gives to our consciousness the facility of what is in effect one of the most amazing sensing and detection mechanisms that it is possible to imagine.
Admitted, our senses do have limitations. We cannot just zoom in and look much more closely at something. Neither can we apply volume gain to our sense of hearing. Yet, despite these shortcomings, we have all been endowed with the most incredible sensing capabilities that, if you did have to pay for them, would literally cost you the earth.
Now, I am sure you have heard the phrase ‘doors of perception’ as popularised by writer, Aldus Huxley. Our senses are just such doors of perception through which can flow all of the wonder, majesty and beauty of the real world. However, unlike Huxley with his mescaline experiments, we do not need drugs to maximise their potential. We simply need to engage our mind properly with the work of our senses. When we do this we will then find ourselves living in a fresh, new inspiring world.
This, then, introduces us to the possibilities that we all have for natural learning. This is learning, not by way of textbooks filled with pre-formulated ideas and theories, but directly for oneself through the full and unmitigated use of one’s senses. Backed up by the light of our own consciousness, this sphere of natural learning will introduce us to all of the wonderful mysteries of the real world, all there waiting for us to experience them for ourselves.
However, given our upbringing, education and way of life to date, there are numerous obstacles that might stand in the way of this. One such obstacle is that we have been taught not to properly trust our senses any more and as a consequence, we often pay very little heed to what they are telling us. Instead, we have been taught to heed only the voice of authority, in whatever form that this might take.
Because of this, we can then find ourselves in a curious situation where our senses might be telling us one thing, the voice of authority another. This is a very dangerous position to find ourselves in, for it basically means that we can be coerced into subscribing to a false or distorted view of reality whose terms are being dictated by the voice of that authority. The threat of this is, of course, very real. After all, if you can coerce a person to affirm something that is in complete denial of what their senses are telling them, you can then, effectively, take command of their entire world view.
Another such obstacle is peer pressure. Although our senses might be relaying to us accurate information about our situation, if this information is not confirmed by others, we can be tempted to deny what our own natural faculties are telling us. In this way do we often deny our own cognisance of reality in favour of the collective view of our peers.
Another such obstacle is our habitual state of mind. When assessing this it is difficult not to be blunt. Basically we have allowed ourselves to fall asleep to the incredible reality of the real world of which we are a part. This state of sleep manifests as a certain mental torpor that in one way or another, brings all of our higher possibilities to a gradual state of arrest. This amounts to a state of mass hypnotic subjugation that if we are not careful, then turns us into the very zombies that so fascinate us when we see them in films.
Now, in looking for a remedy for all of this, it would be a mistake to try to apportion blame to anyone or anything for this situation. It would also be a mistake to resent what has been happening. After all, we do all of this completely out of our own free choice. Consequently, the first remedy is to actually take responsibility for our own states of mind. However, to be able to do so, we then need to understand how our own mind is working.
Generally speaking, rather than being focused upon the amazing work of our senses, we tend to focus on anything but. I have been in the most incredible situations, amid scenes of breath-taking beauty and seen people sitting there, completely oblivious to it, absorbed instead thinking about some past event, or perhaps worrying about trivial and unimportant things, or maybe feeling anxious about the future, or rehearsing what they are going to say to so and so when they see them.
Fortunately, there is a powerful cure for all of this. It is to begin to wake up and learn how to use our senses properly again. What this means is don’t just look, but instead learn how to truly see again. Don’t just hear, but instead learn how to truly listen. Towards this end, imagine being the first person to arrive upon a new planet. As you stepped out of the craft onto the surface of this new planet, think what your state of mind would be like.
You would not be daydreaming, or thinking about something that happened to you last year. And you certainly would not be checking Facebook posts on your mobile phone. Instead your mind would be completely and utterly focused upon what your senses were telling you. You would consequently enjoy an acuteness and sharpness of mind that would be a pleasure to experience. This enhanced mind-state would, then, cause that experience to register in your mind as a true peak experience, something that was notable, memorable and capable of causing irrevocable change within you.
However, we do not need to land upon a new world to cause this sharp and alert mind state. We already live in a world that is so utterly beautiful and awe-inspiring that it could totally transform us if we would let it. This process of transformation is kick-started by getting in contact with our senses again and as a result, being present for what we are experiencing. What this means is that if we eat, say, an orange, we allow our mind to focus fully upon the experience of eating that orange. We consciously experience its taste, we observe its shape, colour and form, feel its textures with our fingers, listen to the sound that occurs when we peel it and enjoy its beautiful and distinctive fragrance.
When we do learn to do this we will find our mind starts to get the nourishment that it so vitally needs. The exhilarating feeling that this produces is very noticeable. It is called awakening. The result will be the beginning of a process of internal growth and transformation which, in the end, will become our greatest joy. And it all begins by getting into contact with our senses again.
Through doing this, we will find that our senses will begin to sharpen up which in turn will have the effect of heightening our perception. Colours will seem to be more vivid, sounds will reveal subtle frequencies we never even noticed before, fragrances will begin to completely uplift us, while the textures that we feel on our skin will become much more fascinating and evocative.
The key to this is, basically, focus. Think about a cat when it is hunting. Every one of its senses is focused totally upon the task to hand. This state of absorption is often so complete that if you suddenly break the cat’s concentration the cat can appear startled. Here, I am grateful for the fact that the recent fad for mindfulness has prepared the way for a lot of this. After all, what does it mean to be mindful? It means being present and focusing upon what your senses are telling you.
By focusing upon the work of our senses in this way, with a still, yet completely alert mind, we will also begin to learn an incredible amount about people, places, nature and, in fact, everything we encounter. Our experiences will also be much more vivid, our energy levels will be heightened, we will enjoy everything so much more and it will generally provide us with such a boost that we will look back and wonder why we did not try it before.
So let us now return to the picture of ourselves sitting under the shelter of an old oak tree in a beautiful forest. As we sit there, we look out upon the tremendous beauty that is all around us. We listen to the birds singing, the sound of the stream in the distance and we breathe deep of the fresh forest air. Now if while sitting there, we focus our mind not upon our own rambling thoughts, but only upon the tremendous beauty that is all around us, we will suddenly find, that within us there is a growing sense of serenity.
At this point, gone will be the worries and the cares, gone will be the anxieties and feelings of foreboding. Instead, there will be nothing but the beauty of that old forest coupled with a growing sense of peace and stillness within. If you then go into that feeling of peace and stillness, you will then find that it has a very distinctive feel to it. It is a beautiful serene and uplifting presence. That feeling of presence is the beginnings of our apprehension of the real world.
Now, the curious thing about this, as anybody who has experienced it will confirm, is that this presence seems to be instructive in its nature. What I mean by this, is that if we spend enough time with it, we will then find ourselves learning from it. This is because it is in effect our greatest teacher – which is the presence of the real world itself.
This is natural learning at its very best – quieting the mind, alerting the senses and then absorbing valuable learning from the real world that is everywhere around and within us. And this is not even considering how it then gets even better. This is when we realise that, sitting there underneath the shelter of that old oak tree, we are actually a part of the beautiful blue planet earth, which in galactic terms is but a twinkling blue orb gracefully and serenely undertaking her own journey through the infinite depths of the eternal void of space.
How much more perfect could it actually become? Perhaps the mountains might be a touch taller, or the oceans a bit deeper. Maybe the shade of white of the passing clouds might be purer, or the sky could be a deeper shade of blue! Perhaps the luscious peaches that grow upon the trees could be sweeter! Or how about the delicate beauty of the earth upon which grow the colourful flowers of early summer. How might we improve these do you think? Now, surprising as it may seem, this is where the study of the liberal arts actually begins. It begins with ourselves and our own use of the incredible faculties with which we have been born.