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Seeing Feelings

originally written in 2017

My attention is suddenly directed upwards by the glint of something above me. A man lying in the frame of a giant, steel antenna on top of a building. There’s something he’s holding which shines in the sun. Binoculars? A camera? The scope of a rifle? I begin to sense sparks of concern about to ignite my worry. Could it be that someone was about to start taking pop-shots at the innocent pedestrians down here at street level?

No, because I’m sitting cross-legged, alone in the corner of my room, trying to meditate. What had happened was my mind had lapsed from concentration and fabricated the above, specious scenario. My attention was distracted for only a second or two until it returned to the intended objects of meditation, the sensations in my legs. But in that short time, my brain had been able to construct the spurious tale of a man up high on an antenna, above a street with people walking by down below, and possessing something that was glistening in the sun. And not just that, but also the nefarious intention of the man and the amicable nature of the pedestrians had also been communicated. In such a short span of time so much information had been relayed about this fictitious event and it had happened in such a sly manner that I didn’t immediately realise that my attention had been transported from the bounds of somatic sensations in my legs, to a visionary scene of a city. Normally, you would think a change in experience so drastic would be immediately noticed, but my mind didn’t even flinch, at least not until I clocked on to it a couple of seconds later. How does this happen and how does it initially go unnoticed?

I think the key of self-misdirection is that the part of the brain that tells stories takes inspiration from its environment, and slowly fades your present experience to fit in with its confabulation. What had happened was I was being mindful of the sensations I was feeling in my legs at the time, and they were ‘pleasant’ or at least neutral sensations, but then this man on the antenna, with a gleaming scope of some kind, steals my attention upwards. When I turn my mind’s eye back down towards where I knew it was before I find a street full of people. The mental images of pedestrians are coalesced with and even overshadows the sensations in my legs. That is until eventually, I realise there aren’t any people at all, only feelings of pressure and warmth — and then I’m aware again of being in my room meditating — and the guise of the illusion has dispersed. But who was the man? Well, it was an itch above my right eyebrow. The glistening of his scope was the tingling sensations of the itch, and I was interpreting the man as being driven by malignancy because I was regarding the itch as being irritating or unpleasant, and it was affecting my concentration on the more benign sensations below in my legs. What followed was the impression that the itch above is hostile towards the pleasant sensations below; and my brain took the liberty to fuse this information with the images of a sniper and pedestrians respectively.

I’m guessing the train of sense translation went something as follows: It’s easy to perceive of separate sensations as being like their own little entities of phenomena, and then from there it’s only one small leap in contrivance to think of them as people. And the character of sensation is like its personality or mood. For example, a painful sensation may feign angriness. And a flurry of feelings near one another is like a cluster of people congregating. Of course, this is a silly analogy to make, but it’s easy to see how the imagination could make such connections. So take a group of agreeable sensations in the legs and then introduce a not so agreeable itch above the eyebrow and add a pinch of inspiration from the movie ‘Phone Booth’ and you can see where the mind was coming from when it set-up the aforementioned scenario.

Essentially this experience is like a form of synesthesia, with added narrative thrown in the mix for good measure. And although I don’t consider myself a synesthesiac (because it’s not prevalent enough in my ordinary life) I suspect everyone probably has a smidgen of their senses cross-pollinating with one another. It’s either impressive or scary how the brain can so rapidly represent one sense as another and frame a whole, fake reality around it, AND get itself to believe (temporarily) in this false construction at the same time. I wonder what other fake stories the brain feeds me that I don’t catch on to. I certainly have lost trust in my own beliefs just knowing that the brain has the proclivity to pull this kind of trick.

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