Breath of Life

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Every breath can carry us

Around the world and back,

If that’s where we want to go.

The slow, languid inhale,

What possibilities! Filling space –

Moving light and hope

Through angular joints

And the softer folds

Of this universe our body.

Inviting friends to join us –

Anticipation, awe, curiosity.

Move with the breath,

Explore what you are made of.

At the very top of the breath,

A summit, a hovering cloud,

The full moon at midnight,

Floating, still nestled among us.

Allow for circulation;

Every part of you tethered

To the heart of your intention.

Breathe out, slow, sure,

Controlled by not controlling,

The breath does what it does,

It finds its way out.

It is a different world now,

That you are surrendering to,

That you are left with

Inside your sacred being.

You have let it all go.

You have given everything.

You’ve loved in. You’ve love out.

You’ve seen how love carries you.

 

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10 Energy Healing Techniques for Daily Lightness. – by Ruth Lera and Tammy T. Stone

*This article was co-written by Ruth Lera, of Root Awakenings, and myself, and published on elephant journal. It was so much fun to collaborate on this piece, and to work with Ruth! We recently met through our various common writing activities, and have discovered we have much in common – this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship! Thank you, Ruth, for suggesting we work together!

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Energy work such as Reiki, Healing Touch or Cranio-Sacral isn’t something that needs to stay on the massage table.

Working with energy and using it for healing can easily become an everyday activity if we just let it.

All that this opportunity to bring energy healing tricks into our daily lives asks of us is to open our hearts and minds to see new ways to relate to ourselves and the world around us.

Below are stories from two professional energy workers and elephant journal writers about how they came to be involved in energy healing, the shift in perspective it has brought to their lives, and some suggestions for how anyone can incorporate this kind of healing into their daily lives.

Ruth:

I was 20 years old when I had my first experience with any type of energy healing work. I was heading out for a month-long kayaking trip in Alaska and I had this throbbing pain in my wrists that I wanted gone before I left. So I went to see a Cranio-Sacral practitioner I had heard great things about and in three sessions the pain was gone.

Forever.

I never thought I would do anything like that.

At 28 years old, I went to see a popular local Osteopath who energetically separated me from my parents and told me that life was easy—which had never even crossed my mind before.

This experience brought an incredible amount of bliss into my life.

But I never thought I would do anything like that.

And then about four years ago all of my friends starting taking these healing touch courses and raving about how much they were learning, so I followed along and signed up for Healing Touch level 1. My mind was blown.

Within hours I was feeling energy and healing people by manipulating energy. I thought that this was the most amazing investment of my life.

I saw that it was like investing in a first aid kit but in my hands. Suddenly, I could help with headaches and stress and tummy pains and all the bumps and scrapes that my family and friends are always having.

I still didn’t think this would become my career but it has and this is great. But what is more interesting to me is how we can bring this type of energy awareness into our daily lives.

Here are five things that I do on a regular basis:

1. Increase my personal vibration.

I draw energy from the center of the earth through my body. This visualization generates a kind of tingling or humming sensation in the body which in turn helps decrease stress and increase health in all situations.

2. I become aware of how other people’s energy fields are affecting me.

I notice if I suddenly feel anxious when I’m around a certain person or suddenly feel like I need to get away from a person. I don’t judge that other person. I just stay aware about how I am being energetically affected.

3. I place my hands on someone who is stressed or sad and raise my energy.

This is great for spouses, kids and close loved ones. It’s a practical way we can help them when they are down.

4. Send love and light wherever it seems needed.

This is a great tool when we see pain and suffering and feel helpless. We can imagine the person or situation surrounded in light while simultaneously paying attention to our personal vibration and giving it a little boost.

Will it cure everything? Probably not (if it does please let me know!) but it is something.

It really is something.

5. Being playful and experimental.

This morning I went for a walk in the woods. While walking I brought attention to my energy field, making it bigger and smaller while I walked (it felt amazing when it was big, intertwined with the entire forest).

Was I trying to get a certain result? Nope. I was just having an experience.

Life is an experience, not a cognitive construct. That is why energy awareness can be a daily practice, a daily, experiential practice.

Tammy:

I love what Ruth wrote about being told that life is easy. This has also been a profound realization for me, as someone who tends to overthink and overcomplicate things.

I came to energy healing by being introduced to Reiki twice, almost my chance. The first time, a friend pointed the way, saying, “I didn’t get much out of this, but it seems like your kind of thing.” It was! The practitioner told me almost on sight that my energy field was depleted.

I knew I felt like I had absolutely nothing left to give, but was amazed by her recognition of this.

The second time was during my travels in Southeast Asia, when a friend of mine suggested I get a Reiki treatment from a local healer. I felt soothed by her gentle touch, but was astounded when I started to have great trouble breathing and felt like I was going to have a panic attack.

I knew immediately there was something going on here.

When we talked afterward, one of the things I was told was that I was someone for whom life seems complicated, but that this was only my perspective; life does not have to be experienced that way.

I was hooked, and spent the next several months learning and practicing Reiki, along with several other healing modalities. Learning to be in the world with a sense of oneness and not solely through the filter of my ever-active mind, and being able to work with others to bring about healing and a sense of balance has been an enormously rewarding path.

We might over-dramatize what “healing” means, and reserve blocks of time to see therapists and the like, to “work on healing.” I believe that healing is, at a basic level, a commitment to being fully alive in the world, and this is an ongoing, daily practice of awakening to our energy. As Ruth suggests above, there are things we can do everyday to remain vibrant and strong in the present moment, so that we can also be a light for others.

Here are five things I enjoy doing to work with energy:

1. Ground myself.

Be a tree! Stand with your feet planted on the ground, and feel your legs firmly rooted to the ground, and the Earth’s energy filtering up through the body.

2. Protect myself.

There is a lot of “noise” out there, and it’s hard to have a clear mind and heart when there’s so much external traffic running through us. We can visualize a protective shield of sparkly white light around us, so that we can stay balanced throughout the day.

3. Breathe.

This is self-explanatory. Breath is life, and pausing during the day to allow long, deep breaths to run up and down the energy channels of the body is rejuvenating and essential.

4. Practice “Give and Take” meditation.

Here, we visualize someone in need, and breathe in their suffering, and and breathe out love, compassion and light to them. It can take as little as a few seconds, and make a huge difference.

5. Walk.

We instinctively know that being in nature is healing. For me, being barefoot and taking long walks is the best way to get out of my head and find my natural rhythm with the world around me.

Patience: Our Greatest Friend.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

We all know the credo, “you create your own reality,” which tells us that the contents of our mind give birth to the world we perceive around us.

But doesn’t something sit uneasy here? There is a lot of over-simplification with this idea—a favourite among the self-help books—that doesn’t seem to jive with how we feel most of the time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, because the times when we do feel happy and at ease— when it seems we are able to manifest the life we want—also serve to bring the other, less glorious times into sharper focus. We need to account for both tendencies in our lives if we want to have a more even-keeled relationship with the world, don’t we?

If it was as simple as “manifest anything, right now!” we would all have everything we’ve ever wanted, right? I’m talking about the spectrum running from an affordable trip around the world and time in which to do it, to eternal happiness and immortality (or whatever else floats your boat; the first three, at least, float mine!).

The ideas behind “create your own reality” are good ones. Taking steps to manage how we live our lives is empowering and valuable. Our attitude towards a person, event or situation very much impacts the outcome of these relationships.

But we need to be mindful of how many factors are at play when we consider our attitudes and our relationships, and just how much we have to work through to achieve harmony between self and world. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and contentment, enlightenment and a life governed by freedom are much more difficult to achieve than Rome was.

Patience is our greatest ally.

It takes more than well-wishing and “thinking it” to get there. Our beliefs are very important, but they need to run deeper than the more superficial layers of our mind. We can’t cheat ourselves into believing positive things. We have to believe it way-deep down to our proverbial (and actual) bones. We have to cause change from the inside out, which means we have to learn how to acquaint ourselves with—and then take charge of—our deepest and darkest shadows, so that the light can filter through to our daily reality. No easy task, but not an impossible one!

“Wake up in yourself a will to conquer. Not a mere will in the mind but a will in the very cells of your body. Without that you can’t do anything; you may take a hundred medicines but they won’t cure you.” ~ Mirra Alfassa (or “The Mother”, as she was   known to followers of Alfassa and Sri Aurobindo)

The best thing that can happen to us on this road through life, I’ve come to believe, is to stumble upon the idea that we want to be truly free from suffering in its most profound forms, and to dig deep to find the motivation to do something about it. We may not have to dig at all. It may come as inspiration, intuition, or in any number of ways, if it’s the right time.

But then, we have to do the work, and this is where patience comes in. The seed that gave us our inspiration to begin the long haul toward taming the beasts within is one we should never stop believing in and tending to, no matter how grueling the road, or how small our progress seems.

Our bodies, minds and ‘spirit’—or whatever you want to call that place inside where intuition comes from—operate at different speeds.

As a tiny example, we really want to quit coffee and be rid of its monstrous hold. This doesn’t mean our bodies don’t need a few days to physically “reset” as a caffeine-free entity, or that our minds don’t need even longer to understand that it’s okay to be a human who doesn’t consume coffee while reading morning emails or hanging out with friends in the afternoon.

On a much grander scope, the healing process—and any move toward growth, I believe, involves healing—affects us on many different levels at once, and we need to let each aspect of us handle the changes taking place in their own way.

I might want to forgive someone. But another part of me—one that shows up as my racing heart, for example, or the aching pit in my stomach—that precedes thought or rationalization, still wants to react with fear, repulsion, resentment…you name it.

Meditation is an amazing thing. It helps us to see that what we feel emotionally is mapped onto our physical bodies. It helps us observe and then unify our experiences so that we can understand through observation and experience how our body-mind-spirit complex maneuvers through life.

Meditation helps by bringing us to our breath and the present moment, where we can experience rather than just know that our minds and bodies are part of the same vast conglomerate.

When we “come back to the breath” we are taking our mind, which has floated anywhere from our childhood best friend to our retirement cruise, right back into our body, here and now.

Once we’re “together” like this, we can begin to access the ever-deepening layers of who we are, based on all we’ve been.

It’s a fascinating process to observe the wisdom our intuitions bring us, followed by all the rationalizations our minds make to thwart said wisdom, and how are bodies are thrown in there like the child of a very bitter divorce, always trying to catch up with what happened ten fights ago, let alone what is going on right now.

Sometimes our body, like a young child, needs to yell and say, “Stop! I’m confused and I’m hurting! Be quiet for a minute, or take the fight into another room, and let me figure out what’s happening!”

Or sometimes our bodies are springing forward, full of energy, only to be halted by the workings of the mind—our doubts, fears and habitual negative thinking.

We must be patient.

Our bodies (or minds) are just trying to catch up with the work we’re doing, as long as we are determined to do the work and with good intention, because ultimately, we’re the ones in the driver’s seat. There is nothing that is happening within us that is not a movement toward growth, despite the tricks we know how to play on ourselves.

Even in these, I truly believe, we can learn to observe and transcend.

“Once you are conscious, it means that you can distinguish and sift things, you can see which are the forces that pull you down and which help you on. And when you know the right from the wrong, the true from the false, the divine from the undivine, you are to act strictly up to your knowledge; that is to say, resolutely reject one and accept the other. The duality will present itself at every step and at every step you will have to make your choice. You will have to be patient and persistent and vigilant.” ~ The Mother

What is Really Going On? A Guide to Self-Care.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

We don’t, for the most part, question our instinct to go to the doctor for physical check-ups and to keep our bodily affairs in order.

But do we always remember do this with our psyches, or mental and emotional selves? Or do we shelve this kind of self-care for later, if we even think about it at all?

We often take these more invisible or hidden parts of ourselves for granted. We assume we can put off for later tending to those parts of us that are less glaringly problematic, despite some very important signs that we need attention—as we know, stress doesn’t have an obvious face, but presents itself in so many physical, debilitating forms.

Part of the issue is that we sometimes assume things don’t change all that dramatically within us, that we are some kind of fixed self who, for example, likes certain things and dislikes others, and has a certain set of priorities in life, and so on.

Because of this, we can tend to play out our lives on auto-pilot, without really determining if the things we are doing, and the people we are doing them with, are actually aligned with who we are at the present moment. Doing so works against the ability to live mindfully, to fully respect ourselves and others, the way we—and they—deserve.

It can be pretty daunting to think about having a nice, long sit-down with ourselves, to say hello, (re)introduce ourselves, and ask the all-important question of “what is going on.”

I had a great teacher who once said that we should always be asking this question—what is going on?—and ever since then, I’ve been unable to take this question lightly.

For example, he once showed a group of us a photo of a person—it was as simple as that. He then asked us, “What is going on here?”

We were quizzical, and remained silent.

“Think about it,” he said.

“It’s a person,” one of us answered.

“But what is really going on here?” the teacher continued. “Is this a person, or a photograph? Can a photograph of a person, just a piece of paper, be a person, and if it isn’t a person, why are we tempted to say it’s a person before we say that it is a photograph of a person?”

All at once, photography became a most complex, puzzling and mysterious medium, and I learned never to be complacent about what I think I know, and how I know it.

Nowhere is this more important than when it comes to self-knowledge and self-care.

Since we are always changing and evolving, whether we want to or not, we can learn very surprising things by honouring ourselves with a check-in.

We can check in with the self in a variety of ways, and we can do this all in our heads, say, on a long nature walk, or even better, by writing it down, which can force us to be more diligent and self-reflective about the process.

We can examine the state of our physical self.

How do I feel? Am I tired, frenetic, in balance? Are any muscles tighter than usual? Is anything out of alignment? Does anything hurt, or feel different than it used to? Am I getting headaches, and if I am, more or less than usual? Is there something my body needs now that it didn’t need before, and vice versa?

We can examine the state of our emotional self.

What feelings are going through me right now? What feelings have been cropping up repeatedly in my life recently? How have my feelings changed from the ones that used to preoccupy me? Am I angry, sad, frustrated, happy, at peace? How long do these feelings last? Do I feel I’m in control of my feelings? Which relationships bring me joy, and do I make enough time for them?

We can examine the state of our mental self.

What kinds of thoughts occupy my mind these days? Do I focus on the past? Do I fantasize or worry about the future? Am I distracted, or focused? What subjects are interesting to me, and do I make time for these things in my life? Do I feel balanced, and able to handle the tasks I have to do every day? How might I streamline better to function at my tasks at hand?

We can examine the state of our spiritual self.

Am I fulfilled? Do I feel something is missing? Is there harmony between myself, those around me and the environment? Is the way I spend my time in alignment with the way I want to be living my life? Do I know which life I want to have in an ideal world, and how can I move closer to that ideal?

If thinking about all this sounds daunting, it can be very helpful to answer these questions as lists, or in point form. Another great idea is to set aside some time to jot down a list of things you have learned as a result of your experiences. If you limit yourself to a relatively small number, like five things, you will force yourself to get to the most essential life lessons you feel you’ve acquired.

There’s a great chance that these top fives will surprise us, and tell us a lot about what our priorities are; this is a great starting point in thinking about the changes we can make to achieve more harmony within ourselves, and looking out to the world.

These intensive check-ins are like huge energy bubbles that can help sustain us in a chaotic world, helping us understand what makes us tick, so to speak, so that we can become more grounded in awareness of self. They also make periodic, mini check-ins easier to accomplish, so that we can develop a more fluid sense of our deepest and ever-evolving selves.

Doing these on a frequent basis—eventually, it can become as natural as breathing—will help us react with clarity and mindfulness when unexpected situations arise, difficult or otherwise, and integrate as fully and happily as possible into each moment of the life we are living.

The Best Way to Protect Yourself.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

 

LOVE!

Love does not mean the kind of intimate relationship that often comes with more than a few strings attached … not to mention the feeling of attachment itself!

Love at its deepest, and in its purest form, is the wellspring from which all goodness pours into the world. It is universal. It is unconditional. It is for everyone, and it is based in empathy and compassion, which is to say, the genuine desire to see others rid of their suffering.

By bathing ourselves in this kind of love, we also free ourselves from the entanglements of craving, desire and attachment, which means that this kind of love both purifies the self and heals the world.

Today, let’s reach for all-encompassing love, and please share if you feel moved to!

Tammy x

How to Find Bliss in the Little Things.

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?” ~ Mary Oliver

Full disclosure: there nothing complicated about what you’ll read below, no previously unheard of secret formula.

But just because something is simple doesn’t mean that we naturally generate the will or ability to do it. If we did, there would be a whole lot more balance, happiness and goodwill in the world.

Yet, all these things do exist in abundance, and it is our absolute birthright to be able to tap into these positive qualities of living. There are no miracles necessary, no magic-fix-all set of instructions to shoot us way up into the stratosphere of joy.

Happiness, harmony, balance—these are not end-games to which we jump, only to rest there until the end of (our) time. Of course not.

We are human. By our very nature, we come into this world with a body, and that body will eventually deteriorate, sicken, age and die. Often, our minds and our bodies will be at odds. Our body will want to run when our mind wants to quiver and cry. Our mind will want to soar when our body is unable to move.

This is not something to regret or bemoan. There is so much beauty in being unfalteringly, unwaveringly human.
Being human allows us to cry when we feel we’ve reached our limits, but also to laugh at the potential absurdity of the situation. Crying will leave us in one place, laughing in another, and both are temporary and both are infinitely possible, and repeatable.

To this extent, the choice is ours. Being human, right now, is not the choice, so there is little sense in feeling stuck or trapped by the very parameters of our existence.

How we are to be human is very much within our power. We seek happiness and barrel right back into feeling stuck or depressed, not seeing how we are clawing against the walls of something (that elixir of happiness) that is actually not trying to hide from you at all.

It’s existed all along, embedded into every single moment we choose to accept the situation we find ourselves in. And this is incredibly difficult to do, especially without a whole lot of effort, training and mindfulness, but it’s also incredibly simple.

Sometimes we just need to be reminded.

It’s often the littlest things that can propel us down this road of acceptance. If we can’t grasp the meaning of something as gaping and wide as happiness, let’s bring ourselves back to the things capable of invoking that giddy, joyful feeling, things that can remind us that we are right here, already in happiness’s arms.

Let’s do these:

Sing our favourite song: For real. Like, out loud. Belt it and feel something of eternity coursing through your veins. I usually choose Somewhere Over the Rainbow or Ain’t No Sunshine or In My Place, which aren’t the happiest songs, but their emotional resonance get me there every time.

Meditate: This is a no-brainer, and people cite this in every single “feel better” to do list. But there’s a reason for this. Meditation isn’t a hobby or an accessory. If we’re diligent about it, it can sincerely help us reduce stress, calm our minds and learn to accept everything that is happening in the present moment. To start, just sit and be aware of the breath going in, going out.

Standing forward Bend: Ahhh. Literally and metaphorically let it all hang out. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, and slowly bend forward from the hip. Only go as far as your body allows (you can use cushions to rest your hands on), and just hang, trying with each out-breath to release more, holding no tension whatsoever in your upper body. Take long, deep breaths, and let your tensions escape, as your strong, tree-like legs support and ground you.

Shut down the computer, phone and other such playthings: Do this for five minutes or an hour or a day, and cut off many potential sources of stress, and watch how the world doesn’t fall apart without our connection to every cyber-molecule of it. Look out the window, go outside, read a book, do nothing. Hang out alone. We are great companions, just the way we are, once we get to know ourselves.

Journal: This might not be second nature for everyone, or maybe it’s a daily activity. It’s a truly wonderful way to check in with the self and become more attuned to feelings on physical, mental and spiritual levels. Take the time to nurture and foster this connection with self, and discover how much this enables a journey out of the head and into the world of instinct, intuition and beautiful human connection.

Do something for someone else: Give. Donate. Hug someone. Call a friend in need. There a countless options, and you likely know keep inside exactly what and how to do it. Make the world a bigger place by sharing its amazing bounty.

Write a letter: Pen and paper! You may be old enough to remember when writing people letters or having penpals was an ordinary part of life. Even when it was ordinary, it was awesome, and it always felt so good to write and receive letters. Now that it’s extraordinary, imagine how good it will feel to take the time to pour your heart out to someone, and to also receive a piece of their heart in the mail.

Scan the body: Feeling bad? The mind and body are cohorts, and you might be surprised to find that there is a physical element to your mental discomfort. Maybe it’s your posture, or that you slept funny on your neck last night, or that your limbs are stiff in this not-quite-warm weather. Do simple things like stretching to limber up, and watch your energy channels open and clear your mind/psyche.

Take a walk: Walking is truly a salve for the soul, living meditation. We often forget the healing powers of being literally grounded, connected to the earth. Cars take us away from this, and even bike-riding doesn’t quite compare to feeling the earth under you. If it’s possible, get off the roads and onto trails and grass. Take off your shoes. Feel how alive everything is, and how much you’re a part of it.

Laugh: This will do it every time. Whole strains of yoga and meditation are dedicated to this form of release, which de-stresses on all levels, and is the best soul-medicine around. A stress-free life is a happier and arguably longer one, and laughing and stress literally don’t know how to share a space together. Laugh often. Laugh alone, with friends and loved ones, and slide into a happy-place that is always at your fingertips.

Oliver Sacks: Changing the Way we Think about Our Brain can Change the World.

Artwork by Tammy T. Stone

Artwork by Tammy T. Stone

 

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.” ~ Oliver Sacks

 

Recently, I was thinking about what the world would be like—or rather, how our perception of it would change—if we were suddenly told that Earth was now called Jupiter, and Jupiter was now called Earth.

How would we think about this other Earth, which we have never seen with our own eyes? How would we re-conceive the new Jupiter, a place now simultaneously “ours,” and yet filled with our imaginings of a place far, far away?

It was reported recently that acclaimed physician, author and professor of Neurology Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and as I heard the news, I realized how “Sacksian” my line of questioning above is—how much his ideas, gleaned through readings of his books, have influenced my way of being in the world.

Oliver Sacks has accomplished what very few others have: in addition to his tireless work in the field of neurology, he has managed, through his gifts as a writer and storyteller, to make the brain a fascinating and accessible subject for the layperson (or the “ordinary curious,” as I like to think of us!) I can never put his books down once I start reading them; they are like being led into a vast, incredibly deep and riveting ocean by a gentle, inquisitive and assured guide.

It would be impossible to underestimate how far-reaching the study of the brain is for anybody with a natural curiosity about the world, philosophy, metaphysics, psychology, and virtually every area under the sun. The brain is our incredibly nuanced and mysterious gateway, so we need to know: how does the “normal” brain function?

And, as Sacks has been investigating for decades, what do some of the “abnormal brain conditions” illuminate about the nature of human perception and experience?

What might life look and be like for someone who’s been blind from birth, and has suddenly gained access to sight? (Spoiler: not easy). Sack’s explorations of a rare case of this were turned into the film At First Sight, starring Val Kilmer.

Among some other well-known research topics by Sacks are: encephalitis lethargica, which has people unable to move, sometimes for decades, explored in his book “Awakenings” and the film of the same name, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams; colorblindness; aphasia (the inability to form speech), Tourette’s syndrome; hallucinations; synesthesia, in which the “wires cross” and a person might “see sounds” or “hear colours,” and Korsakov’s syndrome, in which people suffer from memory loss (so that, for example, a 60-year-old might still believe she/he were a 30 year-old).

Many of us will never directly experience any or most of these conditions, but we may well approximate subtle variations of some of them. For example, maybe we haven’t lost our memories of the last twenty years of our lives, but we’ve certainly lost many memories, struggle to remember things, and wonder how much of what we remember is fiction.

We may have “normal” brains, but how is it that we live in a colour world, but can “understand” or process black-and-white films with such ease? It’s really amazing, how much of a “whole” world we can create with some of the “pieces” missing.

This question, as a film student, brought me to one of my favorite filmmakers, Sergei Eisenstein, who didn’t have synesthesia, but longed to create a synesthetic world on film, where the magical experiences of sight and sound would become all intertwined into a harmonic whole in the viewer’s mind—a sensory world that would cut straight to the emotions.

Most of Eisenstein’s films, because of the era, were made in black-and-white, but he was obsessed by the possibilities colour cinema would open up; reading his dreams about making colour films, you’d think he was talking about voyaging into the entire universe and all its galaxies—such were the horizons one “small switch” in perception could open up. He was an artist and visionary, working with his tool of cinema to grasp at the very limits of what humans, as thinking, perceiving and emoting beings, can do.

For him, film was the grand stage mediating between subject and object, observer and observed, experiencing and experienced. For Oliver Sacks, this grand stage, affording so many possibilities for knowledge and growth, is the human brain.

Using actual case studies, Sacks has fashioned anecdotal scenarios out of the most seemingly bizarre outreaches of brain function, and also out of his impassioned beliefs in the power of music to dig right into our souls, and has allowed us entry into a spellbinding kaleidoscope of human existence. People like the man engaged with in “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat,” who does just that, are an invitation to consider the very broad arenas of human subjectivity, identity, and how we relate to the world through thing like our senses, cognitive abilities, and memory.

It’s a dizzying, tantalizing world Sacks has brought to life for us. Here are just a few of his words and observations. Much more can be found in his collection of books!

On Music, Art and Healing

“It really is a very odd business that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads.”

“There are, of course, inherent tendencies to repetition in music itself. Our poetry, our ballads, our songs are full of repetition; nursery rhymes and the little chants and songs we use to teach young children have choruses and refrains. We are attracted to repetition, even as adults; we want the stimulus and the reward again and again, and in music we get it. Perhaps, therefore, we should not be surprised, should not complain if the balance sometimes shifts too far and our musical sensitivity becomes a vulnerability.”

“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

“Certainly it’s not just a visual experience – it’s an emotional one. In an informal way I have often seen quite demented patients recognize and respond vividly to paintings and delight in painting at a time when they are scarcely responsive to words and disoriented and out of it. I think that recognition of visual art can be very deep.”

On Perception

“Perception is never purely in the present—it has to draw on experience of the past; (…). We all have detailed memories of how things have previously looked and sounded, and these memories are recalled and admixed with every new perception.”

On Hallucinations

“With any hallucinations, if you can do functional brain imagery while they’re going on, you will find that the parts of the brain usually involved in seeing or hearing—in perception—have become super active by themselves. And this is an autonomous activity; this does not happen with imagination.

“This usually occurs at the moment when my head hits the pillow at night; my eyes close and…I see imagery. I do not mean pictures; more usually they are patterns or textures, such as repeated shapes, or shadows of shapes, or an item from an image, such as grass from a landscape or wood grain, wavelets or raindrops…transformed in the most extraordinary ways at a great speed. Shapes are replicated, multiplied, reversed in negative, etc. Color is added, tinted, subtracted. Textures are the most fascinating; grass becomes fur becomes hair follicles becomes waving, dancing lines of light, and a hundred other variations and all the subtle gradients between them that my words are too coarse to describe.”

On Nature

“My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”

On Speaking

“We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.”

On Language

“Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.”

On the Brain and Imagination

“…when the brain is released from the constraints of reality, it can generate any sound, image, or smell in its repertoire, sometimes in complex and “impossible” combinations.”

On the Survival Instinct

“But it must be said from the outset that a disease is never a mere loss or excess—that there is always a reaction, on the part of the affected organism or individual, to restore, to replace, to compensate for and to preserve its identity, however strange the means may be: and to study or influence these means, no less than the primary insult to the nervous system, is an essential part of our role as physicians.”

On Bliss

“There are moments, and it is only a matter of five or six seconds, when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony…a terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you. If this state were to last more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and would have to disappear. During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly…”