To See with the Soul
“Seeing is believing,” or is it? Science now tells us what Kabbalah has been saying for centuries: there is far more to perception than what meets the eye
I see trees of green, red roses, too. I see them bloom for me and you.
And I think to myself, “What a wonderful world!”
I see skies of blue and clouds of white; the bright, blessed day, the dark, sacred night,
And I think to myself, “What a wonderful world!”
(What a Wonderful World, George David Weiss and Bob Thiele)
In the 60s, Professor Paul Bach-y-Rita revolutionized the fields of neurobiology and rehabilitation by introducing the concept of sensory substitution. Exploiting the brain’s plasticity or ability to adapt, he enabled blind patients to use the sense of tactition to obtain environmental information normally perceived through vision. An electrode connected to a blind patient’s tongue was used to relay external stimuli to the brain, which then “translated” the tactile stimuli to visual ones, enabling the blind patient to “see.”
The secret behind this seemingly fantastic operation can be summed up by Bach-y-Rita’s famous words, “We see with our brain, not with our eyes.” With this conviction, he pioneered the field of research that can help handicapped people compensate for damaged sensory facilities by using the remaining, functional senses. Stated simply, he advanced the idea that our senses are interchangeable.
This line of reasoning is supported by other data, such as the McGurk effect, showing that our comprehension of speech is a combination of auditory and visual information. In other words, our visual perception is partly responsible for what we hear, suggesting that our brain sometimes interprets visual information as auditory information. Further experiments are in progress to examine the role of vision in perceiving smells (think of seeing a delicious steak when you have the flu and can’t smell anything: your mouth still waters from the “delicious smell” of what you see).
Furthermore, there have been many individuals with “special” abilities who also support the notion that our sensory perception may not be as reliant on our senses as we think. One famous example is Rosa Kuleshova, who was able to read regular print and identify colors with just her fingertips, while her eyes were covered.
A New Way of Looking at Perception
Kabbalah, the wisdom that deeply engages in the field of perception of reality – the general force of nature – tells us that the above mentioned examples are not so surprising. In fact, as Baal HaSulam, the great Kabbalist of the 20th century, explains, each of our five senses incorporates all the others, meaning that each sense partially perceives what all others do. Therefore, if a person loses one of the five senses, it is partially compensated by the remaining senses. This is not to say that a blind person will literally be able to see, but the other senses will help him overcome the loss by providing pieces of information that were once delivered by vision.
It turns out that we can partially “see, hear, smell, taste, and touch” with any one of our senses. And as Rosa Kuleshova’s example shows, this ability is more developed in some people (although in the past, before our senses were numbed by the loud, artificial world invented by man, we all had these abilities).
So was Paul Bach-y-Rita right? Do we actually “see with our brain, not with our eyes”? Not quite, because in fact, there is a lot more to our perception. According to Kabbalah, if science keeps probing the field of perception, it will discover that our brain is but a detector, whereas perception isn’t happening in the brain at all, but outside of it, in something called the “desire” or “will.”
What is the will? It is our spiritual essence, which bears no relation to our physical body and exists entirely beyond the corporeal matter. This is where all of our perception takes place – in our desire, also called our “soul.”
But there’s more. It turns out that everything we perceive “with our five senses” – the great world we see (and hear, and touch, and smell, and taste) all around us – is but a tiny portion of what we are capable of perceiving. Although we perceive all of these things with our non-physical essence, the soul, we only engage the lowest, most external part of it. It is like a “base level” of perception that enables us to perceive the physical world and thus sustain our bodies’ physical existence.
However, this sense has an infinitely greater potential: since it is found beyond the corporeal reality, it can perceive an infinite wealth of spiritual, non-physical “colors, smells, sounds, tastes and sensations.” To do so, however, we must develop this latent spiritual sense that is already within us. Then, in addition to the “base level” perception of our current reality, we will continue revealing greater layers of the more “external,” spiritual reality, thus engaging higher parts of our real sensory organ – the soul.
So, how can we do this? How can we perceive this “higher” reality? We can do it just by changing our approach or attitude to life. Kabbalah explains that in reality, nothing ever changes outside of us. The only thing that changes is us. We perceive the constant, unchanging influence of the general force of nature, a force that desires to give us pleasure; but we perceive it inside our continuously changing desires.
The degree of our desires’ similarity to this force of nature is what depicts - inside us - the changing picture of the “external” world. In other words, the more we resemble the force of nature by loving and bestowing to others, the more we begin to sense this force and experience a broader, richer reality. But as long as our desires and attitudes remain opposite to this force (egoistic), the only reality we will experience is the one currently felt by most people in the world.
It follows that perception is not really happening through our physical senses and brain. And this is why a person may have no eyes, but still be able to see, as the latest scientific experiments show. So why do we need eyes? It is in order to have the illusion that there is something in front of us! This helps us construct our reality as “me” and “something outside of me,” because we are then able to interact with our environment and research the “external reality.”
And as for the final, most interesting question: what does it feel like to perceive the force of nature? Kabbalists – those who already perceive the entire spiritual realm – say that it can hardly be conveyed in our regular language, which is intended to describe the physical objects we sense around us. Nevertheless, for a slight estimation, they say that the perception through the higher parts of our soul may be hinted at through the broadest imaginable interpretation of the words “eternity, infinity and perfection.”