Taking Leave of the Senses

Perfect Sense

A few weeks ago, I made an observation about a movie I was watching. Then I made the rash decision to turn that little act of noticing into an entire blog post—and I really don’t know if it is going to work. The movie was Perfect Sense, a 2011 apocalyptic romance (pandemic love story?) starring Eva Green and Ewan McGregor. I gave it five cupcakes out of five, although I suspect it’s the kind of film that people will find either pretentious or earnest, empty or meaningful, based on their personal outlook. (IMDB rates it 7.1.)

spoiler alertI will be giving away the ending of Perfect Sense here, but I recommend seeing it anyway. It’s quite affecting. Plus, it contains “good” nudity, as my husband would say, as well as the occasional expletive to keep things colorful.

Set in Glasgow, Perfect Sense centers on Susan and Michael. She is an epidemiologist, he a chef. Their occupations are a plot convenience, as the film is about a globe-trotting disease (“Somebody call an epidemiologist!”) that affects the senses (all of which enter into the acts of cooking and eating). Susan lives across the street from the upscale restaurant where Michael works, and they meet just in time to become consorts on the front lines of both infectious disease research and sensory stimulation. I didn’t mind this contrivance because it worked, I probably would have written it the same way, and the actors are ridiculously attractive (even in surgical masks).

The affliction, which is not obviously contagious and has no identifiable source, takes away the senses one by one, starting with smell. The loss of each sense is preceded by an outburst of emotion: smell by grief, taste by terror, hearing by rage, and sight by love. The entire world goes through the stages of the disease roughly simultaneously, causing periods of pandemonium and civil unrest. Between losses, however, society adjusts to the new normal. For example, after the sense of smell is gone, “The food becomes spicier, saltier, more sweet, more sour. You get used to it.”

The last sense to disappear in the movie is sight. “Fade to black” in a screenplay was never meant so literally! We do not witness the loss of touch. The audience is left to imagine what deprivation of that fifth and final sense would be like: People are no longer able to perceive the world or communicate with each other in any way. They cannot feel, see, hear, taste, or smell anything. This disturbing prospect led to my aforementioned observation, spelled out here: “No wonder we find it so hard to believe that we are not a body!”

“Whoa!” you might be thinking. “Who said anything about not being a body?” Some of the manuscripts I edit are in the mind-body-spirit category; I also read books and listen to podcasts in this area. In these materials, I have come across three basic options for the essential nature of who we are:

  1. We are a body.
  2. We are a body and we are spirit.
  3. We are spirit.

One of these theories may sound most plausible to you (and it’s probably one of the first two). Materialists, who maintain that the fundamental substance of nature is matter, would likely say that we are a body only. I have heard many New Age/spirituality authors, on the other hand, posit that we are spiritual beings having physical experiences (or something along those lines). Finally, one text I have encountered goes so far as to say that we are spirit only, and that the body and the rest of the physical world are illusions.

five sensesOur identity is wrapped up in the body, in large part due to the sensory input we receive. Even if we begin to think of ourselves as incorporeal—as momentarily separate from the body—a sensation (stubbed toe, loud noise, the smell of baked goods) will bring us right back into the physical. In other words, on an intellectual level, accepting that we may not be a body is doable. But when something happens that impacts the body in a major or even minor way (we receive a cancer diagnosis, come down with a cold, have a deep-tissue massage), conceiving of the body as illusory seems absurd.

The spiritual text mentioned earlier concurs regarding the body: “It is almost impossible to deny its existence in this world.” It follows up, “Yet if you are spirit, then the body must be meaningless to your reality.” A famous teacher of this work observed, “That is why [this text] is such a threat: it teaches the nonexistence of our very self.”

If we were to lose our bodily senses, as in Perfect Sense, we would no longer be aware of our body, other bodies, and the rest of the physical world—everything that appears to constitute reality. This idea is inherently frightening. In fact, on the movie’s IMDB message board, viewers have used the following words to describe its ending: “Terrifying.” “Maddening.” “Devastating.” “Depressing.” “This movie left me curled up in a fetal position bawling my eyes out.”

Within the context of a curriculum for spiritual transformation, denying the information provided by our senses is similarly distressing. It requires a huge leap of faith—a rejection of all that seems most real. But how many of us would attempt the shift from body-identification to spirit-identification, if doing so resulted in healing and lasting peace?

5 thoughts on “Taking Leave of the Senses

  1. Lee Anne Dollison

    I’d like to argue that spirituality is a state that occurs when one or more of our senses overwhelms us. We can’t really separate the spirit from the body any more than we can separate the five senses from our bodies. For instance, we can SEE Yosemite for the 1st time and feel awestruck. We can HEAR a Bach concerto and feel at peace with the world. We can TASTE one of your carrot cake cupcakes and feel all tingly inside and maybe even be transported to a higher sense of wellbeing.

    In the right circumstances, any one of these feelings caused by our senses could translate into something spiritual. Even in the retelling, the spiritual can only be re-experienced through the body’s senses. And when we purposely deny ourselves sensory access, as in meditation, those parts of our brains that are in control of our senses are still very much active and we still experience the spiritual sensorily. To separate the spirit from the body makes the spirit something else. It becomes religion.

    What an awful place the world would be if our bodies, through some sensory calamity, denied us the abilities to recharge our spirits.

  2. Joseph Miller

    Thanks, Karen, for alerting us of that movie, and the keen summary. I think for my part I would not trust ‘a curriculum for spiritual transformation’ that ‘requires a huge leap of faith.’ A trust of experience and sound judgment seems a better bet. I just can’t see how progress in self knowledge can proceed along a path of dissociation.

    Of course, many philosophical systems have advised that the world is illusory in some sense. It is not real in the sense it appears to most of us. In its changeableness, it is no place to call ‘home’. A temporary school room at best. And most importantly, it cannot essentially affect your Reality, your Root in Spirit. For me, the admission that the body is an illusion does not make its experiences ‘meaningless’, anymore than the admission that a movie is an illusion produced by a mechanical projector makes it meaningless. Even though the means or medium might be illusory, the experience might be extremely valuable.

    The Bhagavad-Gita, for example, teaches that the world is ‘maya’ or illusion. But it warns that ascetics who therefore disengage from it incur sin. The Gita says engagement with the world is mandatory. The needed transformation is in our motive for engaging the world. The unenlightened engage the world driven by desire (fear, acquisitiveness, wrath); the enlightened follow the path of service. Not service to fearful and greedy personalities; but service to minds who have forgotten who they are, and whose happiness and welfare require a reminder.

    You began your main point above with, “No wonder we find it so hard to believe that we are not a body!” I suspect that the realization one is not a body is something that grows gradually, and is not accomplished by ‘belief.’ In any case, realization is very different than intellectual assent. The concept of ‘belief’ bothers me because of millennia of misuse by religious authorities, who fabricated a virtue out of suspending critical thinking. But they thereby spawned the gap between science and religion that plagues public policy today. And the macro is only a projection of the micro – a dissociation within the individual.

    1. karengreenfield Post author

      Thanks, Joe! I always appreciate your take on things. (And I had fun summarizing the movie, so thanks for your compliment on that!) I agree that the shift in perception doesn’t happen in a “leap,” but in little steps. You don’t say goodbye to the body all at once; you use it to engage the world in order to generate opportunities to “change your mind about the world.” (Still, I think it helps to begin with a mind that is open to the possibility that reality is only spirit.) Once the world is seen truly, it is completely healed, and the body no longer has a purpose (which was to dispel the illusion of which it was the focus).


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