When the World Around You Shook

You are sitting on the couch in your living room. It is seven o’clock in the morning on a Saturday in April. You are the only one awake in the house. A few rooms away, where the morning sun cannot reach, the dog and cat still dream. It is quiet.

You put on a pair of headphones. You sit up straight in the center of the couch and, after taking one last look outside, you close your eyes. The bright, rectangular afterglow of the window hovers and wobbles before you, bleeding amber into the vast, inky space of your mind.

After a moment, you hear something. At first, it’s barely audible and sounds a bit like static, almost as if a wire in your headphones has frayed, splintering the signal making its way to your head. But then, it begins to swell and the sound becomes richer and deeper. You see this in your mind; it looks like honey pouring into a bowl of warm water. It swirls and stretches its golden body in the cloudy pool until it and the water are one. As the sound gets louder, you realize that the hum is really two sounds, one in each ear. And this you see as two electric waves peeling down from a point at the top of your head, twisting and sparkling as they crawl the edges of your face and snap at the shores of each ear.

You focus on the tone in the left ear. It’s “ooooooohhhhh” is a cool, blue sphere hovering in space, churning, like a planet swathed in a layer of vapor, alone in a starless sky.

You focus on the second tone. You see yourself swimming to the right, pulling the space apart in front of you with a single, wide, arcing stroke of both arms. You near a golden disc. Its “errrrrrrrrrrr” is lower than the “ooooooohhhhh” in your left ear. It is spinning like a record and flipping like a coin. It sounds like the taste of metal.

You’re pulled back to the center. You hear a third tone. It is pulling a stream of blue from the spinning orb and a stream of yellow from the tumbling disc and it braids them together in a swirling green that extends from your crown into infinity. It vibrates and you feel it working its way backward, too, through your head and deep into your body.

This third sound is an illusion. It is a tone created by your brain as it processes the two other tones, similar to how the world we see when our eyes are open is a “third” image created by the brain as it integrates the two signals that come from each individual eye, left and right. This auditory illusion is called a “binaural beat.”

You’ve been meditating for almost a year now. So you remember, even while your own personal Fantasia plays out in your mind, to breathe. In, through your nose. Slowly. Then out, just as slowly, through the smallest space you can make between your lips. You’ve learned to focus on the rhythm of your breath, on controlling the aperture of your mouth, on being still, on relaxing your body, on letting go, piece by piece. You’ve learned that, while you distract your mind with administering this biological program, you unburden it of the 24-hour news cycle that your ego blares through the television of your brain. This routine is not just a mute button. It’s a swift yank of the plug from the wall. Well, after some practice it is. But after a few minutes, the TV is off. The worries and cravings, the envy, anger, greed, and seduction; the plotting and counting analytical mind told to shut the hell up for once; the body reminded to take a full breath after who knows how long of distracted, petty, shallow air-sipping. After a few moments of just sitting with your eyes closed, in a simple room in a modest house on an ordinary street, the walls of the labyrinth you run disappear and the world becomes big again.

Even your body changes. You’ve noticed a pattern. When you sit, you cross your legs and let your wrists rest on your thighs. You keep your hands slightly open. You keep your back straight and you face forward. You close your eyes and remain still. Yet, after just a few minutes of breathing, you notice something odd. You feel as if your body is twisting to the left. In your mind’s eye, you feel as if you are still facing forward, unmoved from where you began, and yet you begin to see your own face turn to the left. You feel as if your nose has moved and is pointing at eleven o’clock. It’s as if the person-suit you’re wearing is out of alignment. And if that isn’t strange enough, the space between you and your person-suit starts to stretch and warp around you. You feel far away from your own skin; either you have shrunk down to a tiny size or your body has swelled. It’s a dizzying feeling. It actually tingles a bit and your head feels fuzzy. Your facial features start to feel bloated and cartoonish. Your lips, especially, feel inflated. Call it cosmic botox. Your hands, too. Big meat mitts, heavy against your legs. But you press on. You’ve done this before.

You begin to see colors. They start as blotches of purple and gold. You’ve told yourself a million times that this is nothing special. These color fields are phosphenes — actual light emitted from the cells within your eyes. You don’t have to meditate to see them. You can close your eyes and rub them, which will produce biophotons in your retina (and other places in your eye) that collect light, convert it to an electric signal, and send it along your optic nerve to the visual cortex of your brain. But a phosphene show doesn’t tend to last very long. Usually, it’s just a few minutes. When you meditate, the purple field hangs on. It comes close, then backs off. It takes on a personality. At least it feels that way to you. It inspects you. You feel watched. Examined.

Then, you begin to feel a sense of motion. Sometimes you feel as if you’re moving forward, and you imagine the sudden streak of stars that wrap around the Enterprise when it goes into warp. Other times, you feel as if you’re moving backward; like you’re sitting with your back to the front of the train, looking out on the world as it pulls away from you. Either way, the colors change. You see greens. As you continue to move — forward or backward — you feel a second motion, a spiral motion, space wrapping around you, like a tunnel. There’s a blue in that spiral. It reminds you of the pulsing ring of the Amazon Echo. You worry that thinking such a mundane thought will pull you out of your meditation and drop you back on the floor that needs to be refinished of your mortgaged house on the city street where you’re sure some Trump-supporters also live. But it doesn’t. You dismiss that thought and stay in the tunnel. You’ve done this enough and Amazon isn’t going anywhere, the floor can wait, and Trump, well, who the hell knows.

A few weeks ago, you were driving home from work and listening to a podcast. The host was interviewing an elderly man who had written a few books about channelling. You’re not sure you believe in that sort of thing, but you found the conversation fascinating. Regardless of whether channelling is possible, you sensed that the author was sincere. He believed it. He told a story of collaborating with a scientist some years ago who has since died. She was interested in studying his channeling practice to better understand what was happening in and around the body when this so-called channeling was going on. That caught your interest. Who was this woman? He said he met her at The Monroe Institute. You remembered that.

When you got home, you searched for The Monroe Institute and learned about its founder, Robert Monroe. You read his story — about how, in the 1950s, he used his radio broadcasting company to fund research into how sound affects human consciousness. You found video interviews with him on YouTube. It was from him that you first heard the term Hemi-Sync. You Googled that, too. You learned that Hemi-Sync was Monroe’s trademarked name for a technique of using binaural audio to synchronize brain patterns and induce relaxation, deep states of meditation, and even altered states of consciousness. This is just the sort of thing you like. But you remained skeptical. I mean, you like weird stuff but you’re not a weirdo. You found Monroe’s book, Journeys Out of the Body on Amazon and sent it to your Kindle. You discovered that Robert Monroe got so deep into this Hemi-Sync business that he believed he could use it to catalyze out of body experiences, and not only that, but that he also came to believe he could control his astral travel, going vast distances in and out of this universe at will. Yeah, right. But what if? You knew you were going to read this book eventually, but you reserved the right to scoff.

You bat that memory aside. You’ve learned to halt and dismiss reverie and return back to the breathing. You’ve learned that these games of mind tennis can happen, back and forth, at a surface level, while the colors and spinning and breathing continue undisturbed. You wonder how many levels of mind there can be, working simultaneously. Is there a conscious, and a sub-conscious, and a sub-sub-conscious and a sub-sub-sub… Perhaps that’s part of this journey. Perhaps you’ll discover and map that terrain. But right now, you’re just breathing.

You remember something you read from Robert Monroe. You remember his description of the first time he left his body. How his body trembled uncontrollably, and how, while he lay on his back on his bed, he rolled his “second body” out and hovered a few inches from the floor.

You bat that aside. But then you notice that your body feels like it’s in a different position. Not the usual twisted-to-the-left feeling, but that you feel as if you’re poised to stand up from the couch where you sit. It’s as if you’re pitched forward ever so slightly, and your crown is now pointed at an almost forty-five degree angle forward. You get your bearings. You take a mind-survey of your body. No, you haven’t moved; it is where it was: sitting, cross-legged on the couch, back straight, facing forward. You’re sure of it. But you feel yourself rising up. This scares you. You remember Monroe. You don’t know if people can really leave their bodies. You wonder if maybe that, too, is an illusion, just like the binaural beat. That, maybe by hacking your brain with sound, you can create the illusion of decoupling mind from body. But then it could also be true — what Monroe (and countless other people, to be fair) says — that mind and body are not contingent, but collaborative. That there is experience outside of it. Illusion or not, you’re not sure you’re ready for that. And just when you think that, the room around you shakes.

You’ve been in an earthquake before. Years ago. You remember how the building in which you slept shook you awake. You remember what it felt like and what you are feeling now feels exactly like that. You open your eyes. There’s a haze — a shimmer — around you. Your eyes have been shut for almost forty-five minutes and the morning sun is bright. You blink it all away and you see that the room is still. Yet the vibration takes a moment to settle. There’s a tiny but noticeable bit of it that does not cease immediately upon opening your eyes. Your heart is racing. You take a deep breath and let it out slowly. The blood is pounding in your ears. You take off your headphones. You place your palms on the cushion beneath you and steady yourself.

What just happened? You don’t know. You’re confused. But you’re not scared; not like you thought you might be. Not like you were in that moment before the room shook, when you felt that strange rising feeling. You’re exhilarated. You’ve never been a roller-coaster person, but you imagine this is what roller-coaster people feel and why they want to get right back in line after screaming their lungs out for five minutes and almost losing their lunch.

The world around you shook. Not a slight vibration or tremble in your body, but a big, powerful wobble of the Earth beneath you and the space around you. It was just for a moment, but it happened.

You have plenty of reasons to think this was an illusion. After all, even if you fall from a great height in a dream, you will wake still and safe in your bed. But you also have reasons to think that what you experienced could be something other than an illusion. You believe in an expansive, mysterious universe, one in which life is more than just cells in gathering complexity and consciousness more than just that at critical mass. You welcome the unknown now, more than ever before. You have ideas about souls and stories of other realms. You also have doubts. So many doubts. Maybe material is all there is. But even in a world in which material is all there is, you have to believe that it could be possible to learn more about how that material works, and in doing so — in learning to better operate this person-suit — discover that reality is bigger and stranger than we thought. You wonder if maybe biology isn’t that “sufficiently advanced technology” of Clarke’s third law. You wonder and wonder and wonder.

But you’ve learned to be patient about filling in every gap and figuring everything out. You accept you may never figure everything — or much of anything — out. But you’re going to keep looking and trying.

You’re going to put those headphones back on sometime soon. You’re going to go through all those steps you’ve learned. But next time you’re going to go just one step further.

Heavy Rotation: I couldn’t disagree more with Nathan Reese, who, in his review in Pitchfork, smugly brushes Amen & Goodbye aside — calling it a “grab-bag of genres” and tsk-tsking Yeasayer’s “audacity” for their indulgence — without even realizing he doesn’t know who Suzzy Roche is. Reese wants to scold Yeasayer for making some claim to music history by aping John Lennon — and honestly, it’s Anand Wilder’s voice that sounds like Lennon sometimes not Chris Keating’s, and really, can we fault him for that? — which is ironic because he clearly has no idea what streams of music history Yeasayer are clearly drawing from. It’s an embarrassing review. Meanwhile, Amen & Goodbye is a wonderful, experimental, beautiful, surprising new album that restores my faith in the notion that there’s still more to play with and discover in popular music.

Recent Tabs: To the class of 2050. A prediction of mortality based upon your face. Can plants communicate? Bots and Humans: We’ve seen this before. Geographically speaking, the sky is like a whole other planet encasing our own. A radio show about virtual reality, c. 1992. I’m like.

Written by Christopher Butler on May 12, 2016,   In Essays

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