|THE DAO RE MI|
What I describe here is an association of the senses that might be synesthesia, pseudo-synesthesia, or conscious dreaming. I have not received an unambiguous diagnosis from experts in the field. Until I do, I will assume that it is a form of pseudo-synesthesia or conscious dreaming that can be learned, unlike hard-wired synesthesia that is physiological and inherited.
When I wrote Rhythm Vision in 1986, I assumed that I had produced a work of phenomenological imagination and not a record of a synesthesia. I called it a form of soft-wired synesthesia to distinguish it from the hard/cross-wired types I had read about. I assumed I did not have any “true” synesthesia and I did not expect to get one.
Over the last several years, I have meditated Buddhist-style in Lotus position, but in early 2003, I decided to experiment with just sitting in a chair and staying physically quiet in a variety of positions. Usually one arm would be resting on a table and the other on a leg. They would not be uncomfortable but there would be a little tension, unlike the very loose feeling in a Lotus position. As a result, I became more conscious of my arms and their neural energy. (Daoists would call it “chi”.) After a couple of months of doing that every morning, I decided to try it to music as played on one of our local classical music stations. Doing that had a strong effect on me. Sitting perfectly still in various postures (while maintaining intermittent awareness of that stillness) was for me like charging a battery. Movement can dissipate neural energy but stillness, at least for me, can gather it. So I had some very nice experiences.
One morning an inner voice “told” me to raise my arms, and, as I did so (“Venus” from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” was being played), I had the most intense musical experience of my life. A few days before, I had been walking down the street when I started playing around with my arm positions. I found that if I turned my hands with palms forward, I seemed to be “hearing” a slightly higher kinesthetic body tone and if I turned my hands backward, I got a lower tone – three tones in all or even a few more if I tried to rotate my hands even further. This interested me but the word “synesthesia” did not cross my mind, perhaps because it was so subtle and unlike anything I had read about that phenomenon. I asked a few friends at work to try the palm rotation, but they either blew me off or didn’t get anything. A few days after hearing “Venus”, I decided while walking to raise my arms up my body (palms down parallel to the ground) as I had done while listening to the Holst selection. I noticed a subtle but evident rising kinesthetic tone and then when I lowered them I got a descending tone. I broke it down and found I got a musical scale. Starting about 2” below my navel was do, re at the level of the navel, mi another 2” up, fa a little up the ribs, so at the nipple level, la at the base of the clavicle, ti at the base of the nose, and the octave at the top of the eyebrows. Then I realized “Wow! I can make music with hand movements and I don’t have to hum in my mind,” which had been my practice with rhythm vision. I later extended the scale both above and below and found that going out sideways with my arms produced the same effect. I could also get other scales by just starting at different points on or out from my body and going up or down. They all seem to be “major” but I can make “minor” sounds if I am conscious about making smaller hand movements when a “half-step” is called for. There don’t seem to be any difference in the scales – basically one generic scale with no overtone series and “circle of fifths.” I soon found that I could have a lot of fun moving hands, fingers, and fists, and, in the process, becoming a kind of kinesthetic one-man band and rhythm section. I have always loved to walk but this was an octave jump up for me – not only is it a great exercise because the whole body is engaged and can be moved in different directions but because after awhile my body slows down pleasantly and I go into a natural meditative walk. Over the next several weeks I observed and worked on how the arms, legs, and body interact to produce different rhythms and sounds. Head and shoulder movements also produce tones. Hands and fingers can be moved in arcing, curving, figural and geometric ways. The arms can be used to “entrain” the legs and mind to hear or not hear certain sounds or to walk with different accents and meters.
After discovering this “hand jive”, I assumed it was biomechanical in origin – that there is something about the raising and extending of the arms that lessened tension on the spine and thus raised the “tones”, but after coming up empty when I had other people try to duplicate it, I began to doubt that explanation. I dropped it completely when I found that I got the tones while sitting. (They are even softer and subtler because the walking body seems to provide a more percussive resonance chamber.) So I had to conclude that it was some kind of synthesis of the senses, but what kind was it that I didn’t notice for decades and required meditation to bring above the liminal barrier into conscious awareness? I do believe, however, that muscle contractions and relaxations are involved in measuring movements that the brain translates into kinesthetic sounds.
Later I also found out that I automatically correlate tones with distance (lower closer, higher going away) and with amount of light (low in darkness and shadow, higher with the increasing of the light). I can walk along and point or look at trees and other objects and hear musical tones. I can point several fingers and get chord-like sounds – not as distinct as the real thing but still interesting and fun. Most strangely of all, I can pick up sticks, twigs, and branches in the woods and point them at trees and change the kinesthetic tones in predictable, almost Pythagorean ways. For instance, if a tree is about 25’ away, it will be an octave higher than my basic “fundamental” body tone of A below middle C. However, if I point a six-foot branch at it (weight plays no role), the octave is canceled. If I use a four-foot branch, I drop the tone about a “fifth”, etc. And, as described in Rhythm Vision, when objects visually “rub” against each other while I’m in motion, they produce onomatopoetic tactile sound based on their shape and textures. All the things I have described are automatic, except that with the stick pointing I can get confused if I go too fast. I then have to stop and restore the “natural” order. This is perhaps an indication that mine is not a “pure” synesthesia.
After making these discoveries about myself, I have wondered whether this was always latent and just below awareness in me or whether there could be a type of synesthesia that is developed over time. Brain “plasticity” is now a common term among neuro-scientists and this may be an example. Whatever it is, it is a most welcome gift – I call it the Dao Re Mi for musical walking has always been my “way” – in these autumnal years of my life.
Copyright 2003 by Dennis Roth - Please do not distribute without the author's permission.