The Doors of Perception, photo ©Erika Burkhalter

Jeff Tweedy and the Doors of Perception

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to us as it is, infinite. For we have closed ourselves up ’til we see all the narrow chinks of our cavern.”
— William Blake

I discovered the other night that I have been missing out on a whole bandwidth of language, a range that other people can easily comprehend.

My husband and I, cradling glasses of wine and snuggled up on the couch in front of the fire, put on a Wilco album. For Christmas, we had purchased a Sonos record player, and have since been pulling out old records from the garage, albums which we have been lugging around, literally, for decades. Surprisingly, most of these have survived the heat of Sedona, the damp of a California garage which floods most times when it rains, and years of use when we were younger.

Our daughter had recently given her dad a new “collector’s” album of Wilco. About twice as thick as a regular album, the needle on the player reaches deeper into the grooves, and picks up so many more of the fine details and intricacies of the music than a CD or an ordinary record ever could. We listened to Impossible Germany, admiring the synchronicity of the two guitarists, who were joined by a third, completely extemporaneous guitar solo, played by Nels Cline, singing its song over the others, weaving itself into their melody, then riffing into its own story.

My husband started singing along with the lead singer, Jeff Tweedy.

“You can understand what he is saying????” I asked, incredulous.

I like Wilco, but I have never been able to understand their vocals. To me, it just sounded like mumbling. It wasn’t that I couldn’t hear it. I just couldn’t understand it.

But, in the blink of an eye, that all changed.

Curious, he translated several lines for me right after they were sung…and I began to be able to make out more than just the random word here and there.

After a few more songs, an awe for the genius of the poetic expression of a descent into depression, psychosis and drugs overwhelmed me. How had I not heard this before?

It was like, after studying French in high school and college, and then, many years later, you finally find yourself on the streets of Paris, surrounded by a swirl of conversation studded with a few words here and there that you can pick out. And then, all of a sudden, it just coalesces. And you get it!

It turns out that it must be something about that particular pitch of the male singer’s voice that has eluded me. For there are others, like Steely Dan, whom I had never before understood either.

So, we have been playing this game at night lately — my husband translating until I have been able to understand the words on my own. It feels sort of like learning a new language.

But, it also has made me aware, in a very personal way, of how much of the world we miss out on because we are not programmed to see or hear it.

In my yoga philosophy classes, which I teach for Loyola Marymount University’s certificate program, and in my classes at Yoga Works, I often say that it is the yogi’s job to “pay attention,” to see things in a different light than the one we are used to ordinarily casting. For, we do live in a world of our own making, carefully crafted from our experiences and reactions.

One of the ancient texts, the Yoga Sūtra, speaks of pratipaksha bhavana, or “cultivating the opposite.” The idea is to break free from our reflexive way of viewing and understanding things.

For example, when driving down the freeway, late to teach your yoga class, you are stuck on that messy 55/405 interchange. And the car in front of you, behind which you are trapped, is moving far slower than the flow of traffic, leaving large gaps between it and the car in front of it. Multiple other vehicles have taken advantage of the gap, slipping into that space and getting ahead of you. You are certain that this driver is trying to irritate you, personally! Your neck tenses, and your upper lip begins to bead with the sweat of anger. You can hear your heart in your ears.

Finally, you slide into the other lane, maybe cutting off another driver in the process. But, it doesn’t matter. At this point, you just want to get around this driver who is intentionally slowing you down.

But, as you pass, you get a glimpse of something you hadn’t been able to see before.

Tucked behind the steering wheel, her head not high enough to have been visible from behind, is a little blue-haired granny, holding on with white knuckles. She looks terrified at being caught up in this gnarled mess of a freeway. And your whole perspective suddenly shifts.

Or, perhaps, the driver is a desperate husband, whose wife is in labor. He is trying to get all of them, safely, to the hospital, but the contractions are coming very fast.

In a whirl, you realize that the driver in front of you probably does not even know you exist, and, most certainly was not diabolically planning your torture.

The reality is that we create our own worlds, dominated by our own perceptions. And those perceptions affect and are affected by our observations, which we generally assume to be correct, all of the time, even when they directly conflict with the observations of others. However, it is possible for us to learn to see beyond the scope of our own, limited, range of view. And by doing so, we might be able to alleviate much conflict and turmoil, both within our own minds and in our interactions with other people.

Breaking Free, photo©Erika Burkhalter

In The Universe in A Single Atom, his Holiness, the Dalai Lama writes, “the world is made up of a network of complex interrelations. We cannot speak of the reality of a discrete entity outside the context of its range of interrelations with its environment and other phenomena, including language, concepts, and other conventions.”[i] In other words, everything we do, see and experience is a product of our interactions with others and of our past experiences, which have shaped the way we look at the world.

Matthieu Ricard, a biochemist turned Buddhist monk, writes in his book, Happiness,“If one thing were truly beautiful and pleasant, if those qualities genuinely belonged to it, we could consider it to be desirable at all times and in all places. But is anything on earth universally and unanimously recognized at beautiful?” He explains, “As the canonical Buddhist verse has it: ‘For the lover, a beautiful woman is an object of desire; for the hermit, a distraction; for the wolf, a good meal.’”[ii]

In my mind, one of the most important lessons we can learn in this life is that we do not need to remain trapped in these singular viewpoints.

Kerala Canoe, photo ©Erika Burkhalter

One of my favorite stories about perception comes from Rick Hansen, author of Buddha’s Brain.[iii] He asks the reader to imagine they are floating in a canoe on a lazy summer day, dreamily gazing up the sky, when, all of a sudden, there is a hard thump against the side of the boat, and you tip over into the water. You might imagine that someone has snuck up on you and overturned your boat. But, what if you came up, sputtering, only to realize that a log drifting downstream has knocked your canoe over? Do you feel differently? The event is the same event — you end up in the water either way. But, you, and only you, have total control over your emotions and reactions to the situation.

You always have a choice about how to respond. And oftentimes, we would be better off, before we jump into the knee-jerk reaction, to open ourselves up to look at situations with new eyes, or, as in my case with Wilco, listening with new ears.

Tasting new flavors, photo ©Erika Burkhalter

A whole universe of experiences awaits us. Why would we ever want to live entirely in a world constrained by our own making? The essence of life is to taste, breath and touch new flavors, scents, and viewpoints in order to be able to grow into fully aware and awake beings.

By breaking through the walls of our perceptions of singularity, we can step into a more all-encompassing vision of unity. And, it is in those moments, when we imagine what it feels like to be the hawk diving with the wind, or the caterpillar breaking free from its cocoon, about to fly on brand-new wings, that we, perhaps, can catch a glimpse of Universal Consciousness at play in the world around us.

Erika Burkhalter, MA Yoga Studies, MS Neuropsychology, E-RYT 500, is a writer, photographer, lecturer for Loyola Marymount University’s Yoga Philosophy program, and a teacher and teacher trainer for Yoga Works.

[i]Dalai Lama, The Universe in a Single Atom(NY: Crown Publishing Group, 2005) p. 64.

[ii]Ricard, Matthieu, Happiness (NY: Little, Brown and Company) p. 81.

[iii]Hanson, Rick, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom (U.S.:Raincoast Books) p. 164.

Story and photos ©Erika Burkhalter. All rights reserved.