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Synaesthesia, Religion and Metaphor


Synesthesia may be linked to a much more common mental functions that all of us employ everyday, the ability to make and use metaphors, of which religion is an important subset. A metaphor is the combination of two unlike things to create a new meaning.” … “Science also uses metaphors. In some sense, all human language is derived from metaphors (Ricoeur 1976). Religion can be thought of as something like the metaphoric confabulations of synesthesia, seeing nature and hearing the voice of God or the Buddha-nature in all things (Ramachandran 1998).” (Excerpt From: William Grassie. “The Neurosciences of Religion: Meditation, Entheogens, Mysticism.”)

Thomas perceives religion as a Master through his personification synaesthesia. A thought or an experience of religion gives rise to a smell of smoke, a taste of salt, a sound of bell ringing, and a feel of ashes or even brain.

Thomas is becoming more religious, a consequence I did not foresee so strongly before enrolling him to a Catholic school. In a way, Thomas has always been a spiritual person, thus fell in love with his new school much more than other schools during the first school visit last year.

This new school of his is part of an international network of Jesuit schools. The acceptance preference goes to children who come from Catholic or Christian families. When we went for the school interview last year, we were not sure of Thomas’ chance for being accepted.

Thomas’ remarkable caring nature and his desire to help people in need made a big impression on the Dean of the School. Since he was little, he set a goal to become a doctor to save people’s lives. He says he will work very long hours, and charge little as otherwise, poor people cannot afford to see him. If he becomes very rich one day, he will give all his money to people who need help.

The first week at his new school, Thomas learnt that every child in his class has been baptized except himself.

“Please bring me a bucket of water Mum.” Thomas urgently requested upon arriving at home.
“Why?” I was puzzled.
“Because I want to be baptized!”

A week later, Thomas could recite very complex and lengthy prayers without missing a word. His enhanced memory and his newly evolved synaesthesia towards religion are all helping him discover this territory of interest.

My husband and I started feeling that religion might be what Thomas has always been looking for. I sensed this could be an ultimate reconciliation between him and his fear of death.

When I was about Thomas’ age, I met a friend of my father’s who was an active member of Shanghai Buddhism Association. She later became my private tutor for Chinese literacy. Under her influence, I was soul searching the meaning of Buddhism. One stage, I was attracted to the idea of becoming a nun. This childhood experience left me with idealism such as seeing through the world of mortals. I suppose at the time, I was terrified by the concept of death, and desperately needed a way to find a reason why we were given the right to be born, yet were not given the right to live forever.

When I was sharing my experience and my synaesthetic response towards death and religion, Thomas confirmed he too felt religion, death, and life somehow intertwine. That was why he smelt an ash like smell and felt ashes when he thought about religion. When I was a child, I perceived Buddhism and Death through a smell of incense. I had not experienced this synaesthesia for over two decades until the death of my husband’s grandmother in 2014. We were given a few of Nana’s belongings to keep. One of them was a near new water kettle. The first time I looked at the kettle, an incense smell came through my nose so strongly that I felt myself traveling back to a Chinese temple.

Two weeks ago, we finally moved into our new home. Apart from our farm, this house is the most tranquil house we have ever lived in. It is elevated well above the ground, in a bush like setting. This Melbourne suburb, during the colonial period, was regarded by Martin Boyd as a suburb for people who appreciated views rather than social life. Today, high-rise buildings can be found within a short distance, yet, the pocket, where our new house is situated, enjoys the unspoiled tranquillity.

On the first day living in the new house, Thomas stepped through the garden and found lily pads in the pond. He felt synaesthetic touch on his palm as if frogs were landing on it. Skye came home from his boarding school. While he was staring at the trees in the garden, a synaesthetic image of raindrops appeared in front of his eyes.

At night, I was lying in bed, totally exhausted after the move, the spatial sensation of floating above the treetop came to me, a type of synaesthesia I experience every time I move to a different floor for work or living. Two years ago, after we moved to the upstairs bedroom in the old house, I had experienced the floating sensation for a week. But that time, it was more like under the cloud, instead of above the treetop.

Next morning, I was pleasantly surprised by Skye sharing his newly created metaphor.

Life is Like a Tree

It starts with a seed. It grows bigger. Whenever there is a life changing experience, a new branch comes out. If the branch is not the right branch for your life, it will soon stop growing and find its way back to the tree. Another life experience will bring out another new branch. Eventually, you will find the best branch for you to grow to the tallest and the strongest you can.

One day, when your life ends, the tree will still stand as it holds your spirit and legacy. Before you exit the world, you should take a look at many other trees around yours. You will notice that some trees are just taller and stronger than others as they have experienced more in their lives. And mine hopefully will be among the tallest and the strongest.

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