Sitting in the back seat of a relative's car, I picked up a copy of Oprah Magazine. The magazine was filled with articles about how to have a happy-go-lucky life. The first article I read was called, "How to Be More Creative." The gist of the article is that creative people cultivate synesthesia. Poets for instance, actually try to feel the sadness in rocks and trees, or the temperature of a rainbow. (I couldn't find that article online, but I did find this excellent one about musician Pharrell Williams and his synesthesia.)
I was aware that some people have strong synesthesia, for instance they experience numbers as having consistent characteristics, the number seven might be pink and the number four might be hairy. They can do math in unique ways because they see, feel or hear unique patterns.
There is a lot of literature on drugs that cause synesthesia too. But the idea that we can intentionally cultivate synesthesia got me thinking about everyday synesthesia on the one hand, and the ways in which expertise is often built around synesthesia on the other.
Language often has elements of synesthesia. Whoever invented writing must have had it. We turn sounds into scribbles on a page and then turn those scribbles back into sounds. My friend Galya Rosenfeld sees all fashion as communication. And it is communication, but some people are ten or a hundred times better at reading it than others. Or perhaps it would be better to say some people just hear that communication directly without needing to interpret it.
Actually, when I read the article my first thought was, that is what I'm doing everyday in Daoist Meditation. Jindan, which means "golden elixir," is a Daoist practice that develops out of stillness and emptiness. Before "learning" jindan, I practiced zuowang, which means "sitting and forgetting." Zuowang is a lot like Zen, it is just a posture of stillness with no concepts associated with it. All of our senses play a role in movement. In stillness, these senses have no purpose, we might even think of them as distractions.
I suspect there are other ways in, but my way into the practice of jindan was that I started to feel space. Huge spaces around me and inside of me, over time those spaces became constantly accessible. There is no "standard" way to practice jindan, there are infinite varieties. But there are introductory methods, and the method I was taught by my teacher Liu Ming, was to first visualize a specific deity and all his attributes in exquisite detail and then to replace my felt body with the deity's felt body--so that my body felt like his body. For instance Zhen Wu is standing barefoot on the slimy and disgusting snake and a turtle demons, feel that, and stay with that feeling. They are wiggling in mud. Sounds like acquired synesthesia doesn't it?
One of my big breakthroughs with the practice of jindan in movement (dance and martial arts) was that I started feeling textures outside my body. Actively keeping my mind on the project of feeling the textures of things around me (tree bark, grass, wood, metal, water) allowed me to diminish the feeling of my own body while simultaneously maintaining the feeling of the space around me.
The term "space" is another way of describing emptiness. As I've discussed elsewhere, there are several different types of emptiness. Rory Miller says that when he does infighting he is simply and exclusively experiencing emptiness and force vectors. Acquired synesthesia?
Now that we have dropped the limitation of experiencing the standard five senses, a rather large number of possibilities open up. Let's make a list of extra-senses: time (future, past and flows), space, vibration, rhythmic pattern, weight, interior, surface, solidity, wholeness, break-ability, flexibility (of things), proximity (distance), around, beyond (above, below, etc.), temperature, density, velocity, texture, flatness, shapes, emotions. Kinesthetic synesthesia is pretty automatic for me now, I can practice Taijiquan while feeling the weight of the mountain behind me and the hollow underground caverns inside the mountain. But people can experience angles as colors, or velocity as smell. There may be no limits.
Synesthesia is often asocial, it is unconstrained. It is a weird mix of tangible and intangible expressive imagination.