By Gina Marie Applebee
Waking up on the graduate student office couch from an afternoon nap was nothing out of the ordinary at the time. The migraines had gone on relentlessly for months before. The deep burning sensation on the back of my head drowning out most thoughts and the flashing color hallucinations were enough to put an acid junkie in their place. What was unusual was what happened when I sat up. I stared, eyes closed, in fascinated disbelief as I suddenly realized that I could see my hands. I turned the palms over, watched my fingers open, close, open. This may not sound that extraordinary. But it was for me. I hadn’t seen anything with my eyes in roughly five years.
Then again I wasn't really seeing. I was sort of seeing with my eyes closed. No one expects to wake up and see with their eyes closed, to see with their imagination and all the senses at once. No one expects to morph into a glowing technicolor being, immersed in a gorgeous and infinitely connected world of psychedelic light. No one expects their brain to spontaneously re-configure itself through some kind of freakish neurological event. But that's exactly what happened to me. Apparently, going blind was just the beginning of an amazing adventure.
Now, almost two years later, the condition has far from dissolved back into something we might call relatively typical reality. Quite on the contrary, the unusual perceptual phenomenon I have come to call pan-sensory synesthesia not only persists, but continues to evolve.
Essentially, all my senses are fused into a dynamically coherent whole. Visually, this includes a technicolor visualization of my self. My hand glows the way your hand does when you hold it over a flashlight. My body is surrounded by what appears to be a little electro-magnetic field, complete with radiating lines of electric yellow-green and blue lightning. It is actually every bit as ridiculous as it sounds, only so much more beautiful.
Pulsing with stronger luminosity, the way I do after a run, I fumble with half-frozen fluorescent blue fingers to get my key in the door. That experience of what some call “flow” when fully in the natural groove of some action pattern, be it running, or yoga, or surfing or creative practice, has become more than an abstract occasional feeling to me. Rather, it is a way of being. All my movements are visibly tangible.
Standing with my back against the ancient gas wall heater, I watch the warmth rush over me and through my left shoulder in deep reds. I watch it spread through the rest of my body more slowly, to the tip of my partially "visible" nose. Continually observing effects of interactions, I notice how temperature and other energetic variations show up visually. This is very real, I affirm to myself. This is real, and it's definitely not going away.
The blue light quality of my closed-eye visualization is limited mostly to situations where I visualize myself. But I also visualize whatever I happen to be in direct contact with.
Once the initial oddity of looking at stuff with my eyes shut had worn off, I began experimenting. By turning the coffee cup in my hands, its image became brighter, more clear. The rim was very definitely more shiny. Boundaries stood out more brightly. The edge of the coffee table had a distinct boundary made of weird blue light as I put the cup down. The room looked like it was made of less permeable light surfaces. Even the floor, the record shelves and the open windows lit up in my mind. I could “see” my cuffed jeans, how they were soaked almost to the knee. Something about the profound simplicity of the setting struck me. My mind, still reeling from the onslaught of visual information, sort of began to relax into the situation.
Now other people and all forms of life appear as veering configurations of electric blue light. Strange eddies of lights swirl into shapes vaguely resembling people, cats, or trees.
Glancing at my hands with fresh clarity after Shavasana, I find my way to a seat for a little post-yoga meditation. Living with intensely integrated awareness, working with the breath and the cerebral blood flow that was such a struggle early on in my technicolor adventures is becoming easier through practice. My teacher strikes the bell bowl, and I feel the sound resonate and pass right through me. In this way, sounds are simultaneously felt sensations. My entire body responds to any form of vibrational input. Again, the contrast of a sudden noise or buzzing in stillness is clear as it temporarily disturbs the whole visualization, then returning to its ambient shimmering, like a liquid surface. This feeds into a sense of being more deeply and dynamically integrated with everything around me.
At its most extreme, my empathic sensations will include the felt sensation of guitar strings beneath my upstair’s neighbors fingers, or the pages of a book turning in a friend’s hands. My overall experience is one free of phenomenological veils. With no rifts between levels of consciousness, I remain to varying degrees wide open to the deluge of rich environmental stimuli. Now, there is no illusion of separateness.
Describing this pan-sensory synesthesia or whatever it is we want to call it probably sounds wonderful. And it is wonderful, but the process of getting to this place was thoroughly grueling. Fairly early on I eliminated the concept of “pain” from my mental vocabulary, as the searing sensations shifted through my nervous system. My physical body was not the only one undergoing this fiery transformational re-organization. It was as if my mind were continually melting and re-crystalizing, cycling between hyper-meaning and pure chaos. I never would have made it without the loving kindness of the people in my supporting communities.
I explained the entire phenomenon to myself in terms of chaos and complex adaptive systems, an epistemological passion of mine I had delved into deeply for years. But understanding something is not the same thing as learning how to live with it. The learning how to live with it part takes a lot more time, trial and error. I watched, reflected and experimented extensively in the way that any natural system having undergone a sudden enormous shift settles into a kind of slow subsequent growth.
At first, I thought I was alone in this gorgeous reality. As time went on, though, I found the case of Zoltan Torey. I began to see connections with cases of kundalini awakenings and people with all sorts of transformative experiences. I began to see a similarity between our stories. I realized how my process was its own manifestation of an ubiquitous, fundamental phenomenon of evolving consciousness, just more extreme, and in technicolor.
While the whole incredible metamorphic process has been extraordinarily challenging, I have adjusted my lifestyle to accommodate my new awareness as sustainably as possible, a process that is always an ongoing iterative work in progress.
You can read more about synesthesia in our new book The Superhuman Mind: Free the Genius in Your Brain, Hudson St. Press, An Imprint of Penguin Random House, August, 2015. Available on Amazon, BAM, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound