Good Vibrations

Recently, I had a conversation with a Catholic writer on spirituality. In one of her works she had referred to living plants ‘pulsing with silent, invisible energy’ and sensing God’s presence which caused an atmosphere to become charged with ‘vibrations of love’.

This sort of language generally unsettles me. Vibrations are the language of Eastern and New Age spirituality, not the Catholic tradition. And yet… I have learned in my journey as an Aspie that when I come across language that makes no intuitive sense to me, it is often a sign of how my lived experience of the world differs from that of the more typical majority. So rather than write her off as a clear case of someone straying outside the Catholic fold, I asked if she could describe these ‘vibrations’ in a way that could make sense to a person who had never personally experienced them. Even if what she has experienced might not be a ‘majority’ experience, it could still be valid.

She struggled to find the right words, and we went round in circles for a time. Then I asked if it was something like what happens when you put your hand on a refrigerator and feel it humming because the motor is running. She was happy with this analogy.

This got me thinking. Not only have I never experienced ‘vibrations’ in a spiritual context, but also, I seldom sense an ‘atmosphere’ when I walk into a room. Celtic writers might talk of praying in a ‘thin place’ but I wouldn’t know one if I fell through it. Yet many people use this language often enough that it seems to be meaningful to most listeners. Could it be that something akin to synaesthesia is taking place?

The human brain is capable of ceaseless wonders. There are many documented cases where the parts of the brain which deal with two different senses seem to be cross-wired, resulting in written words having characteristic colours or particular sounds translating as tactile experiences. Could it also be the case that the part of the brain which interprets emotions could be cross-wired with the part responsible for hearing or touch? Could a brain which, unlike mine, can take in and process a thousand micro-expressions to analyse a room of human beings, synthesise its findings in the form of an audible or tactile hum, which would then be perceived as a vibration? Might a similar mechanism account for those people who claim to be able detect the ‘aura’ or ‘bioenergy’ of another person? Indeed, I note that the Wikipedia article on Synaesthesia tantalisingly lists a rare form of synaesthesia as: personality-color (occasionally referred to as “auras”) – but without further expansion or reference.

I cannot rule out, of course, that the reason Eastern religions speak of a spiritual energy variously called chi, qi, ki or prana, is because such an energy genuinely exists but is such a subtle phenomenon that science has not yet been able to detect it – no scientist can ever definitively proclaim proof of non-existence except in tightly defined conditions. It is of course possible for an objective phenomenon to exist, but for some humans to be incapable of sensing it – such as color-blindness or ineed Aspie ‘mindblindness’ to emotional signals. I lean towards the idea that this energy is a cultural construct with no underlying phenomenon. But the ‘synaesthesia’ hypothesis raises an intriguing third possibility.

Laying on of Hands

Ever since I started this Blog, I’ve had an open invitation for others to contribute guest pieces. This is the first I’ve received. – AspiePriest

 By: A. Wolf – Guest Poster

Every so often, our church offers a Healing Service. Last Monday night was one such occasion.

Throughout the service, in the back of my mind, I was wondering what I could pray for when my turn came to go forwards. Whether I could think of anything that would be worthy of asking for. I finally settled on something only moments before I would have to choose whether to go up, or sit this one out: Greater peace with what I believe, and greater harmony and unity with others.

I was surprised to find that my voice was ragged with emotion when I came to offer such prayer guidelines to the visiting priest. I had no discernible reason to feel tension. I’ve always felt comfortable around this particular priest, felt indirect-recognition and great admiration for how his mind works, as evidenced by his style of preaching in weekdays services and the one occasion I have heard him lead a Churches Together service. I’ve received such personalised prayer from him in a previous service, though he was not first to speak before. I already knew, for example, that he favours laying his hand upon the head of the supplicant, slightly towards the back. Except in the case of ministering to a fellow priest, when he opts to lay his hand upon the shoulder.

Such details of who places their hands where when invited to pray for others, flags itself as significant in my mind. When I first received such a service, offered by a visiting priest at the altar rail, he laid his hand gently, but squarely on my head, and prayed simply and sincerely that God would grant me my dearest wish. The sense of potency I felt in such an act made me wish to participate in any future services of the same kind. They have not all gone so smoothly. When I first received such prayer, flanked by two priests, it felt very alien and overwhelming to have the weight of their hands upon me and have them standing so close, attending to my introductory words so closely. In one case, led by a priest-in-training, I flinched at the opening words and ended up feeling worse afterwards than when I arrived.

But never have I doubted the potency of the act, for good if I can align myself to it, or for ill if I find myself fighting it.

I remember only his opening words, for they startled me. ‘Lord, _ seems to know you well,’. The rest blurred into a background haze, and I remember only that they were good words, meaningful at the time. As were the tears silently streaming down my face which I deliberately stopped myself from questioning. Some things are better to simply surrender to the experience of, rather than to mar with analysis. I knew I was letting go of something that was weighing me down, holding me back. That was enough.

In hindsight it was enough to hold in my mind, that a priest thought well enough of my beliefs that he would voice such an opinion. In his opening sentence, he had granted me everything I had asked for; greater peace with my own beliefs, through harmony with his own beliefs and unity with him in that fleeting moment. For myself, the lag time between receiving that gift and realising what I could say to him personally, in gratitude for his words to me and for turning-out on such a cold night to provide this service for us, was such that I could only offer such sentiments to God’s keeping, for I was halfway home by then. And only upon waking the next morning, did I recognise the greater significance of that.

If there is one indicator which I have discovered that unites autistics of all abilities in my limited experience, it is that they will all speak of lack of tactile affection in their early childhood. I freely admit that my pool of direct experience is too small to claim this as a determining factor, but it is suggestive. In two cases related to me by another Aspie, an Aspie of his acquaintance claimed that his was not ‘a huggy family’, yet their siblings stated the opposite. In my own case, my mother related to me that when I was young, I would scream if she tried to brush my hair. Because of this and other factors, she learnt not to intrude into my personal space. I only remember that it HURT when she pulled my hair, trying to untangle it. None of the succession of dogs my family owned were fond of being groomed by her, whereas I learnt to be very gentle with tangles in their coats, and they would sit still much longer for me. One Aspie of a much older generation, relates how frustrated his mother became when beating him had no effect, for he would just tune-out the pain. He developed into an individual who will ignore a scrap happening a yard from him as irrelevant; I by contrast, tense-up at any aggressive tone within earshot, and I still remember the fear I experienced at being smacked merely once in my childhood. In our response to social lack-of-affection, we have developed in parallel to neurotypical individuals of similar formative experiences.

One of the most counter-intuitive things I have ever read on mammalian psychology concerns the development of puppies. It is better that they are handled a lot in their very-early development, despite their protests. They are much calmer under social stress as adults, if they are exposed to high levels of tactile contact while their stress-threshold is yet to be determined. Perhaps this is what was lacking in our own nurture: That by not being in a puppies-in-a-basket, in an all-paws-and-tails situation, our brains did not automatically form social protocols and therefore prioritised different things to develop. I’m not saying that we were raised wrong, I’m saying we were nurtured differently. Our protests were heeded in early life, and we can find it difficult to integrate into a social community which has a different values for what to ignore and what to pay attention to, than what our early nurture taught us to expect from interaction. The opposite attitude to infant-nurture would theoretically produce an individual just as far from the mean-average.

According to modern science, there is a threshold of social cues caused by overcrowding, that causes a grasshopper to metamorphose into a locust in response to a rise in their personal serotonin levels. This shift between their intrinsic solitary and gregarious biological survival options is so dramatic, that they were once thought to be separate species. It makes sense to me, that the comparatively complex social nature of mammals allows infants pick-up on cues as to how sociable or independent they need to be to survive, in the species and local circumstances they are born into. Human society is an order of magnitude more complex, and therefore there is a lot more diversity in the development of our protocols for solitary and gregarious survival states; depending on local culture, the life experiences of our parents, and our perception of our own circumstances. To be autistic, is therefore simply to be labelled as significantly different enough from the average, as to struggle to relate to it.

Yet the human brain retains plasticity into adulthood. We can out-think the hand we were dealt and adapt, through personal choice to change and seeking the circumstances which will support that growth. With enough passion to change, someone who has never progressed beyond drawing stick-men can continue their journey to become an artist, though they may not catch-up with those who for whom drawing is their lifelong passion. The same is true of social awkwardness in Aspies. It is only lack of experience in this area that makes us so gauche. Through practise, through making mistakes and learning from them, any individual can learn anything if they are internally motivated to do so. Our lag-time in emotionally responding as a well-adjusted gregarious individual would, is likely caused by our over-prizing of our independence and difference from others. Yet we do not have to give up what makes us different, only choose to value also, what makes us the same. Being Aspies unites us, but being human unites all of us. Late development is still development, as pure and true as if we had learned it in the cradle.