Thursday, December 17, 2015

Autism, Body, and Soul

For a long time, I've had really terrible handwriting. For years it stayed at essentially a third-grade level, and even recently it has been fairly illegible. Moreover, I eventually read an online article which said that one should move the pen or pencil with one's whole arm. That idea never occurred to me, as I normally used only my hand to move the pencil. I also gripped it very tightly, which led to cramping. And it got me thinking: could the toe-walking and other muscle stiffness I experience (along with other autistics) also manifest in my handwriting?

But as I've read various religious and philosophical books, I stumbled across the works of a fellow named Rudolf Steiner. Steiner was a philosopher and an esotericist from the turn of the twentieth century, and though he might seem "weird" by a modern secular viewpoint, he gave me a good way to think about my dilemma of muscle stiffness in handwriting and other places. In his essay called Overcoming Nervousness, he writes:
“For a completely healthy human being—-healthy in regard to the physical body and ether body[the second of four "bodies" as described by Steiner, which are: the physical, the etheric, the astral, and the ego bodies]—-the ether body, which is directed by the astral body, must always be able to take absolute hold of the physical body, and the physical body must everywhere, in all its movements, be able to become a servant of the ether body. If the physical body moves on its own, beyond what the soul can really want—that is, what the astral body can really want—-then it is an unhealthy condition, a preponderance of the physical body over the etheric body. And in everyone who has the conditions just described, we once again have to do with a weakness of the etheric body, which consists in its no longer being able fully to control the physical body. This relationship of the etheric body to the physical body even lies, occultly, at the base of all conditions of cramping, which are fundamentally connected in that the etheric body exercises a lesser command over the physical body than it should exercise, so that the physical dominates and carries out all kinds of movements on its own”
To clarify, Steiner's "etheric body" is basically an intermediary between what he called the "astral body" (the soul, or my essential personality) and the physical body. It's kind of like a bridge between the astral world (the world of soul, emotion, and feeling) and the physical world. A weak etheric body would therefore involve a dysfunctional relationship between physical and astral, between body and soul. It would mean that the physical body would exert a preponderance over the etheric, meaning that whatever (weak) etheric body is in him or her there would be "squished" between the astral and physical ones. As Steiner says above, this would make "natural" physical movement awkward, which he says turns up in exactly the cramped penmanship I display, along with other forms of cramping.

And when I read this, a thought occurred to me: could it be that autism necessarily involves a weakness in (at least what Rudolf Steiner calls) the etheric body? This would explain the muscle stiffness in toe walking and my abnormal handwriting, but it would also explain the unique kind of bodily experience I have as an autistic. For I (along with many other autistic people) don't really feel like I'm in my body. At best, I'm just "driving" it. Going with Rudolf Steiner's perspective, a weak etheric body would cause exactly this, since it would mean that there's no transitional principle (like an automatic transmission, to use the car metaphor a bit more) going between astral and physical, soul and body. That person would have to do everything manually, which is exactly what I experience. 

This would lead to good things and bad things. On the downside, it would mean that I'm at the mercy of my sensations and my emotions and have no way of adequately filtering or weaving through them. I would get overstimulated or distracted, having a hard time paying attention or being present in the world. But on the upside, it would mean that I'm much more aware of my soul or "astral" self than the neurotypical. Without much of an etheric body to get in the way, my astral body would (effectively) directly incarnate in the physical body, meaning that I have a direct consciousness of astral or "soul" life. This might explain the tendency in many autistics toward abnormal or "super-sensory" experiences. Here are some accounts that might show what I mean:
"It was as though some part of 'me', my 'be-ing' could see without my eyes, hear without my ears, touch without my hand and feel bodily without my body making direct physical contact. It was as though 'I' had two sets of senses, the physical ones, and non-physical ones." - Donna Williams, Autism and Sensing: The Unlost Instinct 
"We are independent and frolic as our free will inclines when we leave our bodies behind. When we are in the body suit, our independence is fettered wand we must rely on the duties of others to trudge through living ... I am more detached from my day than most folk. I leave it often -- always have." - Barb Rentenbach, Synergy 
"On the morning of my baptism I had a vision while I was praying. I was looking into a deep dark hole, when suddenly out of nowhere a huge stone was rolled over it to seal it up. Without being told, I knew that it was a symbol for God sealing the 'black hole' of fears and compulsive thoughts which haunted me so much at day and night. A great relief swept through me so much and yet, at the same time I somehow knew that one day the hole had to open again to let me face and come to terms with what lay at the bottom." -Elkie Kammer, Discovering Who I am: Growing Up in the Sensory World of Asperger Syndrome 
And sometimes, when there was nothing to distract myself with, I would hear the plants or the tools talk to me. I didn't hear them with my ears. I rather perceived their message without sounds or gestures. I knew what they were thinking and feeling and what they wanted to communicated to me. They were like the little elephant that my brother had rejected and which I rescued out of compassion. Sometimes they just smiled at me or thanked me for watering or feeding them ... Some of the larger trees wanted me to pat them and greet them. If I forgot, they would cry in despair. If I remembered, they were happy. - Elkie Kammer, Discovering Who I am: Growing Up in the Sensory World of Asperger Syndrome
[Once, working in a slaughterhouse] ... my religious feelings were renewed...I felt totally at one with the universe as I kept the animals completely calm while the rabbi performed shehita. Operating the equipment there was like being in a Zen meditation state. Time stood still, and I was totally, completely disconnected from reality ... I thought about the similarities between the wonderful trancelike feeling I had while gently holding the cattle in the chute and the spaced-out feeling I had as a child when concentrating on the dribbling sand through my fingers on the beach. During both experiences all other sensation was blocked ... Maybe the monks who chant and meditate are kind of autistic. I have observed that there is a great similarity between certain chanting and praying rituals and the rocking of an autistic child. I feel there has to be more to this than just getting high on my endorphins ... When the animal remained completely calm I felt an overwhelming feeling of peacefulness, as if God had touched me ... As the life force left the animal, I had been completely overwhelmed with feelings I did not know I had." - Temple Grandin, Thinking in Picutures and Other Reports from My Life with Autism 
When I see or think about the wind, I am the wind. I see flying leaves around me, as I hear a powerful withering noise, which can invite those dark pirate clouds to fly and fight each other for territorial expansion across the sky ... How do I perceive it? I do not need to perceive that because I am that when I think of that. Alive and all powerful. -Tito Mukhopadhyay, How Can I Talk if my Lips Don't Move: Inside my Autistic Mind 
Having read some accounts of those who experimented with drugs (including Huxely's 'Doors of Perception') I suddenly realised that I have always experienced my environment like them - as if I had been on drugs all my life. I hadn't got a clue that others couldn't see vibrating colors, blurred boundaries around things, and intoxicating brilliance of 'stars' and shapes floating freely in the air." - Nick P. (Personal communication to Olga Bogdashina recorded in her book Autism and Spirituality) 
With all these different examples of autistics' religious experiences (and I know of many more I didn't quote), how can anyone deny that something transpersonal or supernatural exists in the world?I haven't been blessed with the intensity of some of their experiences, but in contemplative meditation I have completely lost awareness of the separation between self and other, for minutes at a time. Since I started my kundalini yoga practice, I regularly see haloes of white light around some people's heads, and I will occasionally see a field of light or color surrounding other people. 

From Steiner's perspective, this would mean that my weak etheric body (what adapts the astral body to the physical body) would lead to my and those others' mystical experiences. Since there is no bridge between soul and body, the soul shows itself completely to the body in a way that would expose me to the full onslaught of the astral world, for good and for bad.

But is there a way to strengthen the etheric body? Since the autistic like me knows how to access the astral world, I don't think there would be risk in healing the deficiencies that come with my strengths. Luckily, Steiner offers some suggestions just that kind of strengthening:
“Let us assume that it became a custom among people to evoke such thoughts [taking a mental "snapshot" of whatever one is doing; picturing oneself and one's surroundings as if from above] when they lay down certain objects--then this custom alone would evoke a strengthening of the human ether body. The human ether body is in fact more and more consolidated by doing this kind of thing; it becomes ever stronger and stronger. We have learned from anthroposophy that the ether, or life, body must be for us in a certain sense the bearer of the memory. If we do something that strengthens the powers of memory, then we can understand right away that such a strengthening of the powers of memory aids our ether body. As anthroposophists we need not be so very surprised about it. But suppose you suggest to someone who not only is forgetful, but also shows certain conditions of nervousness, what has been described here. If the restless or nervous person does this—-accompanies the placement of objects with such thoughts—-then you will see that he or she not only becomes less forgetful, but also gradually, through the strengthening of the ether body, puts aside certain so-called nervous conditions. Then a proof will have been provided, through life, that what we say about the ether body is right."
To put a long story short, to strengthen the etheric body one must deliberately pay attention to whatever one is doing. Instead of going hastily through life, you have to let your surroundings and your actions sink in. Do things slowly; let your attention linger on whatever you do and whatever your eyes happen to fall on. Also useful for this purpose is the imaginative act of "picturing" yourself from the outside. Imagine that you were a camera above your head (like in third-person video game RPG) and see what you'd look like from that perspective. Eventually you'll get the sense of being that much more embodied, since your attention, your focus, and the "force" of your soul will rest on your physicality itself.

And finally, here's another exercise I find extremely helpful: 
“Our etheric body can also grow fundamentally stronger if we do something else to improve our memory. Perhaps in another connection this has already been mentioned here. But for all forms of disease in which nervousness plays a part, one should certainly take advice drawn from this area as well. That is, one can do an enormous amount to strengthen the etheric body if one remembers the things one knows not only in the normal order one knows them but also remembering them backward. Let us say that in school someone has to learn a string of rulers or battles or other events. They are learned according to the year in which they occurred. It is extraordinarily good not only to have them learned or to learn them oneself in the normal order, but also to learn the matter in the reverse order, running through everything for oneself from back to front. This is an extraordinarily important matter. For if we do something like this in a more comprehensive way, we contribute once again to an enormous strengthening of our etheric body. To think through whole dramas backward to the beginning, or stories we have read, these are things that are important to the highest degree for the consolidation of the etheric body.”
Basically, try remembering a string of events in reverse order. It gets you thinking less in terms of hasty "forward-flow" and more in terms of focus on particular moments.

Anyway, that's it for this post. Best wishes to everyone, autistics and otherwise.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Autism and the Human Race's Childhood

Lately, several realizations have been going on at once, which have tended to weave together to give me a single insight. I want to tackle that insight in this post.

First, I'm working on a personal memoir for the whole month of November, one that I ultimately want to publish. It's on my life with autism and my unique way of dealing with it, but in doing that writing, I've also had to do lots of introspection. And one thing I realized above all in that soul-searching was that my autism makes it so I don't naturally think in terms of "here" and "there". For me--and many other autistics, I'm sure--the world would only make sense if everything were here, so that you don't even have to think in terms of distance. I want the world to be an image on display, where everything is present, apparent, and visible. Hiddenness doesn't make sense to me, and neither does deceit. Any tendency toward "literal" thinking I've had in the past is due to how inconceivable hidden things are to me. And any professor-like eloquence I had as a kid then likely happened because I wanted to convey all of what I meant in words, shoving all the meaning normally used in body language into the precision of advanced vocabulary.

But in our house, we're also fostering kittens at the moment. They're a joy for all of us--they brighten our spirits and help us connect to our tenderly loving side. But something struck me the other day when watching those kittens play. They seemed to get on really well--and even communicate--without uttering a single word! How could this be possible? I then remembered a thought which I had heard from Temple Grandin's works: that animals think in pictures (as she says autistics do, as well). But could those kittens also be communicating in pictures? Could there be a subtle, instinctual communication between them that consists only of gestures and movements with their little cat bodies?

If so, another insight I remembered gives an interesting dimension to the animal's kind of communication. I've not kept it a secret (especially on my religious blog) that I'm a huge fan of the 18th century thinker Emanuel Swedenborg, who claimed he could "see through" to the spiritual world and converse with the beings there. Swedenborg wrote in the first volume of his Secrets of Heaven (which I read last summer) that the earliest humans didn't speak in words at all. Instead, they "spoke" through gestures and facial expressions, much the same way that I speculated that animals do:
"They also spoke less with words than people afterward did and still do. Instead, like the angels, they spoke in ideas or mental images, which they could communicate by endless changes in facial expression, especially around the lips. This part of the face has countless series of muscle fibers that today cannot work separately but in those times were independent of each other. Using these muscles, they were able to display, signal, and represent their ideas in such a way that what we would now need an hour to express in articulated sounds (that is, words) would have taken them a minute. And they conveyed their message to the grasp and real comprehension of those present much more fully and clearly than words or sentences could ever do. This may seem impossible, and yet it is true."
Swedenborg said that the humans of the "earliest church" spoke like this, before the descent into literal conceptualism that both ended this way of communicating and is symbolically represented by Adam's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. And re-reading this recently made me wonder: could that "earliest church" be the time when the human race was still barely separate from the animal? Maybe we as humans had our perfection on earth when we didn't yet think of speaking in words. The Bible never says that the animals were expelled from the Garden, after all...

Relating this back to autism, I began to speculate some more. In a book called The Reason I Jump, an eloquent thirteen-year-old boy with autism wrote of his opinion that "Although people with autism look like other people physically, we are in fact very different in many ways. We are more like travelers from the distant, distant past. And if, by our being here, we could help the people of the world remember what truly matters for the Earth, that would give us a quiet pleasure.” Could it be that we autistics "think in pictures"--in a way where everything is visible and nothing is hidden--because we are a kind of envoy from that "earliest church?" Perhaps this would mean that we, as autistics, are somehow called to bring the world back to that state where thoughts were written plainly on the face and heaven shone through everything surrounding them.

Of course, many autistics struggle reading facial expressions. But could this lack of understanding only exist because autistics are "wired" to avoid the ambiguities of hidden levels of meaning? Maybe if autistics were taught to forgo words entirely, we could be like the members of that earliest church and communicate thoughts 60 times faster than verbal language could. That's somewhat similar to the explanations I've heard for the savant capacities of some autistics (that they can think so quickly because they don't need to use words; they use pictures as a "shortcut"). But because our culture is so outwardly verbal (you're reading this in words, after all), autistics never stop to think that there could be something more to their "disability," something which would basically make them superheroes. We would be like my kittens communicating with only slight facial expressions and twitches of the tail, only with the ability to "speak" of math, philosophy, art, and anything else you can think of.

Practically speaking, I think that the best thing a teacher or parent can do for autistic children--and through them, the world--is to encourage them to think and speak in pictures. Teach them to paint and to draw. When they're old enough, encourage them to read and write poetry. And above all, teach them that words are only images which have forgotten how to be images; that child's full potential will be unlocked when they learn that the whole world of colors, textures, plants, animals, symbols, and archetypes is laid open for them like a giant dictionary. Maybe that autistic child announces the onset a future world where--like Swedenborg said of that earliest church--we think entirely in poetry, metaphor and myth, communicating images through still more images, yet never losing clarity.

Monday, August 31, 2015


Ever since I was a toddler, I've loved to crawl inside tight places. From underneath couches to closets and crawlspaces, cramped places felt cozy to me. They still do, though now I feel less of a need to actually seek them out. Instead, I fantasize: I have a Pinterest board entirely set aside for pictures of "book nooks," for example, and sometimes I daydream about going off to a mountain and living in a mobile camper for the rest of my days. 

But isn't it weird that this person I am--with a fascination for one-room cabins and book nooks--also obsesses over infinity? When I was three, I asked my mom whether a person who fell in a bottomless pit would get hurt. I made theories about time travel and four-dimensional space as a kid, and as I got older my interests drifted from spacetime to the technological singularity to a Marxist utopia. And of course, that's what led me to my interest in religion and mysticism. I wanted perfection to come down to earth, to see infinity with my own eyes; but I had these thoughts while daydreaming about cupboards and closets.

How do these two things fit together? How can the boy who wanted to see time also try to stuff himself in a bread box? There are some clues: I love Doctor Who, a show about a tiny box that's bigger on the inside; I grew up in a theater whose limited space is its greatest creative asset; and I belong in a religion that believes in an infinite God who lives in a body made of flesh and bones. Am I saying that these things pushed me in that direction? Not really. I'm just beginning to wonder whether I was "put" in a life where these things would be available to me. Like James Hillman's idea of an "acorn" soul who--as a timeless image of a human life--grows into its nature as a tree, I think the unique tangle of the infinite and the finite was part of my life from the very beginning. I guess you could say that it's my calling.

To put it another way, the psychologist Carl Jung once speculated that each person comes into life to "answer a question," and I'm wondering whether my question has to do with how infinity and smallness are connected to each other. Carl Jung's idea leads me to ask myself if God, the universe, destiny, or whatever is giving me a "riddle" to unravel over the course of my life. And if so, what is that riddle, and how quickly am I moving toward the answer?

Hints abound: apart from the things already mentioned, I was born with autism, and with it I got both a savant-like talent for deep thought and an obvious limitation with social and practical things. In a way I guess you could say that I'm bigger on the inside too. The play I wrote called The Box--produced in 2013--was a version of the same principle: two men inside an onstage box, one who wants to escape it ("The 2nd Man") and one who thinks that he and the box are the only things that exist ("The 1st Man"). When they come to terms, it isn't by one "beating" the other; they come together with the help of someone from the "outside," and together they leave. In other words: the longing for infinity and the craving for tiny places come together, leaving the audience with the show's final line, spoken by the 1st Man: "Huh. A bigger box."

That line might itself be the answer to my life's question, even if it's just a beginning one, an acorn just starting to sprout into a tree. Like the two characters in the play, I am fascinated and afraid of both infinity and smallness. Part of me wants to shrink into a tiny box and stay there forever; part of me wants to soar to every unknown horizon. But when something new pops up--a parallel to God, Jung's Self or "transcendent function," or something else--they see that they both actually craved the same thing: an "outside" that is also an "inside." I don't just want to fit inside a closet or see infinity--I want to stuff infinity in my closet! I want to see everything endless and vast wrapped up in something I can touch with my finger.

This is something similar to what archetypal psychologist James Hillman pondered in his meditations on alchemy. In his essay, "The Azure Vault: Caelum as Experience," he says:
"The caelum [a final alchemical goal] consoles the present not by taking experience away from what is, but by offering the box an an image of transcendence, so that vision is delivered from pain and circumstance, freed even from the very desire to transcend the misery simply by the prospect of transcendence, the inquiry it evokes, the light it sheds, and the balm delivered."
The caelum--a Latin word for sky or heaven--represents heaven as it's incarnate in the materials of the alchemist's laboratory. All scientific problems aside, what those alchemists were suggesting was that even the upper limit of transcendence can fit itself into a glass vessel and its chemical contents. We see this wherever something "points" to more than is physically there in the thing itself, when the infinite shines through the finite like glass. This is what it means to be bigger on the inside, to have every outside be an inside: intimations of heaven in a book, a lover, or a glass bottle.

But these answers lead to more questions: what does this mean for me? Why have me answer this "riddle?" Then I wonder: could it be that our culture-- with an overly literal imagination that can only think of greatness in terms of big screens, skyscrapers, and Star Wars--needs someone to point out "the small"'s value? Could it be that I and other autistics are supposed to remind the world that bigger doesn't always mean better? For we autistics are all proof against that idea. A literalist culture like ours doesn't know what to think of the math savant who can't wash his own clothes or a low-functioning autistic who has genius observations about the world but can't speak a word. How can someone that looks so disabled be so valuable? If they don't end up getting good grades, how can they be smart?

We are living proof that things are bigger on the inside, that the transcendent can be wrapped up inside the immanent as a "bigger box." When the 1st Man stepped outside his box, he discovered that the box he loved was bigger than he thought it was--that boxes can get bigger and bigger on the inside while still being boxes. And he didn't just learn what the box really was; he discovered what he had never dreamed: that it isn't only him living in "the box," but anyone and everyone else. The philosopher's idea of the object's "transcendence" of the subject might be true; but that outside is in a bigger inside, and in that bigger box we are all immanent to each other.

Could all this be why I'm limited in the first place? Could the reason I'm awkward and oblivious be so my "bigger inside" can become clear? Or maybe it's so that, by living happily and productively with those limitations, I can show the world that limitation isn't a bad thing. Possible, all possible. But one thing's certain: like the Greek myth where the titan Kronos eats his children the gods, our culture's titanic idols have tried to absorb everything tiny and worthwhile. Buy all your books on Amazon! America is the greatest country in the world! This new iPhone has the biggest memory ever! All; greatest; bigger--when will we realize that it isn't the biggest or the greatest that's best, but the small and the limited? Maybe it will take a catastrophe. Maybe we'll have the technology to get whatever we crave, then realizing to our own shame that it doesn't even come close to being enough. But apart from a tragedy, maybe all we need to do is listen to the bigger insides already among us, the human Tardises walking around stiffly on their toes and refusing to look you in the eye. These autistics hold the key for our culture, if for no other reason than the way they break its obsession on literal size. For if autistics can teach us about the worth--and size--of insides, maybe we still have hope.

As for me, I'm going to do the best I can to show people "the small"'s beauty. I'll try teaching people that everyday life holds wonders beyond the most outlandish fantasy, that the mundane is mystical and the normal profound. As I said elsewhere, Tardises are everywhere, and every wardrobe might lead to Narnia. I think I'd be happy if I got at least some people to see the 1st Man's "bigger box" in their jobs, their disabilities, or their bodies. For I guess that's the answer to my riddle, even if I've only just sketched it: that we are to love the small--to have claustrophilia.