February 17, 2007

What Helen Keller Saw and Heard

"Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am."
—Helen Keller

Blind and deaf since toddlerhood, the prolific author Helen Keller was often accused in her lifetime of describing things—sights, sounds, colors, music—about which she had no direct knowledge. When Keller's autobiography The Story of My Life was published in 1903, a critic in The Nation magazine famously complained, "All her knowledge is hearsay knowledge. Her very sensations are for the most part vicarious, and yet she writes of things beyond her powers of perception with the assurance of one who has verified every word."

Keller herself admitted more than once to having "derived knowledge," picked up from the observations and experience of others. In attempting to tell us what it was like for her—one who lived in a world that in many ways she could only imagine—if she did not speak our language, how else could we who rely on visual and aural impressions begin to understand her? (To her credit, Keller did call her book The Story of My Life, not The Truth of My Life!)

As one who has written often about "spiritual" matters, I, too, tell stories through the filter of my own particular blindness and deafness. (As indeed who does not? As Byron Katie asks, did you know it was a sky, or even that it was blue, before you asked and someone told you about skies and blueness?) When I have awareness that seem close to the truth (I don't profess to know "the truth"), since I live in a world with apparent names and forms, where people use imagery-laden words and concepts to interact, I must use a common tongue to communicate my "relative reality" to myself as well as to others.

In her book, The World I Live In, Keller wrote, "Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am." It would appear that before others imposed their concepts on little Helen about how she should be, she lived in the state that spiritual seekers strive for, that which is prior to "I." Maybe, as infants, we all live there, until we are instructed to say Ma-ma, Da-da and doggie, until we are taught we were little boys or girls, that there is a God and that this God is something apart from what we are.

So, despite our best efforts, language adds layers to the illusion of separation from "what is." At the same time, it's a wonderful gift. Though Byron Katie says the truth cannot be told and that her "moment of clarity" happened in a wordless space, she too uses words to help us move beyond the stressful thoughts that appear to us in the form of language. Her self-inquiry process, The Work, is nothing but simple and direct arrangements of words like "Is it true?" that point to a way of finding what she found.

Having lost her sight at 19 months, Helen Keller might never have seen her infant self in a mirror. What I've come to realize is that I am not so different from her, though I have eyes that function. None of us sees our own face, only a reflection that is always distorted. When we do see what the poet David Whyte calls "the true shape of your own face," the "I" prior to "I," it is the result of an inward gaze.

Though my words appear to serve—at least my "fan mail" tells me so—I feel the need to say that any "knowledge" I pretend to impart here through my writing is not simply my opinion, it's "hearsay knowledge," borrowed interest. It's a beginning, it is clearly a help for some...and it's not "it." For this reason I use The Work, the most efficient fact-checker I've ever encountered, to continually verify for myself the words I say, the thoughts I think I believe, to polish the inner mirror, to learn how to speak more fluently the language of the heart.

©2007 by Carol L. Skolnick; all rights reserved.


Fabrice said...


This reminds me of Douglas Harding. His best know work is On Having No Head. He walks you through a very interesting process of discovery, where you realize that you've never seen your head, and in fact, you only "know" it exists by hearsay. Harding is a riot to watch and listen to. Get his DVD if you can. He must be 100 years old by now.


Anonymous said...

gjmgkHi Carol,

You've reminded me of something Eckhart Tolle says on on of his CDs about the words are signposts - look in the direction of the signpost rather than taking the signpost home :-)

With love, Jon