Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Revel in your senses!
We experience the world around us through our senses, but we sometimes don't pay attention to what they are telling us. In fact, if we actually paid attention to every sensation we felt, we would be completely overwhelmed and unable to do anything. But, we can, from time to time, drop into one particular sense, we can focus and experience so much more than is our usual. This practice has many benefits, and can be used for a variety of reasons.
Mindfulness is something that I have been working on (and in many ways struggling with) for many, many years. At it's core, mindfulness is exactly what I was talking about: tuning in to what your senses are telling you. In order to be fully present in the moment (which is what mindfulness is), you have to actually stop thinking about what has happened or what is to happen, stop judging and comparing everything, and just start noticing things.
The actual practice of mindfulness is something I can do. I can immerse myself into a sense, put all my attention on what my fingers are touching or a particular sound. I can tune into a scent or taste and let it fill em up. What I personally struggle with is remembering to do this!
So, why is mindfulness so important as a practice? There are a lot of things that we may do, either in our ordinary life, or in our spiritual practice, that we may find we have a tendency to do by rote. You may be familiar with finishing a task, knowing you have done it, but having no actual memory of the process of doing the task. I find myself in this place a lot. For some things I don't mind. When I am doing chores, sometimes it is okay to zone out and just do the task while thinking about something else (or nothing at all).
But I also find myself doing this sometimes with my spiritual practices, like daily affirmations or meditations. Of course, this is not something that I want to be doing! It's the repetition of it that makes it something I start to tune out. By becoming very familiar with a task, by repeating it often, my brain no longer has to think to do it. I can start a practice, and my brain will set me on my path and do it, but with me actually paying attention to it. I counteract this tendency two ways.
Firstly, I pull myself back into my body (even with a visualization practice!), and I focus on the sensations as I do things. This may mean thinking about how my body is feeling, or paying attention to the world around me. This actually works very well if you are struggling with sitting for meditation. You can narrow your world down to just one sense. Try to catalog everything you are smelling, or everything you hear. With your eyes closed, try to remember and visualize something in exact detail.
The second thing I do is swap up my routine, so that when things start to become too familiar, I try something new. This forces me to think about it as I do it, and makes me less likely to be able to do it by rote. Even going back to an older practice creates this necessary focus, as time causes older practices to be less familiar. And often, I find that when I come back to an older practice, I have grown since I last practiced it, so there is now more depth to explore.
Another reason to practice mindfulness is to help pull you out of a distressful mental place. I have issues with anxious thoughts. I know that I can end up in an anxiety loop, where I'll have an anxious thought, and even though I know it's my anxiety talking, just having that thought makes me more anxious. Sometimes, I can refocus my thoughts by using affirmations or distracting my brain with something else (like a book/movie), but sometimes even that doesn't work.
I saw a tip for dealing with anxiety attacks, that suggested when you are starting to feel anxious, to start paying attention to your senses. You look around and name five different things you can see, then four things you can hear, then three things you can touch, and two things you can smell and one you can taste (you can really mix up the numbers and senses any way you want...but the order of it makes you focus and think, so do the count down and use a different sense for each number). By giving yourself this task, which forces you to start paying attention to things outside your head, it helps you break free from the anxious thoughts.
I know, for me, the combined acts of naming and counting are very comforting. It gives me a sense of order, and makes me feel more in control. I also find that the more I challenge myself, the easier it is to avoid the anxious thoughts. If I look for five things that are red instead of just five things, I may have to get creative. I might have to go looking for things instead of just being able to look around me and find them. Also, picking a more difficult sense can give you the same challenge. You could pick five scents or five tastes. Or you could give it a twist: you could seek out things to sense. You could make sounds to listen to (or listen to a song and try to pick out individual instruments). You could find things in your kitchen to taste. You can find interesting things to touch.
This sort of leads into another reason to revel in your senses: pleasure! When you really tune in and focus on one specific sensation, you get to experience it in a much more intense way. This is the standard mindfulness exercise: eating an orange. First you look at it..really look at it. What color is it? Are there blemishes or scars on it? Do the wrinkles around the stem remind you of anything? Is the skin smooth or sticky, warm or cold? What does it smell like (before you start peeling it, during, and after)? Slow down as you start peeling it. Feel all the textures, and listen to the sound it makes as you rip into the peel. Taste all the parts of it, and let those tastes roll around your mouth.
It takes a long time to fully experience eating an orange in a mindful way, but it is a pretty incredible experience. You don't have to do the whole thing every time you want to practice mindfulness, however. You can add in tiny moments of mindfulness into things you do already, everyday!
When you eat a meal, take a breath and enjoy the scent before you eat. Let yourself savor that very first bite (this is especially fun to do with deserts, or your favorite snacks!) I do this as part of my gratitude and prayer practice. I can never remember to say prayers of gratitude before eating, but I can savor my food and send my gratitude towards the universe and all that sacrificed to make that food.
I love practicing mindfulness with my cats too. When one of them is cuddled up with me, or wanting attention, I really drop into the moment of petting them and spending time with them. There is something about the pure affection of animals that is super calming and restorative to me. But I can tell you what my cat's smell like, what their fur smells like, what their breath smells like, and how their scent changes when you really smoosh your face into their side. I know what parts of which cats are the softest, how prickly the fur is where one of the cats chews on her fur, and the slightly wiry feel of where our other cat doesn't groom by her tail as well.
Listening to music is one of my great pleasures in life, and while I often have music going all day long, so I can enjoy it while I'm doing other things, sometimes it's really nice to just lay down or sit in a comfy chair, close my eyes and just experience a song.
It's practices like this, that are great self-care for me. I tend to be pretty busy, giving myself lots of tasks to do, and trying to figure out how to juggle them all with the time I have. I might be doing two things at once (or in quick succession), so being able to slow down and just experience what is going on, without needing to DO anything...that is such a great feeling.
Our senses have so much to tell us, when we stop and pay attention to them. Tuning in to one or all of our sense can help us appreciate the world around us, break free from repetitive or obsessive thoughts, or just refresh ourselves. Cultivating a mindfulness practice, whether you take five minutes or thirty, is something anyone can do. It something you can practice anytime, anywhere, and it doesn't require any special skills.
So take a moment, or two, and see what your senses have to tell you. Drop into where you are, right now, and notice what draws your attention. Don't let your life rush past you without your notice!