Quick – can you name your five main senses? When was the last time you really tuned in to them? We take the senses for granted, probably relying too much on sight, if anything. Only when we lose one do we appreciate how important it is. As Helen Keller poignantly put it, “Of all the senses, sight must be the most delightful.”
So one way of being more mindful of self and surroundings is to fully utilize all five senses: sight, smell, sound, touch and taste. I have a book from the 1960s called “Sense Relaxation Below Your Mind”. The title conjures up images of psychedelic experiences and love beads, doesn’t it? And the book certainly has a lot of artsy photos of blissful people engaging in touchy-feely exercises in sensory awareness. But it is actually a useful source of ideas for re-establishing your connection to your senses, and using them to mediate your experience of the world.
The thing I like most to do from the book is a sense walk, either in a familiar place or somewhere new. The way to do the sense walk is to concentrate for 3 minutes at a time on just one sense: first sound, then smell, then touch, then sight. After the first four, you sit down and eat something very slowly and mindfully, focusing on taste. You finish the experience by continuing to walk mindfully, seeing if you can fuse all five senses into a complete experience.
When I do a sense walk at this time of year, the signs of spring are foremost in my experience:
What do I hear? Birds singing and chirping more than just a week or two ago, but also sirens, traffic, children playing.
What do I smell? Mulch and manure as plant beds are replenished for the season; cooking aromas; cigarettes.
What do I feel? Everything is warmer to the touch; my feet connect with cobblestones; cool breezes kiss my skin.
What do I see? Forsythia and dogwood are blooming; the Washington Monument comes into view as I walk down the hill; spring break tourists walk dazedly, lugging Disney tote bags.
What do I taste? One piece of chocolate savored for several minutes. It reminds me of eating Almond Joys as a child when I used to nibble around the almonds and save them for last!
The sense walk offers an opportunity for a ‘beginner’s mind’ experience, or as Barbara Sher says, “When you start using senses you’ve neglected, your reward is to see the world with completely fresh eyes.” Instead of listening to the endless chatter of our minds, we start to hear the sounds of nature. Instead of smelling only what is close by, we learn to notice the aromas all around. Instead of being more familiar with the hard plastic of our digital devices than the feel of our own skin, we have a chance to rediscover the touch of something natural. Instead of focusing just on what’s relevant to us, we learn to look around and notice others. And instead of shoving food mindlessly into our mouths, we take the time to truly taste and be nourished.
Sense relaxation is about remembering what you innately know already. It is about giving yourself permission to just let go for a while. It is about being alive to your full experience. Try it.