Exploring our senses

When we are very upset, we are swirling around in our own minds, hardly aware of our bodies. But when we are gently prodded to explore our senses, in any number of ways, we are distracted from our troubling thoughts. Here are a few ways to go about exploring our senses:

The first suggestion is perhaps one of the simplest imaginable, and it can help you quickly find your way to a calmer state via what you are sensing. The concept of a sensory inventory is not my idea, as many therapists suggest this. As such, I had thought of not including it but it is so useful, and such a practical and easy thing to do if you are stressed and awake at three in the morning, that I’ve kept it here anyway. You can rearrange the senses and numbers of experiences any way you wish; there are no requirements.

To begin a sensory inventory, look around you and choose five things that you see. Describe them, study them, and look at them intently. Notice their shapes and colors, areas of light and shadow, any contrasts, areas that are fuzzy and areas that are clearly defined. Really look at your chosen objects and allow your attention to completely focus on what you see. (If it is dark you can do this section in your “mind’s eye”, as Shakespeare said.) Being in a hurry is counterproductive, and luxuriously taking care of yourself is a gift to yourself. I’d encourage you to take all the time you want.

Once you have fully explored the five things you have selected to visualize, find four things you hear. Even in a quiet home in the woods there are sounds, trees rustling, the wind rattling the windows or other house sounds, an occasional animal sound, maybe the sound of something cooking, or a fire crackling. In a city, you will have much to choose from. Really listen, and even observe if you can hear sounds coming from far away. Robert Peng often encourages us to listen like this, to sounds from far away. It is amazing how calming it can be, and how much you can hear if you listen.

Let yourself enjoy the sounds as long as you like, and then find three things you can touch. This can be as simple as touching the clothing you are wearing with your fingertips, or putting the palm of your hands on the wall you are sitting next to, or feeling the floor with your feet either in socks or barefoot. There are other aspects of touch you might explore as well, such as temperatures, textures, and other sensations. Experience as much as you can with touch on your skin.

Next find two things you can smell. Really revel in the scents of these things, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. Maybe you smell something cooking, or the cleaner you used on the floor, or for those of us with pets, the smell of a beloved animal. You can throw the game a bit in your favor if you gather up your favorite scents for this, but whatever you choose to smell, see if you can sink your whole consciousness into the experience of smelling the two things you have chosen. When we smell something, the molecules of that odor go up into our nose to our olfactory receptors which have a neural connection to our brain. Truly, we can change our brain and its mood almost instantly with scent. Memories are often associated with smells too, but right now we want to simply revel in the act of smelling.

Last, find one thing to taste. Obviously, it would be wise to avoid possible toxins, so becoming too wildly adventurous about what you decide to taste might not be smart, but even if you stick to tasting something that is obviously food, say a raisin, really taste it and see how broad your experience can be. For those of us who are really stressed out, it is a sad fact that many of us eat without ever tasting our food.

Take a moment after all this sensing and note where your anxiety, stress, or revved up feelings are now. You’ve given your brain a few moments off, some minutes without any thought about your problems. Just observe how you feel. Even if you are only a tiny bit calmer, perhaps you can imagine how much better you’d feel after a period of time, if you repeat this exercise or find other ways to get away from the chatter in your head about your problems. Obviously, you can also vary the order of the senses, and the number of individual sensory experiences you find for each one.

A long hot bath 

If we are trying to calm down, a long bath can be very soothing and calming. Why not go all the way and stay in there an hour, treating yourself to candles, music, yummy smelling essential oils, flower petals in the water, or anything else you’d find relaxing or would give you pleasure. Yes, you’ll have to refresh the hot water, and you might have to make sure the candles are safe, but an hour like this is an absolute joy. Personally, I like to add salt, or baking soda, or Epsom salts or other magnesium salts to the bath water, or bath salts, or even a cup of strong tea like ginger, my favorite. Just plain hot water is fine too. Sometimes stores sell bath balls that bubble up and release scents, so you might pick up a few to have on hand at a time like this. Playing with these bubbly balls can make you feel like a kid again, and you won’t be sorry you have some on hand.

Don’t forget your feet!

Here’s the simplest and shortest suggestion of all. Don’t forget to play with your feet!

I have a tradition of asking my students to work only with their feet during the last class of the semester. I spend a few weeks gathering up tissue paper that comes with packages, brown paper bags from the grocery store, other types of packing or wrapping paper, newspaper, and in the end, I have gathered up an impressive bundle of various sizes and weights of paper.

I drag it all down to school, give everybody an assortment of paper and tell them to take their shoes off and begin ripping it up with their toes. There are no real instructions, but I encourage them to make strips at first, and then move on to smashing balls together from the torn paper, and finally to toss the balls to each other, and catch them, using only their feet. Usually there is someone who will get into this so deeply that they create an origami figure or paper airplane! In a school of music students, it isn’t lost on them how neglected feet can become and more than one student has proclaimed this the best lesson of the term. There are no instructions except that you are encouraged to use both feet to tear up the paper, rather than just one. That way both sides of your brain and body can share the fun.

Clearly you can have a go at ripping paper up with your toes anytime you like. But you can experiment with doing other things with your feet. I often try to clean things with my feet, like the bathtub or the kitchen floor. (Remember to divvy up the work right and left, as your brain needs the balance of working on both sides, not only the dominant side.) I have learned to make the bed with my feet, sort of. Still, even if it is messy, it’s fun and leads to giggles, which lightens things up.

Your feet carry you through the world and through your life’s journey. Consider rolling a soft ball around under the soles of your feet gently, while you stand. Do this for a few moments and feel how much more alive your feet feel. Or try to walk around in unusual ways, just for fun – walk a few steps just on your heels, or just on your toes. Or massage your feet gently with a lovely lotion. Best of all, go outside and walk on the bare earth or on grass. Direct contact by your bare feet with the earth calms anybody down, and you might find it energizes you too. There is actually a whole method built on this, called Grounding, but you will get the gist of it if you just walk around outside with your bare feet on the earth. I’ve met people who bravely do this in the dead of winter, because they feel it helps them so much. I’ve tried that myself, with no harm done. The point is that any tender loving care you can give your feet will benefit you immensely. And you won’t be thinking about SMI one bit while you do it.