Meditate With Your Five Senses

Carolyn Gimian explores how we can find the essential space and aliveness within everyday activities.

Illustrations by Whooli Chen

Spring: the scent of apple blossoms, the chirping of birds, the riotous colors of tulips, the taste of fiddlehead ferns cooked in butter, the feel of new grass beneath bare feet—this idyllic picture is brought to you by your five senses!

To be alive is miraculous. To truly appreciate life, we need to perceive, to feel—to sense our world. We rely on our sense organs (our eyes, ears, noses, tongues, skin) to be sensitive to light, vibrations, touch, or the very molecules that make up scents and tastes and translate such stimuli into electrical signals that travel via the nervous system to areas in the brain. Those signals are then interpreted so we have fully formed perceptions.

It truly is astounding that we can communicate so intimately and accurately with the world by means of our senses. Yet we tend to take our senses for granted. Mindfulness helps us connect more directly with sense perceptions, bringing us into the present. In mindfulness meditation, by sitting quietly and attending to our breath, we slow down. We aren’t dragged around all the time by our thoughts. Mindfulness in everyday life provides an opportunity to pay extraordinary attention to ordinary sounds, sights, tastes, smells, and touches, many of which we normally overlook. Have you ever really heard your refrigerator? What does the paper in your office printer smell like? Have you noticed the bright red lipstick your coworker is wearing today?

In modern urban life, we suffer from both sensory deprivation and sensory overload. The deprivation comes partly from the narrowing of our physical environment: we ride the same bus or subway every day to work; we sit at a desk, staring into a computer screen. At night, we go home and often stare into more screens. It’s no wonder we crave sensory experiences, seeking out the best coffee, vegetables, or olive oil while we take up gardening, knitting, or cycling, or we head to the gym or the bar after work.

On the other hand, we are bombarded by the excessive sensory input that is part of urban life. Construction noise, bad air, traffic jams, crowds everywhere—we’re so busy going nowhere. No surprise that we also dream of a beach vacation with no agenda or drink ourselves into oblivion on the weekend. Politics, money, relationships, parenting, and jobs all create stress, and stress tends to deaden us and dull our perceptions.

We can’t go on vacation every day or every week, so finding the space and the aliveness within everyday activities seems essential. This is where our senses can really serve us. With all the stresses and strains that we face, our senses can show us and support us in taking a more open and balanced approach to everyday life. These openings to the world are inexpensive. In fact, they freely transmit the beauty, power, and richness of the world. In times like these, let’s celebrate the senses.

Sight

Sight is the overwhelmingly dominant sense. As much as 80% of what we learn comes through our eyes. When you look at something, you may think you’re seeing the object, the thing itself, but you’re really seeing light reflected from that object (unless something is actually self-luminous, like a light bulb). We only see a narrow spectrum of light, which does not include ultraviole