It's the best way to reacquaint yourself with life's simplest pleasures—the scent of lilacs, the sight of the sun rising and setting and the taste of fresh-baked bread.
My 5-month-old son sat in his high chair watching my every move—the flash of the knife as I sliced through juicy fruit, my hand reaching for a paper towel, the delivery of a strange item to the plastic tray before him. He picked up the slippery wedge with two hands, brought it to his mouth, bit and chewed, his eyes wide, first with curiosity and then with pure delight. Watermelon! After a short lifetime of nothing but breast milk and water, here was something entirely new and wonderful—sweet, wet, pink, delicious! In one brief moment, my son's world grew bigger and so much more interesting.
Babies meet the world entirely through their senses—sniffing, tasting, touching, looking and listening with their whole beings. But what about the rest of us? Sensory pleasure is available to us too, in every moment of the day. Yet how easily we forget!
"Most of us take our senses for granted," says Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses. "We're goal oriented, we're problem solvers. Indeed, those are two of our finest attributes. But we often overlook the textures and processes of life. We need to rejoice in our senses and allow them to reacquaint us with the pleasures of being alive," she says.
The senses carry food to the soul. Delight the senses, nurture them, and the soul thrives. Bombard the senses, overload them, and the soul starves and shrivels. Every day the world clamors for our attention—through computers, television sets, headsets, radios, fax machines and telephones—and our senses have to take it all in. We eat on the run, plow through our to-do lists, yet we miss what is delicate, pure and lyrical.
The exercises that follow will help you see, feel, touch, smell and hear with all your awareness.
Feast your Eyes Look around the room you are in right now. What do you see that pleases your eyes and soothes your spirit? We navigate the world according to what we see: a red light at an intersection, dirty dishes in the sink, a friend in the checkout line. But the visual world affects not just our actions but also our feelings. When we are surrounded by forms and colors that feed our souls, we bask in contentment.
Create a little altar for your eyes: Arrange one small space so it is exactly to your liking. Begin with a vase full of spring boughs on a tabletop and go from there. Set a favorite photograph beside it; add a pretty rock or feather, a bowl of plump cherries, a special note card from a friend.
Choose one window in your home to be your "frame" on the outside world. The view should have something in it that lifts your heart—a cherished tree, a patch of sky, a neighbor's potted geranium. Grow familiar with your view in all its intimate detail and look out on it for a moment or two at a different time each day. Watching this living landscape as it changes yet remains constant through the seasons, you may find you are led to your own quiet center. Explaining her return to the same spot on the coast of Maine for the past 20 years, columnist Ellen Goodman writes, "There are two ways to live—wide or deep." Our sense of sight allows us to live deep, thanks to our profound powers of observation.
Wake Up Your Taste Buds We first learn about the world by putting it in our mouths—fingers, toes, mother's milk. By tasting we learn to distinguish that which nourishes from that which does not.
Assemble the ingredients for a simple, solitary meal. Choose fresh, unprocessed foods—perhaps a salad, cheese, bread and a piece of fruit. Think about the origins of each food—the long, marvelous journey from seed, mill or farm to your table. Sit down to your feast without any distractions and allow yourself to savor every mouthful. As Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observes, we can see and taste the whole universe in a piece of bread.
Do a taste test. All you need is a blindfold and an assortment of foods or drinks. The summer before my husband and I were married, we did blind Champagne tastings every Friday night, in a highly scientific quest for the right bubbly at the right price. It was tough work, but someone had to do it. People who are certain they don't like, say, green apples often discover they rank the Granny Smith above the McIntosh in a blind tasting. Without the benefit of sight, our taste buds surprise us.
Hear A Pin Drop We do our ears a great favor when we create a quiet space and then fill it with sounds of beauty. As Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield advises, "Take time every day to sit quietly and listen."
Give yourself the gift of music, not as a soundtrack for some other activity but as your sole focus. Choose a recording to reflect the day's mood or to evoke the mood you seek. Then lie back with your eyes closed and deliver yourself to pure sound.
Sit alone and close your eyes. Focus on the sounds around you and keep a mental list of everything you hear—an airplane making its way across the distant sky, the drone of traffic on a freeway a mile away, the leaves blowing outside an open window.
Stop and Smell the Roses...and Everything Else Ask people which sense they could sacrifice and most choose smell; as senses go, this one seems relatively dispensable. But without one's ability to smell, many of life's simple pleasures dwindle or disappear. We are smelling all the time—it is part of breathing, eating, lovemaking; part of taking in the world and responding to the great potpourri of life. We often carry our most vivid memories in our noses. Haven't we all buried our faces in a lover's forgotten shirt, inhaled the sweet essence of a baby's scalp, been stopped short by the haunting scent of lilacs? Such fragrances unlock the storehouse of the mind.
Think about how you would like your house to smell. If it's cluttered with too many competing artificial aromas, throw out or give away products that don't please your nose. Introduce smells that are pure and natural, keeping the overall effect subtle. Instead of air freshener, try a scented candle. Put handfuls of fresh herbs into a pitcher of water. Open windows for at least an hour every morning; air out rooms and fill them with the clean scents of damp earth and freshly cut grass.
Let your nose lead the way on a sensory walk. Take a friend with you and see what good sniffers you are. Can you tell which neighbor is barbecuing chicken? Can you smell rain in the air before the first droplets fall? How far away is that pizza parlor? Humans can detect more than 10,000 odors. How many can you savor on your stroll?
Indulge in Touch Through our fingertips, we can turn even the most mundane activity into a journey of discovery.
Make a ritual of washing your face. Patti Pitcher, co-founder of the Isabella catalog of "books and tools for awakening the spirit," discovered that the simple act of caring for her skin resulted in heightened sensory awareness. "The cleansing is an awakening experience for me every time," she says. "The more sensitive the tips of my fingers become, the more alive my face feels and the more connected I become."
Fill a basket with small objects that offer tactile pleasure—a smooth stone, a chip of beach glass, a shell, a pinecone, a gnarled twig. When you've acquired a dozen or so items, hold the basket on your lap and close your eyes. Pick up each article, one by one, and explore it with your fingers, noting its texture, temperature, weight and shape. (This is a wonderful activity to try with children. So often they are admonished, "Don't touch!" What a treat it is to be invited to touch to their heart's content!)
Living mindfully, we discover that a rich and fulfilling sensory diet is a matter of selection. Just as we can choose foods to nourish our bodies, we can choose sensory experiences that refresh our souls. The spurt of grapefruit on the tongue, a cheek turned to the sun, Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach—such gifts to the senses remind us that we are alive and receiving the grace of the world.