July 2, 2008
The Gift of the Senses
by Gregg Krech
Some people spend their entire life in one place. It may be New York City or a small town in Iowa, but it's the only place they know. I've also spent my whole life in one place — in this collection of bones, skin, muscles and nerves called a "body." All my experience, from the days prior to my physical birth up to this Summer morning in the Vermont's Green Mountains have been spent in this body. The only experience I know, or at least I can recall, is the experience of living, loving and working in this body. So I'm really a very limited person.
Since I have no comprehension of what life would be like anywhere else, it is quite easy for me to fail to appreciate my body. For the past twenty years, I don't believe a day has gone by where I didn't complain about my body in one way or another. A pulled muscle, a stiff back, mosquito bites on my leg. Yet many days go by without a mention, or even a moment of noticing, the gift of this body and the gifts which, in turn, this body bestows upon me. And the greatest blessing my body provides is the gift of sensory experience. My body allows me to make contact with the world around me. Visual contact. Auditory contact. The contact between my skin and the textures of creation. The fragrances, stenches and aromas of a world that is constantly dying and being born and making itself known through its odors. The tastes of everything from wine to oregano as my life devours other forms of life, many of which have their own unique flavors. I wonder if I have a unique flavor as well.
It is sensory experience that brings me into contact with life in its many forms. It blurs, thank goodness, the boundaries between me and not me. The sensory experience that my body provides helps me to forget the illusion of separateness that my body creates. When I'm fully immersed in my senses I am fully immersed in the present moment of my life. I have no worries, no past, no self-consciousness — just the experience of pounding a nail into the wall of a treehouse or sipping a cup of green tea that grew on a mountain in China.
We can't really fathom life without our senses. What would life be without sight? Without sound? Without taste or smell? What would it be like to live in a protected bubble where our skin could never make contact with the feel of another worldly substance? What would it be like to lose feeling — not feeling as emotion, but feeling as texture, as physical contact? For most of us we show little awareness of the blessing of our senses and notice them only when they begin to fail us or when we lose one altogether. We go to great lengths to restore our sight with eyeglasses, surgery and contact lenses, yet we can walk our dog for thirty minutes and get so caught up in our thoughts that we hardly notice the details of our surroundings. We only used our sight to make sure we stayed on the sidewalk and didn't bump into people.
Our sensory experience is one of the greatest blessings of being alive and perhaps the one we overlook more than any other. We can feel grateful for our spouse and children. We can appreciate a warm spring day or a beautiful sunset. We can cultivate a sense of gratitude for a car that gets us around or the electricity in our home that gives us light. But the vehicle for knowing that light exists, our sight, goes unappreciated. Until it begins to fail, of course.
To truly appreciate our senses we have to understand the joy which is born from sensory experience. When we hug, kiss or make love to someone, our senses are the vehicle for the intimacy we experience. When we stop to admire a painting or a breathtaking view, our senses allow us to experience the imagery of life around us. When we stick our head into a plume of lilacs or taste the spiciest, most exquisite curry sauce, we can thank our senses for this experience. The other day I watched a woman named Alison Crowe play piano and sing Leonard Cohen's "Halelujah." By the time she finished tears were flowing down my cheek and I felt that my breath had stopped in my throat as I listened to the final verse. I don't know why I had such a response. My intellect isn't capable of understand pure feeling.
Of all the people I know, there are two who stand out as people who live with passion. What does it mean to live with passion? To be so deeply connected to life through our senses that we cannot help but be drawn out of ourselves and into the most intimate, authentic connection with life. My dear friend Gottfried, when he met my five year old adopted daughter for the first time, knelt down in front of her and cradled her little head in his hands. Then he said, "Let me see what you taste like." He then kissed her cheek softly and smelled her skin as if he was inhaling the aroma of a fine wine. "You smell like a sweet bouquet of strawberry and mint." On his face was a look of enchantment, as if he was a child himself and had just discovered some new toy, the workings of which, could not be comprehended, but only appreciated. When we allow our senses free reign over our contact with reality we create an opportunity for presence and wonder. Even enchantment.
A psychologist named Ernest Mastria has developed a program to combat anxiety. His approach is similar to that of the Japanese psychiatrist Shoma Morita. When you're focusing on anxious thoughts, where is your attention? Mastria said that those patients who were struggling with anxiety had a decreased awareness of the world around them. They had abandoned sensory experience for an intellectual chess game which immersed them in worry and suffering. How do you cope with anxiety? Return to the present. How do you return to the present? Sensory experience. Mastria makes the extraordinary claim that "intelligence is your capacity to interact competently with your environment." Mathematically we could say,
Environment + Your Attention = Intelligence.
He goes on to say, "This interaction cannot function at an optimal level unless attention is directed outward, with full sensory contact to follow."
So what then is mental health? Could it be that it is less about analyzing our feelings of discomfort and more about plunging our face into a bed of fresh mint and inhaling so deeply that not one molecule escapes our nostrils? Could mental health be about diving into a cold pond on a sunny, summer morning or rolling in piles of crispy leaves on a fall afternoon? If this is a key to mental health then who shall our teachers be? Rather than Freud and Jung we have to look for lovers. Lovers of nature. Lovers of food. Lovers of music and flowers and art. We must find people who know how to live passionately and learn from their examples. And the best examples are often children. I have watched grown men with Ph.D's get down and roll on the floor while speaking gibberish, when confronted by a 14 month old child. Sensory experience allows us to make a fool of ourselves, because self-consciousness is the antithesis of passionate living.
Our psychological salvation lies in sensory experience. At some point you will be forced to give up your home — that aging body which has served you with sensory opportunities for an entire lifetime. Your sensory experience will disappear. No more Mozart. No more fresh strawberries playing with your taste buds. No more orange-burst sunsets and New England maples in October. But today, right now, the riches of the world are yours. Start living passionately. Don't just read about the world. Don't just analyze the world. Investigate the world. Explore the magnificence of life around you. Robert Louis Stevenson said, "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."
So let's get moving. While we still have a body that makes it possible.