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Sandra Pawula

Using the Senses to Relax the Mind

Whales - with their dramatic presence and playful spirit - always captivate my attention.  Suddenly, all my thoughts drop away.  My mind is wholly attuned to watching the water, waiting for the next appearance of these magnificent creatures.

When this happens, it's almost as though meditation has naturally dawned in my mind. Wouldn't it be wonderful if meditation were always so easy?

The Pull of Sense Distractions

Usually, the five senses are a prime avenue for distraction and distress.  We see, hear, feel, taste, or smell an “object” and our mind is off at a million miles per minute.  We really like this sensory experience.   Or, we really don't like this one at all!

In either, case our mind is busy conjuring up a story about it.  “This is so beautiful.  I wish it were mine.  I wonder how much it costs?”   Or, “I wonder who is driving by?  Is it someone coming to see me?  Maybe I should drop my meditation and get up and check?”

We’ve completely lost touch with the present moment and, instead, are embroiled in our ideas about it.  It's the continual dance of attachment and aversion that seems to have a hold on us day and night.  It can feel like our mind will explode from all the over-thinking.  And all the turbulent feelings that result makes life seem like a wild emotional roller coaster ride.

Using the Senses to Bring Our Mind Home

Ironically, we can use these same sensory sources of distraction as a way to bring our mind home and find more inner calm and relaxation.  The senses can be used as an object of meditation both in formal sitting sessions and throughout the day as a way to integrate mindfulness and awareness in life.

For example, you can use the sounds around you as a focus during your meditation session.  Simply allow your mind to settle for a few moments.  Then tune into the sounds in your environment.  The key is not to engage with the sounds, but to just place your attention lightly upon them.  When thoughts and emotions arise, simple return your attention to the sounds you hear.

Right this moment, wind is rustling through the trees outside my window with brief interludes of silence.  Often, we don’t hear the sounds around us because our mind is all churned up with thoughts and emotions or we are overly concentrated on a project.  Consciously using the senses returns us to the present moment and helps us to relax our mind and let go of our worries.

Likewise, you can meditate using the sense of sight by employing an object like a candle, a flower, or an image that holds spiritual significance for you.  In the same way, when your mind wanders, just bringing it back to the form you've chosen as an object.  And the next time you go for a walk, you can try to simply observe the world around you.   Just like with sounds, usually we don’t really see the world around us because we’re thinking too much, daydreaming, or just zoning out.

Mindfulness of the body uses physical sensations as the object of meditation.  You can gradually scan your body from head to toe – spending a few moments one spot at a time - noticing any sensations like tingling, pressure, warmth, tightness, discomfort.  Just observe any sensations you notice for a short while and move on.  If you become distracted, return to mindfulness of the body.  Remember, the point isn’t too get embroiled in any sensory experience, but to simply notice them and let them be.

Preparing, cooking, and eating meals are ideal opportunities to use taste and smell as an invitation to meditation.

Beware of Losing Yourself in the Experience

If you lose yourself in ecstasy during these meditations, you may be missing the point.  The essence of using the senses in meditation is to be lightly aware of our sensory experiences without merging with them, following after them with thoughts and emotions, or generating attachment or aversion for them.  Whatever you see or hear, just leave it as it is without grasping onto the experience.  Lightly aware means not to be so overly concentrated on the object that you are no longer conscious of anything else going on around you.

While there is no substitute for formal practice, as you can see there are also countless opportunities for mindfulness occurring every moment of the day.  So no excuses!  There's always a wee bit of time to meditate.

This is just a brief summary.  For a full explanation of using the senses as an object of meditation, I recommend Chapter 11 in The Joy of Living, Unlocking the Secret and Science of Happiness by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.  This chapter also includes instructions for meditation on painful sensations.


0 # Invisible Mikey 2011-05-25 17:10
Lately I have been practicing mindfulness by performing an activity called "window shopping". My town is small, but there are still stores full of brightly-colore d, attractively arranged things, nice smells, music, and the slow motion of many kinds of people walking and gazing half-hypnotized by the displays. I pass through, and on, and buy nothing, but in all places am greeted, smiled at. Dogs and kids check me out as if I was part of the display and move on. I don't attach. Everything passes in through the senses, and washes out the toxins of my over-concern. I return home or to work refreshed.
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0 # Robin Easton 2011-05-25 19:37
Dearest Sandra, you've no idea how this post resonates with me. Beauuuutiful!!! :-)

It is WHY I love being with nature. And I don't mean DOING things IN nature. I mean BEING "with" nature. Nature has a way of engaging all my senses, whether that is being "with" my garden, walking through the woods, sitting under a tree, watching clouds, smelling flowers, standing in the rain, wind, snow, sun, or laying my back upon the earth. All these things allow me to FEEL (sense). They take me AWAY from "thought" and place me in a mindless sensory state of being.

Everything FALLS AWAY, except for what I'm smelling, hearing, feeling, touching, tasting, etc. "Ego" falls away, or I lose "MY"self and remember who REALLY am. It is extraordinary.

It is why children LOVE LOVE LOVE nature. They feel set free. They are effortlessly engaged with wonder, vitality, and love. Of course they don't want to go back inside where they have to sit still at a hard desk for hours on end, having information pumped only into their heads/thoughts. That is dry and mechanical, and takes an effort to focus on.

Nature is simply alluring. It does not require effort to become engaged. In nature we are surrounded in a bath of pure kinetic energy, vibrations of intense life, life that is eager to connect on an energetic level. Life that is skipping, buoyant and whole. Life that effortlessly commands our FULL attention.

I feel that you have given me words today, where I previously may not have had words. You often do this for me. I love you, who you are and what you express. It is so beautiful. HUGE hugs, Robin
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0 # Gary Jordon 2011-05-26 07:37
I like this Sandra. I have a couple of points. The merging form of meditation is still used by Hindu mystics. That being said it seems that sometimes the actions of those who are current society deems defective might not be so.

What I mean is some autistic adults and children absorb themselves in observing an object spin or spinning themselves like dervishes. I personally emgaged in the self spinning activity when I was in first-third grade.

Another point is that I like how you mention the emotions. You don't need words or intellectual understanding to either be caught up in distraction or finding oneself in a state of natural mindfulness.

These indivduals have attachments and aversions just like their "normal" peers. So I suspect that many of hte tachings on the topic of meditation and the Buddhas Four Noble Truths apply equally to both geniuses and the severely intellectually impaired.

Have a wonder filled day
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0 # Jennifer Barry 2011-05-26 07:44
Hi Sandra, I like this idea of focusing on sensory experiences around us. When I think of meditation as "clearing the mind" it seems about as possible for me (with my ADD) as climbing Mt. Everest. Lightly observing things around me seems totally doable. :-)
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0 # Sue Alexander | Inspired Type 2011-05-26 16:12
Hi Sandra,

These days I have more peace and practice mindfulness, but I'll admit that I haven't started a formal daily meditation. I get sensory overload easily, but the flip side of that is to see, hear and smell things with nuance and appreciation. Taking walks and being immersed in nature has been my way of observing in quiet reflection. To start real meditation I will need to be conscious of not loosing myself in the ecstasy of the senses. Thank you for the encouragement!

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0 # Sandra Pawula 2011-05-26 19:35
Hi Mike,

Perfectly inspiring. Love this > "Everything passes in through the senses, and washes out the toxins of my over-concern."
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0 # Sandra Pawula 2011-05-26 19:41
Dear Robin,

I love your celebration of nature, Robin. Thus, I'm not surprised this post resonates for you. :-) You definitely mastered the art of simply being during your time in the rainforest. I'm so fascinated by your courage to simply be and let be.

It is sad the way children are trapped in doors for endless hours each during as they are "educated." Thank you for bringing this to our attention. No wonder there's an environmental crisis.

Thanks for your beautiful thoughts.
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0 # Sandra Pawula 2011-05-26 19:53

This is a good point about "merging" meditation practiced by Hindu mystics. I'm not familiar with that tradition and what is meant exactly by "merging." There are different approaches to meditation for sure. Here I'm sharing from the tradition I've studied, which is not to say others are wrong.

In this approach, the aim isn't to absorb ourselves to the point of losing our full awareness. Instead, the idea is to simply pay attention to the object with bare awareness without cutting off our global awareness. I hope that makes sense!

Yes, I think your are right that these teachings can be beneficial for almost anyone. It's not about "intelligence." In fact, our "intelligence" is sometimes our worst enemy!

Great points, Gary. Thank you for adding them.
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0 # Sandra Pawula 2011-05-26 19:56
Hi Jennifer,

Maybe this type of meditation is a perfect fit for you! I've been wondering how meditation might be able to support people with ADD, but I haven't had a chance to look into it. I'm glad you've mentioned that here. Fortunately, there are many different methods of meditation suitable for different types of folks. Be well!
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0 # Sandra Pawula 2011-05-26 20:04
Hi Sue,

I'm prone to sensory overload too. I'm glad you mentioned this. While some sounds seem to quiet sensory overload, others seem to stir it up. It's smart to use our common sense in that regard and not expose ourselves to an overdose that's going to get our nervous system out of whack.

Taking reflective walks is a perfect way to ease into mindfulness and awareness and allow the mind to calm down. I'm a big fan of formal meditation, which provides the foundation for greater mindfulness in life. It can be a small leap to start a practice. The free 10-Step Meditation course on this site is an excellent and easy way to begin. Here's the link if you are interested:
whatmeditationreallyis.com/... /...

Thanks for your thoughts.
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0 # Pete Michaud 2011-05-26 22:40
One great context I sue and recommend for people who have trouble meditating is a warm bath. Run a bath, turn down the lights or just use candles, and sit in mindless bliss for half an hour. Works wonders.
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0 # Sandra Pawula 2011-05-27 09:02
Hi Pete,

Thanks for the suggestion. Warms baths are definitely sublime!
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0 # Joy 2011-05-28 09:03
Hi Sandra,
Love this!
I lead with my heart..and I live through my senses. I often say--because I Feel it to be true--that I am having a love affair with the world. Living on the boat allows me to be one with nature, when I choose to turn off my mind and engage in all around me. A sensory delight! On my "best days" my life is a mindful meditation..and I do spend at least one day every two weeks unplugged and in silence..I am learning to honor energy and to just *be*..
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0 # Liz Acosta 2011-05-30 18:54
Thanks, Sandra! We are right at this point in the WMRI, 2 class in Boulder. So happy to be able to direct students here for further inspiration
Love, Liz
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0 # Sandra Pawula 2011-06-02 10:09
Hi Joy,

Thanks so much for sharing your love affair with the world with us! When we live in the present moment with our senses wide awake, the world becomes quite a different place. It's inspiring to here how you do your best to live in mindfulness. Spending a day unplugged in silence sounds like delicious food for the spirit. You are an inspiration.
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0 # Sandra Pawula 2011-06-02 10:14
Hi Liz,

The What Meditation Really Is - Part 2 course is really a wonderful way to learn about using the senses in meditation in more detail and with support from excellent instructors like you. Of course, here they get the addition of the whale! Nice to connect with you. All my love.
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