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.