By Fiona Robertson
When we rest or inquire, we come back to our senses. Literally.
When we were young children, we spent virtually all our time in our senses. We moved unselfconsciously, and curiously touched, smelled, and looked as we explored the world around us, as well as ourselves and our own bodies. We created vivid imaginary worlds that seemed very real to us. Gradually, we were taught that it wasn’t always okay to be in our senses in this way. The dictates of society and culture or the unpleasantness (or worse) of our experiences made us wary about being engrossed in our sensory experience, and we began to spend more time in our heads, in our intellects.
As young adults, many people seek out the means to alter their sensory perceptions. Alcohol and drugs of all kinds take us out of or change our immediate experience in ways that may be exciting, frightening, thought-provoking or numbing. While some people are able to experiment with no adverse long-term effects, others end up becoming addicted. Perhaps we miss the vividness and wonder of childhood, and use substances in an attempt to alleviate the emptiness or boredom that we feel. Perhaps we can’t deal with emotional or physical pain, and find a substance to numb or dull it instead. Perhaps we view ourselves as more interesting or creative people because we take drugs or drink or smoke.
Of course, it’s not just drugs and alcohol that can be used in this way. We may be using feel-good spiritual or therapeutic techniques in order to change or manage our experience. Ultimately, however, whatever method we choose, there’s usually an unexamined set of assumptions lying behind our attempts to make ourselves feel better:
What I’m experiencing isn’t okay (or is wrong, or a problem).
I can’t cope or deal with what I’m experiencing.
There’s something better out there somewhere.
There’s nothing wrong with these assumptions in themselves. They’re simply unexamined. My guess is that these beliefs form (consciously or unconsciously) when we’re children – and being told that what we’re experiencing or expressing is not okay, and that therefore we should inhibit or suppress aspects of ourselves – and remain within us until we decide to examine them further.
The Natural Rest and Living Inquiries methods give us the tools to look much more deeply at these assumptions. To begin with, we investigate what it is we’re actually experiencing in each moment. As we sit, we begin to notice whatever is going on, and to let it all be exactly as it is.
Take a little time with each sense. Notice what you’re seeing, both with your eyes open and with your eyes closed (whether your eyes are open or closed, it’s likely that you’re seeing internal or mental images, pictures or memories. They can get quite subtle or vague, so as you continue to look you’ll notice more). Notice what you’re hearing, both externally (I can hear the wind howling, and the hum of the computer, and a car going past) and internally (the spoken voice in the head, or some music, or yesterday’s conversation with someone).
Now become aware of what you’re touching or sensing, both internally and externally. There are immediate physical sensations – the sensations of sitting, the touch of clothing on your skin – and the feelings or sensations present inside the body. When we take a little time to really sense into our inner experience, we often find it’s not quite as we’ve assumed it to be. For instance, we may have labelled a familiar feeling as anxiety or sadness. As we stay with the felt sense, we may find that words or images arise, and that there is a visual component to the feeling itself. Sensations or body energies often have a colour, or shape, or some other visible element to them, which can often be overlooked until we investigate more closely. There may even be a smell or taste associated with the sensations that we’re experiencing, or that come with images, memories, or thoughts.
Coming back to our senses in this way takes us out of the usual thought stream, but doesn’t exclude thought. Rather than being caught up in our usual narratives, we notice them for what they are: words or images that we’re seeing or hearing in our mind’s eye. This is not to diminish or dismiss thought, but to see it for what it is. As we rest and inquire, thought tends to lose its primacy; we no longer believe it in the same unquestioning way.
As we come back to our senses, we gradually become a little more balanced, and are more able to be with what’s here. We find that what we’re experiencing isn’t wrong, and that it isn’t ultimately a problem. It’s interesting that we use the phrase taking leave of our senses to indicate irrationality or craziness of some kind; it makes sense that the antidote, as it were, is to come back to our senses as fully as we can.