What is the relationship between our senses and our minds? Whether this is a bottom up or top down system differentiates millenia of philosophers. One thing is for sure, though, the more we take in, the more we must digest, and the excess becomes mental fat. The “vrttis” – vacillations – aren’t of themselves mental fat, but any unprocessed intake gets stored – whether its Twinkies (do they still make those any more?) or Desperate Housewives, cross words or imaginary what-ifs we call “worry.”
Sensation – sight, sound, touch, taste, smell – the information we bring in from our embodied existence, makes up our being & life as much as the greens in our salad or the tofu on our forks. By using time on the mat to simplify and observe our sensations, we get to know ourselves better. We can recognize patterns in how we relate to this information, and even the systems we use to buffer it.
One key when observing the role of the senses in my life is to note the double edged sword that is recursive consciousness. Recursive consciousness is this ability we have to have “second order mental events.” Mental events can be thoughts, ideas, concepts, feelings, emotions, whole stories even, or just attitudes towards first order senses, thoughts, emotions. Our ability to be aware of the fact that we are aware of something is precisely what gives us the option to be present. It’s also what gives us the option to “space out” or worry or plan or… do whatever we do that is not being present.
We can event have eleventh order thoughts! Thoughts about thoughts about feelings about what-ifs about imaginations about …. you get the idea. The point where the thought or feeling has grabbed you by the intestines and you’re off to the story-telling races with the what-ifs and not-that!’s, that’s the stickiness that I’ve learned from listening to Pema Chodron is called shenpa. My husband & I love this word: it’s so economical. Rather than getting caught up in the stories when one asks the other “what’s up?” or “where you at?”, we just say, “oh! I was having some shenpa!” It’s fantastic to break up the story and bring us back to the present.
What does this have to do with the role of the senses? One of the ways you can break shenpa – or unconsciously having thoughts about thoughts about… also called “living in your head” – is to come to the nitty gritty of our senses. What am I feeling right now? Seeing? Smelling? Hearing? Tasting? Feeling?
You may have heard the word “Pratyahara” in yoga class at some point. Pratyahara – or sense-withdrawal – is one of the eight limbs, or components, of yoga . Sometimes the best way to investigate is to simplify. Short of a sensory deprivation tank – which is way cool if you ever have the chance – intentional withdrawal from sensation can be a great way to investigate how we relate to sensations. There are many ways to go about this, from simply turning off the TV or radio, to going to a quiet place like the woods or a chapel or a yoga room, to more specific withdrawals. Brahmari Pranayam is one way of experiencing pratyhara: you fill your consciousness with the vibration of your own breathing even as you close off your years, eyes, mouth and to some extent your nose. Meditation after Brahmari, or Bumble Bee Breath, can increase your sense of clarity.
Finally, I’ll leave you with this paragraph from Sri Swami Sachidananda’s Commentary, because I think it’s sweet and true:
“One example is to concentrate on the tip of the nose. Do not strain or you will cause a headache. Do not actually stare at the nose; it’s as if you are looking at it. Keep the mind on that. If the mind is really one-pointed, after some time you will experience an extraordinary smell. You may even look around to see if there is any flower or perfume nearby. If that experience comes, it is a proof that you have made the mind one-pointed. It will give you confidence. But in itself, it will not help you to reach the goal. It’s just a test, that’s all. Don’t make concentrating on the nose and getting nice smells your goal.” ~SriSwami Satchidananda, Commentary on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali