1. TouchSince we're moving from Epicurus to mystical poets soon, I thought a good bridge between pleasure and spirituality would be sensory awareness. This is an area I've done a little work on in the distant past and thought it might be fun to experiment with again. so I decided this week to spend one day on each of the senses, starting with touch. Since what we call "touch" is actually at least six different senses (at least according to the psychology textbook I read as a teenager), I thought I'd concentrate on feelings of weight and pressure today.
As an exercise, it was interesting though not mind-blowing. For example, going up the hill to work, I concentrate on sensations of pressure in my feet, and how the way I walked affected them, then on my way from my office to the sports centre I combined that with paying attention to the feeling of the weight of my bag on my shoulder, and how shifting the weight affected the sensations in my feet. Then I was at the gym with plenty of weights to consider the weight of ;-)
Although I intended to look just at pressure/weight, I found that naturally I was more aware of other touch sensations, such as heat and cold (shower after training) and pain (I hurt my shoulder a week ago doing an exercise called "pirate ships" and it's still giving me some grief). Interestingly, pain is less disturbing when you really pay attention to it as a feedback device - I was having to exercise carefully to avoid tearing muscles, so was paying a lot of attention to the type of pain I was feeling. (Anyone who's done sports will know that there's a type of pain that says "OK, this is having an effect," a type that says "OK, but don't overdo this," and a type that says "NOOOOOO stopstopstopstop!!!").
So what has all this got to with happiness? Not entirely sure at the moment, but mindfulness - paying attention to thoughts, sensations and actions in the here and now - is generally reckoned to be an effective meditation, and this is a kind of mini-mindfulness. It's certainly a great way to switch off annoying thoughts. Seriously - try being pissed of about something and paying careful attention to the sensations in your feet at the same time.
2. TasteI embarked on my second sense, taste, expecting culinary delights, but actually just discovered two things:
- Tastes hang around in the mouth for a while after you've finished. Apart from being a reason to floss, it's interesting because you don't notice this. You're like "OK, meal finished, move on," so you only notice an aftertaste if it's particularly bitter.
- Related to this, I found that even though I was supposed to be focusing on taste, I often didn't notice the taste of meals much while I was eating them even though I'd been thinking about it beforehand. This is worryingly close to the "I dunno - a salad?" dialogue in Eat, Pray, Love, especially as I normally think of myself as someone who appreciates food.
3. SmellMy day of focusing on smell was largely a non-event. It started wonderfully, with going out of the door and delighting in the fresh smell or the rainy air, but after that I just forgot to smell things most of the time. Smell has been called a "neglected sense", and I was managing to neglect it even though I'd resolved to pay attention to it! (Ironically, while writing this, I am acutely aware of the smell of Brussels sprouts cooking close by.)
4. SightFor my sight day, I repeated an exercise I'd first done in the 1980s, which is to focus on one colour (blue back then, green today). The idea is that we tend to ignore variations in colour, so even when we notice a colour, we tend to think "green" (or whatever) and ignore the actual hue, shade and intensity of the colour. So in in this exercise, every time you see green, you ask yourself exactly what kind of green it is: dark, light, intense, dull, closer to blue or to yellow and so on. You also ask yourself whether it reminds you of any other greens you've seen and how it makes you feel. In today's case, the answer to the last question was either "nothing" or "calm", which ties in with research that green has a calming effect (which is why walls in hospitals are so often painted green). The main thing about this exercise is that it opens your eyes to everything you're not normally seeing. Artists will be familiar with this idea - I remember from an art class when I was about 13, my teacher saying "You're problem is that you're not drawing what you see; you're drawing what you think is there." (He was talking about perspective rather than colour, but the idea is the same.) As the saying goes, "No one is so blind as he who will not see." (I just got curious about where that saying comes - it's from the prophet Jeremiah, apparently.)
5. HearingFor hearing I tried to pay more attention to background sounds. Again, this is something I've done in the past. Things I noticed:
- My wife may have a point when she complains that I'm a noisy eater! We tend to filter out sounds we make ourselves until we pay attention to them. I don't know how much sound my eating generates on an objective scale - maybe she just finds it loud because she's paying attention to it.
- There's something very calming about paying attention to very faint background sounds like the wind or distant traffic. It's almost like you feel your consciousness expanding into the area around you. One meditator described this feeling as "putting out my antennae."
- There are a lot of birds in Bilkent.