Awakening (to Our Senses)
A talk from an online sitting, January, 2019
Winter time is, in Chinese medicine terms, a period of maximum Yin. Yin is coldness, darkness, stillness, quietness, transformation and potential. It contrasts with Yang – fire, light, action, noise, movement. This is reflected in how nature and our bodies respond in winter (well – in the northern hemisphere anyway): our thyroids power down, our adrenals want to rest. Nature moves down into the Earth, animals burrow, there is less daylight, and more darkness. We want to slow down, get warm, and snuggle under duvets. There is often a strong inner urge to reflect, turn inward and become more an expression of being as opposed to doing. Perhaps the idea of setting New Year resolutions reflects this urge. This can be a great time to meditate, to self enquire.
However, this can be difficult in the western, developed world where we no longer live in tune with the seasons. Our work life, and our connections with others – with the society around us – may call us to be active and outgoing, even while the body is telling us that this is the last thing we want to do. So we often find ourselves overriding, rather than honouring this inner call to turn inward.
But there is another side of winter that provides a particular opportunity to take time out, engage our sense and give our mental processes a bit of a rest. In winter, the light can be particularly clear, bringing the sights and sounds of nature into sharp focus. Winter landscapes can be particularly beautiful, with extraordinary skyscapes, trees appearing in stark contrast to the surrounding country side, or the sun highlighting objects in startling ways. The strange silence of a snowy landscape can make us aware of sounds in a different way, or the call of a single bird can be more striking, because no longer part of a general chorus. The cold air can bring heightened awareness of the skin on our face and hands, enlivening our sense of physicality.
In other words, winter calls us to awaken our senses.
Many spiritual traditions place an emphasis on slowing down, taking time to appreciate the ‘here and now’ and becoming more aware of our senses. It is at the heart of many traditional meditative practices, such as focusing on our breath, or a lighted candle, as well as modern versions of this such as mindfulness training. And it appears to go both ways – those who have achieved heightened levels of consciousness, or ‘awakenings’ describe how this has given them a heightened sensitivity to the world around them. Steve Taylor, who has carried out many interviews with awakened people, lists “Heightened perception” as the first of 18 characteristics of the experience and behavior of such people:
In wakefulness, perception is vivid and direct. Spiritually awakened people see the world in a very childlike way — struck by the wonder, beauty, and intricacy of phenomena that other people take for granted and don’t pay much attention to. One of the signs of spiritual awakening is that the world is a brighter, more fascinating and beautiful place to them. In particular, they are captivated by nature — the amazing is-ness and beauty of the natural landscape, the sky, and the sea; the strangeness, complexity, and intricacy of animals, plants, and other phenomena.
Neurosurgeons are also gaining increasing insight into why this might be the case. Our “thinking” mind (i.e. the parts that identify, separate and give names to things, and dwells on worries and concerns about past and future), as well as the parts that give us our sense of a separate self are located in particular regions of the brain. When we pay attention to something other than our thoughts – whether in meditation, through heightened awareness of our deep levels of consciousness, or paying attention to our immediate senses, this helps to activate and energize other parts of the brain and can often lead to an increased sense of peace, wellbeing and joy. So there is growing recognition of the physical – as well as spiritual – reality of the connection between paying close attention to our senses and surroundings and increased level of overall consciousness. This includes having less sense of separation, and a greater ‘recognition that all phenomena, objects, and others are of the “same essence” as our own conscious nature (this last phrase is taken from the Trillium orientation course material on “awakening”).
Close your eyes and bring your attention to the sensations in your body. Take time to settle yourself comfortably in your seat, feeling the sense of being supported by the ground – or your chair – beneath you. Take a couple of deep breaths, focusing on the out breath, perhaps even letting this out in a long sigh. Take a moment to notice how you are feeling in yourself – relaxed or tense, contented or anxious, leaning in (to try to do things ‘right’) or in an open and ‘listening’ space. Is your mind active or quiet. Where do you feel yourself to be in terms of your connection with an underlying sense of consciousness, or “Beingness,” or your sense of connectedness with everything around you?
Now bring your attention to one of your hands and place this so that it rests somewhere on your clothes or body. Bring your attention to the feeling of connection between the hand and what it is resting on. Feel the firmness or softness of whatever is under your finger tips or the palm of your hand. Is there a sensation of warmth or coldness, or of roughness or smoothness? Can you feel the sensation of the air on other parts of the hand? How does this contrast with the sensation of the surface on which the hand is resting?
Now, draw back your attention from the specific sensations and see if you can tune into a bigger picture of your hand and what your hand is resting on. It helps to rest the hand lightly and gently on the object beneath it rather than pressing down. Now, see if you can tune into the sensation of the whole “happening” between hand, surface and air. What is the sensation of the whole – perhaps allowing yourself to experience a blurring of the distinction between where your hand ends, and where the surface of what it is resting on, begins. You might find it helpful think in terms of tuning into the overall “energy” of what is taking place between hand, surface and air surrounding the hand. Or you might want to sense into it as an overall subtle sense of “isness” or “beingness” in the experience of hand, surface and air. See if you can explore that sensation for a few moments.
You may want to extend this sense to your other hand. And to the rest of your body.
Now, begin to bring your attention back – first of all to feeling your whole body as it is sitting there, and then, more slowly, to your awareness of being here with the rest of the room. As you do, just check in again to how you are feeling in yourself – relaxed or tense, contented or anxious. Is your mind active or quiet? Are you leaning in (to try to do things ‘right’) or in an open and “listening” space. Where do you feel yourself to be in terms of connection with an underlying sense of consciousness, or “Beingess,” or your sense of connectedness with everything around you?
Are you aware of any changes from your overall state before doing this exercise?