Why we're so leery of our sensous selves.
Where Everything Begins
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It’s a shame what’s happened to some good old words. Tragic used to point to a noble struggle between human beings and the forces of fate; today it means “really, really sad.” Irony stood for the recognition that human knowledge of the universe is profoundly limited—before it morphed into that smirky feeling of superiority we get when we watch The Brady Bunch.
And sensuousness—a warm receptiveness to the gifts that our eyes, ears, noses, mouths, and skin can bestow upon us—well, baby, we’ve turned that over to Barry White. It’s a 12-letter word for SEX. Our senses—which, if they were nourished as they should be, would triple the joy and juiciness of everything we do, from napping to mailing a letter to mountain climbing—are allowed free rein only in the boudoirs of our imagination.
Sex has been a pretty weird custodian of sensuousness in America. Which of our leading symbols of sexuality have actually affirmed the languorous joys of the receptive body? Hugh Hefner’s airbrushed, jiggly girls next door? The massively endowed power-pumps of gay male erotica? The labia-pierced insurrectional sexuality of the riot grrrl underground? No, these manufactured turn-ons are little more than fantasies that mask deeper fears that sex is just one more arena in which we must perform with unerring precision. The eternal, slow, simple, complex pleasures of the wide-awake body opening itself to sweet sensation get lost in the shuffle of silk sheets.
So how do sensuous-seeking Americans do outside of the bedroom? At vacation time we line up to visit places of certified relaxation: the beach, the trout stream, the mountaintop. We’re there to unwind, recharge, or play. The prospects for surrendering to our senses couldn’t be better: The warmth of the sun. The shoosh of the surf. The tang of a hot pepper. And then something—one of any number of big things or noodgy little things—insinuates itself into the space between our senses and their naked, happy communion with the world. Oh yeah, a voice in our head reminds us, we’re at a cabin in the woods to catch up on our reading; we’re hiking in the desert to conquer that steep peak; we’re on a Caribbean island to get drunk, play beach volleyball, and score.
I don’t mean to imply that our sexual encounters and precious days off are failures because they include a little anxiety or goal-setting or windsurfing. I just want to suggest how sneaky our resistance can be to real sensuality. Sensuality is a form of giving up: of our goals, hopes, agendas for the next five years or five minutes. A surrender of our purposeful, planned, care-taking, self-improving personas to the sheer presence of the world. Being sensuous means being endowed with senses, and that taking voluptuous pleasure in them is enough. Enough, at least, for this moment, which ought to feel like forever.
There is, of course, a great deal in our American heritage that makes us run away, screaming, from this proposition. Puritan holiness and our long-running business culture both abhor idleness, the only true prerequisite for sensuousness. Idleness can seem at the same time too aristocratic and too plebeian for our relentlessly middle-class outlook: Only the most effete exquisites, says the anxious striver residing inside most of us, have the money and the time to savor the difference between five different kinds of green tea. Only the hopeless ne’er-do-well, with nothing left to lose, can afford to spend an afternoon on the public beach, happy for the lukewarm water between his toes and the sun on his back. Drunks, junkies, and those who can’t handle life as we know it are the ones who surrender to their senses.
And it’s not just mainstream Anglo culture that frowns at sensual indulgence. Recent immigrants, wherever they may hail from, are strivers. And they see folks who take too many sensuous breaks from the demand for bustle and uplift as letting down the team.
The biggest block to sensuous enjoyment may simply be the strange painfulness that many of us feel when our minds are not occupied. This is more than a socio-historically induced sense of guilt. It’s visceral: our intolerable inner voices, a restlessness we can’t explain, an emptiness we think we need to quickly fill. And even deeper inside, there’s what Buddhists call the monkey mind, the endless, buzzing productivity of the psyche: memories, dreams, reflections, fantasies; all manner of mental flotsam, churning endlessly upward from some inexhaustible source. We swerve, almost by reflex, away from this experience of chaotic psychic activity. We may fear, too, that we will be overwhelmed by feelings—that will swarm over us like an army of ants if we try to open up to the sensuous by simply sitting back, exhaling, and being here now in blessed idleness.
But here’s some good news: Sensuousness does not have to mean a still, empty, meditative state. Sensuousness, after all, is really a profound turning outward of our bodies, not a turning inward of our minds. It doesn’t thrive on overstimulation, but it welcomes everything that’s swirling around us: the color of the rose on the desk, the play of the breeze across our skin, the sound of a faraway train, the whiff of a lover’s shampoo coming from the bathroom.
You don’t have to work diligently to achieve sensuousness. It is a benefit our bodies receive from wandering onward and outward into the world: now hearing, now seeing, now feeling, now smelling, now tasting. Yes, it is lazy, gloriously so. Also aristocratic: Thanks to it, we inherit, immediately and at no cost whatsoever, the immense riches of the great world that surrounds us.
Jon Spayde is a contributing editor of Utne Reader.