Where Everything Begins
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During my last year of college I daydreamed of mountains. When I was supposed to be wrestling with art theory, I found myself drawing pine trees in the margins of a notebook. I’d always been happiest when I was tromping through the woods, and I grew excited about the idea of spending a year working outdoors before starting what seemed to me a quickly approaching inevitability: the desk job.
The next winter I landed in Northern California, where I waited tables at night and was lucky enough to get a job as a ski guide during the day. I savored the hours I was able to spend upon snow, getting deeply acquainted with gravity and muscles, noticing the scent of wet rock, tasting the wind. In the summer I worked for the U.S. Forest Service. I spent my days in the wilderness, sometimes fighting fires, and for a few weeks I found myself suspended by ropes in ice cold mountain rivers counting fish. I delighted in experiencing the physical capabilities of my body.
Then, as anticipated, I took a desk job. While I liked my work and my colleagues, my body balked at sitting for 40 hours a week in front of a computer. My eyes hurt. My neck hurt. I got cranky. Most of all, I missed feeling—especially feeling well. So I quit, took out loans, and went to massage school. There I was kneaded and stretched by other students every day for six months, and I experienced another kind of physical awakening. I became more aware of my internal responses, sometimes pleasurable and sometimes stressful, to my body’s interaction with the world.
I kept going on this path of exploration. Over the next few years, always just scraping by, I learned to cook by watching chefs and smelling sauces while I was waiting tables, helped with grape harvests in California’s Central Valley, hiked to hot springs and the tops of mountains, sorted stones for a jeweler, got familiar with the taste of sap as I chopped firewood. I spent three months camping on Australian beaches doing not much of anything at all, but earned enough money to live by singing with a fellow traveler in restaurants where we’d get $50 and a luscious meal.
I see now that without really knowing what I was doing, or why, I had undertaken a sensory education. Breathing in life through all my senses, not just my mind and lungs, changed the way I experienced the world. I saw brighter colors, had stronger memories, and became more receptive to other people. At the same time, I felt discomfort—from too much stimulation or not enough—more deeply. I felt like I was waking up and shaking off the grogginess of a long nap.
I was born in the 1960s and grew up a product of the modern world’s love affair with the brain. I learned at a young age to favor logic over sensory intelligence, fact over feeling. In other words, I learned how to live well in my head—not in my body, and certainly not in the world.
Human bodies are designed to move. Our senses help us navigate our physical surroundings. But most of us in the modern world rarely rely on senses to meet our basic needs. We don’t have to catch the whiff of ripe berries in a forest, or hear the sound of deer moving slowly through tall grass, in order to find food. We have virtually no natural predators to watch out for. And given our focus on report cards and test scores, young people quickly get the message that they need to sit still and think, to ignore restless arms and legs.
To compensate for all this sensual inactivity, we’ve turned sensation seeking into an industry: Some of us search out spicy food or pricey wines; some go to loud concerts or terrifying movies; some go in for extreme sports, climbing sheer cliffs or jumping out of planes; and then there are those who sip espresso all day long or swallow ecstasy. Instead of using our bodies and our senses to help us stay alive, we’ve relegated them to our entertainment.
At the same time that many of us are stuck almost motionless throughout the day—at work, in the car, in school, in front of televisions and computers—our senses, particularly our eyes and ears, feel hammered by the modern world and its daily assault of noise, speed, media, pollution, and overstimulation of all kinds. We get used to blocking it out—either by doing something to dull the pain or by ignoring it altogether.
Take noise, for example. According to Corinne Asturias in Yes! A Journal of Positive Futures (Summer 2001), it’s hard to find places that don’t have increasing levels of human-made sound to contend with. Whether it’s coffee grinders or vacuum cleaners, jets or cars, the 20 percent of the population classified as supersensitive to noise, the 25 percent called imperturbable, and everyone in between are forced to deal with what Asturias calls the “increasingly loud drone of existence.”
“For years, the case against noise centered around hearing loss,” Asturias reports. “Mounting evidence, however, suggests that intrusive, irritating sounds are linked to higher blood pressure, lower productivity, and higher serum-cholesterol levels.” Studies also show that in the presence of continuous noise, people are less caring, communicative, and reflective, and more likely to feel helpless and powerless. Even routine hospital noise, Asturias writes, is known to slow healing.
But even as environmentalists across the country stand up against noise pollution, most people remain unaware of how noise actually affects us. Asturias refers to the work of Canadian composer and writer R. Murray Schafer, who believes that we tend to either ignore or passively adjust to the “soundscape” rather than notice and pay attention to our reactions. By shutting out sound, he asserts, we also shut out perceptions about our health and our feelings. As Asturias notes, 'It’s what you might call the numbing down of the population.'
Some people—and I’m one of them—think that this process of numbing down in reaction to our environment is a form of depression. Laura Sewall, a professor of ecopsychology at Prescott College in Arizona, and author of Sight and Sensibility: The Ecopsychology of Perception (Tarcher/Putnam, 1999), would like to see research done on the prevalence of depression as it correlates to the degradation of neighborhoods. “I am certain we would see that we numb out,” she says, “when we witness too much nasty noise, too much anger, caged dogs, and machinery bulldozing our neighborhoods.”
We also numb out in front of television. According to the most recent A.C. Nielsen Co. survey, the average American watches 3 hours and 46 minutes of television each day, or more than 52 round-the-clock days a year. By age 65 the average American will have spent nearly nine years glued to the screen.
Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of The Crack in the Cosmic Egg (Julian Press, 1988) and Evolution’s End (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), lectures on human intelligence, creativity, and learning. He is especially concerned about the minds of children who watch television. In a recent interview in the family magazine Journal for Living, he explains that children are easily hypnotized by radiant light sources, like television. To keep children engaged and awake, the television industry has introduced “startle effects,” Pearce says. Children’s brains, however, gradually get used to these effects. “As a result, every 10 years or so,” he adds, “the television industry has had to up the ante by making the startles bigger and bigger, until finally what we have are periodic bursts of violent imagery.” Pearce claims that this massive overstimulus is hindering brain development on many levels.
Other researchers believe that our brains are changing in response to increased input from all sides. The Rational Psychology Association in Munich spent decades studying how subjects processed sensory stimuli. In the 1980s the researchers noticed an apparent deterioration in the senses of smell and taste, leading them to theorize that the brain was getting more difficult to stimulate. In the healthcare magazine Lilipoh (Winter-Spring 1999), Thomas Poplawski reports the association’s controversial claims about hearing loss: 20 years ago, the average German could hear 300,000 distinct sounds. Today, an average adult manages 180,000. Many children can hear only 100,000.
Does that mean we are losing our senses? It depends on how you look at it.
From an evolutionary perspective, Andrea Olsen doesn’t think so. A professor of dance at Middlebury College in Vermont, and author of the forthcoming book Body and Earth: An Experiential Guide (University Press of New England, June 2002), Olsen explains, “What I think is more likely is that we’re becoming dissociated from our senses and upsetting the balance of our body systems, so we experience undue stress and disease.”
Our sense of perceptual balance is being upset in seemingly contradictory ways: Our eyes and ears are overloaded, even as our private lives grow barren of natural smells and, often, the simple consolations of touch so crucial to us as social, sexual beings. The fact that many of us have adopted an automobile model of the body—fill the tank regularly, keep the engine tuned, run it at high speed once in a while to clear out the pipes—doesn’t help. And as our daily lives become focused on accomplishing increasing lists of objectives, multitasking all day just to get through our work, we don’t have the time to nourish our senses. Sensory nourishment not only means more opportunities to enjoy our underused faculties of touch and smell, but also seeing, hearing, and tasting in a more conscious fashion, rather than merely reacting to a bombardment of stimuli from the rush of activity all around us.
If we don’t get the kind of sensory sustenance we need, we find other ways to satisfy this craving. Living as we do in what Andrea Olsen calls an economics of discontent, endless opportunities for shopping and eating present themselves as ways to fill the void. And drugs of all varieties offer a ready means of numbing ourselves into believing our senses aren’t hungry at all.
Six years ago, while teaching at a university in the Southwest, I got to know a psychiatrist who worked on campus. One day as we were looking out across a walkway streaming with students, she said, “Imagine a green light on the chest of every third person out there. One in three students on this campus is on an antidepressant.”
The vision of those green lights has been with me ever since. I imagine there are more of them now, and that the glow is growing stronger. On college campuses, as in other sectors of society, the use of prescription antidepressants, sleeping pills, and Ritalin is on the rise. So is the use of the narcotic OxyContin. It’s a godsend for cancer patients as just two pills a day relieve virtually all pain. But as National Public Radio reports, OxyContin theft and addiction are escalating, particularly in economically depressed parts of Appalachia. Last May, The New York Times reported that, according to the U.S. government, no prescription drug in the last 20 years has been so widely abused so soon after its release. What is it that these people don’t want to feel?
The answer may be that all of us want to shut out the same thing—the din of modern life—but the addict lacks the ability to induce numbness naturally. In fact, the same anesthetized approach to life that we lament in the addict may actually afflict many others, to a greater or lesser degree. Once we learn to subdue our senses and shutter out the world, we don’t feel as much pain, but we don’t feel as much pleasure either—in our relationships with other people, other living things, and a living planet. The defenses we throw up against the relentless assault upon our senses may in fact be walling us off from both what is good and bad—that is, blocking our view of reality itself. And what could be sadder, or more dangerous?
To wholly participate in this life, we need to develop our sensory intelligence—our capacity to better recognize and understand the messages our eyes, ears, skin, nose and tongue pick up. This is not another reminder to stop and enjoy the pretty flowers, or to treat our numbness with ever more intense sensations applied like smelling salts to jolt us awake, though both of those things have their role to play. This is a call to re-engage in what our senses can teach us at every moment, lessons that await us both in what is beautiful and what is ugly. We have to find the way back to our senses, to become deeply aware that all that we know is essentially a product of them. In other words, it’s time to embark on our own sensory education. Here are some suggestions on how to get started:
Trust Your Body
Evolution has instilled in human beings an intrinsic knowledge of our bodies. But most people in the industrial world don’t feel at all connected to their own flesh. “If they’re not controlling it, drugging it, putting it in exercise machines—if they’re not in charge of it, then they think they’ll fall apart,” says dance professor and philosopher of the body Andrea Olsen. “It’s totally the opposite. The more we can trust our bodies, nourishing basic needs of the human nervous system for safety and emotional integration, the less we have to do through conscious thought processing. Then we can attend to the moment at hand with joy, contentment, and ease.”
Huston Smith, a scholar of world religions, notes that every spiritual tradition has practices for focusing people’s attention. While in modern culture we’re trained to produce, not pay attention, it’s never too late to start. You might try yoga or meditation. Or maybe you want to spend an afternoon concentrating on the flavor of grapes. You’ll want to keep in mind, however, that when you begin to pay attention, you open up your senses to both the good and the bad. Make sure you are noticing what’s beautiful as much as all the things that concern you.
Escape the One-Dimensional World
Think about how much of your day involves staring at flat surfaces: the pages of a book or a magazine, a computer screen, a movie screen, television, even the windshield of a car, through which the world goes by as though it were on film. While what you see on those one-dimensional surfaces may engage your imagination and your intellect, the act of fixing your eyes on a single distance requires your body to be still.
Break out of your habits. Touch your computer screen. Smell the back of your hand. Acknowledge the multidimensional world as often as you can.
Move at Human Speed
Catholic priest and environmental philosopher Thomas Berry once said that our senses were developed to function at foot speed. As much as possible, get out of the car—that ubiquitous isolation tank—and travel the ground the way you were meant to: on foot. Walk. Dance. Move.
Cook a Meal
Our love affair with convenience food has overwhelmed our taste buds with sugar, salt, and flavor enhancers. Subtle tastes no longer entice us. A simple solution? Start cooking more fully. Take the time to slice vegetables, slowly. Taste them raw. Smell them. Pay attention to how the scent changes while they’re cooking. You’ll get an added benefit: Studies show that if you take time to smell and taste your food, you get full much more quickly because you are actually sensing what you are taking in. You need less, eat less, buy less, and feel more energetic.
Find every way you can to bypass what separates you from the world. As John Taylor Gatto urges in The Underground History of American Education (Oxford Village, 2001), we need to engage in “real tasks, not synthetic games and simulations that set [us] up for commercial variants of more-of-the-same for the rest of [our] lives.”
Instead of always listening to music, play it. Instead of looking at art, make it. If you’re a news junkie, try a media fast, or create your own magazine. Live directly. Be bold. Leave the human-made world behind occasionally. Play outside. Get in water. Go barefoot.
Be a “Constructive Putterer”
Don’t underestimate the value of doing “nothing.” In his book Finding Your Way Without Map or Compass (Dover, 1983), British author Harold Gatty describes how as a child Charles Darwin puttered around aimlessly, to the dismay of his parents and teachers, all the while quietly storing up observations. “Not all of us can be Darwins,” but “all of us can go for walks with no purpose in view but that of watching, of observation, of developing the use of the senses we are born with,” Gatty writes. It’s a trait that many great artists, writers, scientists, and other creative people have shared. “Out of little observations huge ideas may grow,” he adds, but only “if a mind, made receptive by training in the use of the senses,” can learn to take them in and rearrange them, “connected as a great novel is planned, in a compelling pattern that tells us something new.”
Study Your Body
Which senses do you favor? Which do you neglect? What shuts you down? What wakes you up? If you’re scientifically curious, you may want to do some reading on the anatomy and physiology of our perceptual systems. Did you know, for example, that what we call the five senses, also called the “special senses,” are categories that were actually created by Aristotle? The senses can also be categorized in other ways: interoceptors (found mainly in the organs) are responsible for monitoring the inner workings of the body; exteroceptors (skin and connective tissue) let us sense the outside world; and proprioceptors (the inner ear, joints, tendons, muscles, and ligaments) help us register movement and balance.
A sensory education is a lifelong pursuit, a course of study that involves continuous attention, and I have to admit that I’m struggling with it these days. It’s 13 years since I left for California and I’ve now settled into that desk job in a big city. Like many people I know, I spend my days in front of a computer or looking at paper. It takes a concerted effort for me to keep inhabiting my body. I try to stay conscious of my senses through simple acts—paying attention to the sensation of water while I’m washing dishes, or reaching out to touch the bark of a tree as I walk around a park after lunch.
What a sensory education comes down to for me is this: I think it’s time for us as a culture to fully recognize that we live in this world. We’re connected to plants and animals and seasons and soil and each other no matter how many ideas and images and fears are whirling around in our heads. And maybe, just maybe, if we really wake up our sensory selves we’ll become healthier, more connected to one another, and less likely to put up with the degraded state of our world.
We are in dire need of ecological restoration, a better educational system, improved political relations, and the end of violence and corporate greed. It’s good to fight for justice, develop policies, and make laws that will create change. But As Cheryl Sanders contends in her introduction to Albert Soesman’s Our Twelve Senses (1998), “the simple act of nurturing the senses might well do far more for the healing of the world than all our programs and inventions.”
While what’s going on around us may not always be beautiful, there is still plenty to delight us right on the other side of our skins. Let’s check it out, be receptive, and let the world surprise us.
Karen Olson is associate editor of Utne Reader.