A Sensory Education

Lessons learned on the road to sensual healing.

| November-December 2001

Born Sensuous

Where Everything Begins
George R. Clay

Awakening What's WIld Within Us
David Abram

Hear Sensuality,
Think Sex?
Jon Spayde

Discuss the senses in the BodyMind forum in Café Utne's: cafe.utne.com

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.

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