A soulful, sensory-based mindfulness exercise to have fun with (and develop the senses)

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thich nhat hanh mindfulness quote

One of the reasons I love public transportation over cars (apart from reasons that would make you hate me), is that someone else goes through the headache of driving, back seat driving, navigation, dealing with traffic and imbibing road rage. All I need to do is zone out to some reading, writing, or random daydreaming. Especially in the Western world where for the most part public transit is of a high quality, this is a rather enjoyable aspect to public transit. And yes, I know there are many complaints about Toronto’s TTC all the time, or whatever public transit systems exist in their respective cities across the West. But compared to, say, my childhood town of Bangalore (a small South Indian fishing village comprising about 8 million people), an equivalent metropolis in the West like Toronto has a public transit system that is miles ahead. The argument in favor of more cars is kinda flimsy, imho.

(There you go – now you hate me, don’t you? Whatever. Moving on…)

Often, instead of reading, writing, or daydreaming while I take my daily bus ride to work, I experiment with brief mindfulness exercises, i.e. being consciously and intentionally focused on the present and the self.

This particular mindfulness exercise is something I’ve done on occasion in various ways, and it’s almost always interesting and fun. The more one does it, the easier it gets and the sharper your senses become. It can be done pretty much anywhere, with most daily activities that don’t require huge amounts of concentration to pursue safely (sitting on a bus, walking on a street, lounging at a dog park, wiping dog crap off your ass, whatever works for you…)

Also it can be done for any length of time, which makes it less of a production and easier to do quickly.

Usually I do it for no more than a minute or two at a time. My brain is wired like that of a jack russell terrier on speed, so just the fact that I’m attempting this shit is quite something for me. On occasion I’ve done it for upwards of 10-15 minutes in different situations. Like bus rides where you can zone out for a while as you pass, say, a tastefully rust-laden neighborhood of post-urban industrial blight just out of view from the shiny ‘burbs in the sky blue yonder.

Ok, let’s get cracking with the exercise (we can discuss some of the cruder manifestations of structural economic inequalities at a later time.)

Now, I have often found the best mindfulness exercises incorporate the daily lives and struggles we face in a liberating way, equipping us to face them with greater resiliency rather than shutting them off. In that vein, there are three important elements to bear in mind, i.e. to be mindful of, for the purposes of this exercise, but also for life in general. They are:

  1. Sensation: I.e. getting a truly in-depth understanding and awareness of our senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, and any others, such as a spiritual sense or a 6th sense. This awareness happens way less often than we might think. Using the senses instinctively without thinking, which we do all the time, is very different than using the senses while being mindful of them.
  2. Soulfulness: Being aware of yourself, your body, mind, heart, and spirit, in connection with the living beings around you. Practicing an awareness of ourselves in balance and harmony with other human and non-human beings can go a long way in dealing with stress, anxiety, fear, anger, hurt, past traumas and other sources of pain that tend to usually involve other people in some way or the other. It’s important to refrain from judgment, but pay attention to thoughts, feelings, and emotions (healthy and unhealthy) from the standpoint of getting greater insight into why they’re there, what they mean to you, and how to engage with them in a healing way.
  3. Peace of mind that provides a sense of calm: This is what you are aiming to slowly build with this exercise, among many others, in the long term. The only thing you need to remember and keep telling yourself through the exercise is that it’s always better to remain calm rather than stressed or agitated in order to be the best you can be in any situation, and that ultimately peace of mind is derived when you truly commit to love, freedom, and happiness – for yourself and others in equal proportion (see the article previous to this one for more information on loving in liberated ways).

That’s all you need to know for this exercise. It looks like just three points, but if needed please do read those three points again just to make sure you have a sense of how to apply them in a way that works for you. No need to worry about specific steps. Those are given below. Just spend a minute thinking about each of the above trinity of points, what they mean to you, what you make of them, and what you might do with them. There’s no hard and fast rule here. The idea is to practice thinking about yourself from from a sensory, soulful, and peaceful mental framework.

Remember that this is not meditation. You don’t need to find some calm place by a babbling brook with a doe-eyed fawn for company to do this. In fact, this exercise is unlikely to work unless you’re actually doing some mundane daily activity such as walking, travelling to work, housework, shopping etc.

All somewhat ok so far? Even a hesitant nod will do for us to move on to actually doing the exercise. Cool. Below are listed the simple steps to conduct this exercise. Read through all the steps at least once fully before doing it because you’ll notice that you can’t take a break in the exercise to read about your next step:

Step 1 – Zone out. Yeah, that’s about the most medically competent and uncomplicated way to put it. Step 1 is basically “zoning out” but to do so by focusing on something that can be done without having to apply too much high thought to it (so really it’s “zoning in” if you think about it). On a bus ride, normally I find the best way to do it is to stare at a point in the distance out the window (not at someone, please don’t be creepy). When walking, one way to zone out is to focus solely on safety, i.e. avoiding obstacles, crossing streets safely etc. rather than paying attention to details, such as what different people or shops look like. Similarly for other daily activities, like cooking or shopping, focus on something that will get you into that stable, zoned-out state of mind.

Step 2 – Pick a sense. Any of them. At first you’ll be focused on one of the big ones like sight or hearing, but do try others as well as you do this exercise on subsequent occasions.

Step 3 – Focus only on that sense and start picking out different sensations from only that sense. First focus on the big sensations. If sight, then the big sights around you. If hearing, then the loudest noises and sounds. If smell, then the rankest and most aromatic smells. If touch, then what your hands and feet are touching or feeling. If taste, then the most obvious taste in your mouth. If spiritual, then the major spiritual sensations you feel.

Step 4 – Now try to pick out the details and “break apart” those major sensations. Look for differences and variations and try to get a sense of the different “parts” to that whole sensation. For instance, if you’re seeing clouds (great for zoning out) note all the different parts of that cloud, their shapes, sizes, colors etc. If you’re hearing construction, try to make out different sounds that make up the generic noise of construction. Same with any other sense. Smelling garbage? What are the different smells making it up? Getting a butt itch from that streetcar seat? Which region of your butt itches the most and how bad is the need to scratch it despite the people around you?

Step 5 – Now, focus even more and try to pick out minuscule details using that sense, details that you would only be able to pick out by being mindful. Try to work around that major sensation your working with. The tiny dust particle on the window that you spot as you shift focus slightly from the cloud. The barely audible chirp of a bird that you can make out despite the din of construction. The fainter the sensation and the more difficult it is to pinpoint, the better. Essentially you are “discovering” new sensations merely by being mindful of your senses. Focus on ones that you know no one else might be able to spot because you’re the only one trying. Smile when you find them – you’ve just given your senses a workout. This step and the previous one is where your senses improve over time as you practice this kind of mindfulness.

Step 6 – Get back to a non-zoned-out state and take a few solid breaths. Count them and focus on the air coming into your system as you inhale, and out of your system as you exhale. Focus on the organs and body parts involved – lungs, chest, stomach etc. Then relax and observe life around you. Try not to judge, instead merely observe. Make note of your thoughts, feelings, and emotions as you make these observations. Ask yourself how/what/where/when/why questions to get greater insight into those thoughts, feelings, and emotions.

Do it for all the senses. Some activities are better for different senses. Walking and sitting on a bus are great for sight and hearing. Grocery shopping and cooking are great for smell and touch. Being around nature and loved ones is great for the spiritual senses. Try the exercise at different times. You’ll be surprised at how sharp your senses become and how deep your spirit is.

Repeat as needed. Modify as you deem fit. Most importantly, always strive to heal with love, freedom, and happiness.

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