We hear a lot about mindfulness and how great it is for our mental health, but what does it really mean to be mindful?
How do you be mindful?
Mindfulness is about being in the present moment, which is exactly where our senses live.
I often think about the impact our sensory awareness has on our day-to-day experiences. I have been working with individuals with sensory impairment for over 7 years, including those with many different types of visual and auditory impairment (ranging from mild impairment to complete loss of the sense altogether). One of the most interesting things about working with people with sensory impairments is realizing how important our senses are to our everyday functioning. We need our senses, and if one isn’t working, we need to do something about it. That being said, we focus more on thinking than on sensing.
We sense all day long, but we rarely pay attention to our senses.
We often do not notice the wealth of information that we’re learning in the present moment because our attention tends to be focused on thoughts, worries, planning and problems. If you add stress and anxiety to that, we become even more focused on our thoughts. In addition, we tend not to pay attention to our senses unless they’re screaming at us (like when our stomach is aching, a bright light is shining in our eyes, or a loud noise is going off and irritating us). In those moments, our attention shifts to our senses, but in a state of alarm or stress. However, when we can intentionally tap into our sensory experience, it allows us a means to mindfulness and often a state of peace. The reason for this is that the mind is not really capable of focusing on thoughts and deep sensory experience at the same time.
So, what does it mean to focus on the senses?
We all know the 5 senses: sight; sound; touch; smell; and taste…but, did you know there are actually 3 other senses?
Lift your arm without looking at it. There is a part of you that knows that your arm is lifted. That is proprioception, our sense of our body’s location in space.
Now, tilt your head. A part of you knows your head is tilted and is telling you everything is ‘crooked’ or ‘sideways’. This vestibular sense tells us where our head is in space and helps us balance. The vestibular system includes the parts of the inner ear and brain that process the sensory information involved with controlling balance and eye movements.
Now take a deep breath in and see if you can feel your body as you breathe. Those sensations you feel on the inside of your body are from interoception, our sense of our internal organs and bodily states. Interoception is the perception of sensations from inside the body.
Ok, now that you know all 8 senses, let’s look at tapping into our sensory experience while in nature.
Exploring the 8 Senses Outdoors
Sight: When I talk about being mindful of what we see, I often recommend focusing on the details. For example, let’s say you are looking at a tree. First, you see the tree as a whole. Your mind says “there’s a tree.” However, there is a lot more to see than just a tree. Let’s say you focus on the tree trunk — look for those details; like the bark, the different shades of brown and grey, or any bugs/creatures that may be crawling on it. The more we focus on these details, the more our mind is full of our sensory experience. When it comes to the senses, sight is the boss. It is our main sense for navigating the world. When we close our eyes, it allows us to be more aware of our other senses because they are no longer competing with sight for our attention. Tips on focusing on the less noticeable senses are given below.
Sound: Sound is our next most important sense for understanding our world. When being mindful of sound, it can be helpful to think of sound as happening in layers. We tend to hear the louder sounds first. We are evolutionarily designed to do so, and these sounds make up the foreground of our sensory experience. We actually have to put in a considerable effort to hear the quieter sounds that make up the background of our sensory experience. If you are in nature, the first sounds you might hear may be the sounds you are making yourself as you walk, but then as you listen more closely, you may begin to hear the wind or birds chirping in the distance. As mentioned earlier, it may be easier to access these more subtle, distant sounds by shutting your eyes.
Smell: The sense of smell is even less powerful than our sense of sound. It is really only there to tell us if something is imminently dangerous, like a nearby fire or food that has gone rotten. That is its main function, and because of this, it is very tightly linked with memory. (We have to remember where the rotten food came from, right?) When we are in nature, one thing we can tap into is how various smells bring up different memories. It can be tempting to drift away into nostalgia in those moments, but then we would be thinking, not sensing. If this happens, try to come back to what you are experiencing through your other 7 senses.
Taste: Taste is one of the trickier senses to pay attention to because unless we are eating, there is not much going on there. It can be fun to add some taste to your time in nature. One thing I love to do (especially in the autumn) is to go for an apple walk. It is pretty simple; you go for a walk while eating a delicious apple, and you focus on that sweet, juicy, crunchy apple while you walk. (Can you tell I like apples?)
Touch: Touch is an interesting sense because we actually have to block a lot of it out. If we didn’t, we would constantly be extremely irritated, as our entire body is covered in various types of ‘tactile’ receptors (such as temperature and pressure). When we walk, our feet take in sensory information from the ground. That information helps us know how to change our balance, gait, etc., so we don’t fall over. The experience of walking involves sensory integration, where we take in information from multiple senses in order to perform a task. To be able to walk, we need to see where we are going, we need to feel our bodies in space, we need to use our muscles appropriately and we need to balance. Below, I will go through the remaining senses and how you can tap into them as you walk.
Vestibular: As soon as we start being attentive to the tactile sensation of our feet, we almost can’t help but feel the vestibular sensation of rocking side-to-side as we’re walking. Our vestibular system takes information, from what we see and how we move our body, so it knows how to adjust what we’re doing to ensure we keep our balance.
Proprioception: Now, if you were to shut your eyes as you walked, you would still know that your body is moving. You can feel your leg going up as you lift it for your first step. We integrate sight and proprioception so much that you may need to stand with your eyes closed and lift your leg to know the sensation before you try to tap into it while you are walking (with your eyes open, of course).
Interoception: There are many things we can feel happening inside our body, but similarly to sound, we do not tend to pay attention to these sensations unless they are screaming at us: “Alert! Something’s wrong!” However, we can intentionally pay attention to our internal sensations, such as how we are breathing or how our muscles are working when we walk. There is also research that demonstrates the more mindful we are of our muscles (i.e., mindful to our interoceptive experience), the more efficiently we use those muscles.
As you focus on your senses, you will probably begin to notice yourself drifting away into your thoughts, and that is totally fine! When that happens, or if you notice you have been completely lost in your thoughts, come back to sensing. Come back to the present moment. Come back to mindfulness.
If you would like a guided practice of these techniques, consider signing up for one of my outdoor wellness retreats.