Getting Back in Touch: Reawakening the Senses
GETTING BACK IN TOUCH
Reawakening the Senses
by Jesse Wolf Hardin
“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.”
The first step in expanding and deepening our awareness is not developing the power to see far but to feel close, the necessary reinhabitation of our resensitized bodily selves in the present lived moment. Whatever our individual variations on torpor, escape or turning away, our healing, growth and satisfaction hinge on our re-embodiment.
To be fully alive on this planet we must first “come to our senses.” We experience the world and our place within it through not just our minds or even our emotional “hearts,” but through a unity of our entire being including our sensate creature bodies. Oneness with the world begins as neither concept nor sentiment… but at the exact physical point where our bodies make contact with the living world we’re an integral part of, where our sensitive fingertips graze the velvety surface of lover’s skin or a particularly attractive leaf, where tasty meals and attentive tongues meet, where our bodies press into the giving ground that is both our mortal destination and terrestrial origin.
Bodies evolved not simply as containers and vehicles for spirit and will but as receptors for the receiving of sensory information, as well as transducers (from the Latin transducere: “to lead across”) passing this information on to our immediate others, our community and culture. In addition, it’s important to realize the planet as a living whole feels and experiences through its sentient constituent parts, responding and making adjustments according to the sensations and signals bodily, emotionally and energetically transmitted. As the potentially most sensitized species on earth to date, our inherent purpose would seem to be to honestly and unreservedly experience, to awaken every sense and be maximally conscious and aware, to empathize with other beings to the utmost degree and then act to help further, heal and make better.
Some texts speak of how the senses “report” to the decision making mind where all input is processed, prioritized and stored. But while they posit the brain as the exclusive housing of whatever constitutes human consciousness, in truth our awareness courses throughout the entire body in a shifting, informed chain of cell and hormone, communicative enzyme and electrical impulse. We feel through the complex symbiosis of emotion and instinct that we sometimes call the heart, through the five physical senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight, and those unmeasured faculties like intuition and precognition that scientists have lumped together as the “sixth sense.” Those capacities labeled “extrasensory” are in actuality intrasensory and ultrasensory. And when we are fully enlivened – fully residing within our awakened bodies – the result is nothing less than revelatory: a great revealing of hidden pattern and process.
Even the most extraordinary of sensory perception begins with and is predicated on our being – quite literally – in touch. Touch is a primary aid to reconnection, a tool for the mending of the tether, a reminder of what is most palpably real. It’s a fundamental way that we read the details of the world we’re immersed in, reinforcing our connection to all that is and thereby reinforcing our sense of place and belonging. It’s also a way in which we express to those things we touch that we acknowledge each as a distinct and valuable part, and that we appreciate them as well. Flesh to rock and fur, being to being. Its importance is indicated by our very language. When something affects us at a deep level, we call the occurrence a “touching” one. When we start to feel detached from someone, we might say that we’re “losing touch” with them. Someone suffering from a disorienting mental breakdown is said to have “lost touch with reality.” Touching is the way we verify the sometimes contradictory messages we pick up through the eyes, testing any potential mirage with our inquisitive probing hands.
Our skin is the flexible, permeable membrane that sheaths our organs. It defines us as a form discernible from the interlocking forms that surround us, at the same time that it connects us to the world through the receptors in every inch of its sensitive surface. This tactile sensitivity includes specific receptors for pain, temperature, and tactile stimulation from firm pressure to the stroke of a feather on a normally clothed stretch of skin. Chemoreceptors, thermoreceptors and mechanoreceptors transmit information through sensory nerves leading up through the spinal cord and into the brain, where they are primary processed in the parietal lobe of the cerebral cortex. Together they help the mind create a touch map, an image telling us where our immediate bodies end and the larger earthen body of which we are a part begins, sensing gravity and ground and thereby determining posture. These amazing modalities make it possible for us to experience the air against our face as gentle pressure, temperature, wind in motion, or even pain if it blows hard enough.
The word “touch” originally meant contacting by “striking,” but in the evolved sense it implies an entirely different kind of contact, gentler, slower so as to pick up and transmit a greater depth of information and meaning. We are linked to that which we touch, held by that which surrounds us. We come to know the world through this touching, and the world comes to know us in the same way. Touching is the act of contact and acknowledgment. We touch with our eyes and are touched in return. We touch the rest of the world we’re a contiguous part of with our ears and tongues and nasal passages as well as the surface of our skin. “Contiguous” means touching… continuously! Our inquiring minds might conclude that all things are interconnected, but it is only through our heightened senses that we can experience all things touching at once. We can open to this by paying attention to the feel of air molecules as we stand in a subtle breeze, envisioning the great body of air simultaneously touching us and the birds above, touching at once everything that exists on and within the planet, touching the soil that in turn touches its ground dwellers, eventually coming to touch the earth’s molten heart.
In the case of our eager and delicate mouths, they easily sense the touch of the spoon and swish of the tongue, distinguish the pleasant crispness of an apple or waffle from the luxurious smoothness of whipped potatoes or gentle waves of soup, the lovely Winter chill of ice cream and fresh pepper’s Summer heat, the curious coolness of mint and the pleasant burn of chili. In addition, they can taste! It’s generally accepted in the West that chemoreceptors – in the soft palate, pharynx and epiglottis as well as the tongue’s myriad tiny buds – are able to discern at least four distinct taste categories: sweet, sour, bitter, salty. To this, Asian healers have traditionally added a fifth, umami or savory (think msg), and herbalists including Kiva Rose sometimes cite fattiness and pungency as others. Neuroscientists and psychophysicists have additionally suggested metallic and water, combining with the rest of the core categories to create every known and possible flavor.
It’s been found that South Americans, Asians and Africans are among those races with a generally heightened sense of taste, while 75% of Europeans and EuroAmericans have decreased sensitivity, and that women often have greater inherent capacity than do men. This is in part due to a higher number of fungiform papillae, raised mushroom shaped bumps whose top surfaces are packed with taste buds. It may also be due to a culturally reinforced degree of attention and focus that is more intense in the case of certain cultures… and a somewhat more sensitized gender. These so-called “super-tasters” are an inspiration for all of us to greater tune into, stimulate, develop and test the capacity we’re born with.
Perhaps the most intimate of all ways of connecting, we taste by taking into ourselves the flesh of plant and creature, fruit and seed. We are rewarded for the degree that we attend and focus, by the melt of soluble dairy fat and the tang of citric acid, the earthy depths of gravy and sweetness of the garden yam. And yet, taste is an ability animals and humans alike developed not just to provide pleasure but to help us discern what is or isn’t wise for us to eat, to select what tastes like it will provide us with the nutritional elements our bodies request and require, and at times to instinctively recognize those flavors indicating ingredients which could either kill us or make us ill. No wonder then, that someone is considered “tasteless” who doesn’t know clever from offensive, and we say they have “no taste” if they fail to notice when their clothes’ colors clash. And we are likely to exclaim “it stinks” when either a movie or a dish of food is too objectionable to take in.
The nose makes contact with the larger world in ways only slightly more removed. The scents it pulls in and takes the measure of are not abstract symbols, representations or stand-ins like the written word or computer code, but rather, actual elements of the bodies of loved ones and strangers alike, the unpleasant flotsam bubbled forth by fermenting compost, the miniscule airborne appetizers reeled out by whatever steaming cuisine trolls for our attention and enthusiasm. Through the damp nasal passages and across our over 12 million olfactory receptors pass telltale molecules shed by the bodies of friends and flowers, or more accurately launched like agents of each thing’s being and expression, announcing its presence, and often if not always offering to communicate something to us. We each draw in hormone laden perspiration containing useful information like sexual excitement or receptivity, anger or fear, whether or not we are awake and embodied enough to discern a message and its implications. At the very least, the ability to smell has evolved in order to help us discern, meaning not only what to move towards but also what to move away from.
It’s said that for an animal like a dog, the world is a complex web of smells more vivid than the information gathered by the eyes, and that we can only distinguish a small fraction of as many scents as they do. Even so, researchers have found that the average human can recognize up to 10,000 different scents, and even a mother with her senses permanently dulled by tobacco smoke can often distinguish her newborn from others by its smell alone. Except in rare cases of hyposmia (inability to smell, usually caused by physical trauma), our inability to process these messages are a result of suppression and neglect more than physiological shortcomings. Anyone who has ever suffered the congestion of a common cold, however, can attest to how bland meals can taste without the additional sensory input of the nose. For a reason to credit the human nose, we can consider the example of a perfume maker whose focus and passion has led to better smelling, which in turn has deepened and broadened their perception. And people born blind have often developed their other senses including smell to a degree the sighted folks may never know. Researchers, seekers and shamans who have ingested psychedelic mushrooms or peyote have on occasions reported a stunning increase in discernible odors, an attention-wresting vividness described as almost overwhelming in the moment and sad to leave behind. Each of these cases would indicate a natural human capacity for intense sensing that we can potentially arouse, exercise and thus maximize.
And there are more reasons for this deliberate development as well. Think about how a particular floral scent can summon the visage of a past lover whether welcomed or not, or the way the smell of leather can so readily trigger reminisces of childhood rides on oiled saddles. More so than any other sense, smell is closely interlinked with the limbic system, those parts of the brain like the amygdala and hippocampus that process emotion and associative learning. The olfactory bulb that sorts sensation into perception is an essential organ of memory, mood and behavior, and any awakening and growing of this sensory capacity could deepen associative recall, tightening the weave of information and reflection, intensifying feelings to the point that they become hard to ignore and not tend, overall increasing our vital experiencing of life and this world.
So it is with the sense of hearing, so often taken for granted. How often do even the most aware of us begin to ignore the music in the background, until the wondrous vocals and quaking strings seem to fade out into unnoticed and unremembered background noise? Learn to block out the roar of jets over our heads, and in that way miss out on the conversations between wind and trees? Or ignore the telling tones of the highway rushing past until the sound of screeching brakes causes us to stop in our tracks?
Admittedly, not all sounds are even available to us, depending on how quiet they are or what pitch. Higher ultrasonic and extremely infrasonic frequencies are out of our reach, making us naturally oblivious to the echolocation calls of bats as well as the deeper rumblings of signaling elephants. There is, however, a wide range of audio frequencies that we can hear, from 15Hz and 20,000Hz, through which means anyone without hearing damage can powerfully discern, learn from, respond to, and thoroughly enjoy the world. Sounds not only warn us of dangers before they get too close for us to react, and allow for complex communication between us that would be impossible without words, but they also describe the ever changing environment we live in and pass through, and afford us the pleasure of a planet’s native music, the rhythm of a drumming rain on a tin porch roof, the singing insects, the “shush, shush” that tall wild grasses make as they brush against each other to get our attention. The laughter of children and the sweet sobbing of a woman who has loved and lost. All sound is but a vibration in air or water that in turns vibrates the tiny bones in our ears and sends signals – like our other senses – to our lapping brains.… and then vibrates our feeling beings and spirits. We can tune-in with our ears to the aural magic of all that surrounds us, practice hearing all the layers at once even when someone is talking to us, and quiet our own talking minds at times to fully give way to the tides of a favorite melody coming through the stereo speakers.
It is sight that I mention last, exactly because it is the sense we tend to use most when “looking” at the world, to the neglect of the rest. And because it’s the way of perceiving that we can do from the greatest distance, while what we need is to literally come closer. We say “I see” when we understand something, as if “seeing were believing.” Visual perception, like all perception, is subjective. What we perceive depends on not only the strength of our eyes and ability to notice, but also the subjectively developed perceptual patterns that we fit information into, and the belief systems or preconceptions that we harbor. It’s not just culturally impressed standards but also subjective temporal attitude that determines whether we find a boyfriend or girlfriend beautiful or not. A person in love may see only beauty in their partner, but once there are hard feelings between them, the same face may seem to hold no attractive features. We’re not just talking about interpretation here, but the facts of what we consider we’ve perceived, just as ten witnesses to a crime may tell ten different versions of what happened even if they didn’t know the victims and had no preexisting bias. Any stage magician can tell you that what the audience sees is what the entertainer suggests they see, directing focus, utilizing distraction, making hay of their existing assumptions and raising expectations.
Our visual system responds not to vibrations but to photons of light, the graduations of light and dark that created forms are perceived by photoreceptive cells on the retinal membrane. The resulting neural impulses are processed hierarchically in the cerebral cortex, assigning prominence as well as meaning, deciding what is to be further assessed and what can be safely ignored. It is that aspect of visual perception that we can best and most beneficially develop, making more and more of those decisions conscious, consciously choosing in the moment what should be focused on, remembered or acted on… with less and less visual information being discounted. And increasing what we actually see is fundamental to the development of related visualization, realistic projection and foresight. One’s personal revelatory “vision” of the world, of their true self and their calling, is for whatever reasons only as vivid and accurate as the signals they perceive from the existing communicative world. For that, we must remove the blinders of denial and dogma, illusion and denial, wholly seeing and feeling and living again!
Before we try to reconfigure reality, we must first learn to wholly notice, clearly perceive and discern what is, undistracted by any delusion or projection. It is up to us to come back to our senses, and in that way come back to the interactive world we are meant to be response-able, proactive, and joyous participants in.
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Categories: Jesse Wolf Hardin – Essays & Tales, Practicing Animá Lifeways