How to Use Sensory Clarity to Deepen Your Mindfulness Meditation Practice—and Enliven Your Life
by Michael W. Taft
Once some friends of mine were trying to get pregnant, and were having a hard time. They went to all the usual doctors, but—even though everything was deemed to be in working order—no baby. Eventually, the doctors said there was only one thing left to do—they had to have sex a bunch of times exactly when ovulation was occurring. There was a window of like 12 hours when they had to. Have sex. Over and over. Whether they wanted to or not.
You have to get curious, get open, and start having fun exploring sensations in the richest way—getting into the sensuality of body sensations.
These were people who loved each other and had had a fulfilling sexual relationship. But the pressure of having to “get the job done” had a horrible effect on their lovemaking. They lost any sense of spontaneous, curious openness and sensual exploration that is so vital in sexuality.
Instead their sex became mechanical, rote, and all about getting the job done. The tyranny of calendar and clock squashed all play and spontaneity. Having sex felt about as fun as shoveling rocks. It was almost enough to break them up.
Luckily all this sacrifice was not in vain. They ended up having a beautiful child and were able to return to a much more sensual sex life.
The Secret of Sensuality
As you might have guessed, this reminds me of meditation. Typically the initial instructions we get as beginning meditators is to “meditate on body sensations.” We ask a few questions, and learn that we are supposed to “feel our body breathing.” So we contact those sensations, but that is all. Once you learn to contact the sensation, it’s so easy that you start to get bored.
Meditation can feel lifeless and hollow. All joy drains out of the practice, your mind wanders, and your progress peters out. It’s like your meditation engine has run out of fuel.
The reason is in the way you’re contacting the sensation. You’re doing it in a perfunctory way, that is all about getting the job done. It’s like you’re just punching the clock, just checking the box—”Yep, contacted the sensation!”—but that’s all. You’ve gotten used to this shallow level of contact with sensation, and aren’t pushing to investigate it any further.
The secret is to go further, to go deeper, to begin investigating more and more minute levels of detail in sensations. To increase the sensitivity and resolution of your senses—which is the very meaning of sensuality. You have to get curious, get open, and start having fun exploring sensations in the richest way—getting into the sensuality of body sensations.
Three Dimensional Sensations
There are a bunch of ways to cultivate your sensuality with the body. For one, I’ve often noticed that people tend to think of body sensations as being flat, two-dimensional. But since the body is a three-dimensional object, body sensations are also 3D. That means they can have a very complex morphology, which is interesting to explore. They can take various shapes: spherical, cubic, star-shaped, conic, cylindrical, etc. Of course, real sensations are almost never perfect geometric solids, so you can feel into whatever irregular shape it might be.
Three-dimensional sensations have sides—the top can feel different from the bottom. The front can feel different from the back, and so on. Dimensionality also means that they not only have a surface area, but a volume, and those different areas within that volume can feel quite different. For example, a sensation might have a rather neutral, mushy quality making up the bulk of its mass. But floating within that mass of oatmeal, there might be “raisins,” so to speak. Little spots of intense, pointy sensations.
So this multidimensionality of body sensation opens up a vastly more complex and detailed possibility for exploration.
Another aspect of body sensation that can increase your sensuality is the fact that sensations aren’t always solid or stable. Many sensations feel as if they are the same, moment to moment. They don’t seem to be changing or moving very much at all. But some sensations are not so steady. They can be getting stronger or weaker, larger or smaller. They can move around, from location to location, or alter their intensity and 3D morphology.
So as you’re meditating on a sensation, notice if it, or any little part of it, is changing in any way. Maybe just the corner is throbbing or pulsing. Maybe it’s slightly shifting its center back and forth a few millimeters. Maybe one side of it is swelling out a bit and then deflating back. To quote the floating head of Carl Sagan in a jar, there are “billions and billions” of possibilities.
Boost Your Sensuality
A third way to increase sensory clarity is to investigate areas of the body that you don’t normally investigate. If you were to keep a list of body regions that you have contacted in meditation, you would discover that there are some spots that you always contact. They are your goto places for meditation. Which means that there are other spots that for whatever reason you never contact. How about the upper palate of your mouth? The back of your ear? The inner surface of the spine? Deep inside your joints?
Take the path less traveled. Get adventurous and seek out the the out-of-the-way places that you have never meditated on, and discover what they have to offer. As well as helping to clarify sensation, this can have a surprisingly powerful effect on your sense of integration. Get curious. Be playful. Sensuality is really fun.
A fourth method for going deeper into sensation is to allow your awareness to act like a microscope. Get curious and look at sensations on as fine a scale as you can. If you’re used to golf ball-sized sensation units, try feeling marble-sized ones. If marble-sized sensations are easy for you to contact, see if you can begin feeling into sensations that are pea- sized. What about sensations the size of a grain of sand? Learning to sense these smaller and smaller sensations will really boost your sensory clarity. It is also one of the keys to finding very deep and sustained concentration, which will feel great!
Even the routine moments of life can become an indescribably sensual experience of spontaneity and play.
You can also try to feel subtler and subtler sensations. It’s possible to get stuck only feeling sensations that are intense or “loud.” So get curious about contacting sensations that are very subtle or “light.” As your sensitivity grows, you not only become more refined and connoisseur-ish with sensations, but your equanimity expands along with it.
Another variation works by making fine distinctions between types of sensations. For example, you can distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant sensations, two very basic categories that provide a lot of insight into your experience.
But it’s possible to get much nerdier than that. Try distinguishing between textures of sensation: smooth, rough, sharp, mushy, bumpy, goopy, tingly, stinging, and so on. Or note the difference between sensations that are moving and those that are still. Subcategorize those into sensations that are moving left-right, up-down, forward-backward, or in other directions. Distinguish wave-like movement from broken, staccato movement. And so on.
There’s really no end to the richness of sensuality that’s available in your own body right now, if you just open yourself up to it.
Discover that You Are Really Alive
I remember once spending an entire week-long meditation retreat focusing on tiny, subtle sensations in my skeletal structure. The literal feeling in my bones. Even though I’d been hearing about the power of sensory clarity from my teacher Shinzen for a long time, it was then that I realized how amazing sensory clarity could be. I was able to dive into a level of concentration and equanimity in my meditation that was powerful and beautiful and surprisingly playful.
Eventually meditation taught me to find this level of depth in all my senses. Sight, sound, taste, and more. Cultivating sensory clarity in the senses has enriched my meditation practice far beyond anything I could have imagined. It drove both my concentration and acceptance to new levels. And, of course, it’s led to positive life changes, and a real sense of wellbeing. The taste of a simple meal. The smell of earth after the rain. Even the routine moments of life become an indescribably sensual experience of spontaneity and play.
So, stop just getting the job done in meditation and in life. Take the time to get deeply into the sensuality of everyday experience, and discover the pleasure of really being alive.
Read more: Wake Up and Enjoy Your Life with Mindfulness
main photo by Ketrin1407
fingers and butterfly photo by brando.n