I took a course in college called “Sensation and Perception.” During our 3 months together, we experimented with our understanding of reality and the way the brain makes sense of the world around us. We learned things like: your sight and thus your reaction time is ever so slightly while wearing sunglasses. (that blew my mind, btw). We played with the concepts of hearing as well. Class was often held in a vacant old dark auditorium, which has since been demolished and rebuilt after I graduated. We often took every chance we got to experience this course out “in the wild” so to speak, often making the campus park blocks our classroom.
I'm going to share one of my favorite practices with you from that course, one I still do as a sort of meditation, because it feels that energizing and relaxing. I'll share the process and my experience with you and then how you can implement it in your own life, too.
During this practice in our course, we focused on our hearing (and sometimes our sense of smell) to better connect with and learn of its power. My professor would guide us through a 20 minute process. We would get in a comfortable position, close our eyes, and focus our listening only to what was right within our proximity. We sat for a few minutes feeling the magic of our sense of hearing, gathering information so subtle it often went unnoticed in our everyday lives… our breath, the popping of someone’s ankle when they moved, other’s breath, the stretching of muscles and tissues, our heartbeat, the gurgling of our stomachs, and how many people would could tell were right by us based on the small collective sounds.
After a few moments, we would expand our focus like a ripple of water moving outward. We were instructed now to turn our focus on things within 50 feet of us. I wondered if it was even possible to decipher the difference. It was. It was a most magical feeling as my mind danced back and forth with the sounds in close proximity to me and the discipline it took to take in only the sounds of the world within just 50 feet of me. This expanded focus, opened up a whole new experience for me. I heard people walking to and from class, footsteps kicking the tall blades of uncut spring grass as they cut through the park from class in search of the library, the scuffs of people’s shoes against their own feet or along the cement, the clicking open of building doors, the slow closing of the door just as it latched back closed. I heard high heels clopping along the cement, some with strong purpose and conviction, others with time and ease on their side.
I knew which direction people were moving, I heard their pace and their breath. I could feel their ease, their energy and surprisingly even their level of stress as they passed. I could guess their height based on the timing of their footsteps. I could smell cologne as it swam through the air past me. Some people walked just close enough that I could feel the air move around them, hitting me with new smells of laundry detergent, clothes, deodorant, and warm cotton as they passed. Some chewed gum, others had phones that would make keyboard sounds as they typed, one was talking to her Mom, another seemed to be having a bad day, a group of students were finished for the day and making plans to enjoy the day, some flirted with each other and others told jokes that welcomed laughter so hard they struggled to take in air. People whispered privately in conversations. Some chewed gum, others wore loud jackets or pants that "wooshed" when they walked. Some were tidying up, putting their glasses away in the case and snapping the case shut, then unzipping their bags to retrieve something, the rustling of plastic and paper bags meant it was lunchtime.
In certainly moments, I forgot where I was before the flipping of textbooks, the ripping of pages, the furious note taking, the breaking lead of mechanical pencils and the shaking of pens to get that last little bit out before disposing it, sometimes even curious highlighting of pages, the replacement of pen caps back on to their respective pens brought me back to life on a urban college campus. The smell of freshly shampooed hair, highlighters, lunch from the cafeteria, snacks… it was indeed near lunchtime and the snapping of ziplock bags, the delicate peeling of oranges, the abrupt breaking of an orange peel, the slurping of orange juice, the popping of aluminum cans and gulping for refreshment, and the biting into of apples (which my professor enjoyed almost daily during our 3 hour long class), met me with the smells of peanut butter, apples and oranges.
We spent a few moments taking in all that we could smell and hear around us paired with the ground where we sat, some of us in chairs, others lying flat on our backs and others sitting upright. I found it tantalizing to know that with just a few moments and 50 feet around me, I could gather such information around me, all while knowing there was still so much I was missing yet. As I gathered 5 experiences, or grappled to identify the sound of a particular thing, I knew, surely I was likely missing so many others.
My Professor chimed in once more, guiding our attention to what was within a few blocks of us, and a few moments later, the sounds within the city, and pretty soon our focus turned to only the things furthest away from us…
Each step we took, outward, as if jumping out from one ring in a ripple to a much larger one, the magnitude of the brain's ability to gather necessary, timely and important information given our situation, and to so swiftly discard the rest became apparent. Life was quiet when we focused on what was directly around us, and with each expansion of our senses, the world became louder as if someone turned up the volume on the radio. When we were directed to listen to things as far away as possible, the world again simplified itself to only the most distant things around me.
Sometimes my mind would hear something new or confusing and race quickly to identify it. Gently I would guide it back to focus. While I was focused on experiencing life in close proximity to me, I couldn’t hear the distant traffic from freeways surrounding us, the construction in the distance, the hummm of the city that I’d grown so accustomed to in my daily life, or the drone of an airplane as it went by overhead.
It seemed the noisiest part of this sensory exercise was the in-between, the points in which I focused on 50 feet, a few blocks, or around the whole city. I’m sitting here smiling as I write things, because I find it to be such a symbolic metaphor for life:
Life is simple when we listen and focus on what is here and present around and within us. Life is again simplified when we zoom out and see our lives, our experiences for what they are on a larger scale. You know, the points in life where we zoom out and look at our lives and somehow what got us from here to there, to over there make more sense than they did in the moment.
This exercise was not at all intended as a sort of meditation. The point of it from the course topic perspective, was to experience for ourselves the power of our senses and our lightning fast ability to identify those sounds around us regardless of the use of our sight. However, within these 20 minutes of class I felt grounded and connected to myself, to my body and to the world around me. I’ve never been a great meditator, so to speak. Often I just thought it wasn’t for me when people encouraged that I try it again. My brain goes wild with ideas and thoughts all over the place, so while sitting and emptying the mind of thought may work for some, my brain just needs something specific to focus on. This was it.
This exercise felt like a literal mental break. It increased my mood, my curiosity, my happiness and my sense of meaning and purpose. I felt the magnitude of being here with each breath, the beating of my heart, the gurgling of my intestines, the pumping of my blood through my veins, the stretching of muscles and tissues, the fluid surrounding my eyes as I wiggled them back and forth… It was one of the most useful life experiences in my college years, one that I’ve taken with me, shared with friends and now with you, too!
Need a mental break? Try this for yourself!
Take even 5 minutes between a meeting or 20 minutes at lunch and sit with your eyes closed, take a few deep breathes to relax into your environment and begin this practice by focusing first on what is within close proximity to you, even within your body.
Expand your senses to within 20-50 feet from you, then within the building or a few blocks around you depending on where you are, and eventually within the city, and finally as far away as you can.
Focus on being present with the proximity you are committed to. When your mind wanders or hears a new sound, and it will, guide it gently back to your focus:
What sounds you can easily identify?
Which ones does your brain struggle to understand?
How quiet or how loud does the world feel around you as you move further in distance? Feel what it feels like in your body to more deliberately sense the world around you.
When you finish, play with these questions:
- How did it feel?
- Is there a favorite part of your meditation?
- Did you find yourself smiling?
- What was the most difficult part?
- What surprised you about this meditation?
- What did you learn about yourself or the world around you as a result?
Do you think if you implemented this practice into your daily life, it would help you?
Calendar it in. Make it a part of your routine. Create a mental trigger as a reminder that every time you eat lunch, or when you park your car before work, on your daily walk, that you also do this exercise. Whatever it is for you that serves you best. Find a place to sit comfortably and sense the world around you. Habits like these are meant to support us in who we are and who we want to become.
Just as we exercise our bodies, we must also exercise and engage our mind. Be sure to decide upon a time you’ll make this a part of your routine and stick to it. Watch what happens for you.
To a more connected life,