‘The body is your only home in the universe. It is your house of belonging here in the world. It is a very sacred temple. To spend time in silence before the mystery of your body brings you toward wisdom.’
Studying medicine expanded my awareness of the exquisite complexity and miracle of the human body. We are born into a body, yet most of us spend our lives not knowing much about its intricacies. We are fascinated by the latest iPhone and quickly learn how to use its new features, but few of us ever learn about the way our eyes help transform light particles and waves into meaningful images in the brain, or how the ears translate wave patterns into the magnificence of a symphony. The more sophisticated a technology, the more invisible it becomes, and the inner workings of the body are a stunning example of this. It’s often only when something happens to disrupt one of our senses that we become more conscious of them, and of the complex process that allows us to experience the world.
Our senses are our doorway into the world as we perceive it. They guide us, inform us and enrich our lives. When we wake up in the morning we hear the birds, we see the light and we immediately know it’s morning. We feel the cold air and sense our bodies in space, knowing how to get from the bed to the wardrobe to put on warm clothes without needing to consciously think about how to do this. These are simple things we usually don’t even notice. However, our bodies are constantly collecting data from the outside world to inform us and drive our behaviours and decisions.
Bringing a more mindful attention to our five physical senses enriches our lives, helping us become more present and embodied. Rather than constantly being lost in our inner world of thoughts, which can pull us out of experience and catapult us into past or future thinking, our senses keep us grounded to what is actually happening from moment to moment.
In a society where many of us are becoming increasingly sedentary and disconnected from our bodies and the environment, it’s easy to think that our brains and thoughts are the sole location of our intelligence. But intelligence is distributed throughout the body, and we can enhance this by consciously bringing attention to our physical selves and tuning in to the data that is being captured in every moment. In this way we can harness our entire intelligence to make better decisions and experience life in a richer, more full-bodied way.
During my medical training, learning about the behind-the-scenes complexity of our senses brought me into a more embodied experience of being human. Learning about the intricacies of the eye and the physiology of vision brought my attention to the miraculous technology of sight. I learned about the retina, the thin layer of tissue that lines the back of the eye and translates light into electrical nerve signals. This small area of the body contains about 120 million rods, the light receptors that allow us to see in the dark, and 6 million cones, which require more light and are designed to help us perceive colour. This explained why I couldn’t see colours in the dark. Prior to studying the body, I’d taken all of my senses for granted, but as I learned about the inner technology of seeing, hearing, tasting and touch, I became more connected to the complete miracle of what previously felt quite ordinary.
There have been many situations where I’ve found the capacity to stay with my senses particularly valuable. Throughout my career I’ve given many public talks, and initially I used to get quite nervous. My mind would fill with anxious thoughts that would amplify my fear: What if the audience is bored? or What if I don’t remember what comes next? Through practising mindfulness of the senses—feeling my feet on the ground, sensing the movement of my breath, tuning in to the sounds around me—I could shift my attention away from thinking and come back to my body and to the reality of the present moment. In this way, rather than my thoughts amplifying my stress and making my mind distracted, I could stay embodied and speak from a place of calmer presence.
Another situation where this embodied presence has been particularly valuable in my own life is in the context of relationships and communication. When we communicate with others there is a constant stream of data, and we need to make sense of it in order to relate and respond to others wisely. Through developing our ability to tune in to our senses we can more effectively interpret the real meaning of someone’s words, and stay connected to what we feel from moment to moment, giving us a better ability to respond. We can also do this while maintaining awareness of the other person’s emotional state. This enables more effective communication, and is the basis upon which we can build emotional intelligence, the foundation of wisdom and happiness in our lives.
Bringing mindfulness, this present-moment awareness, to the body and the senses, allows us to stay calm and grounded when the mind is spinning out of control. However, this capacity is a skill, and just like any skill it takes practice to experience its benefits. Just as you wouldn’t show up to a marathon without any training, if you want to experience calm and wellbeing in your life, you need to train in the skill of mindfulness when you’re not under pressure.
Unlike the mind, which can kidnap our attention and take our thoughts time travelling, the body is a reliable anchor to the present moment.
This article was originally published at The Mind Life Project. Mindful in May is a transformative one month online mindfulness program which brings together the world’s best meditation teachers, wellbeing experts and neuroscientists to teach you the tools to transform your mind towards greater well-being and happiness—all whilst giving you the chance to transform the lives of others living in poverty. Register and find out more.