Our memories aren’t our lives.
What did you do after you woke up this morning? I got up, unsuccessfully tried to cough up some phlegm, walked downstairs, and used the toilet. After that, I grabbed a cup of coffee, sat down at the computer and started to write. That’s basically what I do every morning, it’s my routine.
But those aren’t memories of life as-lived, they’re life as-described. They’re doing memories, not being memories. Throughout all of that, there were hundreds of moments that I either ignored or forgot.
There was the creak of the steps and floor as I staggered across them; there was the rushing sound of my piss falling into the toilet bowl. There was the smoothness and heaviness of the coffee up, and the feeling of it slowly warming after it was filled. There was the bitter taste of dark roast, and the click-clacking of keys.
That’s just a snapshot of sensory awareness. I was probably aware of some of it, most of it was probably in the background. Sensory awareness is when we’re paying attention to the details of our experience, not just the gist of it. We all engage sensory awareness here and there throughout the day, but none of us engage it all the time.
Listening to someone talk isn’t sensory awareness, that’s just sensing. Listening to someone talk and also paying attention to the sound of their voice, the qualities of, its loudness or softness, its rise and fall—that’s sensory awareness.
Engaging sensory awareness is a huge part of practice. It takes us out of our heads and into this pristine experience, life as-lived not life as-interpreted. Sensory awareness and self-concepts/self-interest contradict each other.
The more energy we put into being aware of the raw sensations and details of this moment, the less energy we’re gonna have to twist it into something else or decorate into something we can understand. We’re going to focus less on our opinions and preferences, and we’ll be less susceptible to being rattled.
If someone says, “You’re a fucking dumbass, John. Why don’t you just shut the fuck up?” That might piss me of. But, if while they’re saying that I’m aware of the timbre of their voice, the way it bounces off the walls, the cool, solid floor beneath my feet, the gently hugging fabric of my clothes, the lullaby clock ticking on the wall, and my tongue resting in my mouth, that’s gonna put that insult into context. This context softens its impact.
We live most our lives out of context, totally lost in thoughts, feelings, and images and disconnected from our senses. Sensory awareness puts our own thoughts and feelings in context as well. It gradually simplifies our experiences.
Complex experiences have multiplicity as a trait. We’re not just thinking or feeling one thing, we’re thinking and feeling several things at once.
A simple experience is experiencing a flavor, feeling disgusted, and thinking, “Wow, this omelette is terrible.” A complex experience is experiencing a flavor, feeling disgusted, angered, and thinking, “Wow, this omelette is terrible,” while also thinking, “This isn’t worth $8,” and, “I wonder what’s on TV later,” all the while totally unaware of the sounds of light conversation and clinking silverware going on around us.
Complexity kind of fragments our minds and lives. Humans, well, we’re not like any other animal on Earth. Other animals live according to their nature, like water flowing downhill. We don’t. Our intelligence gives us the ability to defy our nature. We can flow downhill, uphill, or diagonally. We can freeze on sunny days and melt in the winter.
That’s an amazing ability, but it causes almost all our existential suffering in life.
Sensory awareness shatters that multiplicity. It brings out all the richness that’s present in this moment. Our minds become so simple and straightforward that we can see the intricacies present in each thing. The meaning within all that is so simple that it’s profound.
I recommend touching base with sensory awareness as often as you can until it becomes a habit in itself.