Archive for June, 2010

Using Your Senses to Calm an Agitated Mind

“When you start using senses you’ve neglected, your reward is to see the world with completely fresh eyes.”
— Barbara Sher

We have a handful of senses built into our human experience that provide us with information about our environment.  A common aspect of each of our senses is that they are occurring right now; they are part of our direct experience, not an abstract concept directed to the past or future.  Thus, they have the power, when we are aware of them, to redirect our attention to our direct experience when we become preoccupied or agitated by thoughts.  And, they are always available to us.

One of my students, Maryanne, shared a method she uses to bring herself back to the present moment using her senses when she finds herself preoccupied in thoughts; it is a way she extends mindfulness into her everyday life to free herself from the impact of an agitated mind.  Whenever she notices that her mind has wandered in the midst of an activity or when lying in bed, she uses her senses to bring her awareness back into the here and now.  More specifically, she asks herself, “what are five things that I hear, what are five things that I see, and what are five things that I feel?”  (The number five is arbitrary, of course.)  Maryanne finds that she can use this practice at any time: when she is on a walk, when she first wakes up in the morning, or when she is trying to fall asleep and worrisome thoughts make sleep seem impossible.  It has been extremely helpful for Maryanne, and she hopes that by sharing it, it will be helpful for others, too.

As an example, Maryanne describes how she uses this mindfulness practice when she notices that her mind has wandered while she is walking her dog:

  1. “First, what are five things that I can hear?  When I am walking my dog, I almost always hear her feet clicking on the pavement, the sound of traffic, and birds singing. One thing I can always hear is my breath!”
  2. “Second, what are five things I can feel on my body?  The leash in my hand, the breeze on my cheeks, my feet in my shoes, and always, again, my breath going in and out.”
  3. “Third, what five things can I see?  Sometimes I make it ‘what five things can I see that are yellow,’ maybe ‘five types of leaf shapes,’ ‘five different flowers’, ‘how many colors blue or gray in the sky?’  And if it’s really cold, there it is again, my breath!

Maryanne notices that the breath is one of the common experiences in her awareness, no matter which of the senses she is attending to.

“What I found,” Maryanne explains, was that I was often walking my dog and paying no attention to my surroundings.  Meanwhile, my head was spinning with worry and anxiety.”  She continues, “Now, I take a deep breath, listen, look and feel.  Sometimes my mind wanders, but when it does, I bring it back to what is happening right now, right here.  I have found it very helpful in reducing worry and to be more mindful in anything I do.”

I’m sharing this practice with you in the hopes that it will be useful as you attempt to bring mindfulness into your everyday life.  Try it out.  And, if you have a practice that helps you be mindful and reduce stress during your daily life, please pass it on to me so that I share it with others.

Each day I live in a glass room unless I break it with the thrusting of my senses and pass through the splintered walls to the great landscape.”
— Mervyn Peake


June 26, 2010 at 6:27 pm 1 comment


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Julie Forbes, Ph.D.

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