Nothing to See Here: Stories of Sensory Deprivation and Mindfulness

My fourth grade class spent two days debating which of the five senses we would be most willing to lose. The debate went on for a long time, primarily between two senses: smell and taste.

Those lobbying for taste said they would eat healthier. Those on the smell side said they’d be able to hold jobs or go places that would otherwise be unpleasant. I ended up landing on the taste side because without a sense of smell, the sense of taste is also somewhat diminished.

That’s just a bum deal, losing two senses for the price of one.

Then the conversation turned to which of the five senses would be most unfortunate to lose. While a few of my classmates stood by the sense of sight as the most important of the five senses, most of us were all in for the sense of touch. We had our reasons, the most obvious of which was the danger factor. Without a sense of touch, people can’t tell if they are burning or freezing their skin. They can’t feel pressure or pain. Our sense of touch is the world’s constant form of communication with our bodies.

Without it, how can we fully understand our place in space?

On a fairly frequent basis, I think about this drawn-out debate from the fourth grade. I think about the senses a lot. I read about what our senses do to and for us.

And, if I had to, I would still give up my sense of taste and I would cling to my sense of touch.

****

I am noticing a recent trend of adopting mindfulness practices. Most recently, this has coincided with my training as a yoga instructor, which has been a deep dive study into focusing on the body and learning about meditation techniques. Though my reasons for becoming a yoga instructor aren’t related to the societal trend of becoming more mindful, the two complement each other well.

Once upon a time, smartphones and social networks offered an awesome way to stay in touch and find information quickly. But an increasing amount of digital noise and screen time has had devastating effects on mental health, personal relationships and professional productivity.

Like the proverbial sixth and seventh senses — a sense of humor and common sense — have we lost our sense of reality?

Why do we always grab for these pesky little computers in our pockets when we have a moment of downtime?

Without these digital distractions, people used to interact with their surroundings. They engaged their five senses in other activities. I fear we may be dulling them in an effort to live “in the moment” through an abstract reality.

****

My friends and I step into a pitch black room. For the next 90 minutes, we are told, we will be completely deprived of our sense of sight. Immediately, I feel a sense of panic rise in my chest. Without sight, I am both nowhere and everywhere. Both nothing and everything — anything — may be in front of me.

Why the fear? What does it mean to be without sight? Blind people navigate life like this every day.

Our experience is, in fact, guided by a local Ukrainian who has been blind for about half her life. She takes us through several common routines people undertake every day without ever thinking about how sight aids them: shopping at the market, unlocking the front door, making tea in the kitchen, writing a letter in the living room, crossing a street, using a vending machine, walking through a park.

At first, my friends and I are loud, laughing nervously and gripping each other’s shoulders as if to use other senses to make up for the one we have lost. We run our hands down the walls, eager to make sense of our surroundings.

About halfway through the experience, we all quietly sit down in the living room and have a conversation. Finally, we begin to come to peace with our situation. And we use that opportunity to learn, asking our guide about her challenges, how she navigates throughout Kyiv, what she sees in her mind’s eye.

I think back to that momentary burst of panic when I stepped into the dark. My friends note later that they, too, felt a sense of immediate dread. The experience is a powerful one; one that puts into perspective something I take completely for granted.

****

In the airport last week, I observed Cory sitting quietly, looking out the window at the airplanes on the tarmac. Every other person at the gate was on an electronic device.

Several years ago, I began meditating once a day, but I gave up the practice when it interfered with my schedule.

Read that again: I gave up meditating when it interfered with my schedule.

I am embarrassed to admit it, but this is the truth. Meditating is hard; not doing it is easy. But the benefits are obvious, as I observed in the airport.

Cory continues to meditate daily, and there is a marked difference in his general attitude, reaction to stimuli, sense of urgency, sense of observation and happiness. I find it inspiring and something I aspire to.

As he looks out the window, I look again at the people around me: A child becomes frustrated to the point of tears when he can’t pass a level on an iPad-supported game. A woman next to me flips through selfies of herself, zooming in to examine the details of her face on what appears to be dozens of the same image. The woman next to her flips through Instagram while eating a sandwich. I wonder if she even tastes the food. Entire families are completely immersed in their own devices, unaware of what their traveling companions are doing.

What senses can we regain when we stop letting digital stimuli overtake our imaginations and minds?

****

After leaving our sight deprivation experience, my friends and I walk to a nearby restaurant.

On our way there, A steps off the sidewalk and stomps through fresh snow. She likes the way it crunches beneath her boots.

At dinner, K moves to get a better view out the window. K2 feels cold sitting by the window.

A is unsure if the waitress delivered the tea she ordered, so she smells it and then tastes it. K3 likes the taste of her meal. A says hers isn’t very flavorful.

A cellphone alarm goes off somewhere in the restaurant and no one turns it off. K3 says the incessant sound annoys her.

We make sense of our world through our five senses. They shape our interactions, our reactions, our opinions, our reality. And we rarely recognize or acknowledge them.

****

Cory is challenging his students to be bored. They are horrified by the notion. They have no idea how to do nothing, how to simply be.

We talk about this over dinner, pondering what it means to be bored, why being bored is demonized in society and why it is so important.

Growing up, one of my most treasured times of the week was Saturday morning. I woke up early, long before anyone else in the family, and grew to love those hours of quiet when I had only my thoughts to keep me company. I wrote. I drew. I read. I reorganized the books on my bookshelf by color, author, publisher, reading level. I colored. I cut up magazines.

And sometimes, I just laid in bed and let my mind wander.

Today, when a teenager wakes up before dawn, I’m guessing that more often than not, she rolls over and reaches for her phone. She must scroll through Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook, Snapchat, all the messages that might have come in overnight. Before she even leaves her bed, she has passed into a curated worldview consumed with other people’s digital personas.

She never gives herself time to dream or imagine or think.

She never sits with her senses, letting the day slowly sink into her. Giving herself room to be aware of her surroundings. Permission simply to be.

She is never bored.

But she needs to be. We all need to be.

****

I haven’t written fiction for a long time, but I continue to read about the craft. High-quality storytelling is just as important and compelling in my non-fiction work as it is in fiction, perhaps more so at times.

In contemplating the five senses in recent weeks, I read an essay by Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander, about how our senses have been dulled by Western civilization.

“Our lives at the millennium in advanced Western culture are the most senses-deprived of any on earth. Biologically and psychologically, the human organism was designed for intense experience in a richly sensual world. But we find ourselves in a senses-depleted world, a world limited largely to visuals, and ersatz ones at that. Our senses aren’t mere perceptions. We’re not robots. The senses act upon us; they stimulate us in countless ways. We are the instrument the music is played on, not merely the listener to what’s being played.”

She goes on to give examples of our dulled reality: We wear shoes and weatherproof our homes. We tell children to “look but don’t touch” and “keep your hands to yourself.” We deodorize our homes, clothes and selves. In cities, we don’t smell nature. We open windows to let the smell of cooking escape the interior of our homes.

People increasingly say they embrace a mindful way of living, then they tag the details they notice on Instagram as if to say “Look at me! I’m living consciously!” They spend money on eating out, and instead of tasting their food, they scroll through their social media feeds. They are in such a rush to be productive and present, they forget to slow down and smell the proverbial flowers. We don’t notice when we experience our world through the five senses, but when we pay to have one taken away, we begin to appreciate them more.

We have the ability to be mindful and the freedom to be bored.

And yet we knowingly and continually deprive ourselves of the very sensations that allow us to fully experience the world.

 

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