Using our senses for sanity

When my cat spots a rabbit in the backyard, he devotes his eyes, all his muscles, and every paw-step to his prey. My ability to pay attention is much less impressive than the cat’s. “Where did I put my glasses?” “Have you seen my car keys?” “Why did I reach into the refrigerator? Oh, now I remember. It was the microwave I was aiming for.” 

All of these questions were good reasons for signing up last year for an on-line, month-long class called “Working with Your Attention.” The leader of the course, Gregg Krech of the ToDo Institute says, “For many of us, our lives are immersed in potential distractions.” No kidding.

Krech says, “We are mostly asleep inside our own thoughts, our own internal dialogue…We are, habitually, world creating creatures, moment to moment, constantly busy creating and re-creating worlds — fantasy worlds, dream worlds . . . above all thought worlds…” His course involved daily activities that required paying attention, and not getting trapped in thoughts.

The first activities were easy and involved a number of readings.  My favorite was a strategy for those who mentally turn future events into catastrophes by imagining the worst. Saying, “It’s not happening now,” is a way to remind ourselves that it’s not helpful to imagine dreadful results from events that haven’t yet taken place.

Other activities involved noting a particular color, say blue, throughout our day; experiencing different textures through touch; devoting time to listening – really listening—to music; paying attention to smells and movement; offering thank you’s to others; reading a poem and spending time with it. 

I once pitched my novel to an agent who told me I needed to include all the five senses in each chapter. If only I had paid attention to the course I wouldn’t be going back and rewriting some of the chapters now.

There were more activities, enough to fill 30 days, and some that I didn’t do.  Pay attention every time your hand lets go of something during the day: your coffee cup, hair dryer, a door handle, a fork. Too tedious and dull. But as I look back at the assignments and readings, I realize I’m still not paying attention.

A New York Times article called “The Truth About the Internet’s Favorite Stress Hormone,” offered another way to spend a few moments away from thoughts and engage with the senses.  Dani Blum quotes Dr. Raza Sagarwala from Vanderbuilt University who says, “…even setting aside five minutes a day to relax and reset the mind might be beneficial. List five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.” The kitchen is one place you can do all these things.

I’ll try to weave this or one of Greg Krech’s activities into every week and spend a few moments away from my thoughts. 

I can spend more time in the kitchen, or now that it’s spring and the bunnies are appearing, I can just copy the cat for inspiration.

About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness. Also, I'm on the third draft of my second novel since retirement.
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6 Responses to Using our senses for sanity

  1. Betina R Finley says:

    I love the idea of thinking about every time something leaves your hand or really paying attention to the textures and sounds throughout the day.

  2. Darlene Bishop says:

    Well written again, Ann—it’s always enjoyable to read your blog. I believe being trapped in my thoughts happens fairly regularly for me at night as I’m trying to fall asleep. Perhaps you’ll send out a tip for that problem.

    • stillalife says:

      I wish I had an answer. I can fall asleep but usually wake up sometime between 2 and 4 and can’t get back to sleep. My only solution is to wear myself out during the day.

  3. Laura Hodge says:

    Nice – thanks for sharing those ideas – along with which ones didn’t work for you.

    I have no interest in giving up creating worlds, but it’s still good to spend most of one’s time in the real one.

  4. Marc Brenman says:

    Ezra Bayda had to resign his position as a Zen teacher because of sexual harassment of his students. I don’t think I’d use him as an authority.

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