Beautiful sunset seen through pine trees over a northwoods Wisconsin lake.

Coming to Our Senses

I was remembering this morning the way that I would feel in my body when I drove the unpaved road that led to a family cottage that I visited regularly for almost a decade. The drive to the Northwoods would take a little more than 4 hours yet most vivid in my imagination are the final 4 or 5 miles. I know the turns and landmarks, the small strip of Main Street with its grocery store, tackle shop and the bright white clapboard and cheerfully painted benches of the Dairy Maid. There is the abandoned logging mill on the left, the tamaracks that lift out of the wetlands like spears on the right but then the experience plays out to a crescendo: the drive down the 2-mile stretch of that dirt road. When I recall those final several minutes of the drive, I can smell that peculiar combination of dry needles and damp humus of the forest floor, the crisp coolness and sun-drenched patches of the lake just beyond view, the sounds of the loon, or the chickadees, the rat-a-tat of the woodpecker, the bouncing of the car, the dust hovering in the beams of sunlight that break through the pines and the hot breath of the dogs springing to life and beginning to whine with enthusiasm.

I also can remember in vivid detail the smell of the cottage, the feeling of the broom across the pine floors, the iron smell of the water when I fill the sink with hot water to wash up dishes.

I think we all have an experience similar to the one that I shared that is bathed in sensory memory. Maybe our sensory-rich memory connects us to a meaningful getaway or maybe tied to coming back to a family home or a special place we go to regroup.

What we find is that while being ‘away’ or out of our normal routine makes it easier to tune in, our senses are available to us in every moment. But we don’t need to take a vacation to have it available to us. At any time that our senses are awakened, AND we pay attention, we can calm and rest our over-busy minds.

Senses and our Tuning System

Sensory inputs play a significant role in our wellbeing. Call to mind any moment in which you have experienced happiness or contentment. Odds are, you had as I did on the road to the cottage, some pleasant experiences of sight, touch, smell, taste, sound associated with it. You also had what you may have perceived as the absence of unpleasant sights, sensations, sounds, etc. Or maybe, it was where your attention was focused.

In my example of the cottage, in addition to all of those experiences that I recall as pleasant, there were also other sensory experiences that might be experienced as less so. My dog who was with me on each of those trips weighs about 50 pounds and until recently in her old age, insisted on standing, digging toenails and all, on my lap for much of that drive, only to achieve a frantic clawing jumping and squealing performance when her enthusiasm for arriving at the cottage also hit its peak. Most times, I had a full bladder at this point in the drive and my back is usually pretty uncomfortable after that much time in the car. The Northwoods in June have mosquitos like you wouldn’t believe.

Our human minds have the capacity to not only soak up pleasant experiences to the benefit of our wellbeing but also have the capacity to abide by sensations that are less pleasant or even painful when we can train our attention.

The concept of Hygge, or welcoming in pleasures for the senses, to balance a harsh winter, is a perfect example of how we can find comfort and calm by allowing our attention to balance the unpleasant by taking in the pleasant. Cold winter winds, soft fleece against our skin, the smell of a simmering chai tea on the stove, gives us an overall experience of the season that makes us more resilient for the harsh qualities of winter months. It’s somehow the capacity to be curious about all the sensations that lead to this feeling of contentment.

Essentially, that contentment relies on our ability to be with the unpleasant stuff.

Turning towards what is unpleasant

Mindfulness allows us to pay attention to both the pleasant experiences of our lives, but to find interest and curiosity in sensations that we might feel are unpleasant, and to recognize our capacity to watch these conditions change with some emotional distance and spaciousness. When we invite awareness of the ache in your knee, for example, we practice this kind of noticing.

It seems that an ache or a pain is something you just want to get away from. But when we start to just stay curious about the ache, we often find that it changes somehow. We don’t have to always jump up and brace against pain, we can sometimes just relax into it a bit. We don’t have to dread leaving our homes when the weather is a bit not to our liking. We can start to get greater confidence that we can just BE with it.

Which leads to a common paradox… ?

Sitting with pain is a hard sell for many of us but it’s one of the first aims of the early Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) courses. When pain can’t be fixed as is the case with chronic pain patients, and even medications can’t bring comfort, Jon Kabat-Zinn asked the question: Are people with chronic pain doomed to be chronically unhappy? Is there any relief that can be found from within?

Research on mindfulness says that there is. And it’s more than perhaps the early mindfulness teachers could have imagined. The experience of pain is altered in meditators not just because they have what might be simply described as a better ‘attitude’ towards it, but how can paying attention to something unpleasant help us find greater joy and freedom from pain because of actual changes in the brain.

Neuroplasticity and Pain


Researchers have found that mindfulness practitioners increase the grey matter of the brain over time with dedicated practice. What can you do with more gray matter?

Bushnell has found that chronic pain, depression, and post-traumatic stress all are associated with a reduction in the gray matter of the brain and that yoga and meditation cause the reverse: an increase in the brains of practitioners.

 “Brain anatomy changes may contribute to mood disorders and other affective and cognitive comorbidities of chronic pain. The encouraging news for people with chronic pain is mind-body practices seem to exert a protective effect on brain gray matter that counteracts the neuroanatomical effects of chronic pain,” – Catherine Bushnell, 2015 for American Pain Society

More gray matter is specifically associated with increased pain tolerance.

The road map to the present moment

Coming full circle, here’s the interesting thing about paying attention. We notice that right now, right here, my breath feels warm and relaxing in my mid-back, my chest. My down vest and the sun shining through the window is providing a swath of warmth that feels quite comforting. I notice the sound of water dripping off of my roof, and the even breath of my old spaniel. My shoulder is a bit tight, It’s our sensory experiences that we can use in many ways to train our attention in the ways that will increase our grey matter and make pain less terrible. When we train our attention, we also notice more of the joys that are available to us in any given moment. and the left side of my neck a little tingly. My foot is a bit chilly.

It’s not a sunny day at the cottage, but it’s a perfect moment to be right where I’m at.

Sensory practices to find calm

You’ll notice in our guided meditations that we anchor with awareness of the breath, and the sensations of the breath, and the feeling of the ground under us. Those are sensory experiences that snap us out of busy minds, out of automatic pilot, and into the present moment.

If we are to train our attention to come back to the present moment, the senses become this road map that is always at the ready. A tool that is used often for anxiety and a wonderful tool for helping children to cope with stress that is dysregulating, is to do a sensory meditation.

What are 3 (or 5) things in this moment:

  • That you can see?
  • That you can smell?
  • That you can feel?
  • That you can taste?

Just like the way temperature sensations take up our neural pathway, concentrating our attention on the body sensations and sensory experiences that we are feeling in this moment leads us out of our busy mind and into the body. When we come into this present moment body awareness, we tune in, and pay attention to our experience as we are experiencing it. Our senses become a guideline to find our way back to being “here” when our minds have gotten a bit lost in the wilderness of our past or the worry of our future.

If you are interested in learning more about Mindfulness Meditation and ways to practice new ways of responding to life, tune in to our upcoming free webinar, Tools for Mindful Decision Making, and check out our upcoming 28-day online course, Loving Through Difficulty

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"Let’s do this work together to bring the kind of caring presence that heals "

Karen Laing