Before I first started meditating in the 90s, I believed pretty much what everybody else did: in order to meditate properly, I needed to sit silently in a lotus position for hours, chanting ohm and clearing my minds of all extraneous thought. And like most people, I highly doubted I had the sort of mental rigor necessary for even a mediocre meditation practice.
Fortunately, at the time I bought an audiobook from Jack Kornfield called Meditation for Beginners. In this book, Kornfield opened my eyes to the variety of ways we can experience meditation—either passively or actively. Far from being this internal, isolating and strict ritual, meditation in all its varying forms offered numerous ways to connect with myself, my fellow humans, and the natural world around me.
Meditation doesn’t have to be a purely intellectual pursuit. In fact, the more you bring the senses into the mix, the more profound the awareness and connection you can build through your practices. Here are a few tips for bringing your five senses to the party as you grow your meditation practice.
The sense of sight is one of our most powerful senses, and can be used to deepen and expand our experiences. You can enhance your visual meditations through something as simple as candles or spiritual images to viewing guided meditation videos. If you are in a place where you have access to places of natural beauty, bring your meditation there and let the wonders of our amazing planet be your focus.
Aromatherapy is not just a trendy fad for New Agers. When used as a part of your meditation, varying scents can bring powerful mental and emotional resonances to your practice. Our sense of smell is most closely connected to memory, and different scents produce different results. Patchouli, sandalwood, and cedar are natural grounding scents, while sage, chamomile, and lavender can enhance relaxation.
Every time I hear about Eating Meditation, I think of Ambassador Delenn from the 90s television show, Babylon 5. As members of the Minbari religious class, Delenn and her aide Lennier would meditate between every bite of food. The moment was played for laughs, but there is a great wisdom to bringing mindfulness to the act of eating. After all, eating is the most vital and sensual act we commit on our own volition. When you really think about it, eating is the basis of all life on Earth. Without it, none of us would survive. So why not take a bit of time to, as Delenn put it, “meditate upon food.”
As a little girl growing up Catholic, I remember watching the old ladies of the church saying the Rosary, aged fingers nimbly manipulating their beads as they prayed. While I didn’t recognize it at the time, they were practicing a form of meditation. Science has shown that meditation sharpens your sense of touch. The use of such items as prayer beads can greatly improve your focus as you meditate. Another form of active meditation that lends itself to tactile input is karma yoga, or the discipline of selfless action. While there are more than one ways to practice karma yoga, mindfully committing to even simple acts like washing dishes or folding laundry can bring you fully into your present awareness.
Perhaps the most recognizable sensory element associated with meditation is sound. Chanting, Tibetan bowls, bells, and gongs have all made their way into the common vision of what is involved in meditating. But you don’t have to stick with these. Different sounds can have different effects on the body, and all of us respond in our own unique way to the sounds around us. I’ve seen Kathryn achieve a highly meditative state while listening to her favorite bands from the 80s, and I once turned my arranger’s ears to the sound of a leaf-blower and found a glorious symphony of sound. There is never a lack of sound to turn to for inspiration, and if you listen with the ears of a seeker, you may find peace in the most unexpected places.