When is the last time you checked to see if you were alive? How do you even know that to be true? These may seem like silly questions, but I think many of us forget. We take our aliveness for granted, and/or traumas trapped in our nervous systems prevent parts of us from understanding that we are survivors, and are therefore living breathing beings. Unresolved fight/flight/freeze reactions may cause us to subconsciously believe we didn’t make it through whatever overwhelming experiences we’ve had. It's that feeling of walking around dulled, numb, and flat. So how can we unearth our vitality by reminding ourselves that we are alive, and bring this awareness to a conscious level?
In embodied mindfulness somatic practices like Alexander Technique and Somatic Experiencing, we tune in to all of our senses to enter into our present time experience as it unfolds. Our senses include what we receive through our perceived external environment, like the five you probably already know well: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting; vestibular and proprioceptive input provide sensory information too. There’s also something called interoception: how we sense our inner physiology, like our heartbeat, registering when we have to go to the bathroom, or knowing when we’re hungry.
We become aware of our sensory experience as purely as possible without any judgment or story attached to what we notice. For example, you notice that your stomach feels “sloshy”. In the past, you may have associated a sloshy sensation in your stomach with feeling nervous or anxious, but for this moment you simply notice the sensation without assuming what it means. You hear birds chirping outside, but rather than allowing your mind to wander to that trip you took the bird sanctuary when you were five, or whether or not getting pooped on by a bird is good luck, you just notice the chirping as it is.
We notice the sensations as they are, and we stay curious about how they might shift over the course of observation.*
When we habitually attach a judgment, story, or meaning to a given sensation, we cut ourselves off from being able to process and intuit what that sensation is actually telling us. If we’ve already decided what it means, we’ve confined it, and prevented it from moving through us, or changing.
Now this is just an initial step into freeing our vital energies and tapping into our innate capacity to heal ourselves. It can be useful to bring judgment, story, or meaning back into the picture after a while in order to process the wholeness of our experience. We don’t want to enter into the territory of repression or dissociation where we never allow our sensations to mean anything. We just withhold initial judgments of our sensory experience to allow space for new meaning to emerge.
Tapping into the ongoing stream of sensory information can function as a sort of reset button. It can open us up, and help us experience this moment as new and ever-changing. Rather than subscribing to what we’ve been told we should feel, waking up to our sensory experience is an intimate way to check in with ourselves, and to connect with the world around us. It’s an opportunity to witness ourselves without trying to change anything, or get it right. Consciously remembering that we’re alive through our senses reminds us that life is impermanent, so we’d better make the most of it. It empowers us to re-engage with our own agency.
So as you read this, hear the sounds around you, feel the air on your skin, sense your points of contact with your seat and feet, and register your heartbeat. And then as Mary Oliver writes, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”
*Note: For those of you who try this at home, you may find it helpful to notice both one "external" sensation and one "internal" sensation at the same time.