As the cool water envelopes my feet I sense my continuity with the water, indeed with all of life. I am home exactly where I am.
This was a thought I had yesterday while out rock climbing on the river near where I live. This was not some kind of mind-blowing spiritual revelation. Just a simple moment of uncomplicated awareness. What did strike me on reflection though was how much this is related to why I am doing the Slow Project and Way of Nature retreat guiding. While I consider such moments at once profound yet also ordinary, I remember that this was not always the case and truly appreciate the effect this quality of awareness has had on my life.
Let’s take a step back and have a look at our senses in today’s world. Most of human history has been spent in times where there were immediate physical dangers. Our nervous systems have adapted accordingly. We are hardwired to react to novel stimuli because, as far as our nervous system knows, it might indicate a threat. These days most people do not live in situations where danger might lurk around every corner, however the quantity and intensity of sensory input has escalated off the charts. Consider the changes to the human habitat since the industrial revolution; increasing density of urban living, cars, advertisements, marketing materials, loud speakers, artificial light, etc. It is a ‘hyperstimulated’ world that we live in.
You might be wondering what is the problem with this stimulation. We do have positive association with the word ‘stimulated’ and I agree that intense sensory input cannot be glorious in itself, but everything is about balance.
“Silence is the sleep that nourishes wisdom” – Francis Bacon
Some people are particularly prone to adverse reactions to excessive stimulation. I became interested in sensory processing during my time as as an Occupational Therapist. I learnt about how our nervous systems must filter through and modulate incoming stimuli in order for us to be able to function. Efficient sensory modulation is the ability to effectively regulate the degree to which one is influenced by various sensory inputs.
For many people, and especially children as their nervous system is still maturing, sensory processing poses a challenge and disorders result. We all have different ‘sensory profiles’, sensing and letting in different quantities of stimuli from our various sense organs and then filtering it differently through our systems of perception. Even if it is not at a ‘disorder’ level, we have our own sensory challenges. I also wonder if the changing sensory environment of the modern world is leading to an increase in sensory processing disorders because it is not what our nervous systems evolved to live in. Too much sensory stimulation results in a stress response and sometimes a ‘shut down.’ Sensory overload has actually been used as a method of torture.
Bit of a side note – but it was too interesting not to mention – in my research I discovered that creative people tend to have reduced ‘sensory gating’; letting in more stimuli than others. However when our prefrontal cortex is activated, creativity is suppressed. The prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, cranking itself up for new stimuli and moving your attention to the source of the stimuli.1)http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jan/18/modern-world-bad-for-brain-daniel-j-levitin-organized-mind-information-overload Creatives often advocate for the need for silence.
This bombardment and relentless activation of the prefrontal cortex also fractures our attention, switching our focus over to the source of the new stimuli. This is a disaster for efficiency and also delivers a double stress-whammy. Multitasking increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol right when your nervous system is in arousal due to all the sensory input.
You might be thinking, ‘well I don’t have one of these sensory disorders, so what is the problem?’ Actually, it is you who I am writing this article for. People with ‘healthy’ sensory processing have adapted to be able to function in modern environments. They can function well but it has a hidden cost; our senses become grossified. This is akin to touching with a glove on.
In short, when there is simply too much stimuli we adapt with grossification or do not adapt enough and enter a stress response. Either way, it is bad news for full appreciation and connection with the world around you.
Sensing deeper into a moment facilitates deeper levels of presence. In fact I wonder if sensing deeper and being more present are actually synonymous. Our meeting with the world occurs through the interface of our senses. Life is experienced through the senses, so by missing out on deep connection to the moment, we miss out on life. I believe that Fast culture leaves us feeling like something is missing and deprivation of subtle sensing is one primary mechanism.
In relation to the pervasiveness of human-produced noise, “We’re kind of severing the acoustic link that humans have with nature.”2)http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/magazine/is-silence-going-extinct.html?_r=0
Back to my opening example. Regardless of whether my experience resonates with you or not, the fact remains that I did not have this relationship with the world around me until I gave myself time away from the bombardment of modern life to really refine my senses. Naturally a fiery, do everything type, I tend towards intensity and keeping myself charged-up. Appreciation for subtleties was definitely something I had to learn.
In my next post I will describe what I’ve learnt about strategies to counter hyperstimulation and refine the senses.
If you are in Perth, you can also come along to a breakfast seminar on July 22 on this topic.
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