E2. Exploring Sensations

Sensory stimuli are the raw materials of experience. When we are infants we know sensations as they present themselves, or else as more or less crudely shaped by innate perceptual mechanisms. Because the events of infancy are not associated with words and concepts, it is hard for us to remember them. When they are recalled, they come to us suddenly and involuntarily as vivid sense-memories with little in the way of context. Later in life we know sensation mostly in its “cooked” form, as abstract summaries of episodes, scenes from our lives that have been reduced to a kind of code.

Moreover, since the adoption by human beings of agriculture (approximately 10,000 years ago), a sedentary way of life, and civilization (no less than 6,000 years ago), the importance of technical knowledge and problem-solving ability has increased exponentially. The transition from a culture dominated by the sensuous to one dominated by the intellect has been gradual but pervasive. The net result of these shifts is an overemphasis on cogitation which, together with the increasing pace, complexity, and busyness of our lives, has greatly reduced our opportunities to enjoy sensory phenomena as they are. Sensations have become mere indicators of the objects to be used in pursuit of our goals or else ignored.
paleolithic horse
It comes down to this. We think too much about too many things, and all that thinking gets in the way of our fully knowing and appreciating our bodies as the source and vehicle of sensations in themselves. Thoughts are also sensations, but it is almost impossible for us to see that when we are caught up in thinking. Bodies are not mere vehicles to be directed by minds. Minds are the work of bodies, the signals generated by the organism as it communicates with the world around it and among its various internal systems. The primary activities of mind are to eliminate sensory redundancy and to construct entities out of sensations. The things so fabricated include the world, the self, and the concept of mind.

The exercises given below will help trainees to restore the immediacy of sensory phenomena, free of self-consciousness and instrumental agendas. Learning to recover the knowledge of sensory stimuli as such is one of the primary tasks of a student of the contemplative arts. It will change the quality of your moment-to-moment perception. It will put you back in your body, where you belong.And it will greatly expand your sense of what it means to be a body.

body space image

Exercise 2
A. Bodily sensation
In a comfortable seated posture, practice each of the following exercises for a period of not less than nine minutes and not more than 40 minutes, in sessions separated by at least twelve hours. Until you have become both familiar and comfortable with a given exercise, do not move on to the next. The order of the exercises is progressive. Once mastered, they can be performed in any order. The best place to begin is with attention to posture.
i. Monitor the postural indicators listed in the RUBS-BETH acronym. [See On Posture (3)]. Go through the whole sequence from at least three to as many as twelve times; then see if you can get a sense of the body’s posture as a whole. Repeat the process for several days running. It is fundamental.
ii. Directing attention according to your inner somatic map, scan or sweep whole body, starting with the crown of the head and moving slowly down the front. Be alert for signs of tension and any other conspicuous sensations. Where you find them, pause for a moment, giving the spot your full attention, and see what happens. Then move on. Perform the same procedure for the back side of the body. When you become skilled in this technique, you may notice that you speed up as your inner gaze moves through the body. Try to keep a moderate pace. Lots of interesting things are happening, and you don’t want to miss them on account of impatience.
iii. Attend to any and all sensations associated with posture. Allow attention to float freely among them, but do not get lost in space. Stay with the posture for the full period. If attention wanders, or you find that you have become caught up in thinking, bring your attention back to any aspect of bodily posture, and proceed from there as before.
iv. In this exercise we will focus on a single sensory cluster associated with posture, preferably one that is both relatively strong and constant, and therefore available most of the time. Examples are the thumb-tips, where they meet, and the left palm resting upon the right. You will find others. Pick one and stick with it.
v. Focus on the lowest point in the body where there is a strong sensory constellation, such as the buttocks just below the sit bones, where they meet the cushion, or the soles of the feet if you are sitting in a chair. This is an effective technique for overcoming agitation, and for getting out of your head during storms of compulsive thought.
vi. Letting the attention roam freely, but always with alertness and comprehensive awareness, focus on whatever cluster of sensation happens to be the most prominent at the moment. Stay with it until it breaks up or another event comes to dominate the sensory field. Shift attention to the new tactile alpha. Repeat for the duration of the session.
vii. While remaining alert, relax the focus of attention and enlarge the field of awareness to include the totality of bodily sensations, as much as possible all at once. This can be challenging at first. There is a strong tendency for the undirected attention to flit from one sensory event to another. When the mind grasps something, just remember to relax and let go, again and again, until the mental faculties that select objects have learned their lesson and calmed down. (This practice has been included just to give you a taste of freedom and to provide a hint that it is not always either desirable or necessary to concentrate. If you find that it is extremely frustrating, feel free to drop it and come back to it later when you have become adept at some of the simpler associative methods.)

Bodily sensations that arise in connection to the cycle of breathing in and out are a major component of somatic awareness. They are also the focus of a great many methods of cultivating self-knowledge and mental stability across the whole range of contemplative traditions. Because the topic is so big, we will ignore it for now and return to it in future posts.

B. The Dominant Senses: Sight, Sound, & Touch
In the formal practices of sitting and walking there is little opportunity to observe the senses of taste and smell. Therefore we will limit ourselves to the senses of sight, sound, and touch. The idea here is simple, namely, to learn to clearly distinguish between the (subjective) sensory realms associated with the three selsected sensory faculties, as such. As we shall see a bit further on, the ability to discern the several types of sensation quickly and easily will be a valuable asset when we turn to the development of insight. It will be enough for now just to become skilled at “tuning in,” one at a time, to each of the three dominant senses of Sight, Sound, and Touch. It does not matter where you start.

You may find it helpful to conceive of three distinct sensory realms before you begin. The visual realm is the size and shape of your visual field and includes everything that occurs within it. The auditory realm is located in the vicinity of the ears and (for some people at least) between them. The tactile realm is roughly bounded by the outer layer of skin, & likewise includes all sensations—and there are many different kinds—that occur upon and within the body.

Your task in this exercise is simply to learn how to shift from one of these realms to another. So, having chosen one of the sense-fields, bring it to the foreground of awareness. Fully occupy it with attention, spending as much time as you like in becoming familiar with it. Pay particular attention to its special characteristics. Get a feel for it. Stay with it for, say, a session of nine to fifteen minutes. If your object in the first session was Sight, move on to Sound in your next, and Touch in the one after that. When you have devoted a number of periods to each sense separately, then practice shifting from one to another during a single session. You might begin by devoting a minute each to Sight, Sound, and Touch, over the course of a nine-minute period, thus performing three cycles in all. An athletic interval timer is perfect for measuring exercises of this kind. I believe you will quickly find this work to be fascinating. May you be well and happy!

From time without beginning…

Can you remember the moment at which you became conscious? The day, the month, the year? I am speaking of being not merely sentient, but fully self-conscious, capable (in potential at least) of contemplating the fact of your own existence.

I can remember how it suddenly came upon me, when I was around ten years old; how it stunned me, the realization that I am not only aware but self-aware; that mine is a unique perspective; that my sense-of-self might be other than what it is; that it might not be at all! The thought was breathtaking. I was preoccupied with it for a long time, or so unreliable memory informs me.

In retrospect the fact of my coming-to-consciousness has certain curious implications, of which the most obvious is also the most startling, namely, that we are not always conscious. For I think it seems to us, much of the time, that I am conscious now, that I was conscious a moment ago (and yesterday), that I will be conscious an hour from now, and that I will continue to be conscious right up to the moment of death–or, as one might conceive of it, even beyond death. But, as we shall see,  there are many reasons to doubt that consciousness is continuous and much evidence that awareness, whatever it is, cannot possibly be what our way of talking about it suggests that we believe it to be.

The status of consciousness; the means by which we can explore, modify, and regulate it “internally”; the evidence of the senses, of the biological sciences, and of philosophy; all these–together with a record of our ongoing attempts to apply and understand the various contemplative disciplines–will be the stuff of this series.


We cannot say with certainty where this story begins. The core teachings of the Buddha provide a valuable clue. Of the main families of Buddhistic teachings–Theravada, Mahayana, and Mantrayana–each has its own way of expressing the Buddha’s vision: that every phenomenon arises out of a flux of causes and conditions and returns thereto. Change and interdependence are paramount in this way of looking at the sensory world. All things depend upon other things for their existence and non-existence, and nothing is altogether separable from its milieu. Objects are properly viewed as events, and persons as processes. The unceasing alteration of the sensory realm has no discernible beginning. Consciousness, mind, and the idea of self emerge from the vast, starry depths of time and space. The universe blinks, looks around, and discovers itself.

One of Many Possible Starting Points

In working out how the spiritual technology of the ancients can be integrated with contemporary cultures and ways of living, it is instructive to compare our epoch, the turn of the 21st century, with the period during which the Buddha lived in India. It was an era of great ferment in politics, religion, and social life. Republican forms of government were giving way to feudalism; time-honored barriers between classes and tribes were becoming permeable; new conceptions of the spiritual life were taking shape.

The crucible for many of the most important intellectual developments of the period was the milieu of the śramanā (literally, “seekers”), a dropout subculture on the fringes of Indian society. Within that informal community there was no practice too austere, no idea too extreme that it could not be tested. A common body of psychophysical exercises were taken up by Buddhists, Jains, adherents of the nascent neo-Brahmanic synthesis (“Hinduism”), and a great many ascetics whose names and opinions are no longer known to us. All of the (then) new religions of the subcontinent incorporated one or another form of “meditation” and shared much else besides. It is no accident, for instance, that the Buddha taught an eightfold path that overlaps significantly with the eight limbs of classical yoga.

emaciated_buddha_zc89Indeed, there is very little of Buddhism that is either original or unique. What gives the Buddha’s teachings their special power and longevity is the way in which standard features of the spiritual life have been organized around the central vision of dependent origination (paticca-samuppāda), expounded by means of causal analysis, and orientated to the realization of freedom from discomfort. That accomplishment was, we now know, brilliant and revolutionary.

When we are tempted to engage in controversy over whether the practice of “meditation” can be abstracted from the matrix of elements that comprise the Buddha-Dharma, let us recall that Siddhatha Gotama learned to meditate from his teachers, who were not Buddhists. He was an analyzer, and he was a synthesizer as well, as must we be, who live in a time of great diversity and tumult.

By Way of Introduction

This is a blog about the (mostly Buddhist) methods of self-examination and self-management that are collectively known as [mental or spiritual] cultivation (bhavanā). I had intended to publish these pages under the title, “Mindfields,” which suggested to me the several vantage points from which consciousness can attempt to view itself, and the variety of maps of the territory that can be drawn from the perspectives of religious tradition, cognitive psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience respectively. The word is attractive also because of its similarity to “minefields.” Any investigation of the related topics of mind, self, and the origins of experience is fraught with dangers. Over decades of practice and reflection, I have come to believe that we “meditators” do not know nearly as much about our arts as we think we do. In these pages I will explore the reasons for that shortfall and related defects in understanding and pedagogy. As it turned out, “Mindfields” was adopted by the authors of at least a dozen other blogs and websites.

Liar facce illusion

I envision the content of these pages as a prolonged meditation on “meditation,” a turning and returning of the eyes of thought upon the processes of stilling the waves of thought—θεωρία, respectful appreciation, and contemplatio, the clearing of an empty space in which the mind can stretch itself out before the altar of the mind.

Trained in time-honored methods in traditional ways, I had the good fortune to meet a few teachers who were not afraid to challenge received knowledge and offer alternative interpretations of basic texts. They know who they are, and cannot be held responsible in the least for the limitations of my thinking.