In Celebration of the Senses

By Rhonda Leifheit

I went to the Missouri Botanical Garden early to soak up the healing sights and smells before the predicted 100-degree heat arrived. As I strolled past the many ponds and pools, dragonflies danced effortlessly atop the water lilies, as if giving an impromptu performance. Of course, they were not there to entertain me, but by stopping long enough to enjoy their delicate wings and effortless flight, I allowed myself to be entertained.

A few steps down the path, a lively chipmunk caught my attention. I stopped and waited to see who would move first. For a minute or two my mind was quiet, alert, open. Soon he scampered on to his day, and I to mine.

How I relish such moments. Connections to nature, beauty, divine order. These are meditative moments, when the chatter stops, and the environment speaks for itself. Earth beneath me, sky above. The colors of the roses come in as pure light. Their fragrance uplifts as if it is their sacred gift. A chorus of bird songs elevates me further. I am reminded of an ancient Chinese proverb, “A bird does not sing because it has an answer—it sings because it has a song”. Oh, that we could all be so freely expressive of our true nature!

While our senses are designed to put us in touch with our world—to perceive, interact, learn, and keep us safe—most of us are over-stimulated by daily sensory input. And rarely do we think of our senses as avenues to healing, or to spiritual awakening. While it is true that many ancient spiritual teachings remind us not to be slaves to our senses (through over-indulgence), we are more likely to gain control of our senses by appreciating and refining them.

Consider the healing potential of sound as described by Steven Halpern in Sound Health:

“The voice has been used as a vehicle for spiritual uplifting and healing in every culture throughout history… The process of singing one note for an extended time brings about a number of chemical changes and metabolic processes in the body, including the possible release of endorphins in the brain as well as a mental concentration that allows the hemispheres to synchronize their functioning. The human voice is truly a magical vehicle for transformation.

One of the main differences between singing and talking is that singing emphasizes vowels sounds, while talking focuses on consonants. The so-called pure vowel sound appears in similar spiritual and healing contexts throughout the world. For instance, the ‘ah’ sound appears in the Sanskrit ‘Aum’ chant, in the ‘Allah’ of the Middle East, and the ‘alleluia’ and ‘Amen’ of the Judeo-Christian traditions” (162-3).

Diane Ackerman notes in A Natural History of the Senses , “Chant ‘om’, or any other mantra, in a solid, prolonged tone, and you will feel the bones in your head, as well as the cartilage in your sternum, vibrate. It’s like a massage from the inside” (205). Ackerman’s book is a rich source of science and poetry rolled into one. She combines fascinating facts with a reverent appreciation of our sensory world. After reading it you will never see the world--or for that matter taste, feel, touch, or hear it—in the same way.

And what about our under-appreciated sense of smell? From the Aromatherapy Workbook by Marcel Lavare:

“India is probably the only place in the world where the tradition was never lost. With over 10,000 years of continuous practice, Ayurvedic medicine is the oldest continuous form of medical practice... The Vedas, the most sacred book of India and one of the oldest known books, mention over 700 different products, such as cinnamon, spikenard, coriander, ginger, myrrh, and sandalwood. The Vedas codify the uses of perfumes and aromatics for liturgical and therapeutic purposes. (4)

Modern research is catching up with ancient wisdom, “Researcher’s at Yale’s Psychophysiology Center…claim that the smell of spiced apples can reduce blood pressure in people under stress and avert a panic attack, and lavender can wake up one’s metabolism and make one more alert” (Ackerman 57).

It takes but a moment to stop and pay attention, allowing your senses to guide you to some source of nourishment—the color of the sky as you step outside, the smell of the mornings shampoo, the sound of crickets in the evening, the feel of a cooling breeze against your face. These become mindfulness meditations, allowing you to come into the now--aware, alert, at peace.

Works Cited

Ackerman, Diane. A Natural History of the Senses. New York:  Random House, 1990.

Halpern, Steven. Sound Health: The Music and Sounds That Make Us Whole. New York:  Harper Collins, 1985.

Lavare, Marcel. Aromatherapy Workbook. Rochester, Vermont:  Healing Arts Press, 1990.

© 2005 Rhonda Leifheit – All Rights Reserved