“How are you?” That's a common greeting, which is usually answered more out of politeness than honesty. Most of the time we answer casually, so that when someone does answer in a truthful way it is a little bit shocking–either because it is so negative (“Lousy!” which we probably would rather not know) or surprisingly good (“Fantastic!” which can seem a little Pollyanna, because nobody could really be walking around doing that well…). But it is a good question to ask, especially of ourselves: “How am I?” Maybe we don't routinely ask it because we already know that we are over-extended, or simply because there are so many things demanding our time and attention outside of ourselves so that there is little energy left for self-contemplation. We get very good at training ourselves to ignore–actually override–any sense of how we are doing inwardly. Instead, we use a little caffeine to rev us up when we are tired, a little wine or sugar to help us mellow out, some TV to distract us so that we find some escape from all the things we constantly find to occupy our attention. Those are all well-known “emergency measures” but they are not a good way to stay in touch with how we are.
Last month's newsletter* spoke about the senses involved in reaching out to the world and to other human beings. There are also complementary senses that chart our path inward (beginning in a relatively neutral space): the sense of Vision, sense of Taste, sense of Smell, sense of Touch, sense of Balance (vestibular sense), sense of Self-movement (proprioceptive sense), and finally what is called the sense of Life. Following their course is very helpful as it lends several insights:
- Taste and Smell are the first senses we meet moving inward. So it makes good sense that eating something helps us surrender the outside world a little, as strong tastes and smells shift our sensing focus (think of coffee, or smoking). Of course, they don't actually get us all the way to the Life sense, which is the place that we can really nourish our sense of well-being. Taste and smell start us on the way, but they are only the beginning. They don't really help us to find peace.
- Next on the pathway comes Touch, and this is very important, because with an anthroposophic understanding of the senses we learn how when we touch something, we are really feeling ourselves. If something is hard, it pushes in firmly on the pressure sensors in our skin. But the outer object is not, itself, changing. If I feel something soft it only presses in on my skin a little bit. What I am experiencing–in both cases–is the change in my self, in my skin. The experience of Touch helps me to experience myself. This is why a baby is so comforted by swaddling. The baby is not only used to feeling that pressure from all sides from being in the womb, it also calms and relaxes the baby because that firm experience of touch and boundary helps move its consciousness inward. It helps the infant let go of outer over-stimulation. Healthy touch helps.
- After Touch come Balance and Self-movement. We experience these through moving and using our bodies. Want to find an antidote to excessive outer responsibility and activity? Move your body. Walking, lifting, digging, cleaning, running. Those activities help us reorient ourselves away from outer over-stimulation much more than a movie. It's really easy to get out of balance in this way, because as our outer sensory demands have increased, our movement (a potent antidote) has dramatically decreased.
- Lastly comes the sense of Life. The sense of Life is totally inward. It is just us, without outside influence. It is disturbed when we are too tired, or hungry, or ill. It is the source of our sense of well-being when we are balanced. It is the gateway to the health of our inner physiology. The sense of Life is routinely totally neglected, probably because we have to get pretty quiet to even know that it is there.
To authentically know how we are, we have to constantly work to preserve our inner connections. Too much pull to the outer senses makes us existentially “lop-sided” and then we get to strange places like nearly-continual exhaustion mixed with restlessness or anxiety that doesn't allow us to properly rest. So here are some tools to help restore better balance:
- Make sure when you are eating, tasting, or smelling something, that it is because you are really hungry or thirsty. Try to recognize when you are relying on the senses of Taste and Smell as a surrogate for inward connection. In other words: “Are you really hungry?” Or are overwhelmed or sad and need to soothe yourself (e.g. are you actually trying to find your way to the Life sense)?
- Move and use your body. Touch something in a loving way (might be loving touch, or petting a cat, or weeding out around a favorite plant). Do it slowly enough to actually feel yourself. Lift, push, twist–stimulate your senses of balance and movement as well. The awakening you do to reconnect with your body helps to reset your sense of self. Truly! Feeling bad? Do some practical work.
- Finally, if all else fails, lay on the floor. Yes, at least once a day, lie on the floor and do nothing. If you have to do something while lying there then think about taking big breathes that reach all the way down to the bottoms of your feet. Take a few minutes to stop responding to anything on the outside. This can take a lot of forms, in fact this kind of activity and centering is the foundation for other more conscious and elaborated activities like meditation. But a really good place to start is by lying on the floor, two minutes a day.
Wishing you peace.