In which Mike learns the power of paying attention to his senses
“What’s your favourite smell?”. Mike paused for a moment and thought. “I know” he said “The smell of a forest on a Sunday afternoon walk, I love that smell”
“How often do you get to smell it?”
Mike thought for a moment “Only about two or three times a year, what with work and everything we have not been to the forest for months.”
John paused. “Look around this room, I’m going to ask you some slightly strange questions but all I want you to do is pay attention to your senses and just tell me what you notice.”
“First, what can you smell?”
Mike sniffed “That’s strange, I can’t smell anything at all apart from the fumes from those flip chart markers!”
“OK, now, what can you hear, apart from me?”
“I can hear a hum from that projector, the air conditioning and a bit of traffic noise” said Mike increasingly puzzled.
“Good, now what can you feel on your body and what do you think about the texture of this table?”
Mike drew his finger along the table, “Never thought about it before, it’s just a standard beige conference room table, it doesn’t really have a texture and I can feel a slight breeze from the air-conditioning.”
“Anything else?” asked John
“Well, if I was being picky I suppose I can feel my clothes and my watch on my wrist but I don’t understand?”
“One last question” said John “Look around you, what do you see?, Describe this room to me.”
“Well, we’re in one of our conference rooms. It has a glass wall along one side, the rest of the walls are painted with white emulsion, the carpet tiles are blue, the table a sort of wood beige colour like the door and the legs of the table are steel. Why all the questions?”
“That’s fascinating” said John “would you say we are in a highly stimulating environment that encourages your creativity?”
Mike shook his head.
“You’re right” said John “Look the environment is dull, we are breathing recycled air, there are no interesting smells and all the surfaces have a uniform man-made texture. What do you think happens to humans who spend a lot of time in this kind of environment?”
“I dunno” said Mike “although thinking about it, it seems like we go sort of numb.”
“That’s exactly what happens. Let me tell you about what the latest brain research shows.”
The Brain Dead Primates
“You might have heard the story that when we get to a certain age our brain cells start to die off?” Mike nodded. “Well, it turns out that it’s a fallacy. The original brain research which led to that ‘fact’ was done with primates and of course the primates were kept in an artificial environment, breathing recycled air, in steel coloured cages, set against white painted walls. It’s no surprise that their brain cells started to die off. Just recently a group of researchers discovered that if you took the same primates and put them in a highly stimulating, natural setting, which really fired their senses, guess what? Their brain cells started regrowing and not just growing but stretching and making new connections. Can you see a link here?”
“So if I understand you right” said Mike “the same thing happens to us. Which means, if I’ve followed you, that we’ve got to stimulate our senses if we want to grow or prevent unnecessary brain cell death.”
“Exactly” said John “which brings me to the Sixth Way. Come on…” He stood up. “Grab a jacket if you need one, we are going to walk and talk. Let’s get out of this brain dead room.”
Stop Thinking And Come to Your Senses
As John led the way towards the park, he began to explain “I don’t want you to think about this at all, all I want you to do is pay attention to what your senses are telling you and especially what your senses long for more of. Most people who work in an artificial environment are so disconnected from their senses that it takes ages before they become aware of what they are sensing.”
“Many people have gone numb. Think about those who work in any sort of factory or corporate environment. The colours are dull and muted, usually a variety of grey, beige, white or blue. They only ever write with blue or black ink on white paper. In more physical environments the noise can be relentless and the activity repetitive. No wonder we go numb.”
“We also go numb on how we feel and think. Just the other day, my family were all sitting having dinner when my youngest blurted out ‘Grandma is very fat isn’t she?’. She’s six and she just blurted it out in the middle of everything else because it came into her head. You used to do this kind of thing but you don’t anymore, do you?”
Mike shook his head.
“Your parents or some authority figure soon told you that it was not good to speak your thoughts. Of course, this makes sense. We’d have anarchy if everyone just said whatever they were thinking from moment to moment. Most relationships would not last very long if this was the case.”
“It does have a downside though. If you are constantly shushing yourself, constantly telling yourself that you are not allowed to think or say a particular thought then after awhile you lose contact with who you really are and what you really think. All of us have had the experience of ‘going bland’ at work. Unfortunately, in many places you soon learn that original thought is neither desired nor welcome. You are careful never to express a view in a meeting, never to hold a strong opinion. You see that convention and conformity are the keys to promotion. Again, after a few years of this, it can be hard to find any kind of originality or definite thought in you at all.”
“If this hasn’t happened to you yet then can I plead with you to stay in touch with the information from your senses because it gives you some kind of grounding for knowing who you are in the world and what you want and enjoy. Stop thinking and come to what your senses are telling you.”
As he talked, John began to gesture at the sky and the trees and pantomime taking in lungfuls of fresh air. With the sun shining on his face Mike began to lose his self-consciousness about being outside during work time.
“Part of figuring out what you want, the Sixth Way, is to understand what you take pleasure in and rediscover the deep longings you have to satisfy those senses. Since we’re outdoors let me ask you a few questions about your senses and what they are telling you.”
- What do you most enjoy looking at?
- What would you like to view more regularly?
- What brings delight to your eyes?
“I know” said Mike “I love watching my children sleeping. They look so gorgeous and special.”
“OK then, how could you see and experience that more often?
“Hmm…now I think about it. I’m so tired with work and life that I very rarely take these moments to enjoy this sight. Hmm, thinking about it now, I realise that this is why I work so hard and I’ve kinda lost sight of that.”
- What is your favourite sound, noise, music etc?
- What would you like to hear more often?
“Oh that’s easy. Laughter”
“How could you make sure you hear this more often?”
“I’ve just realised that I never hear laughter at work at all. What is wrong with us all?”
- What do you like to touch or feel?
- Who or what do you like to touch?
- Who or what do you like to be touched by?
“No sniggers here Mike. Research has shown that touch is one of the best ways to banish loneliness and depression in the elderly. We touch children a lot because we can see that hugs and reassurance really help. We seem to forget that with adults. In some societies and cultures the whole touching thing has become a minefield, laden with threats of legal action and overtones of exploitation. None of that changes our need for a hug though.”
- So, what surfaces, textures, items or who do you love to touch or be touched by?
“Another easy one. I used to love the feel of writing with a fountain pen on smooth paper. And, before you ask me, that’s something I could easily bring back into my life. I spend so much time in meetings that it would be good to make my note taking pleasurable. Again, it’s strange how I’ve forgotten that.”
- What is your favourite smell?
- How often do you get to smell your favourite smell?
- How could you smell it more often?
“Another easy one.” said Mike “It’s curry, my wife’s perfume and I love the smell of my little ones when they’ve just had a bath.”
“Good.” John sniffed deeply. “You know what I’m going to ask, don’t you? How could you stay in touch with those smells? It’s so important, especially if you have been breathing air conditioned or recycled air all day at work. Smell connects us directly to our most ancient memories. I really don’t like going to my children’s parents evening because the smell of the school is way too close for comfort!”
- Favourite tastes then. What are they and how could you taste them more often?
Mike rolled his tongue around his mouth. “Do you know” he said “I can’t taste anything at all. In fact I thought the other day that I had lost all my taste buds. I have to add loads of salt to everything to get it to taste of something.”
“Maybe it’s a sign of stress?” said John “I know when I’m stressed because I start pouring chilli sauce and mustard on my food. Anything to get any kind of flavour. I have no real evidence for this but I’m not the only one who begins to lose my sense of taste when stressed or tense. If you are numbing out your senses on caffeine or desperately craving the sugary or salty high of junk food it could be that you have become totally disconnected from your taste buds.”
Mike took a lungful of air in the park “That’s quite a list and it’s strange how odd it feels being out here in the sun and fresh air during a work day. It feels not quite right somehow, as if I’m doing something naughty?”
John stood up “Yes, but this time I don’t want you to think about it. Just concentrate on what your senses are telling you – what do you want more of and how could you bring these things back into your life? Oh and why not hold your next team meeting in the park?”
He stepped away “Here’s the worksheet, why not stay here and make some notes? I’ll see you next time.”
As John walked way, Mike turned his face to the sun and took in another lungful of fresh air. ‘I’ve got to find a way to hang on to this’ he thought…