Have you ever heard it said to a very distraught person, “you need to come to your senses”? Taken literally, this may seem a strange bit of advice, but like many common phrases, there is deep wisdom hidden in this riddle-like expression.
Indeed, this particular suggestion is just about the best advice any person can give to another under any circumstance, but especially in times of distress.
The creator of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls, used to incorporate this exhortation as a centerpiece of his psychotherapeutic technique. He would instruct his patients to, “Get out of your head and come to your senses!” and he meant this literally.
To say it another way, to be free of the endless commenting, reviewing, anticipating, and sometimes chaos in the mind, try shifting the focus of awareness from thoughts and emotions into immediate sensory experience. Pay attention to what you hear and see and sense in your body. Pay special attention to the sensations of breathing. Do this for fifteen to thirty seconds. If you succeed in focusing completely into your senses, you will experience a calm and a clarity that can only be described as total sanity. This is also the beginning place for meditation.
Meditation means concentration, or attending to. Our problem typically is that what we are attending to is the thought and emotion dimension of mind, nearly unaware of a vast field of consciousness that is not thought and emotion. Formal meditation is learning to quiet the mind through shifting concentrated awareness from the mind’s chattering activity onto the non-discursive/non-reactive experience of mind.
In the form of meditation that I practice and teach, called Vipassana (Insight) meditation, the focus of concentration is awareness itself looking into the phenomenon of mind, including awareness of the senses. Particular attention is paid to the sensory experience of breathing as a path to a peaceful field of non-discursive mind that brings a profound presence, clarity and subtlety of awareness to our internal and environmental experience.
What is the source of our anxiety, anger, despair and obsessions? What is the source of our unhappiness? We tend to blame it on the events and people around us that are upsetting to us. But, in fact, it is what the mind says to us about the events and people around us that is the real source of our mental pain. For some, their minds absolutely torture them, talking non-stop about very distressing content.
For most of us, we don’t necessarily feel like we are going crazy, but we are vulnerable to stress from the unceasing activity of the mind, and distress from our minds talking about unpleasant events and possibilities that then sets off ensuing emotional reactivity. We have little insight that the events in the world are just the stimuli that trigger our minds interpreting and commenting in reactive patterns that are deeply conditioned into us.
The contemporary prophet of human evolution, and author of the books The Power of Now and A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle, has identified the culprit for humanity’s individual and collective distress, the same as has Eastern philosophy, with the human ego and it’s thinking and resonant emotions. It nags and nags, trying to find ways to make sense of our experience in a way that gives us some illusion of control. It tells us that we must be right and that we must be significant (even if it is as significantly afflicted). It plots to get what it wants and to avoid what it doesn’t want.
The ego talks to us constantly trying to interpret our experience consistent with our conditioned interpretation of the world and our place in it. All the misunderstanding we have about the world, others and ourselves is brought about by what our insecure egoic mind is saying to us.
Tolle points out what Perls noticed and what Buddhism has taught for several thousand years. They all teach that we are only truly sane when we are grounded in the reality of the present moment and not lost in the chaotic time traveling and projected judgments of the egoic mind. They also teach that our senses provide a portal to a wise, intuitive dimension of mind that exists in every person, while the ego and its distorted perceptions exist in a fictional timeline story of “me”.
That’s what caused Fritz Perls to say that “neurotic thinking is anachronistic thinking, it is out of place in time.” When depressed, we usually are thinking about past events that thwarted ego’s desires and projecting more of the same into the future. When anxious, we are reliving past fears and caught in dread and uncertainty about what has not yet taken place. Often when we are upset, our minds are shuttling between past and future, and we are lost in a mounting blur of regret, anger and anxiety, playing and replaying in our minds scenarios fraught with drama, fears of diminishment, harm and defeat.
I have found that there is a phenomenon of awareness that is similar to the law in physics that says no two objects can occupy the same space. By focusing awareness totally into the here-and-now of the senses, the talking mind shuts up, and to whatever degree (percentage, if you will) the energy of mind can shift from thinking to sensing, there is a proportional quieting of the mind’s emotional talking.
So, when you are feeling overwhelmed, distressed, even a little crazy, remember Perls’ exhortation to “get out of your head, and come to your senses!” Look, listen, feel the world around you. Experience the calming effect of your own breath and the subtle sensory orientation of your body.
As you practice this sensory-focused awareness, becoming more skillful in it, you will discover that your life is becoming calmer, clearer and saner. You will be opening the door to a deep well of wisdom and security that exists within the quiet recesses of every person. You will find yourself living pleasantly and effectively in the now, not crazily in the then and when.