We have five senses in which we glory and which we recognize and celebrate, senses that constitute the sensible world for us. But there are other senses—secret senses, sixth senses, if you will—equally vital, but unrecognized, and unlauded . . . unconscious, automatic.
—Oliver Sacks, from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (Summit Books, 1985)
When the Buddha designated the body as the first foundation of mindfulness, he included a wide range of activities—everything from breathing, standing, sitting, lying down and moving to drinking, chewing, speaking and attending to the calls of nature. His instructions also embraced observation of the four elements in the body—air, earth, water and fire.
Being mindful of the body’s sensations seems easy enough. But it wasn’t easy for me, initially. In the 1970s, I learned various relaxation techniques and briefly tried Zen meditation, but none of this prepared me for my first ten-day vipassana retreat in India in 1981. I can still hear S. N. Goenka, in basso profundo, guiding us to direct our attention to sensations “from the top of the head to the tips of the toes.” I also remember becoming frustrated. I easily noticed sounds. Much to my annoyance, the Indian women moved a lot, their many gold bracelets repeatedly clinking and clanking and their silky saris swish-swishing. But sensations? I don’t know what I expected to sense, but I didn’t think I was feeling the sensations Goenkaji talked about. I quickly fell into self-judgment: So that’s what’s wrong with me! I can’t even sense!
As my focus sharpened and my concentration grew stronger, I increasingly felt more and more subtle sensations. Eventually these sensations turned into such a pleasant flow that it was like a soft warm tropical shower washing over and through me. And sometimes, to my great wonder, there was no “me” there. Other times, what I was used to calling “pain” or “discomfort” was actually a series of sensations: hardness, burning, piercing, heaviness, tightness or pulling. I was amazed to discover this inner world teeming with activity, like a kaleidoscope filled with an endless array of colors, shapes and patterns. Sensations were constantly changing, as were my reactions to them. There was craving for the pleasurable streaming and grasping for it to stay. Aversion reared its head when I did not want to feel one more moment of burning in my knees.
By the time the retreat was over, I appreciated the body as the ground of being in a way that went far beyond my earlier experiences in athletic exercise, movement arts and body therapies. What came closest to this heightened quality of sensing were memories of psychedelic trips. So, it wasn’t that I hadn’t previously recognized bodily sensations; rather, being mindful of them in this pointed way expanded my notions of embodiment and spiritual practice. The retreat also made what I had studied in anatomy and physiology come alive. I found myself more observant and heedful of what I hadn’t had a name for before—“body wisdom”—the body’s continuous process of sensing and informing. Touching is integral to this process.
In English, we understand touch to mean tactility—bringing a bodily part into contact with something and the resulting perception of that contact. In fact, the Buddha meant a whole lot more than touching. In directing us to be aware of bodily sensations, he was calling on the “secret senses” that Sacks acknowledges. These sixth senses constitute our ability to know what’s going on in the body—to sense space, gravity, balance, heft, shape and vibration.
Without these “extra” senses, it would be nearly impossible to function. Try being mindful of the body without them. When we sit down to meditate, we place our hands on our thighs or cup one inside the other with the thumb tips lightly touching. Making this kind of precise contact with the eyes closed entails more than the sense of touch. It is an act of proprioception—literally “own reception,” or sensing ourselves.
Through the proprioceptive system we receive stimuli that are produced within our own bodies rather than smells, sounds, tastes and light that come from outside. When we sense ourselves from within, we know when to eat or drink or when to stop eating or drinking, when to cool off or warm up, when to urinate or defecate, and so on. We experience the qualities of the four elements: the vibration or motion of air, the hardness or solidity of earth, the cohesion or fluidity of water, and the heat of fire. Our internal and visceral organs feed us the information. For example, as we feel the rising and falling of the abdomen with each breath, we may sense fullness, hollowness, stretching, contraction or pressure. This is true whether or not our clothes are tight or loose, so it’s not just a matter of sensing fabric touching skin.
The body’s sense organs of balance and position play the greatest role in how we move. They allow us to shift from one bodily posture to another. Without them we couldn’t engage in walking meditation. “Kinesthesia,” from the Greek, means “perception of movement.” Kinesthetic receptors are sensory receptors that tell the brain what kind of movement is going on in different parts of the body: that our legs are moving and how far and fast; that our heads are turned; that our arms are behind our backs; that we are lifting, pulling, pressing or pushing; and that we are keeping our balance. Special structures inside skeletal muscles communicate muscle length, letting us know how the muscles are moving. Golgi bodies (cell organelles) in tendons detect muscle force and the pull on the tendons. Joint receptors monitor compression in the joints. Hair cells called maculae and cristae in the inner ear regulate equilibrium; this labyrinthine or vestibular feedback lets us know our position in space. Bodily movement and tensions stimulate all of these sense organs.
Without kinesthesia, the various muscle groups needed for walking meditation would never cooperate. The muscles would send our legs in one direction and our torso in another. We wouldn’t be able to control our movements and would probably stagger around, jerk about and fall down often. Proprioception gives us coordination in time and space and tracks every movement. It makes it possible for us to adjust our muscular efforts to the particular task at hand. Otherwise, when picking up any object, such as a zafu, we would tense the muscles more than the job requires. Or we wouldn’t tense adequately and we’d be unprepared for the weight. In either case, we could hurt ourselves.
When we combine this muscle sense with the sense of touch, we are able to judge the texture, weight and shape of objects even if we’re blindfolded. This is called “stereognosis,” or “solid knowledge.” It’s another kind of sensing, one that allows us to know something more thoroughly than by vision alone.
Bodily perception gives each of us access to information about our own body that no one else knows. If we lose this self-sensing, the body becomes unaware of itself. Imagine trying to meditate without sensing. We wouldn’t be able to sit down or get up. As we ate, we wouldn’t be able to reach, lift, take and so on.
In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, neurologist Oliver Sacks recounts the story of Christina, a twenty-seven-year-old mother and computer programmer. She was self-assured and robust and enjoyed hockey and riding until, suddenly and inexplicably, she lost her sense of proprioception. From head to toe, she couldn’t feel her body and, unless she involved her eyes, she collapsed in a heap.
Standing was impossible—unless she looked down at her feet. She could hold nothing in her hands, and they “wandered”—unless she kept an eye on them. When she reached out for something, or tried to feed herself, her hands would miss, or overshoot wildly, as if some essential control or coordination was gone.
She could scarcely even sit up—her body “gave way.” Her face was oddly expressionless and slack, her jaw fell open, even her vocal posture was gone.
“Something awful’s happened,” she mouthed, in a ghostly flat voice. “I can’t feel my body. I feel weird—disembodied. . . . I feel my body is blind and deaf to itself. . . . It has no sense of itself. . . . If only I could feel!”
What Christina wanted to feel was not about having her skin touched by the wind or the sun or someone’s hand. She wanted to feel sensations from within.
There’s also the body’s sense of energy. We perceive not only what is palpable physically but that which is invisible—the electromagnetic field surrounding everything. We sense this energy as subtle vibrations emanating from others, almost like sound waves lapping at the shore of our bodies. In response to the energies around us, our bodies vibrate at various rates and amplitudes, clueing us in to what’s going on. For instance, a nomadic African !Kung San hunter can sense the location of water not by what he sees in the landscape but by consulting what he feels in his body. In the Serengeti Plain, naturalist Terry Tempest Williams observed that her Masai guide felt the presence of animals long before he saw them because he could penetrate the stillness with his senses.
Like an extremely sensitive seismograph, we find ourselves picking up energetic vibrations in a meditation hall. We might prefer sitting next to some yogis because we feel peacefulness in their presence, while in sitting beside others we might notice agitation arise. How many of us form judgments, positive or negative, about the people meditating around us simply because of sensations in our own bodies?
In the same way that we “pick up vibes” we listen to our gut. Research indicates that we also have a “brain” in the gut—the enteric nervous system. It sends messages to the brain about satiety, nausea, the urge to vomit and abdominal pain, warning of danger from ingested food or infectious pathogens. But it senses other threats, too. A friend who was a longtime meditator related how she experienced this “second brain” during a training session in body-based trauma therapy. In general, she felt at ease, but during a particular exercise there were several times when she reported to her partners an uneasy sensation in her gut. She was lying on a table with her eyes closed and thus couldn’t know who else silently passed by. She later learned that on each occasion that she had felt the uneasiness, a certain person had approached, someone she was uncomfortable with.
All of this self-sensing lends a decided advantage to dhamma practice. On that retreat in India, Goenkaji talked about bodily sensations as a kind of executive secretary who screens phone calls and visitors. It wasn’t until many years later, when I studied the Buddha’s teaching on dependent origination (paticca samuppāda), that I realized how crucial the connection is between particular bodily sensations and what immediately ensues in how we feel and behave. That instant of recognizing what’s pleasant, unpleasant or neutral as a sensation arises gives us a chance to interrupt the cycle of conditioned causality and a whole cascade of reactive thoughts, emotions and behaviors. In such a moment of mindfulness, we have the gift of choice. We don’t have to pursue the feeling and act out of greed or aversion. We can resist creating additional unwholesome kamma, along with its unfortunate results, and remain steadfast in keeping the precepts. As the late Thomas Hanna, the founder of Hanna Somatic Education, said, “In order to be maximally sensitive to another person, one must be maximally sensitive to oneself.”
The Buddha didn’t individually identify all the “secret senses, sixth senses” subsumed under the body as a sense organ, but through them we can know dukkha, anicca and anatta. And without them, we literally can’t walk the Noble Eightfold Path.