gateways of perception

(using spiritual practice to cultivate the five senses)

karen messer

I walk in the cedar forest up the hill from my house every day. It is like entering a different culture, a world where I can absorb silence and marvel at the astonishing beauty of the trees – some fallen with new ones growing out of them, others tall and straight, others survivors from a fire long ago. The smell of the forest’s rich earth and greens comes into me and I connect immediately with a whole spectrum of life of the forest. Sometimes I glimpse a deer or a grouse or a path I’ve never taken before. Yesterday there was wind in the trees, and today it was absolutely still.

Our sense perceptions are our gateways to the world around us but we don’t usually give them much thought. I can walk into an environment that brings my senses to life, I can appreciate the richness of the forest, but how can I also use my senses to cultivate stillness, alertness, wonder and awe within myself? The practice of yoga is the practice of cultivating, not only the body, but also the five senses and the mind. It is important to look at our senses – smell, taste, sight, touch and hearing – to become aware their depth and power and also how they can take us to the next level in our spiritual development.

We can take the sense of smell for an example. How often have you smelled something and immediately had a memory triggered from that smell? You smell menthol and suddenly remember being 3 years old with a bad cold and your mother rubs vicks into your chest. Another person smelling cold remedy may remember being in a room alone in a hospital, sad and worried. Smell sends your mind back into the past where a unique imprint was made. The smell of perfume reminds you of an old lover, the smell of a certain food reminds you of distant family dinners.

When we are not aware of where the odour is taking us, then we maybe judging a new situation based on old survival needs. If left undeveloped the sense of smell encourages sensual responses to food and sex that are stimulating and exciting. With refinement comes a connection with a different sensitivity. Can the sense of smell be refined and subtle enough to bring the remembrance of the divine from the fragrance of sandalwood? Can a fragrance arise from an elevated state in your mediation or connection with the Light?

Each sense can be examined by asking, what power does this sense have over me? Is my perception true, or am I acting on impressions taken in by my senses in the past?

We have an enormous ability to heighten our awareness and make choices. When we practice hatha yoga, we bring our attention to the body it is exercised and becomes flexible and relaxed. We bring attention and concentration to the mind and senses for awareness and strength. Through cultivating the sense perceptions we will realize the choices we have depends on how we use these powers.

When we watch our mind we see the busyness and restless habits, when we focus the mind we experience the openness, wonder and beauty that is available within. Through meditation or spiritual practice you can guide the mind to single-pointedness and draw the senses in to cooperate and create a spiritual atmosphere.

Prepare a special place for your devotional practice. Carefully choose what is most beautiful, most meaningful, most intriguing that reflects the inner atmosphere you want to develop. Bring a subtle image into the mind and body as way to concentrate the senses. Use your imagination to focus the mind on a point of light, to see the light, feel the light, and to have the light penetrate every level of being and consciousness. Place your hands over a candle feel the warmth then touch each of your five senses. You can ask, “May all of my sense perceptions be purified by Light.”

We can also use the senses, and the power of imagination, to help us in our spiritual practice as a way to enter into a meditative state. When you desire peace, visualize your favourite place and go there whenever you want. Place yourself in a wonderful, beautiful garden – see your favourite trees, flowers, smell the most beautiful scents, feel the warm air, hear the birds sing. It is a very simple practice, but it is a way to understand the power of the senses to create a peaceful place in the midst of the complexities of daily life. Sitting quietly, constructively using the senses, is one way to relax and to rest to your central nervous system. The mind is absorbed, contained, and focused.

As we cultivate the senses and refine the mind, we are able to see the patterns of the intangible in our actions and speech, the interconnections of the senses and the light. We can use all the parts of our mind to remember our purpose move from the gross level of being to a deeper connection with our spiritual life. We can live a life that’s kinder and gentler, and more considerate to ourselves and to others when we know the true function of the body, the mind and the senses is to lead us to the Divine.
Swami Radhananda is president and spiritual director of Yasodhara Ashram in British Columbia, Canada.

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