Sense and Sensitivity

Some of our senses are much more obvious than others. We might not remember to be aware of ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ but once we do, they are right there. There is nothing to do. It’s the same with ‘touch’. There is usually some sensation impinging from the clothes or the sun or a breeze on our skin, the touch of my finger tips on the keyboard as I type or the glasses sitting on my nose as I peer at the computer screen.

The senses of ‘taste’ and ‘smell’ are usually towards the background of our experience and not well defined unless there is a strong stimulus. These stimuli tend to be short lived and attached to particular activities. For example, taste and smell are vivid when I’m eating, or as now when my partner is downstairs cooking our lunch. Or when I walk past a bad drain smell or drive through a mile or 2 of silage covered fields.

As with any of our senses, it’s easy to find that one of the 3 ‘poisons’, our main ways of reacting to experience, is in the driving seat rather than awareness. If the object is pleasant (as with a tasty lunch) we like it, if it’s unpleasant (the silage) the nose wrinkles before we’ve even registered an aversion to the smell) and if it doesn’t register very strongly (most of our tasting and smelling) we don’t notice, we’re unaware of shades of our experience.

Just occasionally there is a smell or a taste that is there more of the time and this is what I’ve been experiencing lately. There has been a fair amount of nose wrinkling up to this point so it’s taken me a while to take the smell/taste combo as an object of experience, to be able to observe it with interest and know it for what it is. The flavour has been more the faint, unnoticed ‘I wish that would go away’.

My partner and I moved into our new house about 6 weeks ago. The downstairs walls had a damp problem so we had them treated and re-plastered just before we moved in. For various reasons we’ve waited to paint over the plaster after it had dried. See if you can summon up what plaster dust smells like? That, in itself, is surprisingly difficult to do – to try and use the mind sense to approximate one of the physical senses – but try anyway. You’d think the smell would be fairly neutral but if you add in time (repeated exposure when I’m on the ground floor) and other conditions (one room is still quite damp) it has become quite unpleasant.

Smelling and tasting are quite complex. With smelling you’re breathing in something. This brings in the notion of space (inside and outside my body). It’s got all the way inside me which also leads to me feeling that I’m tasting plaster dust as well as smelling it. I can feel queasy and my lungs protest, just slightly. There is no getting away from the unpleasant aspects of it and I’ll be glad when we’ve painted over the offending surfaces. But the fact I only register ‘smelling’ on the in-breath makes it a more visibly changing object, so with the right attitude, there can also be interest in what’s happening.

Another knock on effect is that I’ve become more aware of smell and taste and how they occur more often than I realise. The smell of spring onions when clearing the salad bowl after lunch or of fabric conditioner on wet clothes or the bringing together of taste and smell in the sweet richness of an afternoon cookie.

Not noticing these things matters for 2 reasons. Firstly if there is a lack of awareness then if there is some sort of reaction in the form of wanting, not wanting or zoning out, then I miss that too. And so it grows!

Secondly, life is more rich, vivid, colourful and closer to reality if we’re noticing what’s actually happening.

Less greed, aversion and delusion and more present moment, vivid awareness are positive conditions for wisdom to grow.

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