How to Become Present Through Physical Sensations

My mind, when left to its own devices, tends to cause me more pain than joy. It’s a great tool, effective for analyzing data or strategizing, but it has the capacity to bully me, too. The creativity that’s so useful professionally can also create wild stories and vivid dramas that have no root in reality, yanking my emotions along on a fictional rollercoaster. A huge part of learning to live deliberately has been – and continually is – learning to quiet the mind, even when I’m not meditating.

Move your attention from your thoughts into your body

One of the things I find most helpful on this journey is to focus on physical sensations. By concentrating on my hands or feet, I can feel a tingling sensation – the energy flowing through my body. Or proprioception – feeling the weight in my feet, arms or legs. Or the sensation of air as it flows in and out of my nose. By putting all my focus on those parts of my body, I redirect energy away from my mind.

On many days, I can do that.

On other days, I can feel my hands, but I can’t understand why I’m trying to feel my hands.

When my mind is on a collision course with disaster, I need to bring myself back into the moment. Each moment.


And now.

And now.

It’s a constant, simple process, but for me, it’s often not easy.

I usually remember to focus on the senses, but that doesn’t always stop the mind from whirring. I have to make a conscious decision to place my focus on the senses. It’s like an in-the-moment meditation. (Jon Kabat-Zinn has a whole book on this, Coming to Our Senses)

Look without labeling

Every moment, for example, there’s something to look at. What’s right in front of me, or around me? Going with Eckhart Tolle’s advice, I try not to label what I see but just focus on the act of seeing (for the purposes of communicating this idea clearly, though, it’s often trees, my cat, a light fixture, a tree, an island, clouds). I deliberately try not to learn the names of new plants or trees, because I don’t want that knowledge to lead to more thinking. That interferes with the holistic perception, with seeing the actual thing, rather than running it through a filter in my mind that categorizes it, gives it a label and…yep, keeps the mind active.

Then there’s hearing. In 1992, a severe ear infection left me with permanent tinnitus in both ears. I have the sound of a dentist’s drill in my right ear, and the Emergency Broadcast Signal in my left. The intensities and pitches vary, but they’re always there, 24/7. The first full year after doctors told me I would have this ringing for the rest of my life, I cried every single night. I loved silence. I still do; I’ve just adjusted my definition of what “silence” means.

I may not hear the same silence as others, but I can still hear the squawk of seagulls, or the gear shift of a car as it passes by. I hear the sputter of the seaplane engines starting or the murmur of a distant conversation, and if I really pay attention, the splash of the water onto the shore. I’d like to hear the wind rustling the trees, but I can’t. I can still notice that movement visually, though. Lately, I’ve tried using the ringing in my ears as presence practice; if I focus on that – without labeling or judging the sounds (as, um, I did a few paragraphs above) – I can hear my unique kind of silence.

Focus attention on the palm of the hand

Touch is probably the most beneficial sensation for me – the one most effective in calming the mind. The feel of my cat’s fur, my palm against the rough bark of a tree. Using another one of Tolle’s techniques – focusing my energy on the feeling in my hand as I touch something – it helps calm the tormented and tormenting mind. I focus on the feel of the rain, or sun, or cold (or warm) air on my skin, without judging it good or bad – simply focusing on the sensation.

Ram Dass wrote about a teacher who had his students make a circle with their thumb and forefinger, then shift focus between the two: What it felt like as the ‘touching’ finger, and what it felt like as the ‘touched.’ Usually, we synthesize the feelings into “my fingers are touching” – but it takes concentration to focus on the sensations in each finger individually. He presented it as an exercise in perspective-shifting; to me, it’s a great way to quiet the mind.

Taste can work, too. Kabat-Zinn’s classic exercise in Full Catastrophe Living involves a single raisin. I first read the book in 1998, and my reaction was, “Meh. I don’t like raisins.” (I kind of missed the whole point). The point, though, is that there are so many tastes, textures and aromas associated with almost everything we eat, yet we rarely pay full attention.

Letting emotions pass through

I’ve heard from a few different sources that the organic life-span of an emotion – the way it’s experienced in the body – is 90 seconds. What makes emotional dramas spin out into hours, days or weeks (or years!) are the thoughts we attach to those emotions. The emotions, at their core, are currents of energy that need to be released. The physical sensations are part of that release process.

So when there’s a lot of distress, a lot of pain (or pain-body), I try to focus even more on the physical sensations in my body, rather than letting my mind run away with stories of what’s “wrong” (the mind’s interpretation of why the feelings are there). Sometimes, that shifts what’s happening. I focus on the feeling of heaviness in my chest, a rapid heartbeat or constriction in my throat, without interpreting it (“I’m feeling angry because…”). I try to breathe into those places, to create space around the sensations. If I really stop my mind and focus solely on the sensations, they become – well, just sensations. The stories in my mind cease, and the intense sensations often pass quickly. The trick is remembering to do this in the moment when those sensations are at their peak (I often forget).

Experiencing the sensations of a panic attack without the story of “panic”

One day, I was sitting on a dock in the sunshine, and I felt sensations I hadn’t felt in a long time: intense vertigo, with a sense of heaviness over my shoulders and the back of my neck, and tension in my throat, as though something was being tightened around it. I saw black dots in front of my eyes, and my legs felt weak and jelly-like. Twenty-five years ago, these were the signs of an impending panic attack. I was able to focus intensely on the sensation of air against my skin; I kept my visual focus (as much as possible) on the trees across the harbour – and amazingly (to me) I was able not to have that “oh shit, it’s a panic attack” thought. The sensations were extremely intense, but I just kept focusing on breathing and staying present. In a few minutes…the episode passed. Total time span? About 90 seconds.

A daily practice of being the witness

I wish I could say I’ve been able to do that ever since, whenever any uncomfortable emotion has possessed me. But that wouldn’t be honest. I’m still practicing.

Being the witness of these sensations, being the observer means noticing that there is tension, that the body and mind are experiencing things – without identifying with those sensations and stories. When I can do that, there’s a great expansiveness and freedom, because I’m not mentally attached to the pain.

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Sarah Chauncey

For more than two decades, I struggled multiple treatment-resistant mood disorders. I spent more than 20 years in psychodynamic therapy and tried 18 different medications. In 2010, I began searching for ways to rewire my brain naturally for inner peace. I write about the practices and insights that have improved my mental, physical and spiritual health.


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