“Reality is a selective act of attention and interpretation.” This deeply profound insight (attributed to Chopra Center co-founder Dr. David Simon) reveals your hidden ability to influence the experience of life. You may consciously choose what you give your attention to and how you process what you perceive. Consider the phrase, “you are what you eat.” Dr. Simon’s understanding goes a step further to imply that your personal realities and health are not only shaped by the food you consume, but by whatever you choose to put our awareness on.
Your Senses Are Your Gateways
You are exposed to trillions of bits of information every day. The external environment floods you with countless forms of stimulation on every level. This densely packed data stream enters your awareness through your five sense organs—ears, eyes, nose, tongue, and skin. Ayurveda refers to the five senses as the gateways to the inner pharmacy, because through your senses you not only perceive the external world, but also metabolize and digest those inputs into your mind/body system.
Consider eating an apple. The instant you take a bite of the fruit, salivary enzymes begin to break down the sugars, triggering the digestive process. Chewing and swallowing prepare the apple further for assimilation by your body. Once in the stomach and intestines the apple is broken down completely, leaving only the unusable waste material. At this point, you could say that the apple has technically become a part of you. Its essence (sugars, fiber, etc.) has merged into you; there is no longer a dividing line between the apple and your body. They are now one.
It’s the same process with whatever you take in through your senses. What enters your ears, eyes, nose, or touches your skin and tongue becomes a part of you and influences your health, happiness, and your very reality. And as with food, the sense impressions you ingest can have either a nourishing or harmful effect.
At the core of the sensory gateways are the Tanmatras, or the subtle elements that make up each of the senses. According to Vedanta, the Tanmatras are the basis for all physical reality and are the foundation of five elements of space, air, fire, water, and earth. Put simply:
- Sound gives rise to space
- Sound and touch give rise to air
- Sound, touch, and sight give rise to fire
- Sound, touch, sight, and taste give rise to water
- Sound, touch, sight, taste, and smell give rise to earth
The role sensory input plays is vitally important in building and supporting the structure and function of both your personal (mind/body) and extended (relationships/communities/society) environments. Let’s explore some ways to nourish yourself through your senses to create balance and harmony at the levels of mind, body, spirit, and environment.
As the first tanmatra, sound is a powerful tool for healing since sounds and vibration underlie all physical reality. Nourishing sounds have the ability to trigger the release of healing chemicals throughout the body and send signals of harmony and coherence to the deepest levels of your mind/body system. Examples of healing sounds include:
- Nature sounds: Rainfall, waves on the shore, and wind through the trees.
- Chanting: The primal sounds of ancient cultures have a soothing effect on your mind-body system.
- Drumming: Tribal and modern drumming rhythms can create an entraining effect and help align your body with the rhythms of nature.
- Primordial sounds: The fundamental sounds of nature can have a profoundly healing effect on all levels of your being.
- Mantras: The vibrations of silent or audible mantras can serve as a conduit to deeper levels of awareness and healing.
- Music: Countless styles of music can uplift or soothe your mind-body system as well as form powerful emotional and healing associations.
The skin contains a pharmacy of healing chemicals that, when stimulated through touch, promote a healing effect on the physiology. In addition, healing touch helps to stimulate circulation, enhance immune function, flush out waste byproducts, and calm the mind. Methods to practice healing touch are:
- Abhyanga: Daily Ayurvedic self-massage.
- Marma therapy: Junction points where consciousness and matter meet. Marmas may be stimulated through gentle yoga practice or light massage.
- Become conscious of the substances you place on your body: Chemicals contained in skin and hair care products are absorbed into your body through your skin.
The eyes are yet another gateway through which powerful sensory information enters your awareness. Anything you gaze upon can have far-reaching effects on your mind, body, emotions, and spirit. Imagine how the sight of a magnificent mountain range or ocean sunset makes you feel. By contrast, visualize the mind-body sensations associated with watching a violent news broadcast or video game. Every image you behold triggers the release of chemicals that are felt by every cell in your body. To harness this sensory gateway, try the following:
- Take in natural beauty: Look for the beauty in nature—landscapes, a forest, the ocean, or the starry night sky. As often as possible, spend time absorbing the visual splendor of nature.
- Keep your home and personal space visually appealing: Try to eliminate clutter, messiness, or disorder at home or at work. A turbulent and chaotic visual field creates a turbulent mind space.
- Practice a visual meditation: Gazing at visual patterns can have a profound effect on your consciousness. Explore candle flame meditation or let yourself become immersed in the shapes of a mandala.
- Use color creatively to influence the quality of your well-being: Different colors affect us in unique ways.
The Ayurvedic word for taste is Rasa, which can also mean emotion or mood. Your experiences and feelings, just like food, come in a wide spectrum of flavors. Ayurveda identifies six tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent. When eating, it is only after you have experienced all six tastes do you feel completely satisfied. In a similar way, if your relationships or experiences favor one flavor over all others, you will not be in balance. Consider the emotional “menu” below to understand how best to embrace all tastes.
- Sweet: In balance is nourishing; out of balance can be overly sentimental
- Sour: In balance is stimulating; out of balance can be caustic
- Salty: In balance is earthy; out of balance can be hedonistic
- Pungent: In balance is passionate; out of balance can be hostile
- Bitter: In balance is disciplined; out of balance can be resentful
- Astringent: In balance is witty; out of balance is cynical
Your emotions and memories are deeply connected to your sense of smell. Recall how a whiff of a familiar scent can instantly transport you back to a childhood memory or a profoundly powerful emotional state. Unlike other senses, aromas go directly to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that, along with multiple other functions, coordinates both the autonomic nervous system and regulates emotional activity. This means that your sense of smell has an immediate and powerful effect on how you perceive the world. Try the following to consciously tap into your sense of smell:
- Cultivate and deepen your sense of smell: While there are only six tastes, your nose is capable of detecting approximately 10,000 different odors. Make a conscious effort to notice the aromas in your personal space and try to become aware of their individual characteristics and how they may affect your mood or state of mind.
- Tap into the healing power of aromatherapy: Specific aromas can have a powerful influence on mind-body states, triggering healing, restoration, and balance.
- Harness the power of neuroassociative conditioning through smell: Choose an aroma that you enjoy and inhale its essence deeply whenever you are experiencing a pleasant mental or emotional state such as happiness or calm. Eventually your mind-body system will begin to associate the odor with that emotion or feeling and the scent will become an anchor for that enhanced state of well-being.
Your senses are the entry point through which the external world enters your internal world. Therefore, it’s vitally important to be consciously aware and selective about the information you allow into your sense organs. For as you perceive, so you become.
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