Category Archives: Sense Spheres

Magical Moments of Mindfulness in the Middle of Everything


Monk walking
Photo credit: Honey Kochphon Onshawee

Throughout the day there are so many opportunities to practice coming fully into the present moment. Here are a few examples:

  1. Holding your cup of coffee or tea
  2. Watching a weather phenomenon arising and falling away
  3. Riding mass transit
  4. Waiting in line
  5. Walking anywhere

Whether you meditate or not, you can still practice being present in this moment just as it is. Meditation develops and tune these skills, but using them is something that you can do any time. Using these examples, here’s how to come fully into the joy of this moment:

That comforting cup of warm liquid is a welcoming place to rest your full attention, especially on a cold day. Hold it in your hands and focus on the feeling of the heat in your palms. Notice any sense of relaxation, restfulness, pleasure, anticipation, etc. that arises in you. Maintain that focus as you lift the cup to take a sip, noticing all the senses involved now. Close your eyes and savor the experience. Stay present in the moment just as it is, allowing other senses – hearing, seeing, etc. to be noticed as they make themselves known. Rest in a state of openness and welcoming.

If you spot a rainbow and you have a few minutes to spare, stop and watch it with your full attention. Let go of all the associative thoughts that come up for you with rainbows or the anticipation of telling someone about it, or the desire to take a photo. Just be with the experience itself. Notice how it intensifies and lessens in intensity. Stay with it until it dissolves.

If you are on a bus, subway, plane or other form of mass transit, take the opportunity to really feel the movement, hear the sounds, feel bodily sensations of sitting or standing, swaying, pressure against the seat or other surfaces. If you feel so inclined, send metta — infinite lovingkindness — to everyone on the transport with you.

If you are waiting in line, say at a grocery store, recognize that impatience will not get you out the door any faster. Then sense into the sensations that are present in the moment. All the ones already mentioned, but also taking in the visual feast of color and pattern in all the packaging without getting caught up in labeling what they are or what you think of them. See it all as an artist might see it. If someone in front of you seems to be taking longer than you deem necessary to conduct their transaction, notice how that judgment feels in your body, how it reintroduces impatience, anger, judgment and other kinds of discomfort. Why are you letting their actions negatively affect your current state of being? To shift your state, you might expand from simple awareness to sending metta to that person who most likely has life challenges beyond what you can imagine. While you’re at it send metta to the checker who must deal with challenging people all day while you will very soon be on your way out the door. And while you’re at it, send metta to the people in line in front and behind you. And why stop there? Send it out to the whole store full of people going about their day, doing the best they can. And once you’ve done that, and especially if there’s good music playing, you might recognize that this moment is really more of a party going on. Why any second everyone might break into dancing. or conversation. Or at the very least smiles. You could be the one to break the ice with just a little smile at one other person. Try it!

If you are walking, see if you can be fully present, letting go of any sense of your destination or sense of accomplishment. Just walking. Just sensing into the movement of your muscles, your feet touching the ground, the way your body balances, the feel of air on your skin, the temperature, the sights and sounds going on all around you as you move through space. How freeing it is to be present!

In all these situations, and in any others you can think of, the common thread is to come fully into the senses, letting go of all the thoughts that take you away from this moment and entangle your attention in other places, times, challenges, etc. That is mindfulness. Also notice the opportunities for extending kindness to all around you. How different this is from the mind state of seeing people as obstacles to your goals!

Every moment of every day offers you the opportunity to be present, to live more fully, to feel more alive and in love with life. I have mentioned just a few examples. There are as many more as there are moments in the day. See what you find when you open to the senses and fully live this magical moment, just as it is. And please, report back your findings!

Come Home to the Senses — Day Long Retreat

In the midst of a series of extremely cold windy days, the morning of our daylong retreat started with more of the same, but by the time the students arrived, the wind had quieted down, and by the end of the first sitting practice, the birds were singing, a sure sign of a calm day ahead.

We were able to spend much of that mild sunny day doing walking and sitting practice in the garden. Being able to practice outside isn’t just pleasant; it provides a bounty of nature’s dharma lessons. The Buddha and his students practiced almost exclusively out of doors, even though there were undoubtedly followers who would happily have provided regular shelter.

The retreat seemed to be timed perfectly since our last dharma talk had been about the Sense Spheres, and here we were with a full day to practice resting our awareness in the Sense Sphere portal.

We had lots of things to smell, touch, taste, hear and see. Indoors I provided mint and basil clipped from the garden and set out on the counter to sniff, along with a bottle of vanilla. A student brought roses we put on the table, and there were more roses in the garden as well as a bounty of flowers, birds, trees, leaves, vistas, including the mountain.

I encouraged them to do traditional walking meditations, but also to take time to use all the senses to experience the garden. So they reached out to touch, leaned in to smell, closed their eyes to listen. They became totally enmeshed in the life of the garden, noticing everything, and in that noticing the garden came more intensely to life. We noticed, among other things, how the bees buzzed with such joy in the trumpet vine flowers, the way the trees and the day lilies opened their arms wide to the sun, inspiring us to do the same. The way light danced in the long grasses, the happy song of the waterfall. The colors, the interplay of light and shadow. Yes, indeed, it is a ‘high’. But it is not induced by ingesting chemicals, but by pausing in our lives to simply be alive to our senses. And to sense ourselves as natural expressions of life as well.

Resting awareness at the sense portals, we have the choice to be present or to get lost in all the patterns of associative thoughts, emotions, memories, judgments that the senses might trigger. We always have that choice, wherever we are. The dharma shows us the map of where we are in any given moment, and gives us the way to come home to our senses, again and again.


Drawing of Buddha by Mary Wagstaff

The next day was Vesak, the Buddhist celebration of the life of the Buddha, so I had created cards featuring a drawing of the Buddha by friend, artist and wise surfer Mary Wagstaff. Each retreatant received a card to write their insights and gratitude for the Buddha’s teachings.


At the beginning of one meditation, I passed around a basket of shells and each person felt around and chose one to hold through the meditation, to rub the thumb against the rough or smooth surface when the mind wandered to bring them back to the present moment. Communing with the little shell in hand, the realization of oneness, of life formed of stardust, expressed in all its variations, but always kin, always the same at core. One student allowed the shell to take her to a sense of gentle lulling wave action in her meditation.


At one point we lounged around in the studio and listened in silence to Missa Luba. This African choir sing a Catholic mass in their own language with such beauty. It was a perfect choice because the glory of the mass and the earthy drum beats, reminded us that the spirit of being is in the very pulse of the earth and our own bodies. Our aliveness is an expression of that spiritual nature.


Towards the end, we came out of silence to share experiences in the garden communing with flowers, the view of the mountain, hummingbirds and the waterfall. Several reported momentary or extended periods of feeling one with everything.


To help the students develop their own meditation practice at home, I led a short visualization exercise: Imagine your home. Imagine the place where you meditate or where you could meditate. It’s a quiet private place, etc. etc. Now imagine a time of day when you do or could easily meditate, etc.


How do we find time in our busy lives for this kind of relaxed awareness practice?
First we recognize it as a priority. We see how when we meditate it benefits the things we say we care about most: our health, our family and friends, and a sense of natural aliveness, not alienated or isolated.


Then I used the same shells from the previous experience and took my bell bowl and began to fill it with all the tiny shells that represent all the little bits and pieces of life demands — emails, errands, obligations, hassles —  they rattle around making a lot of noise and there’s no room for the big shell, that thing we say is so important: the practice that enables us to be healthy and loving. When I dumped the little shells out and put the big ones in first, they made no sound except to ring the bell on contact. Then I poured the little ones in, and they all fit right in, nice and snug, settling into the open spaces the big shells had created. A good lesson for us all. It is so easy to fill our time with the little things, putting off the big thing that matters, the big thing that would make all the little things so much easier to manage.


So as I share this experience of a retreat with you, I hope there is inspiration to spend time resting your awareness at the sense portals when you take a walk or sit in nature. May you give yourself many opportunities to do so. May you establish a regular daily practice of meditation to develop a strong muscle of mindfulness. May you put that practice first so that all else will fall nicely into place in your life. And if the Buddha’s teachings have value for you, may you open to the gratitude for the Buddha, the dharma and the sangha.

Coming Home to Our Senses

In our many months of exploration of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness we have been balancing concepts and simple practice. It is important to keep in mind that the practice of anchoring our awareness in physical sensation and cultivating compassion is always more important than the concepts. You can have insight practice without the concepts, but the concepts are only useful in tandem with a dedicated mindfulness practice. These are experience-based teachings. But the concepts, if you can stay with them, will make it so easier to do the practice and to stay grounded in it.  Some of the concepts explored seem abstract, others feel more concrete and easily accessible. Today we will look at just such a concrete teaching: The Sense Spheres. With this exploration we are coming home to our senses. This is where we begin every meditation and where we return to when our mind has wandered off into thought. So it is not foreign or alien. It’s one of the first things we learn as babies. The six sense-spheres are paired in two’s: the sense organ and the sense object. We have the five physical senses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. Each is paired with its counterpart object: sight, sound, odor, flavor and touch. That’s five senses. What is the sixth? The Buddha considered the mind to be one of the senses because it is an integral part of the process of sensing. Without the mind, how would the sense organs know what they were sensing? It is liberating to think of the mind and thought as just another sense and sense object, as impersonal as the eyes and sight. How refreshing not to think of the mind as who we are but as just an organ that processes sensory input using thought, reason, memory and reflection. Especially as we age and the mind sometimes falters, if we see it as an organ like the ears or eyes or taste-buds, all of which often deteriorate in some way with age, we might be sad or frustrated at the loss, but we do not see it as a personal failing. It’s just another common occurrence in the process of growing older. Applying Our Understanding of The Five Aggregates

The Five Aggregates: body, feeling tones, cognition, volition and consciousness make up the way we perceive and experience the world which we encounter initially with our senses. Knowing them, we can see clearly the stages of experience and are better able to develop the muscle of mindfulness. Here is a typical sequence of the perceptual process:

  1. Body — Initial contact with a sense object, for example: a sound.
  2. Feeling Tone – We have an immediate feeling tone response to the sound. It’s either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. A pleasant ‘What lovely bird song!” or an unpleasant “What an irritating leaf blower!” or a neutral soft thud of a car door closing, that might not even register.
  3. Cognition – We identify or work hard at trying to identify the source of the sound. “What kind of bird is that?” Now if you’re a birder, you might go on to, “I should know that.” If you’re not but think you’d like to be, you might think ‘I should take that class on bird song’ and suddenly your mind has taken you to the local community college, and then you think about how you could go on one of those birding field trips. And suddenly you’re in an Amazon jungle, binoculars in hand staring up into the tangle of vines and leaves. Your mind itself has become a jungle.
    Or if the sound was a leaf blower, we might go, “Maybe it’s not a leaf blower, maybe it’s a chain saw.” The mind wants to identify accurately the source of any sense. “What neighbor is using that chain saw?”
    Then it goes into association that takes us on an extended journey into the past and the future: “I should probably call someone to check out our trees. That one oak has a branch that really looks iffy. I was really afraid in the last storm. Boy that was a rough night.” “I wouldn’t want it to fall on the house. God, what if it fell on the house when the grandchildren were napping in the guest room.” And on, and on in a flurry of memories, planning or fantasy.
  4. Volition – Perhaps we decide to go do something about the sound: If it’s unpleasant we might put our hands over our ears, close the door, or get away from the sound. If it’s pleasant we might move closer to the sound, or we might move our bodies to the delightful rhythms of the sound, or investigate it further to see what the sound is.
  5. Consciousness – At some point we become aware that we are lost in thought.

We don’t decide to think all these thoughts. The thoughts, projections and associations proliferate quickly into a densely woven network, and we are as helplessly trapped as a fly in a spider web. So there’s no point in beating ourselves up about having been lost. And doing so is just another tangle of thoughts we immediately get lost in. That’s why compassion is so important. The moment we are aware that we have been thinking is cause for celebration, not punishment. We are here now in this moment. Ah. How do we untangle ourselves from the web of thought? That’s an almost impossible challenge since we are not aware that we are trapped and don’t see it as a problem until suddenly we do. Wouldn’t it be easier and wiser to learn to recognize how the web arises in the mind and how to not get drawn into it? That’s what we do with mindfulness practice. We slow down enough to see how the process works. We set the intention to be with the sensory experience itself, to let a sound be a sound, a smell be a smell, etc. and to be sufficiently aware not launch into subjective mental activity that takes us out of the present moment.
Woof!   In class we talked about the value of treating the wandering mind like an excited and untrained puppy. This helps us to hold it with the right amount of loving kindness and intention to train it well. We have the puppy-mind on a leash but at first the leash is so long the puppy wanders far and wide. As we learn to hold the leash — learn to anchor our awareness in physical sensation — the puppy may begin to wander but doesn’t go very far before we gently pull the leash.

So in the example above of the mind following a sound all the way to the Amazon, with training maybe it only gets as far as the local community college. With more mindfulness practice, eventually a sound is just noted as sound.


Symphony of Silence    Perhaps you are familiar with the work of John Cage who famously composed and presented a piece titled 4’33 which he performed to a packed symphony hall. It consisted of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence on his part, allowing the sounds of the audience be the symphony. As originally performed it is reported that the audience had a lot of response, was made uncomfortable, and there was a lot to listen to. I just checked several YouTube versions of recently performed versions of 4’33, and the audience was almost completely silent! What a rich silence comes from hundreds of people sitting together paying close attention to one focus, a man with a piano and a timer, or a conductor with an orchestra and a timer, all in silence, but not waiting for anything. So John Cage taught us something hugely important. Can we incorporate it into our own practice? The willingness to be present for whatever arises without needing it to be more than simply noting ‘sound’ or one of the other sense objects. That is our mindfulness practice. 


This is not deprivation but liberation and the opening of a previously unnoticed and ignored richness of the present moment. This is awakening to the joy that rests in every moment if we are only here to experience it