Practicing awareness of sensations

White hands covered with soap suds

For a long time, I found it really difficult to identify feelings in my body. If I looked for emotions I would find a tight ball at the top of my diaphragm, but giving it a label was impossible. I could be happy, scared, angry, excited, anxious or embarrassed and the same ball sat in the same place. It took me a long time and a lot of therapy to recognise that I found it really hard to tolerate sensations in my body. One of the results of this was that I fell over a lot, I knocked myself on things and often got random cuts and scratches that I noticed hours after they happened. It also meant that I often reacted to situations without recognising my own emotions, and even if other people pointed to them I found them hard to relate to or acknowledge. This led to me discounting emotion a lot of the time, and treating my (emotionally fueled) beliefs about a situation as facts. This meant I wasn’t able to connect emotionally with other people, or myself, and limited my ability to feel all the awesome feelings in my body as well as the more difficult ones.  I spent a few years trying to find ways to be more attentive to the sensations in my body. I went to meditation retreats, yoga workshops and to therapy. But I found those practices to be far outside my day to day life. Sure, meditation helped me some of the time, but the practice of actually paying attention to sensations in my body in more daily activities was much more helpful to me.

Like me, many people find it really hard to feel physical sensations in their body. This might be because they spend a lot of time caught up in their head with anxiety, or that they pay more attention to their thoughts than their embodied experience. Getting tuned in to your body is a particular kind of mindfulness that teaches you to notice and welcome the awareness of physical sensations. It can help you to get more comfortable with feeling neutral, positive and negative emotions in your body – or even conflicting and complicated ones. This comfort can translate to being more able to accept that you are having physiological or emotional experiences without suppressing, externalising or avoiding them – all of which often make emotions bigger rather than smaller.

So, how do we pay attention to sensations in our bodies? Fortunately there many many ways! Or perhaps, there is a single way that you can practice during many activities. That way is this: you focus on the thing you are doing, and specifically on the physical sensations of it. When your mind wanders away to something else, you bring it back to the sensations in your body.  It is that simple. You can do that while you are:

  • brushing your teeth
  • Washing your face
  • taking a shower
  • using moisturiser
  • Cuddling your pets
  • Going for a walk
  • Eating
  • Cooking
  • Stretching
  • Cleaning the house
  • Making tea
  • Washing dishes
  • Dancing
  • People watching
  • Watching the weather
  • Listening to the world around you
  • Listening to a music track
  • Breathing (and yes, there are many meditations focused on this)
  • Stroking a part of your body
  • Masturbating
  • Gardening
  • Typing

Of course, there are many more. If, like me, you have a hard time with sensations this exercise can help you to practice in everyday situations. The best part of it is that you don’t have to make any extra time, you can just be more present with your body in the things you already do.

Update, March 2020.

We are in the midst of a pandemic in which the main advice for keeping folks safe is around social distancing and prolonged handwashing. I’ve noticed over the last week that I have been much more mindful when washing my hands. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. I thought I’d update this post with some things to notice when you’re washing your hands. It is a particularly excellent informal mindfulness activity because it is relatively short, practised frequently (at least at the moment) and because you are doing an activity that involves giving yourself lots of different sensations it is relatively easy to focus on for lots of people (though not everyone, obviously).

You might want to notice the feel of the tap as you turn it on – notice its texture, temperature and resistance.

You may notice the sensation of the soap on your hands, and the different textures of the front and back of your hands.

We are likely to be much more touch starved than usual, so noticing the feeling of pressure and touch across the skin on your hands might well be pleasurable.

Notice whether the feeling of the insides of your fingers sliding over each other feel any different to the sensation of your fingers on other parts of your skin.

Notice whether there is a change as your soap lathers up.

You may notice a scent or smell too.

Notice whether the sensations in your hands change as you focus on them, or as you clean different areas.

When it comes time to rinse your hands, you might take a moment to notice the way the water feels running over you.

Notice again, the feeling of your hand (or elbow/other body part) on the tap as you turn it off (and remind yourself that it might be a surface to sanitise regularly!)

As you dry your hands, notice the textures of the towel, its softness or roughness, its warmth.

Then give yourself a moment to notice how all of your body feels in this moment right now.



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