How to Dissolve Isolation
As the sun began its descent, I clamped open the stubborn latch to my bedroom window — first with one, then two hands. Finally, the window slid open with the satisfying scratch of metal against its own kind. Cool breeze rushed inward, shaking my nerves awake, wafting fig leaf up my nose. Out on the terrace, evening light settled upon pooled water — San Francisco, upside-down, rippling like pink-stained liquid glass. With one step, I could jump down through it and land in a more beautiful world. Instead, I hopped over the puddle onto a ladder. Cold steel pressed against my grip, I pulled my body up the fire escape, one rung at a time, like ivy unfurling along a brick wall. The muscles along my arms and legs rhythmically pulsed with the climb, until a final heave and a curl landed me on the roof. Unfolding to a straight line, I turned my gaze upward, and the vast horizon opened before me. A cotton-candy sky, painted over with streaks of milky foam. Confectionary teeth jutting up from the ground, with mixed-berry glass facades. I breathed in the sweet air as time inched forward, until the candy-factory landscape melted to night.
These days, such moments — breathtaking and time-frozen — are rare. With San Francisco on lockdown, I often find myself enclosed within my apartment box, shut out from the world. When I do go outside, I wear a mask to fend off virus or wildfire smoke or both. This experience is familiar for so many of us. We remain indoors, glued to screens, digitally absorbed and bodily disjointed. We spend most of our time feeling isolated and numb.
Our bodily senses offer a critical antidote to this isolation. We tend to think of isolation in relation to specific things we love — from our friends, from nature, from activities that bring us joy. And so we decry the limitations of pandemic life and attempt, often with futility, to recreate our old lives. But our deepest isolation is the barrier we place between our internal experience and the external world at large. The senses, ever available to us, are the bridge between the two.
Scientists refer to the numbing of sensation as sensory gating. Sensory gating is the often-convenient ability to select information we consider useful out of our environment and filter out information we consider useless, so that we avoid being overwhelmed by the massive amount of available stimuli. Babies tend to have very low sensory gating, meaning they take in lots of information and have a difficult time distinguishing distinct entities. They experience the world as a kind of synesthetic soup. But every time we learn that “that rough brown/green color” is a “tree” and “that warm fluffy texture” is a “blanket,” we replace the world of senses with an inner world of concepts. By age eight, studies show, children reach adult levels of sensory gating. From then on, we interact with the world through inner conceptual representations, and we lock out the raw information that stands to connect us to all the relationships we are immersed in.
Luckily, we now know that our nervous systems are “plastic,” meaning they change with new experience. And we know that we can train our sensory gating to open wider with practice. The key to opening our gating is the conscious direction of our attention. Based on this insight, I have developed a program for training attention. Here is a short exercise I teach often, using a series of simple steps that can be performed anytime, anywhere:
- Open your receptor field
- Receive external stimuli
- Cultivate your internal response
- Engage in mutual exchange
- Return to the body
As you progress through each step, outlined below, you will find that you have crossed an internal gate into a new experience of being. I invite you to explore these boundaries to feel when it is right for you to transition to the next step.
1. Open Your Receptor Field
Imagine you are an antenna, in training to receive signals from the world around you. We start by clearing out the thoughts and anxieties that pull us away from present awareness and into other times and places. Within each of us is a simple gateway to the present — the breath. Breathing is a semi-automatic function that sets the rhythm of our nervous systems, alternating between alert and resting states. As you tune into the breath, accept that thoughts and feelings will naturally arise, and allow them to melt away, returning to a focus on the breath. Resist the urge to judge any lack of focus, or even to judge any judgment, as critique will remove you from the present. I invite you to close your eyes and take a moment to attune to your breath.
As your mind grows clearer, you may discover that your body is quite restless. To release any somatic anxiety, scan your bodily antenna from head to toe. Focus your attention fully to the sensations in each area, and allow them to rise and fall with the breath, ultimately settling into a relaxed state. If you meet any resistance in your body, meet it with your breath and allow it to relax. Once your body scan is complete, settle into a sense of stillness.
2. Receive External Stimuli
As your body grows more still, notice that the world around you comes more alive. Your antenna is now ready to receive imprints from the world. From a calm center, begin to shift your attention to any sensations you are experiencing. These might include:
- Static moving through your body
- Vibrations entering your ears
- Scents wafting up your nostrils
- Lingering tastes on your tongue
- Gravity pulling against your body
- Breeze creeping along your skin
- Light reflecting against your space
Process these in turn, giving each the gift of your full attention for an amount of time that feels right for you. Stretch yourself to find edges — soft rumbles of sound, pinpricks of sensation, boundaries of shadow.
3. Cultivate Your Inner Response
Focus in on a single sensation that resonates with you. Turn your attention inward noticing how this sensation leaves an imprint on your body. This could manifest as one or more of the following experiences:
- Proprioception, including pressure or stretch in your musculature
- Visceroception, including sensations in your organs and blood pressure
- Affect, including the negative or positive quality that colors your experience
All outward experiences resonate with a corresponding inner response — a tightness in the chest, a sinking of the gut, a buzzing of the head. Attune to the inner imprint of your sensation. Notice how it shifts over time.
4. Engage in Mutual Exchange
By now, you have developed an invisible tether between the sensation and your inner experience. Identify the source of the external sensation — perhaps an object in your environment emitting a sound or smell. Imagine that this object is not really an object, but a living subject, which is also experiencing the world in some way, which is also forever changing and never frozen in one state. A ceramic bowl sheds its clay; a copper ball reacts with oxygen; all atoms vibrate with energy, blow with wind, and fall with gravity. These are expressions of animate exchange. Whatever entity you have selected, know that it has has gifted you your sensation and can also receive your attention in return. What is it like to be in mutual exchange with this entity?
Project yourself into the entity you are tethered to. What are its tethers? If you are looking at the shiny surface of a ceramic bowl, consider that your eyes detect photons not from objects themselves, but from light sources, which are then modulated by surfaces in wavelength, direction, and intensity. If you are hearing the click of copper, consider what triggered the sound, what shapes formed its resonance, and how the sound landed upon your ear with its particular timbre. All sensations are nodes at the intersection of endless chains of events. Begin to immerse yourself in this web of relations. Experience yourself as a co-participant in the dynamic process that is the present. What would you like to offer?
5. Return to the Body
When you are ready to do so, ground yourself by contracting your scope of attention back to your body. Notice any sensations that might have shifted compared to the start of the exercise. Reorient yourself to a sense of space in your room. Notice whether your awareness of space has shifted. Keep a sense of this renewed perspective as you continue to go about your day.
In the moments when we feel most isolated and the world feels most dead, the truth remains that we are interconnected and the world is alive. Our senses give us the gift of perceiving those truths — tiny portals into the greater flesh our bodies are immersed in. Tending to them with simple exercises of attention opens the gates to a more beautiful and interdependent experience.
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