A Day in the Life of the Senses
A meditation on heightened awareness
You wake to the song of house sparrows. Their chorus of descending trills pierce your ear in staccato polyrhythm, weaving avian contralto and soprano just below the threshold of ultrasound. Though you cannot see them, you trace their warbling out your window, down the brick-clad alley, and up the bark of a ficus tree, whose leaves bunch like a thick fog above the street. Shrouded within, male sparrows project a stream of sound, an announcement of their presence to nearby prospects. But they are also a call to you — towards morning, towards listening.
Having snoozed through sunrise, you stir instead with the second plea — the soundrise. Nesting in the nooks of roofs and windows, house sparrows have long been our partners in this task. You follow their song further, centuries ago, to their first journey across the Atlantic — eight mating pairs offering foreigners a sense of the familiar. With an affinity for the man-made, their numbers multiplied alongside ours. They turned our homes inside-out, finding a nook or a perch just on the other side of our protective barriers.
It gives you comfort to think of your home as an ecology. In spite of fortification, chatter permeates the air, weaving species into auditory webs. Your home is home to the sparrow too, and its song makes a nest beside you as you rise.
Light and shadow paint pointillistic pictures on your bedroom walls. Outside your window is a flat utilitarian roof, lined with synthetic rubber, which collects pools of water from overnight rainfall. Morning light hits the water at just the right angle to drench your room in dazzling display, shifting organically with breeze from the nearby bay. It is a light show in the original sense. Panels of tones fold into each other as if a signal from a creative intelligence. Thinly colored bands trace their edges, microscopic rainbows reawakening from their post-pour slumber. You too reawaken to the sensation of form.
If the light is imparting a message, it is in its power to transform. Our light begins as smoldering sun, radiates across space, and bends through atmosphere. Meeting all our varied material, it becomes shade and color. It ripens into food for hungry plants and relief for morose people. Channeled through a child’s magnifying glass, it returns to fire once more. But rarely do you find light so ostentatious as when it dances with water and wind. In this partnership, it cycles through its many forms in pulsing succession. “See me,” it demands, “and all I can be.”
What might you be today? Before you the light paints infinite possibilities. Might you be dark or light, blue or green, fire or wave? Perhaps a vibrant assemblage of expression? Or maybe you will simply flow with the water and wind, allowing the elements you meet to imprint themselves onto the self.
You pour hot water over a neat pile of dried white peony. Its spearmints and khakis swell to sage green, seeping out to the water in curious tendrils. Steam rises in spurts, carrying odorous compounds to your nostrils. It smells of reeds, reaching from marsh like lanky limbs. You take a sip. Its taste is mildly sweet and bitter, faintly of freshwater. You are transported — to a calm day by the lake, running your hands through high grasses, kicking water into ripples of your own. The warmth of the tea relaxes your body, which has not yet noticed the caffeine.
China’s most ancient style of tea, white tea calls to mind the Taoist concept of wu wei, action without effort. Though prepared from the same plant as the stronger greens and blacks, it is processed the least. Young buds are left to wither in open air, skipping the crushing and burning that embolden its siblings. What is left retains its natural form while imbuing it with poetic delicacy. Even as new ways to prepare the drink evolved, tender white teas remained the choice offering to China’s powerful emperors.
In preparing the tea, you search for the subtle sensation of action without effort. Of allowing the ritual to carry you through its sequence. Of permitting the flavors to draw your attention. It is a give and take with the world, a channel opened for flow.
You stand in a position known in the West as the “tree.” Your right foot is raised, tucked into the inner part of your left thigh. Your left leg has become a trunk, rooted to the ground while birds buzz through your caffeinated mind. Your body wavers. Muscles tense and relax along the many lines branching out from your foot, swaying as if carried by wind. The tension divides itself into smaller pathways through chest to arms and fingertips. Your body is stretching, searching for equilibrium.
To balance, you feel, is to be in sensuous relation with gravity. It is your body’s response to other bodies. The earth exerts the greatest force, but so does every mass tug gently upon yours. Balance sets an order to things through this invisible connection. Every time you encounter another, tiny crystals shift in your inner ears, and a small tether is formed between you. You imagine all the material of the universe swaying together in interconnected musculature.
Standing in delicate balance, your muscles awaken, tuning themselves to the pushes and pulls of the surrounding world. You practice a responsive wavering, resilience to shifting landscape. Life is a process of change, you think. To be fixed is to be dead.
You gather a brandywine tomato for slicing, and already your saliva is flowing. Growing up to one and a half pounds each, brandywines carry flavor in bulk. You feel its weight against your palm, fingers pressing back into rubbery flesh. Its skin is less glossy than the bright-red roma; instead, it radiates streaks of gold like solar flares, traversing deep troughs into a sea of pink-orange. As you slice, your nose detects a vegetal freshness, colored slightly sour by burnt hues. You take a bite, meeting a chewy resistance as juice lubricates the tongue. Only then do you taste: wonderfully sweet, unusually so, cut by a mild tart.
The character of this particular tomato, like all life, exists in lineage. The Aztecs cultivated their xitomatl from wild pea-shaped ancestors, and dubbed the new fruit “fat water with navel.” Through modern breeding, the water has grown fatter at the expense of flavor. Supermarket shoppers associate redness with ripeness, so commercial breeders select for uniform scarlet hues. Flavor has leached out of the recipe.
In attending to the brandywine’s sweet heft, you connect with a form of ancestry — of the fruit and of the humans who coevolved with it. In gardens resilient to the forces of time, heirlooms like the brandywine revive a wild heritage, growing in a riotous array of weights, colors, and patterns. You too are rewilding from the shaping of human minds.
The facades of buildings slice into diagonal portions, like New York black-and-white cookies. You are walking to a nearby park, and the world is split under the knife of the midday sky. The sun is casting its hardest shadows, with brights at their lightest, darks at their dimmest, and stepwise jumps at each boundary. It is as if the day is intentionally split in half so as to pull you into afternoon. You are torn between these two worlds, basking in sun like a phototropic plant and finding periodic sanctuary in the shade of trees.
Your world reflects the will of the sky. On clear days like today, the sun’s white light glares at you from glass facades, while softer blue light from scattered atmosphere blankets the ground. On cloudy days, all is faintly white, with hardly a shadow in sight. To the sky, you are but a mirror to look back at itself. Now, it presents the challenge of poles, those binary opposition’s that tense your mind. Light and dark, hot and cold, day and night. Good and evil, passion and logic, certainty and mystery.
Which of these, you wonder, is your nature? Or at least your afternoon ahead? You allow these dualities to tug at each other as friendly adversaries. To compete, in the original sense, is to strive together. Perhaps that is the lesson of the sky, to choose neither, to allow both.
You fall into rhythmic pulses of calisthenic motion against the park’s cool dirt. Repetitions of push-ups mirror the force of the earth, like entrained pendulums in twin grandfather clocks. Muscles across your chest and arms coordinate to expand and contract. A deep burn courses through them, tightly woven threads unraveling with each movement. Your heart pulses loudly, the sounds of the park falling into lockstep with its rhythm. The warmth of the sun ramps with the flushing of your skin. But in this flow you hardly mind.
You know many types of pain. The sharp sting of an open wound, the dull throb of a headache, the visceral unease of nausea, the contorted heart of loss. But in exercise you meet the wide gulf between pain and suffering. It starts with a tear or a burn or an ache. But when the body is in motion, the brain releases its natural painkillers, endorphins, coloring the experience more pleasant. Your body knows some pain is good for you; your muscles grow back stronger, your heart more resilient.
Squatting in an invisible chair, your thighs twinging in tension, you remain open to the body’s wild sensations. Perhaps you can treat many of life’s pains this way, with a curious mind and a soft smile, untying pleasure from gnarls.
As you return towards home, your body smells faintly ripe, but of a wholly different variety from the brandywine. Like any quality perfume, the odor carries an arc, from the lightest compounds to the heaviest. At first the scent is sweet with spikes of anise stars. Then comes a gamey odor, with the primal sensation of fresh meat. Finally, a pungent tinge lingers like the aftereffect of crushing garlic. In the right frame, it is not such a bad bouquet. It awakens something animalistic from a long dormancy. Still high from endorphins, you feel electrified, confident, sensual. You savor the tinged air.
There is a reason odors transport you out of your mind. The oldest human sense, smell is processed first in the centers of emotion and memory before coming to conscious awareness. Your responses — attracted, repelled, wrapped in nostalgia — are primal and confusing. Scents are wild information. Trees send odorous messages that inform each other of predators, ants pave pathways to food, and humans too communicate cues from emotion to age.
You often feel the urge to conceal challenging odors, but instead you consider what signals you might be tuning out. By attending to the body’s odors, science suggests, you might better gauge your stress, assess your health, and find attraction in would-be partners. That said, you could really go for a bath.
You sink into the water, just hot enough to prickle the skin. The lights are out, and all is invisible sensation. So slowly do you move that it is hard to tell whether you are descending into the water or the water is rising to consume you. At first your flesh recoils at the heat, but then it relaxes, each muscle melting in turn, until your neck finally rests along a curved ledge. You run your hands through the water, and a gradient of pressure forms around your fingers. You bring your head down below. Sounds resonate more deeply, warping like the light reflected through your morning window, directionless and timeless.
Water is a sensory portal. It consumes you in otherworldly delight to be submerged, or floating, releasing the weight of gravity. The portal transports you to your origins, to aquatic ancestry and amniotic incubation. Mammals may dwell on the land, but you are also amphibious, spending your earliest days submerged. Your connection to water, however, has weakened. Unlike stick bugs, with their sensors that swell in water’s presence, you must piece together an assemblage of proxies: thickness against skin, friction along surfaces, heat in your nerves. Never can you know water directly.
Still, you feel comfort in this womblike return. Water is the original nostalgia. Connecting with this life-giving source both relaxes the worries of now and energizes the future.
You are joined on the roof by a partner, watching the day fade. It is the golden hour, when all the world is dosed with a radiant magic. They reach out to hold your hand, and the magic begins to radiate through you. It starts as a soft pressure on your palm, then a tingling up your arm, and a lightening of your chest, until your body lifts off the ground, and you are levitating in the gilded urban landscape. You kiss them gently on the cheek, and the electrical circuit is closed, sensations making loops through your limbs, generating a protective field. The roof within becomes a holy site.
There is something about the touch from another being that cannot be simulated. Press an inanimate object against your palm with just the right pressure and caress, and you will still feel cold. Try to tickle yourself with your own fingers, and your brain locks up, your motor cortex telling your sensory center to block the signal. It is in meeting the intelligence of another, with the complexity of their emotion and understanding, that touch comes to life. The touched must touch back. The magic is the exchange, adapting in active improvisation.
Locked in the rapturous kinship of touch, you wield its power with a sense of responsibility. Like all magic, contact can both heal and poison. The difference is listening, reaching out a hand not to write but to read.
The fiery blaze of sunset gives way to the yellow underglow of twilight, finally settling to the azure rest of dusk. It all passes in the blink of an eye, and now the world is turning upside down. As if the sun continues its course beneath the earth, the city itself glows alight, casting shadows of clouds against the sky, pressing back the faded light of distant stars. If daytime is the realm of nature, nighttime here is the sphere of people. When the world grows quiet, you make your own light, your own sound, your own warmth.
The night gives space for our most creative urges. From the once-dark cityscape, architects have floodlit skyscrapers like castles, adorned them with radiant crowns, and tiled facades with neon panels. But creation often ushers unintended change. To those who thrive in the dark, our nightlights provide alarming stimulation: nocturnal animals remain asleep, creatures that cloak become easy prey, birds that migrate by moonlight fly off course. The marching pulse of day and night that shaped evolution is now a bebop rhythm, with unpredictable swings and few rests.
Up on the roof, you watch the city pulse. What are the reaches of your unknowing impact? How might you tread more lightly, or darkly, or nourishingly? Perhaps it is enough, sometimes, to simply watch.
You sit in meditation, cross-legged and straight-backed, and sights and sounds begin to melt. It requires concentration at first, meticulously selecting the sensations of the breath over all distractions. But suddenly the rhythms of the breath, body, and mind click into synchrony. The outside world becomes silent, and the inner experience grows expansive. You float, suspended in the vast ocean of your mind. From here you can observe clearly — a fleeting thought, a flickering static, a flashing light. These sensations are always there, underlying the imprints of the world, the beautiful chaos of silence.
Silence seems a rare gem in our clamorous culture of sensory products. Muzak, the quintessential background music, fills department stores and lobbies, influencing your mood without notice. On television, anchors fill gaps with sound, as if breaking the momentum of the broadcast will also break its spell. Today, the incessancy has found its way into your pocket; feeds of content on your phone scroll, by design, without end. Sometimes absence takes more effort to keep it than to fill it.
In this precious moment of silence you observe your own inner workings — of your senses, of your mind, of simply being. You sit in an endless field of possibility, of coming-to-be. In observance, silence becomes not just an absence, but a potential for clarity to arise, cutting through the noise.
Settling into bed, your body perks at the coolness of the sheets. But cradled gently by cover and mattress, the muscles release and the eyelids grow heavy. Soon, your body no longer registers any tactile sensation at all, the sheets as invisible as Muzak. You enter a liminal space between awake and asleep. Scenes from the day flow through the mind, of teas and tomatoes and twilights. You find yourself contemplating the act of sleeping, but it cannot be willed. Like the revealing of an optical illusion, it must emerge naturally with an open gaze and a quiet mind. You return instead to the place of silence within you and before you know it you are dreaming.
You often think of sleep and wakefulness as two opposing states, but there are degrees of both. You daydream, sleepwalk, nod off, wear out, and hallucinate. Scientists say that sleep is defined by your brainwaves, the rhythm of trillions of synapses pulsing in synchrony. There is the alert beta state of wakefulness, the relaxed alpha of meditation, the free-flowing theta of hypnosis, and finally the detached delta of sleep.
You pass through these thresholds to arrive at your destination, and like all of life’s passages, they require some grace. On the river of time, when you charge forward too forcefully, you capsize. When you cling too tightly to the past, you get lost at sea. Letting go, allowing the flow to carry you, you drift through the gate.
Your inner world comes alive with iridescent imagery. You are on a barren planet with a high-frequency color palette, Death Valley in ultraviolet. The dust-swept surface glistens with ground amethyst, rising to ridges of meteor-pocked mesas. Scattered flora keep to themselves, weaving silver threads of mana through lilac flesh, drunk through straws rooted deep in the dirt. You too are a strange creature — scaly, mulberry, reptilian. You stand in a group of your own species, gazing into the vast unknown. You reach out prismatic tentacles and attach yourselves to the surface, luminescing, uniting.
In your mind, the boundary between fantasy and reality ripples like water. Even in wakefulness you imagine constantly: what’s around the bend, where your keys might be hiding. But in this special kind of sleep, your visions run wild, stitching remembered symbols into disorderly patchworks. Yet these shapes show you something real — the longings, fears, and questions that go unattended in woken states. They speak to you through coded stories, sneaking past your cognitive defenses and into your soul.
In the strange landscape of your dream, the soils and the seeds and the scales are all new. Still you find a familiar urge — to venture into the unknown and sense its flesh. To discover, within broader terrain, yourself and your place in the world.