Capturing the Sensual Art of Now

cup of coffee on bedside tableThe air is chilly this early January morning of 2017 as am I, having just brought coffee back to the bedroom from the cold kitchen.

My husband turned on the heated mattress pad as well as a space heater during my absence. I hop back in bed and sitting up against an abundance of pillows, I snuggle closer to my husband, sipping my coffee. After a bit, I set the timer for twenty minutes. We always start the day this way: coffee in bed followed by meditation.

When my mind wanders during meditation this morning, I bring my attention back to the sensations of Now. I notice a slightly bitter taste lingering on my tongue. I notice the rushing sound of the space heater as it persistently fills the void. My husband’s arm rests gently against mine, offering comfort and additional warmth. My chest and belly move of their own accord with each breath. I relax and allow the thoughts that had swept me up moments before to gently drift away on their own—to “self-liberate.” The room stills. I open my eyes, keeping the gaze soft and allow my awareness to expand to the edges of my peripheral vision: I catch snatches of color from the Indian saris draped around the four posters of our Malaysian bed frame and notice small movements of leaves fluttering and birds flittering about outside the window.

In this same way, we writers can help our readers feel the Now in our scenes, by drawing attention to the senses, not only the visual details. Each important scene should have a snippet of at least three of the five senses. Is there the whiff of something in the air of your scene? Is there an all-consuming background noise or only intermittent bird chirping? Paying attention to the sensations of the moment draws our attention and makes the scene a complete experience.

At a workshop, I teach, called “Awakening the Senses for Writers,” we practice focusing on our senses by experiencing them blindfolded and then writing about it. A sense nakedly experienced may evoke a fresh and vibrant—potentially entirely different—description. One of my favorite examples came from a woman tasting carrot juice while blindfolded. She did not immediately recognize the flavor of carrot juice—people rarely do. Instead, she wrote, “This is what green tastes like,” which I find to be an oddly perfect description of the orange beverage.

This type of exercise helps us to pay attention to the sensual details that are present in every moment and then to infuse our writing with that—capturing for our readers too the “Sensual Art of Now” in our scenes.

Try this:

Working with a partner, or even in a writing group, participate in an “awakening the senses exercise.” One person introduces sample sensations one at a time (taste, smell, sound, touch, sight) to the blindfolded others. Each sense is experienced on its own for some moments with the blindfold on. Then the blindfold is removed, and the participants are immediately invited to do a timed three-minute stream of consciousness writing. (In the case of sight, you start with a blindfold on while a visual phenomenon is placed in front of you; then you remove the blindfold and focus only on that item, before doing the timed writing.)

You may try to describe what has been experienced, possibly without even “knowing” even what it is as in the carrot juice example above. This encourages new and creative descriptions. Sometimes this exercise will evoke a memory or fantasy, and a story will unfold naturally and easily.

Whatever the case, bringing our attention to just one sense at a time, helps us isolate each experience—to pay attention not only to the minute details but to the ways in which we are moved by them—a practice that later enriches our writing.

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