When I was a kid, I was sick all of the time and missed many days of school. I almost got held back in first grade because I was absent more days than I attended that year. I don’t remember the actual sickness too much, but I do have memories of spending time in the doctor’s waiting room with my mother.
“I spy something yellow,” she’d say.
“Is it the chair?” I’d say.
“Is it the doll’s dress?”
“Is it the flowers?”
And so went this looking and guessing until what was spied was discovered.
On the surface, this simple game helped to pass the time while we waited. But on a deeper level, it cultivated skills of observation and required us to open our senses and notice what was around us. This rooted us to the reality we were in, which, whether my mother knew it or not, is a useful thing to do during moments of stress. The technique is called grounding and I came to know it decades later in both name and practice when I was in trauma-focused therapy after having experienced rape.
Paying attention to the colors, textures, shapes, sounds, and fragrances that make up our phenomenal world can help ‘ground’ us in the midst of panic and fear. There are many different methods that people use, but what I often focus on is how objects are designed or physically built.
I remember one afternoon years ago, while waiting for the subway, I started to feel a sense of panic about my safety. It was irrational in a sense because there was no visible threat, but my mind started to spiral out of control and the sensation of terror felt acutely real. As I became more and more uncomfortable, I happened to notice on the platform an elongated diamond form that was made from a series of differently shaped black and ochre tiles. The shape was both simple and complex enough for me to study without being overwhelmed, so I began to think about its design. How many shaped tiles were used to create the pattern? How were they laid out relative to one another? What was the proportion of the length to the width of the shapes? And so it went until I ran out of questions to ask.
It’s as if I had tethered my mind to those tiles instead of the panic and in the process, I was able to stand my ground and not be swept away. I felt triggered in this instance by something related to a pivotal moment in my life, and as Mark Epstein so accurately states in his New York Times opinion essay “The Trauma of Being Alive,” we face trauma every single day. Whether the trauma is large or small, I have found that connecting to the environment through the senses is a useful tool for coping with anything.
Coping and living, however, are two different things and I came to know the difference by practicing meditation. Initially, I turned toward it as another tool to help me stay present when dealing with stress, but as my practice of stillness has developed, I have found that sitting meditation has connected me with the sensory world in ways that have both surprised and delighted me.
The practice is easy enough — sit upright, open the eyes, direct the gaze slightly downward and follow the breath. But anyone who meditates knows that it much is easier said than done. However, the result of working through the difficulty of sitting mindfully has enhanced my awareness and understanding of my thoughts, body and environment.
I feel open to the world in sensory ways that I never did before, and I’m amazed not only that I have lived as long as I have in such an muffled state, but also that the vitality and immense energy of the world is there to tap into at any moment, whether I’m facing fear or not.