Chapter 2: Sensitivity

Sensitivity is experiencing the senses. To make meaningful experiences from our sensations. To be so absorbed in sensation that judgment falls away. We are sensitive when we listen to the beating of our own heart on a cold morning. We are sensitive when, laying in bed, we hear the horn of a distant train breaking through the mist. When we take off our shirts and let the hot sun caress our skin and seep into our bones. When we see the blood flushing through our partner’s face at the moment of climax. When, looking through a tapestry of leaves, we can see the full moon just poking through, it’s craters and ridges textured as if we could touch it with an outstretched hand.

Sensitivity is absorbing the impression of the moon directly. Without the intermediary of thought.

It is necessary for survival. Sensitivity allows us to find the hidden root vegetable, to hear the wildebeest sneaking through the brush, to fend off illness before it strikes, to seek out hidden springs of vitality that course through our being, to avoid the enemy that lurks in the darkness. It is our only source of information about the world.

As time goes on, and many sense impressions are digested, we form ideas about the way the world works. We construct an elaborate moving-parts model, on which we can test various courses of actions and predict the results. I call this complex model “abstract thought”. In this model, various sensations are given names and properties. They are tied together in meaningful ways - connected with other similar objects, each with its own array of memories, emotions, associations. In this way, we understand. All of our education is aimed at developing an ever more complex and accurate model, so as to enable even deeper and more accurate understandings.

Though the model was built on sensory experience, it soon gains enough complexity to become its own self-contained world. One could entertain oneself for lifetimes just playing with the relationships between numbers. Many people have. Our society practically compels us to dive into the world of the mind, so to better understand numbers and manipulate tools and work with words.

It is a fine thing in theory, based on the ideal of man as a spiritual or mental being. It also ignores the obvious fact that men are still animals. We need to eat, and sleep and fuck, and more than anything, we lust for life. No matter what else you say about man’s intellectual and spiritual capacities, these basics are still true. Ignoring this fact has left many of us in a state of poor health. By returning to sensuality we can correct some of these excesses. Sensuality can return us to a more direct way of relating to the world, it can help us notice what factors ail us, and which nourish us, so that we can guide ourselves to nourishment. Sensitivity is watching the ebb and flow of hunger so as to respond accurately. Sensitivity is feeling the pain of an injury long before it becomes serious. Sensitivity is enjoying a breath of mountain air, and letting that feeling nurture and guide us. And sensitivity can never be fooled: an understanding can be wrong, but a sensation just is. It exists as a testament to itself.

Through sensitivity we gain awareness - of ourselves, the world, the pleasure and pain that guide us towards life and away from death. If we maintain awareness of these things, and luck is on our side, then we attain vitality, that might also be called unity.

When the mind is in unison with the body and both are in unison with the outside world, then we have health, wholeness, holiness.


Opposed to sensitivity, we find a new type of understanding called Abstraction. Our senses bring us information like: moving red form, loud noise, icy cold. That information is then constructed into a scene (red car driving by on a winter day), the scene evokes any number of ideas and emotions (wow, cool car! Or, drive slower asshole. Or, brrr it’s so cold today).

Those ideas will evoke ideas and those ideas will evoke yet more ideas. Your level of abstraction is the distance you habitually go up this chain of ideas in any given moment. A baby is not very abstracted, he sees the red blob speed past, and that’s all it is to him: a speeding blob of color. A few years later he sees the blob, but now he knows that red blobs are often connected to black spinning circles and that, all-together, one calls this a car. A few years after that, he knows cars quite well, he has memories of driving in them. And now he knows that cars are expensive and you need money to buy one. And that money is something other people give you for digging their ditches, and that girls like guys who have nice cars, and that, hey! I want girls to like me! So now, from the simple sensory event, his mind is filled with ideas about the world. And for many people, the ideas become the main show. Long after the speeding red blob is forgotten, the desire to be liked is still echoing in his mind.

We train ourselves to go deeper down the chain of abstraction. For the most abstracted people, seeing a car becomes an experience of mechanical diagrams and rates of combustion and centripetal vectors. It doesn’t just remind them of another object, like in the 2nd level of abstraction, but reminds them of ideas about ideas about ideas. “A rate of combustion” is not a thing. It’s an idea about an idea about an idea… and somewhere way far down the line you eventually find direct experience.

A certain level of abstraction is necessary for survival. Babies may experience the world in the most direct way, but they’re not much good for fending off tigers. You have to understand that a stick is not just an imminent brown shape, but is potentially fire!

More complex feats of engineering require higher and higher levels of abstraction. To understand complex mathematics must one be able to dive deeply into symbolic associations. Symbols have to be very real to you. For better or worse, I am a very abstracted person. In fact, I’d have to be to write like this: “A ‘rate of combustion’ is not a thing. It’s an idea about an idea about an idea… and somewhere way far down the line you eventually find direct experience.”

The Chorus:
Oh my God, he’s so fucking meta right now! So fucking meta! Tralalala!

It’s easy for me to live in my head, totally absent from the outside world. Words seem important, events often seem like a thin veneer over an underlying pattern, objects are simply embodied principles.

This way of thinking has many advantages, but I feel it has gone too far. We have reached a diminishing Return-On-Investment. We all know what it has given us: cars and modern medicine and air conditioning and food-on-demand and intellectual pleasures. Unacknowledged is the price that we pay for these benefits. The case should be clearly stated.

I choose to get involved in the world around me; to slowly return my consciousness to its original simplicity.

Modern Ailments

There are 3 main modern ills: poor health, anxiety, and meaninglessness.

Becoming involved in an extremely complex web of symbols leaves no times for simple sensory perception. Each perception becomes too tied up with its meaning. Abstract thought is incompatible with feeling. In this way, people become unable to feel their bodies, and forget how to take care of themselves. This is the underlying cause of poor health in Western society.

Anxiety comes from a disconnect with reality. When one is separated from the basics, it becomes all too easy to become lost in a web of worries. There’s nothing innately worrying about the world: we live, we eat, we die, lots of different things happen, and it’s all pretty neat. But we often trap ourselves in a web of negative symbology. We can take every harmless sense perception as evidence of our impending doom, or lack of worth, if we feel so inclined. Molehills become mountains.

People lack meaning for the same reason that they feel anxious. After using their initial sense perceptions of the world to create a model, they stick with the same model for the rest of their lives, and never go back to direct experience. Playing in the same old sandbox, so to speak.

All these ailments are caused by over-abstraction.

Sensuality is the antidote to abstraction. As I write this I can smell black tea brewing, and hear the dim roar of the air conditioner. I feel the hard seat against my thighs and the pen nestled snugly within my fingers. I notice the hot drink run down my throat and the moisture coating my eyeballs. Every few seconds a need to breathe arises. I indulge it and then the air wants out again. Like an indecisive dog.

It’s getting close to lunch and I feel a slight rumbling in my stomach - it is getting ready to begin the day’s work in earnest. These are the practical details that make up my moment-to-moment consciousness. Altogether they paint a grand picture. If we want to get back in touch with our bodies and the world around us, we need to relearn our senses. How often are you ecstatic from the taste of a fruit? Do you get anything from rubbing your hands over a tree trunk? Without direct contact we become lost in our minds. This is not so bad if you are a happy-go-lucky dreamer prancing from fancy to fancy. But many adults have minds dominated by worries. They are… Lost in the lurch…

As he tries to gain his orientation in the gray mist, his wrist-watch slowly begins to melt. The numbers smear over the dial like old cheese pizza. In the distance, a bell tolls, but from where and for whom and wherefore, it is impossible to say. And then it hits him: he is In the Lurch. The skies glow blood red and a horrifying Scream is wrenched from his skeletal frame. The Lurch. The Lurch. The Lurch… it echoes soundlessly into the distance… But this is not what the birds see. The birds see a beautiful Spring morning. The air is fresh and cool. They chirp with delight, and the flowers and grass sparkle with morning dew. Yea verily! The beauty of the outside world does nothing more than highlight his drab internal reality. Yet all he need do is reach out… and touch…

Sensitivity Part 2

Sensitivity is not about whether you cry during Titanic, or not. (But let’s be honest, you do.) Sensitivity is about the ability to understand the messages coming from the body. Can you distinguish slight hunger from slight bloating? It sounds obvious, but sometimes they feel similar. I frequently used to confuse the two. In fact, many people interpret any weird sensation from the stomach as hunger.

When you stretch does it feel like a detailed spectrum of sensation? Can you tell the difference between opening a muscle and pushing against a defensive joint? How much does fatigue affect you? Can you totally ignore it, or does it knock you into bed?

This is your basic ability to feel what is happening inside the body. The more you feel what’s going on, the better decisions you can make about your own well-being. Nowadays, we have to turn the dial up to get the signals past the TV, bright lights, and junk food. If your dial is on “low” you might not get the feeling of fullness until you’re stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey. In the same way, it may be hard to tell which things make you feel good. If only the huge messages are getting through, you’ll know it feels good to get blasted off your head on ecstasy, but won’t notice the quiet walk through the park. It’s all the small feel-good things that really make up the bulk of your health. The body knows what it likes. If you are correctly attuned, all you need to do is follow your impulses. How beautiful is that? You can do the right thing by doing whatever you feel like! Effortless, natural living. Eat when you’re hungry, sleep when you’re tired. Like a coyote or a fir tree. You don’t see too many obese coyotes.

There’s no need for systems or manuals or intellectual effort. In fact, those things just get in the way. Many people can’t hear the body over the roar of the minds, so they need a book to tell them what to eat. First, you need to tune yourself into the right signals, and re-develop the sensitivity you were born with.

Re-developing sensitivity is often no cakewalk. Sensitivity means being more open to pleasure, it also means being more open to pain. Sensitivity accepts pain, because pain is a teacher.

Many of us have bottled up and denied pain for so long, that when we first start resensitizing, all the denied pain comes rushing in. This happened to me. I started to really feel my body for the first time since childhood and what I felt was years of hard abuse. Not fun. But if you don’t feel that abuse, you’ll never have the motivation to change. And you need that motivation. Especially if you have a serious health issue. That issue is tied in with your entire being. For me, fixing my problem wasn’t just about fixing a few habits, it required changing my entire outlook on life.

Many people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s are run down and chronically ill. These people should be in the prime of their life! If you’re weak, tired, and fat in your 30s, then Lord help you, your 50s are going to be miserable. Unless you make a big change.

Thankfully, the body has a wonderful capacity for healing. The great thing about being young and unhealthy is that you can age oppositely! You can defy conventional knowledge and get stronger as you age! I was at my weakest from age 22-24. Now I get stronger every year! I expect I can keep this up until age 40, or so, at which point I expect 15 years of plateau, and then some years of peaceful decline. That’s the idea, anyway. Maybe I’ll get hit by a car tomorrow. But barring accident, graceful aging is an attainable goal. In America it seems like a rare thing - there’s hardly anyone over 50 who’s even at a healthy weight. But in China it’s common - I routinely mistake people’s age by about 20 years (60 years looks like 40 years). Sometimes I see 70 year olds with six-packs, no joke. These aren’t fitness buffs, they’re just farmers who eat right and move around all day. So how do we do it? How can we age gracefully?

There is a secret means. Guarded for generations and passed down from one member of my clan to the next. By telling you now, I am breaking all the vows of my people

and must surely face bloody retribution. But I feel the public must know at any cost!

…… Practice ……

Sensitivity Exercises

Tasting Platter

Fill a plate with interesting morsels. On my plate I have dark chocolate, a garlic clove, a slice of ginger, a dollop of jam, some mustard, and a green bean. Lay down for a bit to relax and clear your mind. Look at the platter to notice the colors and textures. Acknowledge the history of each item, imagining its origin story. I can see the carefully tended cocoa bean right now. Hanging in the dense canopy and swaying in the humid breeze. It bears witness to dazzling birds and all manner of critter-folk as it swells on the branch. Sniff them over. As individuals and as a whole. Let the scent help you imagine the taste. How close do you have to bring your face to find the odor? For me, pretty close to the green bean, but far away from the mustard. Does the odor stick to your fingers? Which seems more powerful, the garlic or the mustard?
Play with the food. Touch it; gloop the gooey jam, caress the rough folds of the garlic, smear the chocolate around the contours of your face. Quickly now, out of these items, which would be the best to use for constructing an airplane??

In my case, definitely ginger. It has the winning combination of lightness and structural integrity - perfect for aircraft. Likely water-craft too, now that you bring it up. Do a little experiment to see if it floats.

What would be the best food to sleep in? Don’t tell me you’ve never fantasized about jumping into a jam swimming pool. Skip the mustard pool though. Stings on the ol’ butthole. Imagine... Really feel it. Dig deep, brother. Maybe even put some on your butt - in the name of Science, of course. No-one said being a pioneer was easy.

Let’s do some mouth play, how about. A little bit of tongue action, if you will. Raise an item up to your lips and use them to feel around. Can you taste a little bit seeping into your mouth? What do your lips tell you about this food? Now in with the little beasty! Aha! How exquisite! What is it like in different parts of the mouth? Do different parts of the tongue give you different tastes? How does plugging your nose change the experience? Can you break it up into constituent flavors? What kinds of images do the flavors conjure up in the mind’s eye. Any memories or emotions?

Now you can combine and contrast the various items. For example, I will let a crumb of chocolate melt under my tongue for 6 seconds, and smear a line of jam across my upper lip (don’t swallow the chocolate yet!), and then delicately insert a single green bean. That is a recipe for a unique experience. You can design your own unique recipes - maybe one that always reminds you of your dog, Woof-Master (1 dog biscuit, 3 red jellybeans, and a pinch of cut grass).

Now the swallow. Oh boy. Get good and excited, if you aren’t already. You’re probably drooling all over yourself after so much foreplay. This is what we’ve been waiting for! The money shot! Down the hatch! Oh god!

Past the teeth Through the gums Watch out stomach, here it comes!

Can you follow it down? At what point does your awareness lose track of the gulp? Halfway down the throat? In the stomach?

Some Shaolin monks can track food all the way through their digestive tracts. They can eat something, and 2 hours later point under a specific rib and say something like, “It’s right here now, traveling southwesterly at .3 knots”

This is then confirmed by x-ray. What an amazing inner sensitivity!

After masticating a few items, evaluate how they are making you feel. Physically and emotionally (as if there were a difference!). For example, chocolate can be powerfully psychoactive. You scoff, but go down a bar of baker’s chocolate, and see if you’re laughing when you start tripping major balls. (Please don’t actually do this). Someday I’ll tell you the story of how I woke up one morning in a Palm Springs ditch, having spent the previous night in desperate flight from the aliens. Actually, many common items are powerful drugs in the right dosage. I’m sure if you ate enough mustard you’d get pretty fucked up (in a very bad way). Anyway, don’t overdose yourself, you dope, but learn to detect these medicinal effects on a subtle level. You should hopefully be able to feel the effective difference between a green bean and a piece of chocolate. Especially if it’s dark chocolate. Chocolate has a warm, fuzzy, stimulating feeling that’s particularly easy to recognize.

Smell Adventure

Hello, Intrepid Reader, a Challenge lies before you! Should you choose to accept it…

At birth we were endowed with 5 senses. These were entrusted unto us as portals into the vast universe beyond. They are as follows: Sight! The Light Bearer Sound! For which to hear the voice of the world Touch! To embrace and be embrace’d Taste! The Devourer and finally Smell… With which to decipher the Essence of Things

But, Brothers, this last sense has fallen from the fold! It lies neglected, a shadow of its former glory. The nose, dull and insensitive, begs to be woken from its slumber.

There are only 5 known avenues into the Secrets of the Universe. How can we afford to ignore even one?!

Stop what you’re doing. Nothing can be as important as uncovering this new world. Out there, floating in the air we breathe, lies the concentrated Essence of Things. The eyes see only reflections, the ears hear only echoes, but the nose merges Body with Essence. By smelling, you become the smell, and it becomes you. How better to know? Look to our canine friends for they have duly appreciated how much the Nose knows.

Get low to the ground and imbibe the dirt, follow the scent of roasted meat to its source, become intimate with the sex organs of flowers. Breath in your fellow man. Stand in awe as Essence mingles and flows all around us, emanating from every Thing and carried on invisible currents. They envelop us and invite us to taste of their secrets. Do you dare? “But what practical benefits will this bring me?” you say. “I

So go forth and smell! Smell like you’ve never smelled before! Smell like the wind!

The Advantages

I am still a beginner in this art, but already I have noticed many advantages. I use it to identify plants, edible and medicinal, individual plants and plant families. I use it when buying groceries and eating dinner. A sensitive nose will tell me which foods are the freshest and which food to eat next.

When cooking and appreciating food, the nose is crucial; a little more of this, a pinch of that, and Oh! These two ingredients don’t go together. And most of taste (SPOILER ALERT) is actually smell.

It tells me a lot about people. A person’s odor is directly connected to their health, and especially their diet. I can smell when my girlfriend has been eating junk food. If I get close enough, I can sometimes tell if a girl is on her period or if she’s horny. Stress sweat and exercise sweat are very distinct. If someone has been smoking, it’s impossible not to know. A few of my students went on a smoke break today, and just the residue on their clothes stunk up the whole classroom.

It tells me about my own body. By smelling my armpits I can get a pretty good idea of how clean my digestion is burning. Constipation, in particular, can make the armpits smell dank-nasty. Stress stink is obvious, as is the mild and pleasant odor that the body emits while well rested, like in the morning or after a good nap. The smell of saliva is an indicator for mouth health. I can’t smell it while in my mouth, but if I lick my finger and it smells like pussy, then I know I’m probably a little dehydrated. “Smell my finger, bro”.

Becoming a “Smeller” is something unusual and fun. It will stick in your head, in the most delightful sort of way. When you talk about it at parties everyone will think you are so interesting! And they will fear that you can sniff out their dirty secrets.

“Don’t you think it’s about time to change your underwear, Janet?”

A Smell Adventure makes for a hilarious date, and nicely paves the way for some good old-fashioned butt-sniffing. You can be a smart-feller AND a fart-smeller! It helps with hygiene. I can smell the cleanliness of places and clothing. It’s easy to know when clothes need to be washed or what restaurants you shouldn’t eat in. It has saved me many times from stepping in poop, and probably a few times from rolling in poop. I know what areas are toxic, and that I should probably get the hell out of dodge. It’s a feeling I get sometimes in industrial areas, “Wow, smells like delayed-onset cancer”.

It helps to find things: oh the barbecue is over that way! I think there’s a mint patch beyond the hedge. We’re getting close to water! When you open the door to this whole new universe, breathing becomes an unspeakably rich experience.

Those are just some of the tangible benefits. But perhaps the most important benefit is not immediately obvious: smelling can be your vehicle to sensuality. In the specific, you might be learning to play guitar, but overall you are learning music. In the same way, paying attention to this one sense will make you more connected to all your senses. But if the overall goal is sensuality (and therefore integration with the body, and therefore vitality), why should we choose smell over, say, sight?

Scent is the best avenue into sensuality because it’s the only sense where we can start fresh. All of your other senses have been well developed and are stabilized into your current personality. Changing them and making new discoveries will be comparatively difficult. Scent is a frontier! Everything will be new and exciting. Scents can’t be easily categorized. There is no cultural mindset to warp your ideas. Everything you discover will be unique and personal to you. Since scent is unconnected to your day-to-day life, you can make it into a deliberate exercise in sensuality. Every time you smell, you will be reminding yourself of your intention to be be more in touch with the world. The act of smelling will become a sort of ritual.

Scent bypasses the conscious mind and flows straight into the deepest part of our being. A sudden whiff of gingerbread cookies can thrust you 20 years into the past and into Grandma’s kitchen.

“Nothing is more memorable than a smell. One scent can be unexpected, momentary and fleeting, yet conjure up a childhood summer beside a lake in the mountains; another, a moonlit beach; a third, a family dinner of pot roast and sweet potatoes during a myrtlemad August in a Midwestern town. Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years. Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once. A complex vision leaps out of the undergrowth.” - Diane Ackerman This deep connection informs our intuition - when something is wrong, but you don’t know what, you say “Something is fishy” or “I smell a rat”. When the connection is strengthened, it becomes easier to sense those subtle messages that can’t quite be put into words.

Just now, something has happened! I noticed the slightest taste of char on the air and jumped from my seat remembering the food on the stove. I ran to the kitchen and saved my meal before it could be turned into an unappetizing black lump.

What is it like to be dog? Imagine magnifying your olfaction 1000s of times. You can smell a bagel at the bottom of a lake. You know what your neighbor ate 3 days ago. Sniffing someone’s ass would be like reading their autobiography.

Actually, even with our pathetic noses, sniffing someone’s ass is pretty informative. If we sniffed each other upon meeting, imagine how much social posturing that would cut through! How could you pretend to be better than someone that can smell your butt? No matter how many ArmanioGucci handbags you’re carrying. Though, maybe we’d just posture in different ways. Perhaps the rich would buy Goochie, an Italian handcrafted perineum perfume. What? You don’t wear perineum perfume?! Plebian… Ad hoc! An alliterative ad:

“Only Plebians Pass-up Perineum Perfume
Your shit will smell like roses…”