meditative state: the surprising way stillness affects the senses

The moment you’re in pitch black everything changes.

Your senses are heightened. On a primal level your brain assumes vulnerability to an impending attack and every sense is on high alert as survival mode kicks in. That’s some scary shit – the stuff nightmares and horror films are made of. But when you’re meditating – eyes closed – the self-induced pitch black has a similar effect on your senses, minus impending zombie attack. Indian spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar summed up the sensorial effects of meditation best: “You become totally relaxed, yet at the same time you possess sharpness of awareness, strength of intelligence. Your senses become so clear. You can see better, think better, hear better. Like a pure crystal, your senses come to reflect all objects as one Divinity.”

I sound like an evangelist, I’m not. To backtrack, I always thought meditation was rubbish. Invented by Indian yogis for whom calm and inner peace were almost inbuilt and adopted by smug westerners who should be smoking and binge-drinking their way through life like the rest of us. But when you’re stuck in a relentless cycle of anxiety with your mind flicking back to all the mistakes you made and projecting those on your future, keeping you up, keeping you disengaged from everyone around you then something needs to change. At a point where the endless whirring reached desperation, I walked into the London Buddhist Centre, and within 10 minutes I’d signed up for a month of Buddhist meditation and a day course on mindfulness. 

Since then, I’ve created new rituals for myself – when before I was a maelstrom of groggy mornings, make-up applied on the bus and missed appointments. Now, for ten minutes each morning as I wait for my hot water and lemon to cool, (I know, I hate me too…) I sit on my sofa (never meditate in bed, you will fall asleep) and listen to a set guided meditation using the app Insight Timer. If I’m feeling the weight of comparison, as I am now, I’ll find a meditation that revolves around that. If I wake up with an impenetrable cloud of doom hovering, I’ll choose an upbeat meditation or set of chants. They days I don’t do it? My brain goes back to being a tangle of squiggly lines or knotted necklaces. And while my new routine has partially halted the soul-robbing internal frisson I’d been experiencing, it’s changed the way I feel things too.

The mind-calm wasn’t the biggest change I’d experienced post discovering the world of meditation, it was the way my senses changed. There’s the immediate hit – as soon as you open your eyes after a deep meditation session, it is like the first time you’ve ever truly looked, everything begins to process through a woozy technicolour haze. But after a few weeks of regular practice my senses seemed to exponentially up their game. I noticed the things around me more – I saw them, and I tasted, felt and heard everything – especially after a session of chanting meditation or using binaural beats. The latter are said to increase the brain’s gamma waves and they link and process information across the various parts of the brain. Interestingly, gamma brain waves have also been linked to an increased ability to perceive reality through our five senses.

But by far the biggest change sensory experience from meditation was the change in my sense of smell – everything smelled sweeter, and even the malodorous smelled putrid with a rawness that was still oddly alluring. It’s bizarre to me that smell was the one to up its game. Apparently that’s not unusual though – according to Jillian Lavender, Founder of the London Meditation Centre who aim to offer respite to frazzled Londoners. “All the senses become more refined when you meditate. The deep rest gained during a session purifies the system of stresses and toxins that have been obstructing our ability to smell accurately,” she says. Often that sense of smell is an inconvenience, when we waft past a festival loo or smell a hit of sickly perfume, something that’s forced upon us. In a McCann survey, 7,000 young people around the world, about half of those between the age of 16 and 30 said that they would rather lose their sense of smell than give up access to technology like laptops or cell phones.

Perhaps that’s because we’re so zoned out we fail to use our sense of smell as much as we should or that we underrate this sense in particular because it seems so superfluous. But I think we’re just untrained – a study published University of California Berkeley, asked people to follow scents on the ground, like a dog – and participants (blindfolded, wearing gloves and earplugs) could track chocolate oil down a 10-meter trail. Relying exclusively on smell, two thirds were able to follow the scent – and performance improved over time. The subtext: Using your senses can unlock a magical new world, and for me, that was my sense of smell.

That’s been one of the biggest gifts from meditating now I’m 6 months deep. It’s not the soothing voice guiding you through a meditation (though worth noting that ‘om’ resonates on a certain frequency that is deeply vibrational on a sensory level) there’s just something about repeating the same phrase repeatedly that truly makes you able to block the crap out. At times, I feel well, old. My dad meditates. And despite not finding the wellness scene  particularly cool, I can see why so many more people are taking it up – especially those of us in our 20s and 30s, a time in life when the uncertainty of our world leers above. And because our brains are so overloaded with digital stuff – Instagram feeds, Snapchat, blogs, pinterest – all things that engage the mind for just an addictive microsecond, we need to chill out. Meditation gives you a way to be in the world, fresh and ready to receive the world around you. And what you’re left with is magnetic – a bridge between the outside and the inside.

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