Paying Attention to Our Senses Let Us Make Choices
It was late enough that the mosquitoes had gone to bed. Slow swirls of an overhead fan soothed our sweltering and the buzz of fluorescent light let us see each other. There is something about fieldwork that intensifies relationships. Friends can feel like you’ve known them a lifetime in a couple of weeks. Emma is one of those for me, and we had many late night chats with eavesdropping geckos that summer in Costa Rica.
She asked me a question one night that to this day I’m grateful for. I was talking about my previous field experience, in Kenya, and she asked me what it smelled like.
That is a question that I would never have thought to ask, and yet I had a ready answer. As a souvenir, I purchased a walking stick from a blacksmith in one of the towns on the way back from our field site. It had such a rich aroma, like brewed coffee and campfire smoke and shoe polish and fresh earth. If I put my nose right up against it, I can still get a hint of it.
Her question was such a gift because there was such a richness of experience that I had, and yet had forgotten.
Now, remembering that question has taken on a richness of memory itself.
I’ve been thumbing through an old book lately, Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater, which I have read several times and built up quite a bit of marginalia in over the years. I found a note about Emma’s question beside a passage. Spolin wrote:
“When students see people and the way they behave together, see the color of the sky, hear the sounds in the air, feel the ground beneath them and the wind on their faces, they get a wider view of their personal world and development … is quickened. The world provides the material … and artistic growth develops hand-in-hand with one’s recognition of it and one’s self within it.”
This goes beyond the theater. It is life.
We experience life through our senses.
But we have to remember that we have them, otherwise our experience is half full.
In my work teaching the Alexander Technique, one of my most frequent questions is “What do you notice?”
I always tell people that there isn’t a right answer, and I’m not fishing for results. It’s important, in its own right, to practice noticing what we sense.
And not just so that our experience is as rich as possible, but because our ability to make choices is predicated on our ability to notice what is happening to us, in us, around us.
To even know the choices available to us, we have to know what's happening. To know the effects of those choices, we have to know what's happening. To know the things we do automatically, where we have stopped allowing ourselves to make choices, we have to know what's happening.
That’s where the growth is, artistic and otherwise.
I do relish the sense memory of the smell of that walking stick, and the fullness of those talks with Emma. But I’m perhaps most grateful to them because they inspire me to keep noticing.