So I'm on a quest to increase the sphere of my awareness. I've been thinking about this subject for at least 10 years, but now I am really working on it throughout the day, and applying it to my violin playing. I'm finding it a big challenge to break certain mental habits, but their resistance is making me more determined to break them. It has to do with re-ordering the priorities of attention: what stimuli get through in what order. As we get increasingly hypnotized by our information-gathering machines, our own amazing nervous systems get more and more neglected, and it seems we are heading toward a society of zombies. Is that an exaggeration, or are we there already? In certain ways I've escaped zombie-hood, since I've watched very little TV, and I've developed my sense of hearing through music, and I've enjoyed stretching and being physical. But in other ways I've been unconscious for years, because I've spent much of my life reading and in my imaginal world, letting all kinds of thoughts run wild and following them. This has resulted in a lot of stumbling, breaking glasses, spilling stuff, bumping into furniture - as my family and friends will attest, to my embarrassment... My new commitment to checking in with my senses is already making a difference.
Tom Brown, Jr., founder of The Tracker School, wrote a book called Tom Brown's Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking. This is my favorite of his many books, because it is the most basic and universal. Brown teaches skills that our ancestors all over the world used to survive, and a few isolated groups of people still live by these skills. Number One Skill is Awareness, and I think this is the most important and useful immediately to everyone, no matter what lifestyle you have or where you live. How can we train our brains to perceive more fully? It has to do with learning to pay attention to the messages that our senses already take in but which we have gotten in deep habits of ignoring. It has to do with quieting our mental chatter so that we can let these messages through. The messages could be from as close as inside our own bodies or they could be perceptions about things in our environment, or any combination of those. Over some time of paying attention to a new range of sense impressions, our brains begin to recognize patterns and our spheres of awareness grow. How we assign meaning to the perceived patterns is the subject of a whole other related exploration.
Brown gives many useful techniques for increasing our connection to our environment through our senses. These are not just exercises which are "good for us" like "taking our vitamins." Being more aware leads to more joy, more love of life. Subjects in Chapter 1 include many simple guidelines to enhance awareness:
let go of the constant measurement of time; be in the present
sit quietly, or walk quietly; stop talking all the time!
let go of worries
remember that you're going to die (so don't miss out on being alive!)
let go of analyzing
let go of names (naming often prevents us from really observing)
don't dismiss anything as commonplace
follow your heart
let go of inhibitions
let go of preconceptions
immerse yourself in nature
Brown is writing here about immersing yourself in an undomesticated, wild environment. It is possible to be immersed in a city, but it is dangerous to be unguarded about our explorations, and there are many social rules which inhibit us. Awareness is actually essential for city survival but you have to be sly about it. Immersing yourself in a wild environment, though, is amazing because everything is alive and energy is flowing, whereas in our modern domestic habitats we have blocked most of the flow and severely limited the life forms with which we interact. I have had wonderful experiences following Brown's advice and sitting in one spot in the woods for a couple of hours, being as still as possible. My "excuse" for doing this has been to record environmental sound, but the experience while out there is one of extremely heightened awareness. I become one with the flow, and birds and animals have come very close to me. A weasel has frolicked right next to me, a herd of peccaries has ambled by, deer have come very near, birds have been very close. It can be frightening, but it is an incredible high. Try it sometime.