When you think about sensuality, what comes to mind? Sexuality? Touching other people? Attraction? Women slurping noodles with abandon, or men smelling like old spice?
Sensuality is a way of being in contact. When we are in touch with our senses, it usually involves the impact of something external. If we smell a hyacinth, we are moved by fragrance. If we taste chocolate, we engage flavor and smooth texture. When we hear another’s sigh at our touch, we may recline a little more into their embrace, which then involves how we feel when we are touched. I suspect that we habitually associate sensuality with the interpersonal, i.e., how we are in relationship to something. My question is this: how often have you regarded sensuality as a means for deepening the intrapersonal, i.e., the relationship to yourself?
When we engage in the sensual, even in relationship to others, we’re also enhancing intrapersonal consciousness. Merleau Ponty (1962) mused that “pure sensation will be the experience of an undifferentiated ‘impact,’ instantaneous, an atom of feeling” (p. 3). When I behold a masterful painting, listen to a pleasing melody, or eat a big sloppy chili burger, what I’m feeling is myself in response to these things. This doesn’t say that art, music, or food is without essence. It says that regardless of contact, it’s still our experience that we’re encountering. Now, what if I don’t like chili burgers? I may say “chili burgers are nasty, decadent, globulous concoctions of muck.” If I love chili burgers, I may say they’re “spicy, juicy, savory, complex masterpieces of flavor.” Even more relevant, if I’m not attuned with myself and have just grabbed a chili burger at a fast food restaurant while rushing to a meeting, I may barely notice anything about chili burgers, reducing them to an efficient, fast source of nutrition so that my once angsty belly is now satisfied. The most prominent sense in this scenario is my hunger.
I call attention to the sensual for this reason: I’ve encountered a myth about existential psychotherapy concerning cogitation of abstractions. Because existential psychotherapy is derived from philosophy (or more humorously put, the incessant ouroboros of truth eats questioning eats truth, to the neglect of actual experience), we ignore what it’s really about. I love philosophy, but have felt concern that too much “thinking about being” leads to “impoverishment of being.” There are many offshoots of existential philosophy and psychotherapy. However, they all have a common denominator, and that is giving direct human experience more value than models of experience. Existential psychotherapy is just as much about body as it is about mind. I often find myself guiding my clients away from abstraction and more into their affect, which is linked to sensing. I can visually notice a part of their life story that impacts them. This may manifest in a gasp, larger eyes, or feet tapping nervously. Almost always, when I invite clients to slow down and be with those parts of their stories that show up in a palpable way that they may not be conscious of, I’m also inviting them into a sensual world: a world of experiencing where meaning is derived from more than thinking. Meaning is derived from sensing. Combine sensing with thinking, and the result is expanded consciousness.
Eva-Wood’s (2004) research on students studying poetry supports this notion. Two separate groups of college students were asked to analyze poems. The first group was asked to just pay attention to thoughts, while the second group was encouraged to notice their emotions in context to the poems read. Eva-Wood found that students who paid attention to their emotions in conjunction to their thoughts derived more complex, advanced meanings from the exercise. I’d add that emotions are grounded in sensing, and sensing happens in the body. Gendlin (1978) developed the “focusing” technique after observing that clients who seem to get the greatest benefit from therapy are clients who tune in to their senses when checking in on how they assess situations they’re describing. In sum, sensing serves a very important purpose, and self-knowledge is an important benefit of learning to be sensual.
I invite people to pay attention to their senses: what you enjoy or don’t enjoy. How ironic that in a world of overstimulation, we’re so misattuned with our full-bodied experience. We are constantly numbing, sometimes even taking mind-altering substances to try and “tune in.” Why not just use what nature provides, unadulterated by chemical stimulation? Instead, take time to eat food slowly and really notice what tastes good, and also what food gives you vitality. Instead of just listening to music in the car or peripherally while cleaning or paying bills, lie down on the couch and listen to an extended piece of music and only that. A favorite of mine is Smetana’s “Die Moldau.” Don’t just take a shower: take a bubble bath, and put some vanilla, gardenia, or other pleasing scent in your bath water. Enjoy the smell, and notice how the heat relaxes your muscles and the bubbles give a light massage to your skin.
These are not useless activities. They promote attunement with self, resulting in greater consciousness. They help us be resilient with life’s difficulties not just because we have something that feels good to look forward to, but also because they help us learn to tolerate our bodies, first with pleasure, and then with pain (because pain tolerance is an important aspect of being—remember, consciousness doesn’t expand in a linear fashion—consciousness radiates a circumference of awareness). Embrace and rejoice in sensuality. Odds are high that your quality of life will be greatly improved, meaning more pleasure and joy. Remember, you are the house of bliss.
Eva-Wood, A.L. (2004). Thinking and feeling: Exploring meanings aloud. Journal of Educational Psychology, 96(1), 182-191.
Gendlin, E.T. (1978). Focusing. New York: Bantam Books.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
— Candice Hershman