Change Your Awareness, Change Your Life

Reconnect with nature by letting your senses tell you what you need.

| September/October 2009

happy family

As a sustainable communities professor at Dominican University of California, I love to give my students strange assignments and then watch them grow. In turn, they’ve taught me much about coming into the right relationship with life.

Modern living involves high levels of sensory input—much of it meaningless or even nasty. So we shut down. Our magnificent equipment—which allowed our ancestors to feel a shift in the breeze, smell ripening fruit, hear every footfall and see subtle color changes—goes into standby mode. But we need our senses to tell us what we crave (birdsong, sunshine, a gurgling stream, ripe fruit) and what we reject (leaf blowers, smog, clutter). Our senses bring us to life.

So at the beginning of class, I ask students to pause. “Close your eyes, take a deep breath and relax. What do you smell? What do you hear—near, far, steady, intermittent? How does the air feel on your skin—dry, moist, moving, still, cold, warm? Now slowly open your eyes, and notice shapes, colors, light, dark, near, far. What appeals to your senses, and what is a turnoff? What are you aware of now that you weren’t before?”

Suddenly, the students are aware of both the unpleasant and the delicious. They dislike the sounds of traffic, ticking clocks, and mechanical heating and cooling systems. And if there is even one green growing thing, one ray of sunshine or one bird singing, they fall in love with it. In fact, if the weather is decent, they ask, “Can we have class outside?”

Where are you?

At the end of class, I send students home with an expanded assignment: At least once a day, stop and notice how the air feels, where the sun is, the wind’s direction, the terrain, vegetation, critters; then write it all down. This exercise has changed a few lives.

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