The process of utilizing awareness of the senses to become mindful of the present moment is one of the first tools I like to teach in my counselling practice and when I am leading yoga classes. Whether this is during a formal counselling session, a meditation, or savasana, it is universal that connecting to the senses is a quick way to become grounded.
Many of us live life in an ungrounded state, some without even knowing it. When you become ungrounded, you are usually not living in the present moment. When your mind is stuck in the past, planning for the future or imagining scenarios, it can sometimes feel as if you are not connected to your body.
You are not grounded into your body, but living within projections of your mind. By paying attention to whatever sensory input is available, you are diverting the mind from the illusions it is living within and reconnecting to what your body is presenting experiencing.
In this article, I will discuss how grounding through the senses is a valuable mental health tool and describe two simple and easy to use mindful tools that can help you to ground through the senses.
The Mind Plays Tricks
As a mental health professional, I work with individuals who may have experienced challenges or trauma to the point where some have even developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and/or depression. Individuals who experience these things may often find themselves lost within the depths of their mind.
Using the senses to ground these individuals helps immensely, but it can help anyone who may find their mind wandering to a point where they no longer feel grounded. When the mind habitually ruminates in the past, worries about the future, or replays painful memories, it learns to experience and react to present situations differently. This is because the mind is not actually reacting to the reality of the present, but instead a projected reality through the filter of its pain or worry.
This is why paying attention to sensory input is so powerful.
By paying attention to what is really happening in your moment to moment experience, you can more easily project a reality that is not clouded by fear or other illusory elements of your mind. For example, if you are feeling embarrassed because of an incident that happened earlier in the day and have been unable to let go of that feeling, it may color your experiences later in the day.
Without taking time to ground in your present moment, this process can compound to the point that you are not perceiving your reality accurately. This can manifest in you mishearing someones comments, or you only paying attention to information that supports your ungrounded mental state. You could be using your present state to create your reality, missing information that contradicts your emotional state and only perceiving more stimulus to support it. (Learn more in Managing Your Emotions: The How and the Why.)
5, 4, 3, 2, 1 - Ground!
You have five senses perceiving and interpreting sensory input at all times: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.
Without your intentional awareness, your mind is often telling stories while your brain is perceiving this information. This is where mindfulness can come in. The best tool for this is a simple one that I love to teach - simply working through each sense and objectively describing your perceptions and sensations without telling yourself the stories that go along with it.
Start with sight. What are five things you see? When describing them, you may want to say your objective observations out loud, or write it down if you find your mind is very distracted. Describe whatever qualities your eyes can perceive - this could include color, shape, or quantity.
Work your way down through the senses to:
- Four things you can hear
- Three things you can touch or feel
- Two things you can smell
- And, finally, one thing you can taste.
Take your time with each sense, each observation, breathe, and remember to stay objective. If you find you're telling yourself stories about what you see - for example you see a red car and that reminds you of your friend’s red car, and so on - stop yourself, and come back to whatever you can objectively perceive that is present in the current moment.
Slow down the mind and allow it to be present in the here and now. This tool has proven to be extremely effective for those who experience serious mental health challenges, but it is useful for anyone who needs a quick way to bring themselves out of their mind and into the present moment.
Just Breathe, 1-2-3
Observing the breath is your most valuable tool for grounding. To ground, the first thing you need to do is simply notice that you are not grounded. You can observe your body and potentially notice that it is experiencing tension or discomfort, but the first, and most obvious, indicator is always the breath.
When you begin to lose yourself in your mind, your breath will change.
Taking a few deep, intentional breaths can act like a reset button. I always advise students and clients to make a practice of using just three breaths when they notice they are not experiencing the moment mindfully or that their mind has wandered.
A full yogic breath is the best breath to use. To do this, fill your lungs completely and intentionally noticing three parts to each breath. First, the lowest part of the lungs fill, expanding the belly, then the ribcage, and finally the upper chest. (Learn more in Dirgha Pranayama: An Introduction to Three-Part Breath.)
Using this full breath slows down the heart rate and gives you a lot of oxygen, which can help the mind to relax. Observing the breath as it is naturally without manipulating it whatsoever can also tell you a lot about how you are feeling, and it can assist you in objectively observing things as they are, ultimately grounding you in the present moment.
Come Back to the Body, Connect with the Ground
Grounding is literally letting your body be connected to the ground and to the material plane that you exist within. When we are lost in our minds we are up in the clouds, essentially existing in the astral plane rather than the gross material plane. (Learn more in Getting Grounded: What It Means and How to Get It.)
This can of course benefit us at times in our spiritual journeys, but most of the time we need to be grounded because we are living in a human body in a material world and are easily overwhelmed or ungrounded by the wandering nature of the mind.
We are creatures that breathe, eat, sleep and must stay connected to our basic animal survival needs to advance in our lives. Our senses are the easiest passageway into reconnecting with our material selves and we can call upon them at any time.