If someone stopped you on the street and asked you, “How many senses does a human being have?” you might wonder why they stopped you on the street for such a silly question… because of course you’d probably answer with the number most of us grew up learning: “5.”
Thanks to Aristotle, we’ve grasped that there are 5 basic senses: Sight, Smell, Hearing, Taste, and Touch.
But what if I told you the human had 21 senses? And that these included such subtle senses as Pain, Motion, Balance, Temperature, Joint-Awareness, and even Breath (oxygen levels – the sense that we need to breathe), or Hunger (blood sugar levels – the sense that we need food). Check out a chart here with lists of these 21 different senses.
But what if that person asked you a second question… “What’s your favorite sense?” Would that strike you as a bit… odd?
In the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra, an ancient yoga manual for meditating through direct lived experience, the Sanskrit word used for “the senses” is Indriya, which loosely translates as “companions to Indra” (king of the gods), or “companions of the divine.”
The Radiance Sutras is Dr. Lorin Roche’s poetic translation of the Vijanana Bhairava Tantra, and speaks beautifully to the divinity of the senses. Formatted as a conversation between Bhairava, or Shiva, the Supreme Consciousness, and his lover/consort Shakti, the energetic Embodiment of Creation, the text is comprised of several verses, or “sutras,” and each one is a way to dive into meditative awareness; and, as opposed to other meditative philosophies that speak of shutting out or denying the senses, The Radiance Sutras is all about the senses.
Consider the opening lines to sutra 9:
The senses declare an outrageous world –The Radiance Sutras (2014), Sutra 9
Sounds and scents, ravishing colors and shapes,
Ever-changing skies, iridescent reflections –
All these beautiful surfaces
Decorating vibrant emptiness.
The god of love is courting you,
Light as a feather.
By allowing ourselves to encounter the world through the senses, and to enjoy what we encounter, we’re able to mindfully connect more with ourselves and with the world around us. For those who are more spiritually minded, this is a connection to the divine within!
But just listening that opening line, about the “outrageous world,” brings to mind all the taboos against sensuality. What are we allowed to “enjoy”? What are we not allowing ourselves? What if something feels too “worldly”? Too “sexual”? Too “sinful”? Think of all the messages we tell ourselves about the senses. “Guilty pleasures,” we sometimes call them. What message are we sending ourselves when we can’t even enjoy full sensory experience?
One of my favorite people to follow on Instagram right now is Colin Bedell, aka @QueerCosmos, and a good friend of mine highlighted one of his posts to me recently, about desire. Talking about the recent Mars transition into Gemini, he quotes Esther Perel, psychotherapist and best-selling author, who defines desire as the “owning of the wanting.” What “wants” do we have that we’re afraid to “own”? Colin asks, “Are there particular wantings in my life that I need to own with more self-acceptance and authenticity?” Recognizing that we need to make space to acknowledge ways in which policing and surveillance have taught us not to act on certain desires we wish we could express, he takes the astrological opportunity for us to give voice to desires by asking ourselves, “Who do I want to be? To do what I want to do? And to have the results I want to have expressed?”
Colin’s point applies brilliantly to much more than the subtle world of the human sensory experience, but I felt the connection! There is joy and freedom in encountering the world through the senses and allowing ourselves to give in to that “outrageous world” that we might otherwise shy away from, shutting off some of our own potential and growth. How does my experience with and interaction with the world of the senses reflect who I want to be? What I want to do? The results I want to have expressed?
So… What’s your favorite sense? What’s your favorite sensory memory? What senses do you love that others might find “outrageous”? What have you been calling a “guilty pleasure”?
Allow it! Close your eyes and breathe it in. Marinate in it. Find that brief meditative experience through your encounter with “an outrageous world.”
Give yourself permission to luxuriate in all the senses this week!