I walked along the narrow beach, the sand softened under my feet. Nearly twenty million years ago this spot on the eastern shore was mostly underwater, home to a whole host of mythical sea creatures including a bounty of sharks of all shapes and sizes. Sharks happen to slough off teeth like we slough off skin cells, so trillions of teeth were deposited on the shore making it a well known trove of shark’s teeth. Luckily today this specific beach was desolate, affording my family the chance to have a tranquil and solitary journey to explore and forage for shark fossils in this ancient oasis.
As I continued on the beach I found a small rock to perch on surrounded by a mosaic of pebbles, shells, and sea debris, a living museum under my feet. I raked my fingers through the sand. My mind cleared with this singular occupation of finding these magical jagged teeth from a long lost era.
The sea breeze blew, and cooled my skin that had been warmed from the gleaming sun above, and brought along with it the sweet smell of the sea. The corner of my eye caught sea birds soaring in the distance on the picture perfect tableau. The rhythmic sound of the water lapping up on the shore completed the scene culminating into a final state of serenity and contentment.
As you read the paragraph above your brain etched this scenic image in your mind. You may have found your face relaxed, your heart rate slowed, and shoulders lowered as your brain captured the tranquil imagery. This is the effect that I felt on that day. That peaceful day, on that beautiful beach all my senses were stimulated and gently lulled into a state of calm and restoration. The singularity of the task focused my mind steering it away from all the messy chatter and quieted the mischievous monkey brain. That space searching for ancient fossils served as a zen garden of sorts. The slow act of sifting through the sand that revealed its myriad of sea treasure was pure escape.
In these times of so much uncertainty and strife, stress is high for all of us and especially for those working on the front lines of this pandemic. Most of us can’t run away to peaceful beaches to find moments like above.
Can you gain this feeling without being on that beautiful beach? Turns out you can mimic some of the experience by stimulating the same senses that were awakened at the beach to get your mind and body back to a calm state. You can reap the same physiological benefits that were attained in that time and space, even if you can’t be in that actual physical place.
The first sensory input to start with is scent which is one of the more powerful senses. It has the ability to go directly to the emotional sections of our brain, the amygdala and hippocampus. Smell is the strongest way to reignite memories and feelings. If we stick with the above example of the beach, you can try suntan lotion. The smell of it might bring you right back to a happy time of running carefree down a sandy beach. Use a sound machine or phone app to bring the sounds of the beach to your living room. You can try to put prints or photos of the beach to visually bring you back, or simply close your eyes and use visualization to capture an image of the beach in your mind’s eye. Finally you can put a light fan on to evoke the feel of the sea breeze on your skin.
In essence you are trying to reawaken all the sensations that you had in those moments of calm. For some the beach might not be a place of serenity. That calm may come from being in a dance hall with the smell of incense. So put some music on, light incense, and dance around with a strobe light on.
For others a focused activity like a puzzle can quiet and occupy the mind with a simple yet engaging task and maybe have a lavender candle beside you. Lavender in particular has been found to decrease autonomic arousal.(Sayorwan,‘12) Figure out your own personal sensorial cocktail to elicit a state of calm and zen in your system.
If you can do this for as little as five to ten minutes a day it can help bring back some balance to your nervous system which cascades through the whole body benefiting all of your systems. Using multiple modes of stimulus as described above may be more effective for those who have not found success solely through breath or meditation apps.
We all need to try to find as many moments of zen as we can in these not so calm days. Hopefully you can use the tools and ideas above to harness the power of your senses and their ability to evoke a calming effect in your body.