5 senses prayer

There is a prayer that I like to include in my meditations called the five senses prayer. One simple form it goes like this:
Bring to your mind five things that you can see. Give thanks for each individually.
Focus your attention on four things that you can hear. Offer a thanksgiving for each.
Pay attention to three things that you can smell. Express your gratitude for each.
Name two things that you can touch. Say thank you for each.
Savor one thing that you can taste. Thank God for it.

It seems like it might be a very ancient prayer. I don’t know. Awareness of one’s body and what goes on with it has been a part of prayer for millennia. Counting five senses is a common understanding of human perception. Aristotle, who lived in the fourth century BC, enumerated five senses in his work “De Anima.”

Not every person is capable of experiencing the prayer the way that I do. Those who are blind might choose not to include vision. Those who are deaf might not include hearing. There has been much information about how the disease caused by the COVID-19 virus causes a lessening or even a loss of the senses of smell and taste. And there is no magic or ancient tradition about the order of the senses in the prayer. I suppose I have a preference for saving taste to the last simply because I have a tendency to over eat and so a prayer that keeps the number of things I taste to a minimum is a good idea. One certainly could prayer the senses in a different order on different days. Then there is the fact that neurologists tell us that we have as many as 21 senses. We can sense heat. It is called thermoception. Some scientists believe that the sense of cold is a separate sense. The perception of pain is called nociception. Equilibrioception is the perception of balance. There are other senses, such as body awareness. Can you close your eyes and touch your nose on the first try?

We use the word “sense” in other ways as well. We speak of a sense of direction. We say we can feel a sense of the presence of the Holy.

There is, however, a power in the simple prayer. I am writing in the early hours when it is dark outside. I have a lamp on my desk, but the other lights in our home are not turned on. It is cloudy and there is little light outside of the window. My eyes are adjusted to looking at the bright screen of the computer monitor. But I can easily bring to mind my senses.

I can see the pictures of my grandchildren that I keep rotating on my computer desktop.
I can see the papers on my desk. They remind me of work that is undone.
I can see the pantry shelves filled with food staples and spices.
I can see the dining table that welcomes family and friends to share a meal.
I can see a light on in the home of a neighbor across the street.

I can hear the ticking of a clock.
I can hear the murmur of a quiet conversation of neighbors who are up late.
I can hear a dog barking in the distance.
I can hear the clicks of my keyboard as I type.

I can smell the wet grass in the yard outside my window.
I can smell the roses growing next to the house.
I can smell the vinegar in a spray bottle of home-mixed cleanser.

I can touch the firmest of the old oak library table that is my desk.
I can touch my own cheek and feel my beard.

I can taste cool water from my glass.

One of the things about the prayer is that the world in which we pray is constantly changing. Just now the refrigerator came on behind me. I can no longer distinguish the sound of voices from the neighbors. The dog has ceased its barking. The wind has shifted and I can’t distinguish the subtle scent of the roses. My eyes are drawn to sights I did not list above. Each time I pray the prayer it is different from previous prayers.

It has been twenty years since I suffered burns on my hands, chest and face in an accident. As burns go, it wasn’t very bad. My burns were mostly first and second degree.Other than having a long ambulance ride to the hospital, a lengthy process of debridement of my hands and arms, and a brush with dehydration, I did not suffer much. Still, I used prayers to help me manage the pain and the dermatologist who provided my follow-up care commented about my “zen state of mind” when he changed bandages and probed. I am no expert in buddhism and I didn’t experience it as zen, but I know that focusing on my breathing and saying a breath prayer helped me get through the experience. It was during that time that I prayed the five senses prayer daily. It makes me giggle now to remember because for about ten days the strongest smell I experienced was the unpleasant smell of my singed beard and mustache. It lingered in my nose much longer than I expected. Somehow, however, I could smell other things as well. The silver sulfadiazine cream had a soothing aroma and was cool to touch.

Paying attention to my senses through that experience reminded me of the same thing I notice when I pray the 5 senses prayer today. It is good to be alive. It is good to be able to sense the world around me. There is much for which I am deeply grateful. Even in the times of pain and grief and anxiety, life continues with things to see, hear, smell, touch and taste. Sometimes just being able to focus my mind on another sense provides a way to journey through the pain.

For the senses I have, however many, I am indeed grateful.

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