The age of electronics has brought incredible access to information and technology, but at what cost?
I realized at age 17 that with all the formal “education” I received in school, no one ever taught me how to use my five senses to do real things in the world.
It’s one of the big reasons I first got interested in traditional skills of survival, wildlife tracking, harvesting edible plants, aidless navigation, etc. The sensory tasks of nature based living skills have profound and measurable effects on the human brain.
Before we had computers and tools for data analysis, people relied on sensory awareness to accomplish all sorts of tasks we now take for granted:
- Did you know it was once common practice for family doctors to diagnose scarlet fever with nothing more than their sense of smell and touch?
- Tribal Polynesians were capable of navigating the pacific ocean currents to locate thousands of tiny islands by paying attention to subtle shifts in the wind, stars, wave traits and sounds of distant birds.
- Monks in the Himalayas are known for incredible feats of awareness like withstanding extreme cold by increasing body temperature and the ability to throw darts with extreme precision just by using their peripheral vision
These and other reports lead me to believe that typical modern humans use barely 1% of their true sensory capabilities.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
As someone who mentors people in nature based skills, one of my goals is to help my students and online learners achieve better access to the full potential of their sensory capabilities.
The amazing thing is that training your sensory awareness is actually fairly easy to do in nature and the results will be felt immediately.
These exercises will help you feel more connected with nature, read the emotions & intentions of other people, and cultivate a more meditative/present state of being so you can always be at your best.
I’ve spent an average of about 10-60 minutes per day over the last ten years doing simple awareness training outside.
Here are 8 of the best sensory awareness exercises I’ve ever discovered for routine practice.
#1 The Sense Meditation
The sense meditation is a simple yet powerful way to develop deeper awareness and presence within all five of your senses.
Find a place to sit outside and focus all your attention on being present for at least 5 minutes. Best results come from doing it for 20 minutes or longer.
Start by closing your eyes and taking a few moments to relax. Feel the different parts of your body relaxing. Feel the weight of your body against the ground. Feel your breath floating in and out.
Listen deeply to all the sounds happening around you. How many different sounds can you hear? What’s the farthest sound you can hear? What’s the quietest sound you can hear?
Use your nose to smell the environment around you. Feel the sunshine and wind on your face. Really tune in and pay attention.
Finally open your eyes and gaze softly at the world. Allow your visual field to open up in every direction. Keep your head still but notice the movement of birds, wind, and squirrels in the corner of your eye.
Just sit in total openness with all your senses engaged for as long as you want. The best results will always come from doing this as a daily routine.
Compare the experience of doing sense meditation in the daytime versus sunset or after dark. Over time you’ll notice the experience changes and becomes richer as your senses become more open.
You can also add in the other 7 sensory awareness exercises to this core routine as a starting point.
#2 Advanced Peripheral Vision
When I first started developing my sensory awareness I noticed it was very difficult to stay in peripheral vision for long periods of time.
Years of misuse had built some habitual ways of using my eyes that always seemed to pull my attention towards the centre of my visual field, ignoring the other 95% of what my eyes were attending to.
If I blinked or moved my eyes to look at something, suddenly my awareness would snap back to the centre. I also found that if I moved my head, again I would lose awareness of my peripheral field.
It’s possible to train yourself out of these habits so that eventually you can move through all aspects of life with a keen awareness of your peripheral vision.
Here are some simple ways to exercise the skill:
- Practice staying in peripheral vision while blinking
- Practice staying in peripheral vision while moving your head from side to side or in circles
- Practice staying in peripheral vision while moving your eyes from side to side or in circles
- Practice staying in peripheral vision while walking, reading, watching TV, any other activity that restricts your attention
These exercises will also help your peripheral awareness become sharper and more clear with time.
#3 Advanced Listening Skills
Most people are horrible listeners. They attend to only as much information as is required to get the meaning of something. Anything that repeats or seems irrelevant gets ignored.
The problem is that just because something seems repetitive or irrelevant, doesn’t mean that it is irrelevant. Often there’s actually very useful sensory information if you know how to hear it.
Start by picking a sound that repeats over and over again. It could be a birdsong, or an occasionally breeze that makes the tree leaves rustle every minute or so.
I call these repetitive sounds, “natural rhythms” because if you listen carefully they have a rhythm and a tempo that changes in very subtle ways over time.
The trick to hearing these subtle changes is counting.
Try counting each and every instance of that bird song. If your mind drifts and you miss one… go back and start again. I bet you can’t count ten in a row without a lot of practice.
Eventually you’ll notice that the time between songs does indeed have subtle variations. Sometimes a bird will sing 5 in a row and then pause for a few minutes before starting again in a new location.
These shifts in bird activity will really stand out to you once you start paying careful attention, and there’s really no limit to how far you can develop this skill.
I’ve gotten to the point where I can have a conversation with somebody, while simultaneously tracking the calls and sounds of multiple songbirds across a wide landscape.
It comes in handy when the sound pattern shifts from songs & feeding activity to alarm calls of cats or owls in the woods nearby.
Blindfolding is one of the best ways to improve your awareness of hearing, feeling & smelling.
Just put on a blindfold and go exploring in the woods. Bonus points if you’re able to walk quietly while blindfolded.
Remember to stop frequently and listen. It’s not about covering distance or getting to any specific destination. It’s about paying attention.
You’ll be more successful by moving slowly and taking time to really feel and explore your landscape. Try to mentally map your movements and then test your accuracy afterwards.
It’s also a good idea to have someone with you making sure you don’t hurt yourself (or walk off a cliff).
Though I do sometimes practice alone in my backyard where I know the terrain and always have a pretty good idea of where I am.
It can also be a great challenge to wander the woods on a dark night without a flashlight. Always be smart about it though and make sure you know the trails well during the daytime before attempting night-time navigation.
#5 Going Barefoot
Going barefoot opens up a world of sensory stimulation. It also comes with some really major awareness challenges.
Just take your shoes off and you will immediately feel a need to slow down and be more attentive to where you’re stepping, especially if you combine going barefoot with being blindfolded.
When walking barefoot there will be a tendency to look down towards your feet however, when possible you should resist the urge to look down.
Instead, practice using your peripheral vision to look out in front of you and use your feet like a second pair of eyes to feel the ground you walk on.
You’ll want to move much more slowly at first and you may even find your balance shaky. Don’t commit your weight until you’re certain you won’t be stepping on a sharp stick or rock.
I started by practicing on grass and gradually moved into more challenging and hazardous terrain. You can learn more walking techniques in how to stalk animals (without getting caught).
Practice makes perfect.
#6 Mental Snapshots
It’s not enough to just be aware of sensory things happening around you. You also need to store that awareness in your brain.
Think of the last time you went outside. You were probably aware of certain things happening around you, but how many of those things do you remember now?
This is another important piece of the puzzle.
It’s called “sensory memory”.
With a bit of practice it’s possible to develop your sensory memory far beyond what you’ve had up until now.
- Go outside and look around you.
- Now close your eyes and try to visualize what you saw in your mind. How many details can you remember? Try to see them clearly in your mind.
- Next, open your eyes and look around again at the same environment. You’ll find yourself noticing much more detail this time.
- Now close your eyes again and notice how much more detailed your mental image is. Repeat the first steps and each time you’ll notice a greater depth of clarity & awareness
You can do this with anything from the branching patterns of an individual plant to a great view high atop a mountain.
I go much deeper into questioning strategies for developing your sensory memory in my nature journaling program. I invite you to check it out if you’re interested.
You’ll be amazed by how much more capacity for awareness you have when trying to be still.
Even subtle body rhythms like breathing, blinking, and scratching your leg will reduce the amount of presence you’re able to have with the outside world.
This is partially because of how your concentration on stillness affects brainwaves, and also because your own body movements are no longer distracting you from tuning in.
Try doing the sense meditation I mentioned above only this time try being as still as you possibly can. Imagine yourself becoming like a rock.
Slow your breathing, stop all movements and focus on absolute stillness while being aware. Start with just 30 seconds, but gradually work up to 5 minutes or longer of total stillness.
Don’t be surprised if you have interesting encounters with wild animals this way.
Imitation is a very powerful and under-utilized sensory learning & memory tool.
It requires you to first observe a pattern and then find some way of emulating that pattern with your own body.
For example, one of the best methods for better hearing and remembering bird songs is by attempting to mimic their sounds.
It’s important to mention here that even if your imitation is terrible, this activity still has an affect on your brain that will cause you to form deeper memories and perceptions.
This is something children do naturally because it’s fun and it’s also why kids are able to pick up new words and languages so quickly.
Wildlife tracking is also easier to learn if you practice imitating the different ways animals move and interact with their landscape.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What sounds can I imitate right now?
- What animals or people could I imitate with my body or voice?
Let loose your dramatic side and you’ll feel the difference.
For More Information
Most of the lessons & information I share on this website are grounded in principles of sensory awareness.
If you want to learn how having fun sensory adventures outside can make you healthier, happier & smarter come register for my free video training “How to read the secrets of a forest“