Pruning Your Sensory Garden
Ah, fall. I love it. A time of transition, change. Shorter days and cooler weather as we move toward winter.
Since we relocated to Long Beach last year, I have had the opportunity to take some gardening classes and assist in tending to gardens that grow food for folks experiencing food shortages.
In the fall, there is a practice of culling the summer crops. Pulling all of the old tomatoes and melons that thrived in the summer heat, eating them up or giving them away, and planting seeds of carrots, starters of lettuce, broccoli, spinach.
Getting the garden ready for the seasonal transition.
In the same way we are intentional about our physical garden, we can also be intentional and thoughtful about rotating the garden of our sensations. We can become very skillful in taking out the seeds/ plants/ weeds that are no longer nourishing what we want to harvest.
When we have pain for a long period of time, after surgery or injury- our sensory signals adapt to become more sensitive to finding danger in that area. They become like car alarms getting set off with a strong wind.
Let's use the case of my right hip. My sense receptors (the beautiful internal stethoscopes of our body: our mechanoreceptors, thermoreceptors, chemoreceptors) monitoring my right hip have gotten finely tuned and STRONG through the years. They listen for the slightest change in status quo, and when they sense a change (in the presence of a long hike, a deep stretch, a heavier pack) they raise the alarm bell in my brain.
We want to be aware of the felt sensations in our bodies, and we do not want to practice being hyper vigilant or dulled to sensation.
There are a lot of ways we can work to de-escalate a hyper vigilant state or tune into diminished sensation. I wanted to outline my three favorite ways of tending my sensory system.
1) Look for Function (rather than sensation or lack of function):
If you have read my earlier posts on pain, you know about danger vs safety messaging. (If you haven't, what is stopping you? These are free gems here my people!)
When I am working with long standing danger messaging/ hyper vigilant sense receptors I focus on what I can do physically. I can breathe. I can get up and down off of the ground. I can drive. I can walk unlimited. I can surf unlimited. I can run for 30 minutes. Start to notice what you can do, rather than the messaging your sensory system is bringing to your awareness.
It is very seductive to get drawn into the practice of cataloging what you CANNOT do! Please do not go down this path. It is like watering seeds for carrots when you want to grow succulents.
2) Balance Equanimity of Sensation: (big thank you to my yoga teacher Djuna Devereaux for encouraging this practice and articulating it)
We all know the term, "the squeaky wheel gets the oil". In our sensory system, we usually feel the "loudest" (strongest) sensations the most. the sensations that eclipse other sensations. This is akin to standing in an elevator and listening to Chopin playing over the tinny speakers, and someone getting in with a boombox blaring Guns N Roses. You are not going to hear Chopin!
Our sensations work in much the same way, and just like music can be drowned out by competing input, so can our sensations.
Though we most frequently notice the loudest/ strongest sensations, there are all sorts of other sensations going on at the same time. The sensation of the elevator moving you up or down (vestibular input!), the feeling of the elevator floor under your feet, the sensation of your breath breathing your body.
Tune into these other sensations. What happens when we do this, is that we stop "watering" the already strong sensations. In our garden analogy, we rotate our water so that all of the crops get equal sustenance. In practicing this way, I can feel my left lung almost as clearly as my right hip.
3) Clean Up Language
This is the simplest and hardest thing to do!
Our language is limited and pervasive.
When talking or thinking about the body, what terms do we use?
So often in the clinic I will hear patients say "my x goes out on me, and someone has to put it back in" (this is only true for shoulders and patellas; not true of spines)
I will also hear "I'm a mess" or "Don't ever get old". What are the alternatives to aging? Dying young?
What are the messages you are giving yourself about your body? How might changing those statements change your felt sense in your body?
I am currently healing from a broken ankle. When people ask how it feels I will say "sore but safe".
Which is true.
Prune out the old stories, and offer stories that more accurately reflect your biology and where you want it to go. "Sore but safe" is a great message. "Healing" is another good one.
Not cutting out these old narratives is like trying to grow a healthy garden, and allowing weeds to infiltrate and suck out the nutrients.
Sometimes, it can help to write this work out. Reflect about the language you use toward your own bodies, your own limitations and others. Notice if they reflect reality, or are hyperbolic in some way. Talk things over with a trusted friend or clinician about how to change language to more accurately reflect your status.
Please give these a try and let me know if they are helpful for you!