What a difference a week makes. After the trees began to turn colors a little later than usual here in Indiana, a few frigid and windy days have turned nature’s calendar back to rights. While just last Friday I looked out my office window to our maple front maple tree still covered in bright yellow leaves, today it stands bare. The same is true for most of the trees in our neighborhood. Tomorrow, the raking will start in earnest, at least for the Craigs. Other neighbors have already started piling their leaves in giant piles along the sidewalks, where our two-year-old chocolate Lab loves to run through them.
And how is it even possible that Thursday is Thanksgiving here in the U.S.? As we think about a holiday focused on gratitude, I wanted to bring in our November theme of the senses to explore how we might foster an attitude of gratefulness that carries us from day to day.
Let’s get started!
1. Gratitude and the Five Senses
Each morning when I sit down at my desk, I pull out my planner, look over my online calendar and project management apps, and plot out my day. I use something called the Monk Manual, which prompts me to think about my three highest priorities for the day. Then I make a list of tasks. By the time I’ve added in a few errands and chores, I’m ready to get started.
Except not so fast.
One of the things I love about the Monk Manual is that it also asks me to write down three things I’m grateful for—not at the end of the day, but at the beginning. Before I’ve read through my emails or drafted a client brochure or even started tackling that to-do list I’ve just made, what fills me with gratitude?
Often, my morning run makes the list, as does a good night’s sleep, when I’ve had one. My family members routinely show up there, along with my work, our home, our church.
But there are days—and I’ll admit that there seem to be more of them lately—when I struggle to come up with three things. I’ll sit there with my pen poised just above the journal, staring at the three numbered lines. “I am grateful for …,” and there’s just nothing.
Of course I could return to the old standbys, and I sometimes do. But I want to foster an active spirit of thankfulness, one that recognizes blessings and provisions all around me. Which is why more often than not, when nothing else comes to mind, I simply engage my senses.
This morning, for instance, I looked up and saw the sunshine reflecting off my neighbor’s frost-covered trampoline. So I added “sunshine” to my gratitude list. It was also a chilly morning here, and like I often do in the colder months, I lit a fire in the fireplace when I first got up. Later, as I made my list, I remembered how welcome both the light and heat of the fire had been, so I added “fire in the fireplace,” too. Some days I write down" “coffee” or “tea,” when the taste of either is still on my tongue. Another day “birdsong” made the list.
Relying on our senses to stoke gratitude in our hearts isn’t just a cop-out when we feel otherwise ungrateful. Rather, it’s the practice of paying attention that we talk about here so often. Taking stock of our senses helps reconnect us to our immediate circumstances, root us in our humanity, and remind us of the reality that all the world is a sacrament, pointing us toward Jesus and his kingdom. When we’re grateful for the smell of our neighbor’s bonfire, fresh honey crisp apples, or the tiny frost crystals covering the sidewalk, we’re also drawing near to the heart of Christ.
Research has shown that gratitude “reduces an array of negative emotions and is a natural stress detox for the mind and body,” writes Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury, for PositivePsychology.com. Having a regular practice of gratitude can help us deal with stress, grief, anxiety, and depression. But I’ve also heard that tapping into our five senses can help with those same things. Could it be that the two are related?
Some therapists even recommend a technique for patients suffering from a panic attack or engaging in high stress situations called the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 Grounding Technique. After taking a deep calming breath, the patient is instructed to attention to her surroundings and makes note of five things she can see, four she can feel, three she can hear, two she can smell, and one she can taste.
“This exercise helps you shift your focus to your surroundings in the present moment and away from what is causing you to feel anxious. It can help interrupt unhealthy thought patterns,” according to the Mayo Clinic website.
Gratitude can do the same thing.
Is there any wonder that the ritual of thanks that Jesus gave to his disciples, which was also passed down to us—the Eucharist—wasn’t just a teaching to be recited or a contract to be affirmed. It was a sensory experience, a meal to be shared. And every time we see and smell and touch and taste the bread and the wine, we’re to remember Jesus and his sacrifice—with thanksgiving?
It’s been a hard couple of years for most of us, and despite our enthusiasm for gathering and celebrating this year, a lot of us are limping and even crawling into the final few weeks of 2021. Gratitude can be hard to come by. But there are things to be thankful for, even on the hardest days. First take a deep breath, then look around you. Listen. Feel and smell. Maybe even taste.
Even in these things, the Lord is with you.
I wonder … are you struggling with gratitude this year? Why do you think that is? Does tapping into your senses help? What are some things you notice and are grateful for when you pay more attention?
2. The Five Spiritual Senses
In “The Five Spiritual Senses,” Christian Century senior editor Amy Frykholm explores the connection between the five senses and “spiritual” senses, as outlined by seventh-century monk Maximus, who died in exile in the far regions of the Byzantine Empire.
According to Frykholm, “The spiritual senses tradition asserts that God is constantly speaking through the tangible, sensible world.” Each of the five senses corresponds to a spiritual sense:
The sense of touch corresponds to the “vivifying faculty,” the spiritual capacity to bring something more fully into life.
The sense of smell corresponds to the “incensive faculty, or discernment and spiritual insight.
The sense of sight corresponds to the “intellective faculty,” or perception—our capacity for the spiritual concept of knowing.
The sense of hearing corresponds to the “rational faculty,” or the capacity to reason.
The sense of taste corresponds to the capacity for desire, what Maximus calls the “appetitive faculty.”
“Maximus’s understanding brings clarity and even drama to the work of ordinary living. The acts of everyday life become almost an adventure as you explore, in curiosity, where and how God might be perceived, might be expanding your capacities, and might like you to use them. While I’ve discussed each of these capacities individually, real growth often requires taking them together and in relation. Maximus’s vision is of the whole human being in relation to God, growing toward God like a plant toward the sun,” Frykholm writes.
3. How to Use the Five Senses in Your Writing
This doesn’t exactly fit with this week’s emphasis on gratitude and the five senses, but I love it so much I decided to toss it in anyway for the writers among us.
This Masterclass article talks about using the five senses in your writing and also offers a prompt and a tip for each sense. Such a practical way at practicing using all the senses in your writing.
4. A Little Housekeeping
Just a few housekeeping notes before we wrap up this week. (There seems to be more and more housekeeping around here these days!)
First, congratulations to H. Renell for winning a copy of Laura Boggess’s Mildred’s Garden! Thanks to everyone who posted and emailed comments. I hope those of you who didn’t win might still be able to purchase it or request that your library purchase a copy.
Also, I won’t be sending out the usual Friday version of The Wonder Report on Friday, November 24, to give us all a little extra time to spend with family and friends during the long holiday weekend. Happy Thanksgiving! (For readers outside the U.S., I hope you’ll understand.)
Thanks again for sharing this time with me. As always, if you’d like to send me a note or ask a question, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter, which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this platform.
Thanks again for being a subscriber. One of the reasons I write is because of readers like you!
Until next time,
We have been having a similar conversation over at Summer Gross’s group The Presence Project where I write about embodied gratitude - using all of our senses to enter Into the moments instead of having gratitude as only an intellectual exercise. I love what you have shared.
Love this! I need to look up the Monk Journal, I love that prompt and practice! And as I sat mindlessly filling a hunger gap whilst reading, your words were a cue to savour and be thankful for the creamy Greek yoghurt and tart berry compote from France I swirled on the top! Double sensory whammy - your words, the reflection, and the snack!