By Diane Ackerman
During periods of crisis, grief or uncertainty, we all need to find enriching ways to transcend. Worry can narrow our focus, but reconnecting with nature and our senses opens it up again. The world we take for granted wobbles with mysteries and sensory delights: How astounding that we share the Earth with aromatic lilies and iguanas and Portobello mushrooms! When we pause to sense them, we become wonder-struck and experience a richly satisfying frame of mind that- for lack of a better word-we call joy. Wonder is a bulky emotion. When you let it fill your heart and mind, there isn't room for anxiety, distress or anything else.
Come to the window and look...at all the marvels bustling through one slender moment: Lens-shaped clouds signaling high winds aloft. Roof shingles overlapping like pigeon feathers. A magnolia tree's buds already burgeoning into fuzzy flower pods. A busily sniffing dog reading its scent-version of the morning newspaper. Such is the texture of life, the feel of being alive on this particular planet.
Observe patiently and affectionately... anything, and that thing-be it moon or human being-will never seem the same again. Stop to watch the squirrels, for example. Notice what they do with their tails. When it rains, they fold them up over their heads as umbrellas. As they sit and eat, they settle deep onto their haunches and throw their tails over their backs like scarves to keep warm. It's amazing the way a squirrel can clasp itself on the back with its tail, embrace and comfort itself. Humans do that too-hug themselves when they need nurturing and no one is around. And sometimes people rock back and forth in that pose, as if their arms belonged to another who was happy to cradle them.
Take a sensory walk...In which you leave behind all the usual mind-theaters, worries and plans. Notice only the world around you, the tiny dramas and endless spectacles of nature. Look at the sky, the color of snow or grass, the shape of tree limbs, curious shadows. Feel the solid earth beneath your feet, the breeze caressing your skin. Hear the tuneful insinuations of birds.
Notice now much sheer life the world contains, how many processes, including the satisfying feel of walking, of simply being a body in motion. And, whatever your age, don't forget to allow time for play. Wade through leaf piles, skip stones, make snow angels, crack the ice on shallow puddles.
Grow something...planting is an investment in the future, when a new cycle of life will emerge, an act of pure optimism that invites all of the senses. What to plant indoors? Try an amaryllis, or a bowl of fragrant paper whites, several heady hyacinth bulbs or even a potato suspended by toothpicks in a glass of water.
Planted indoors or out, peppermint and lavender will lift the spirits, chamomile will relax them-and all three will produce pretty flowers. It's impossible to be unhappy when smelling peppermint. In your mind's eye, picture gathering a fistful of peppermint, putting it in a tea ball and steeping it in the bathtub. Climb in.
Picture the gardens awakening...in the spring, when waves of yellow daffodils and colorful tulips will bloom all over town. Zoom in on one flower in your mind and watch it sway in the light breeze. Add a bird's song-perhaps the wren's liquid warble. Add the guitar-string-plucking sound of a green frog or the raucous come-hither trills made by tiny spring peepers.
Switch the mental scene to summer. Imagine smelling fresh basil, lemon balm, lavender or rosemary. Returning birds will need shelter, so paint a birdhouse. I just decorated one with bluebirds; purple grackle and yellow stars, then wrote "Wrennish Hall" on one side and "The Bird is the Word" on the roof.
Create a mental spa...where you turn down the volume on your TV or radio and turn up your senses, all of which can be uniquely comforting in times of stress. Explore the sense of touch, for example- especially if you have a loved one or a pet to cuddle with. On an icy winter day, it's fun to curl up beside a window and bask in a pool of sunlight the way a spaniel might. Surround yourself with cuddly things to enjoy anew-soft blankets, teddy bear. (My teddy is made of crushed velvet, stuffed with buckwheat and lavender. When you pinch him, it revives the scent.) Have a massage to soothe the muscles and refresh the nerves.
Smell can be soothing too. Baking suffuses the house with aromatic memories; fragrant teas like chamomile or apple and spice can help one relax. Make your cuisine comfort food. At lunch most days, I've been eating extra crunchy peanut butter on cracked wheat toast, which tastes yummy and reminds me of being about eight year old.
Listening to natural sounds can lure the mind away from worry and toward wonder. Or even listening to what audio engineers call "room tone" - that is, the background noise we take for granted, the surprisingly rich audible stir we regard as silence.
Think about the day's experiences... each evening, choose one that stands out. It may be as zesty as a slice of great lemon meringue pie, as peaceful as a lunchtime snooze, as unexpected as a quick slant of sunlight catching dust particles in the air. Embellishing it with words helps to store it in memory. What was the best thing you noticed or that happened?
Reviewing the day's delights often surprises and serves as a reminder of how full a life is, how lucky some days feel and how even stressful days may contain glowing nuggets of peace, pleasure and joy.