Sensing the World without Craving It

Like the skin, our sense organs serve as interface between us and our environment, but they work at a distance.

The eyes monitor facial expressions, tracking the slight narrowing around the eyes that marks a genuine smile or the subtly up-drawn lip that betrays contempt. They give us the data we need to gather groceries in the supermarket or respond to a car swerving into our lane on the freeway.

The ears are sensitive to volume, pitch, and cadence. The coo of a lover’s voice softens the heart, while the threats and insults of child’s cruel caregiver freezes the organism in states of lonely shame. Many animals can smell rage and fear, and perhaps we can too. Our nostrils flare when we feel unsafe. What’s more, the scents associated with a terrible history remain imprinted forever. Long after we’re adults, if we grew up in an alcoholic home the smell of alcohol on a person’s breath can transport us back to the awful past.

Our sense organs reach into the world, scanning it for potential pleasures and looming threats. Many meditative traditions view the senses as the source of affliction and craving, as the eyes cast about, hungry and unbridled. And they may have a point, at least in the modern world, with all its clamoring ads luring us with sensual imagery of all sorts.

But even as we recognize the way our senses can lead downward toward craving, we can recognize that they also can lift us upward toward appreciation. Our sense organs aren’t the problem if we seem unable to view beauty without wanting to possess it. Our perceptions connect us to our landscape, but our responses grow out of deeper centers in the brain. We can react in the ways marketers hope, and grow ever more desirous of sex, food, and goods. Or we can detach ourselves from craving, and view the world as if it were a museum that offers art we can appreciate without owning, without consuming.