On Sensory Awareness

One of the key elaborations in the past few decades, and a reflection of findings in evidence based research has concerned wellness and well-being. The world health organisation,  various think tanks, philosphers involved in developing a quality of life index, have worked in their contiguous ways towards a better understanding of good health.  For example, the UK based think-and-do-tank  nef (new economic foundation) , in conjunction with the UK Mental Capital and Well being Project, suggests 5 actions that bolster well-being, one of which is taking notice. Awareness of sensations, thoughts, feelings, savouring a moment, enhancing self understanding allows people to make better behavioural choices that are consistent with personal needs, values and interests. This self regulatory, self determination is important for well being.

On the topic of the sensory there are several types of resources and approaches. My own academic and professional and personal journey has brought me to investigate several strands of yarn.  From cultural history and anthropology to occupational therapy and clinical practice in rehabilitation; from bodywork and somatic experiencing through the various mindfulness approaches.

Sensory Modulation / Sensory Integration

Here is a bibliography compiled by an Occupational therapist (OT) who has developed a programme called sensory connection.

Here are a few other sites to sensory processing.  Sensory signals but also A Parent’s Guide or An early years guide, or  A resource pack on sensory processing.

These particular sites are close to occupational therapy and physiotherapy concerns.

Tools that link sensory diet specifically to nature activities such as the classic George Burns book, Nature guided Therapy, can be found here.

SensoryAwareness/Charlotte Selver

Sensory Awareness is an approach that was developed by german body-mind practitioner Charlotte Selver. Similar to many mindfulness techniques, while it is not meditation based it is exploration based. Rather than providing answers or techique, the approach is grounded in curiosity, questioning, attenting to what the case may be. Exploring sitting, standing; laying; walking, gravity, relating –the very physical manifestations of which we ignore or take for granted in our daily lives. After immigrating to the USA mid century, Selver practiced and taught hundreds. One of the notable attendees to her sessions includes Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy. Here a series of short clips by the German successor of Charlotte Selver, Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt. They give a good sense of what types of interrogations, in appearance simple, may arise.

Open Focus/Les Femi

This is a modality that adresses pain by guiding users on a voyage through space. Attending to space and distances helps to experience a newfound type of awareness of body. Dr. Les Femi comes from a neuroscientific background and brings clear method to his approach. Open focus helps to “develop attentional skills, the most basic behavior in which we engage. Open Focus attention training encourages awareness of how you attend to the wide array of sensory experiences-and the space between those experiences.” Most particularly Dr. Femi’s  invitations to mindfulness presence are grounded in the idea of paying special attention  to space and how we focus on space, moving from diffuse to condensed focus and the various levels in-between. Here is a sample of work in open focus.

MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction/Jon Kabat Zinn

There are hundreds of resources and applications even that create access to the method that has received so much attention.  Full catastrophe Living  is a classic introduction to MBSR. But The best way to explore this groupwork is to investigate the protocolar 8 week course, which includes a retreat. For more on the programme and the standards to which it has held itself, despite the current “fad” for mindfulness activities, here is an extensive explanation.

A fabulous free Mbsr site

Reports of brain imaging changes after mindfulness training

Mindfulness for children, here are some good soundfiles  for the 6-10 years old category

Deep Listening

It is not necessary to be a musician to arrive at Deep Listening. However, I came to deep listening through music and after formal  coursework and workshops in the practices of MBSR and Open focus. My rapport with the cello changed considerably in the years following my introduction to MBSR. And as I discovered later, this change ran wildly parallel to Pauline Oliveros‘ work, the Sonic Meditations of the 1970s. Here are sisteen of the original meditation exercises.  It goes without saying that the approach has since evolved considerably. Deep listening is a mindfulness type practice that also involves components of dreamwork and body movement. The invitation to listen is simple and complex at the same time. Certainly enriching.

Much like the Active listening proned by Carl Rogers, deep listening  aims to improve our sense of presence to self and other.


It should come as no wonder that the deep listening approach came to life in the 1970s. Much like Charlotte Selver or Alain Watts or Krishnamurti, Oliveros was a precursor. There were many others, some forgotten, some too psychedelic or touchy-feely to survive the behaviouralist/cognitive turns of the 80s and 90s. It is interesting to observe now that neuroscience has put as back on the road to emotion, partially because of attachment theory. But now I am rambling. The point is to introduce other types of wayward thinkers such as Thaddeus Golas.  Or the japanese born Morita therapy. This school of therapy supports shifting self focus to (mindful)  activity focus. The practice of concrete, meaningful, productive activity is thought to shift attention away from aggravating affect, anxiety, and depression. This article gives a sense of the modality at work.

Links between Sensory Processing, Resorative Nature environments and Mindfulness

A fabulous piece of research on how bringing awareness to the present helps occupation therapy goals of enriching sensory  diets and practicing skills for daily living.

A trio of swedish researchers has turned its attention to the links between mindfulness and restorative environments. The article in question, of which I was only able to acess an abstract, informs on the results of their mindfulness study , “Attentional effort of beginning mindfulness traiining is offset with practice directed toward images of natural scenery”.   Another of  their articles, easily accesed can be found in the Handbook of Salutogenesis, a treasure trove of research on all counts. This Springer publication can be freely accessed and has such articles as “Positive Psychology in the Context of Salutogenesis” made available online.

Critiques of Mindfulness

We would be unfair to ourselves and to others if we failed to point out some of the difficulties and critiques levered at the self help mindfulness don’t worry be happy industry. As a social scientist and post colonial/critical theory reader myself, it can only strike me as appropriate to point out a few cautionary tales. Some of these have been available in the popular press.

Mind wandering. There is a fairly new course of neuroimaging based research that inquires into monkey-mind. Here is the introductory chapter to a book reporting current research on the question.

Another critique, from a blogging monk, on the basis of neutrality and ethics.

A foucauldian reply in two parts by Edwin Ng (part one and part two) which is cowritten with Ron Purser author of an article that went viral in 2013 is a brilliant and refreshing intellectual start.

This anticapitalist critique coming from left field, that’s to say from a marxian perspective went viral a few years ago.

And here yet another blistering critique from an otherwise postcolonial angle that charges the mindfulness movement as a site of white priviledge.

Anthropology/Ethnography/ Ethnology/Ethnomethodology

Sensory awareness and Anthropology has its website and its concern with sensory studies

Rites of passage, symbol, myth, gift giving  have been amongst some of the mainstay domains of investigation of anthropology and ethnology. In passing, cultural anthropologists have also quite a lot to say about ecologists and the green movement. To the extent that we attribute to Nature and “primitive persons”–inaccurately- some externally original and pristine powers, it is well worth reflecting on the dangers of reification of Nature into some new category.


Ritual, creating new and meaningful personal and social ritual is one of the things that Nature, the Arts within workshops strives to foster. Why ritual? For one, as this research claims,  it is a good way to cope with loss and transition. And we are ever at risk of losing ourselves to the exactions of contemporary urban living. The presentation of everyday self, book by sociologist Erving Goffman is a classic affirmation of our everyday performances.


The héros journey and the healing journey are creative frames that help to experience doing as templates of transformations of being. Think of fairy tales and myths. Cultural Anthropologists have long been attentive to storytelling and the social role of myths and myth making, even to the extent of their own epistemic interrogation of ethnographic writing. More recnetly the narrative paradigm is being examined by therapeutic landscape designers. A fascinating thesis has been written by landscape architect Daniel B. Mallach. Entitled The Heros journey as healing journey: a transformational path for healthcare facility landscapes, the research examines folktale morphology and their generative principles as a model for healing garden design recommendations. More on this thesis can be found here.


There is a fleshiness to our metaphors as the séminal Lakoff  and Johnson study on the embodied mind argued. But for our purposes as therapists, a good place to learn more about metaphor is in this dense little article.  Here we encounter the work of David Gorden’s Therapeutic Metaphors.

But we can also consider the more recent  metaphor work of David Grove. He influenced a number of authors with his bicultural Maori sensitivity calling his approach  clean language.

The MetaSelf project is the construction of a new series of spatial metaphors about the body, that are meant to be as simple as the familar ones like “looking back over life” or “looking forward to a vacation”, being “up in the air” or having a thought at “the back of the mind”. However the proposed model of the self as an open cube with several sides is a heuristic to allow for new and different associations.

Useful Metaphors of Self can be found here. Their usefulness lies in how they may offer both advantages and inconveniences. This demands of the therapist that s/he recognize which heuritics  may be most appropriate in which situation.

Ecologie Corporelle

There are several french theorists meriting our attention for their research on body and on ecology. Here is a fascinating talk given by the philosopher neuroscientist at the Jardins et Sante conference in 2014 by Bernard Andrieu

Gendlin Focusing

I am least familiar with this somatic approach but I keep running into it in various other sources. As a mental note to self I include it here with the suggestion that it appears well worth investigation as a serious inclusion.

The Focusing Institute website carries a wealth of information.

Somatic and Psychosomatic Approaches

Crossings, The Psychology of the Unexpected, written by  director of the Hakomi Institut, Richard Heckler can be discovered in this free radio talk.

Here is a short article by the same author about sensing and somatic experience that gives a good description of how mindful exploration may be useful.

GREX Groupe de recherche sur l’Explicitation

A french approach to body, perception and language that is aligned with psycho-phenomenology. They have been active since the early 1990s and I am still and slowly digesting some of their work. PDFs of the Journal can be accessed here. It is no wonder that one of the founders of the GREX group, Pierre Vermeersch, has translated many of Gendlin’s papers for french language users.


A vast area of study from Husserl to Merleau Ponty to Michel de Certeau, that has impacted numerous domains of thought and activity, I will only make note of a few recent publications that are directly important for therapists.

The interpreted world: An introduction to phenomenological Psychology, Ernesto Spinelli

Phenomenology for therapists, Linda Finlay

Ecophenomenologist David Abrams has written several important books and founded the Wildlife Alliance.

Henri Bortoft wrote about wholes and parts, and who was indebted to Goethian methods of observation. He is best known for his book Wholeness of Nature.

Margaret Colquhoun and Axel Ewald. Although this duo of naturalist and artist are not philosophers as such, their guide on botanical art is an exceptional read. New eyes for plants, a workbook for observing and drawing plants, for which a book review can be found here.

Brian Goodwin on holistic approaches

Post humanism, Radical Ecology and the new Animisms

Without wishing to stray too far from  the concerns of sensory awareness practice, the exploration of frontiers of perception has demanded an investigation of what or who is doing the perceiving.


There are more and more guides and books and workshops to be found that are sensory based and nature based therapies, expressing intentions of psychological support and paths of development in the face of the dread of the environmental crisis. The concrete arm of ecopsychology which attemps to link mental health issues with the drama of the changing context in which we live, ecotherapeutic approaches propose a mediated work. We can place Joanna Macy Council of beings and Michael Cohen Web of Life  in this category. On another blog page I make reference to some ecotherapy, ecopsychology resources.

Pedagogie Perceptive

The founder of this approach, Denis Bois is a descendent of phenomenology of touch as described by Merleau Ponty or Jonas, but also in the continuity of humanist psychology such as Grendlin, Maslow, Rogers. The physiology of perception (Roll, Paillard)  is as equally important as a philosophy of consciousness (James, Bergson)

Critical Pedagogy

Praxis based, in a consciousness of the doing (conscientization as Paolo Freire calls it) allowing for a co-creation of knowledge, the ideas surrounding education and learning, ideas important for human service industry workers, include the new theory of multiple intelligences by Howard Gardner. The return of the senses/sensory intelligence in this model is a necessary tool to allude to and master when working with persons of various abilities.

Sensorial Urbanism

While more certainly a design issue, and a new paradigm touted by the canadian school of architecture, the sensory and the experiential are making inroads in a discipline often guided by efficiency  and functionalism. Article here

One thought on “On Sensory Awareness

  1. Pingback: Counselling Skills& Creative Therapy | ResourceBlog

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