Massaging with the Senses

massing the senses

“The art of questioning is one of the highest arts we can practice.”

-David Spangler, author of Emergence, Rebirth of the Sacred

There are many, many things that you can do to increase your awareness. The good news is that you will always have room to improve, and you will never be bored again! Sounds great, right? The exercises that follow will take you much, much longer than three weeks to “complete.”

Week 1: Revisiting the Senses with a Questioning Mind

The exercises which follow are designed to strengthen your senses, quiet the mind, and develop keener observation skills and awareness. The goal of these exercises is to help you access scout-like abilities in awareness. Now you will be using this dynamic, interactive awareness technique with all your senses.

These exercises will only work if you practice them. In time, combined with your background knowledge, they become the key to incredible power in observation. It will help to journal your observations.

Sight: Dynamic Vision

Go to your Sit Spot and look at for something familiar. Look at a rock, or a bird, or a tree that you see every day at your place and then close your eyes. What do you see? Can you remember it in every detail, right down to the smallest variation in color and the subtleties of light and shadow? If so, then you can skip the rest of this exercise. If not, then try this:

Look at a tree with a question in your mind. “What is the color of the bark and what shape or texture is the pattern?” Now close your eyes and remember the tree. Can you see more this time? I’ll bet you can, but if not keep at this until you do. Your eyes will actually learn to feel textures from the objects it observes.

Smell: See with Your Nose Like a Dog

The dog family can read a whole newspaper’s worth of information on one square inch of your pant leg, or so it seems. Did you ever notice that after you have visited a neighbor’s dog or cat, how your dog will just sit there for moments on end sniffing one little patch on your pants? Even those of us who do not have dogs of our own have had a strange dog come up to us in the park or at the beach and give our knees a complete once-over. What the heck are they seeing? The world looks very different through the nose of a dog. It is composed largely of scents and smells, for this is their dominant sense.

Try just sniffing the air around you at your Sit Spot. Then close your eyes. Disconnect from the scents around you and describe to yourself what you perceived.

Now do this again with a questioning mind. “How much leaf litter or pine debris can I detect? How much moisture? Coolness? Warmth? Where is the nearest stream or earthy smell coming from? Can I detect nectars or perfumes?”

Hearing: Use Your Owl Ears

Owls not only hear extremely well, they can pinpoint a sound in space with incredible accuracy. Try to listen to sounds in a general way at your secret spot. Close your eyes, disconnect from your ears, and try to recall details of the sounds.

Then get detailed with a questioning mind guiding your hearing. “Where is the bird that is calling nearby? Is it low or high in the bush? Is it in the trees or moving on the wing? Which way is it facing? How far from me is this bird? What is the quality of the song, liquid and clear? Flute-like? Breezy? Wheezy? Thin? Thick? Coarse?”

Record the results of your efforts both before and after in your journal.

Feeling: Use Your Raccoon Hands

The hands are one of the dominant senses of the raccoon. It must literally memorize its trail by feel. In the darkness of its work-day, it must not find sharp objects the hard way or it will become temporarily blinded to what it sees through its hands.

Feel the ground, or a tree, or any other element of the natural world and record the general experience. Repeat this with a question, or two, or twenty. “How rough? Cold? Wet? Smooth? Shape of surface?”

Write about the experience.

Taste: Power of the Taste Buds and Insects’ Feet

Taste buds were not evolved to taste the subtle and delicate flavors of a Twinkie. This is a side benefit. The pleasure of eating our favorite snacks owes its power to the survival needs of our ancestors. How else would a potential meal announce itself to them as edible or as unsuitable? Well, several other ways, as a matter of fact, but taste is a powerful first line of information as to whether something is suitable for consumption. We will get more into plants and the art of foraging in that module of the resource trail.

The world is a series of tastes for some insects which literally have taste buds in their feet. Some insects actually follow a trail by tasting it with their feet.

Try simply noticing the taste of a dandelion leaf on your tongue, or a snack of any kind for that matter, even your favorite Twinkie. Record your observations. Now repeat with some questions. “How bitter? How sweet? How moist? How dry? How rough? How smooth? How thin, how thick, how rich is the flavor?” Write about this.

Week 2: Games to Train the Senses

Start playing some games! These games are really sensory awareness training exercises in disguise. Play these with your friends and family often. Children especially seem to enjoy these games, and they are often much better at them than the adults! You will be amazed how these games can change your ability to sense with power. Try and play each game at least three times, and play the ones you like as often as you possibly can. For just this week, try to never say “no” when a fellow student asks you to play one of these games, but just go for it!

Kim’s Game

I learned this game from Ingwe. (Kim was a Rudyard Kipling character from his childhood reading adventures.) Have everyone else be out of the room when you begin. Place four or five objects on a table and cover them with a bandanna or cloth. Have people come into the room and line up in front of the cloth so they have a clear view of everything. Uncover the items for 30 seconds and then replace the cover. Now, asking them not to confer with one another, have the participants write down all the items they can remember, their relative position, and as much detail about each item as possible.

Gradually increase the number of objects used, or decrease the time allowed, and change things around frequently so they cannot be memorized. This trains the eye to photograph lots of stuff quickly.

Talbott’s Game

This game was told to me by Jonathan Talbott, hence the name. But I remember playing similar games with Tom and the other scouts he trained when I was a teenager. We have all played games like this at some time or another in our childhood. It is natural for children to challenge each other in this manner, which should tell us something right away.

Try this game when you are with a family member or housemate in a commonly used room. Get that person to look at you or to close their eyes and stay facing toward you, and ask them what is on the wall behind them. Have them describe all the things to you. You will be amazed at how people look at things in their own home or another familiar place, but do not really see them. Try this with objects on a window sill, things outside a window in a busy room, items over the kitchen sink or on a well-used counter, or in the bathroom on the back of the john! Watch out, because your friends will soon be pulling this on you!

Jon Talbott and I try to do this to one another as often as we remember to keep each other on our toes. It is nice to have friends and family involved in these sort of awareness games.

Write about how this effects your general awareness, and especially how it effects what you see and remember at your Sit Spot!

Kim’s Game to Sound

Try a variation on the original Kim’s Game which plays on the common sounds around you. I have done this by listening to the birds calling, a train going by in the distance and jet flying over all in a space of about two minutes, and then asked my co-workers what the sequence and description of sounds was in the last few minutes. This really wakes them up. Try this and write about it.

Visualize Your Room Right Now

This is a variation on Kim’s & Talbott’s games combined. Try this on yourself right now. While you are in some other part of the house or even outside, ask yourself what is in the room where you sleep. What is next to the bed, on the table, the window sill, the desk and the like? Most people in the modern world spend more time per week in their bedroom than they do in any other room in the house. You will be surprised by what this game reveals about your own awareness of your nest. Practice this daily for a week and watch how much better your memory for details becomes.

Picture Your Sit Spot Right Now

Do the same thing with your Sit Spot right now, assuming you are somewhere else. Picture the four directions, the closest tree to your anchor point, etc. Where is the moss? The stones? What plants and where? These are really excellent exercises to tune up your observation, retention and awareness skills.

First try this at home. Write down what you think; then go to your Sit Spot and do a reality check.

Detective Games

Scout-level awareness is really a whole way of thinking. This involves becoming something of a Sherlock Holmes, always pretending that there is a mystery to be solved and that the necessary evidence is all around you at all times. Never stop preparing for Kim’s Game or Talbott’s Game, lest one of your friends or a Wilderness Awareness School staff member shows up and challenges you. You will be surprised how this kind of play can really help your development.

Take one day out of the next month and pretend that everywhere you go that day, every sign you see, every bird you here, every detail at work, could be the clue that solves a great mystery. After a whole day of this, your brain may hurt, but you’ll be amazed how much faster and better you are at seeing things in the natural world.

Large Objects and Landmark Games

This involves things like mountains, trees, houses, road signs and other major land forms in your area. Test your friends, family and yourself on your knowledge of the location and description of such items. An example, “How many bridges do you pass from Duvall to Redmond?” or something like that.


Play in the purest sense is a really important tool to releasing the thinking mind’s incessant hold over us. Pure play is unstructured and non-restrictive. It lets us become little children again. With the simple, uncomplicated perceptions of a child, we have the chance to experience the world as it actually is, perceived through the senses, unclouded by critical thought.

Week 3: An Artist’s Interpretation of Life

For this third week, continue playing games as often as you can.

Add this new twist: notice and capture your emotional/feeling response (which can have a physical sensation associated with it). When we listen to a song, or look at a piece of art, or watch a performance of some kind, we often interpret the experience with our senses and our feelings. I don’t mean just a sense of touch. We may say, “Wow, that movie made me feel weird!” or “That song has such a sad feeling to it.” Although we use our five senses to interpret an experience, we often bring in the greater sense of feeling.

The experience of feeling applies to all senses. This experience will become an important part not only of your work as a tracker, but also of your life in general.

Let’s look at an example for each sense. The most vivid examples are from the sense of spirit that comes to us when we listen to the beautiful song of a thrush in the forest. I actually get physical sensations all through my being when I listen to this songster.

The sense of sight can affect us emotionally as we watch a beautiful sunset. I get an amazing feeling of the beauty of this creation.

Scent can affect us in this way as well. Think of the feeling you get, that big “Aaah” of relief when you take in the scent of a lush forest, a clean ocean, or the perfume of a wildflower. There is a whole body feeling that is associated with the experience we are calling scent that has nothing to do with our noses, and a whole healing art called aromatherapy which has developed around the use of scents to heal. There is a very strong association between scent and memory—notice what images, memories, mind’s eye flashes come to you when scenting in this way.

The sense of touch has powerful electrical implications, especially in tracking. My friend Greg has the ability to sense an animal’s energy very strongly through its tracks. When I place my fingers lightly into a patch of moss, or on the bark of a beech, hornbeam or madrona, I often get a sensation that creeps right down my spine and over my arms. Sometimes all of my hair will stand up from just touching a rock or a tree.

The taste sensation can be equally dramatic. I can often get a real buzz of energy, similar to the one described for touching moss, from a fresh and potent salmonberry, huckleberry or blackberry. There is an energy charge to food items, especially food from the wild, that goes far beyond the mere sensation of taste.

The Feeling Sense Exercise

Try this with each sense with at least one of the field inventory categories. Do this with the “Before and After” approach we used with the questioning mind in week one. In this case, first focus on the direct sensory input. Then, add in the “After” condition of asking this specific question: “In my heart, how does this sensation make me feel?”

Repeat this for touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell. Use anything you want. It can be different for each sense you try. Remember to record your results before and after with “Feeling Through the Senses—Before” and “Feeling Through The Senses—After”


This field exercise is really one of the major “ah-ha” moments for many students. The ones who practice massaging with the senses diligently and well are the ones who make incredible strides forward.

Your assignment for the month is to get out there and play! I hope you enjoy this as much as we still do. Don’t get bogged down with thinking you have to be a master of all these games in three weeks. You have years ahead of you to practice these games.

At the end of Week 3, journal a reflection paper on Massaging with the Senses. It may be helpful to reflect week by week:

1st—how were you affected by revisiting the senses with the questioning mind? What did you notice, learn, etc?

2nd—Reflect on each of the games you played, what specific things did each game point out to you about your awareness, or someone elses? What games (or parts of games) were the most challenging? The most fun? The most engaging? The most elusive?

3rd—reflect on Feeling with the Senses, and consider each senses individually—what qualities of emotional or other experiences did each sense invoke in you? Which were the strongest, and which the most subtle (or dull!). Any patterns to the kinds of feelings that came up for you?

Wilderness Awareness School