The word sensual falls from lips like a silk slip slides down a body to the floor. I don’t think “sex” conjures as much pleasure as “sensual.” Sex doesn’t have to be sensual. But sensual can be anything it likes.
- : relating to or consisting in the gratification of the senses or the indulgence of appetite : fleshly
- : sensory
- a: devoted to or preoccupied with the senses or appetites b: voluptuous c: deficient in moral, spiritual, or intellectual interests : worldly; especially : irreligious
synonyms see carnal, sensuous
A word is like an ant, carrying the incredible weight of meaning on its back.
“Sensual” comes to us from the Latin sensus or sense. The senses are the body’s wonderful physiological methods of perception, the main five being, of course, hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch. And yet “sensual”, the word, wanders around lugging the excess baggage of a gruesome divorce—that of body, mind, and soul.
I would like to follow sensual through time and learn where it became synonymous with the deficiency in moral, spiritual, or intellectual matters. Isn’t empiricism a crucial aspect of the scientific method? On what does it run if not the senses? Does walking the difficult, righteous path not require equilibrioception? And what is nociception if not the ultimate trigger of mercy? The senses, after all, bring pain as fast as they deliver pleasure.
I hold St. Augustine nearly entirely accountable for the wall between body and soul. Even today, in an age where the West has largely been released from the obligation to religion, the vestige of the split exists, like an insurmountable wall.
Or perhaps it’s that we still have religion, only instead of an almighty father, now we answer to an almighty clock. Now, instead of being exhorted not to dare enjoy, we’re chained to a schedule so ruthless, it permits nothing.
It started with Anthony Bourdain, the celebrated chef, renowned author, world traveler and fearless sensualist. Much like the word “sensual”, Bourdain conjures a colorful mixture of praise and blasphemy in the minds of those who know him or his work.
“Think of the last time food transported you,” he writes in his 2001 novel A Cook’s Tour.
Your first taste of champagne on a woman’s lips… steak frites when you were in Paris as a teenager with a Eurorail pass, you’d blown almost all your dough on hash in Amsterdam, and this slightly chewy slab of rumsteck (rump steak) was the first substantial meal in days… a single wild strawberry, so flavorful that it nearly took your head off… your grandmother’s lasagne… a first sip of stolen ice cold beer on a hot summer night, hands smelling of crushed fireflies… left over pork fried rice, because your girlfriend at the time always seemed to have some in the fridge… steamer clams, dripping with drawn butter from your first family vacation at the Jersey shore… rice pudding from the Fort Dee Diner… bad Cantonese when you were a kid and Chinese was still exotic and wonderful and you still thought fortune cookies were fun… dirty water hot dogs… a few beads of caviar licked off a nipple…
A few beads of caviar licked off a nipple. What a simple, gorgeous celebration of touch and taste. The idea stopped me cold. I haven’t been able to pick up the book since reading that. What higher glory could be found among the rest of its pages?
We stand at the edge of our senses, waiting for the sets of data to come in: hot or cold? Pleasure or pain? Nice or mean? Red or green? Too spicy? Too loud? Too big? Too slow! Hungry! Tired! When was the last time we stopped and touched something and focused on the brush against our fingertips? When was the last time we turned off the constant background noise of our iPods and pressed down on a piano key to hear the clarity of a single note? When was the last time we paused briefly before putting that snack in our mouths and committed ourselves to savoring the marriage of flavors in a bite?
A few years ago, I went to a meditation session that involved the use of crystal bowls. These bowls are made of quartz and, according to those who indulge in the practice, each is tuned to a note that resonates with one of the chakras, the body’s energy centers. The idea is that as the superstrings of the universe vibrate, every atom, cell, tissue of the body absorbs the energy and you are filled and empty, bigger than big and smaller than small, dead and alive, Shroedinger’s kitteh, etc.
“In the beginning there was the Word and the Word is sound,” says Margaret Lembo, a spiritual workshop facilitator. “Sound, intention and thought create reality.”
I went with an open mind, but to a woman from the ADD generation, sitting in the darkness of that room listening to each bowl amplify every note without a seeming melody was, well, incredibly boring. I fell into a sort of lethargic trance, glad to be spiritual enough to do this, but eager for it to be over so I could say I had done it and move on with my life. As soon as I had that thought, though, what could only be described as a conscience berated me: “living through things isn’t the same as living those things.”
Feeling a little ashamed, I focused my attention on a single note and started going along with it. I don’t know what I mean by that because I was engaging in no physical action. I was merely mentally following this note as it rose and stretched across the ether.
Call it the power of quartz, call it the power of suggestion, call it what you like: I started vibrating. Again, it wasn’t physical, but I could feel every pore, open, alive, like a mouth, receiving the the flow of a powerful charge that washed over me like an ocean. No sooner had this started that I had a powerful mental image of my hands reaching up to my chest and ripping my clothes, then my flesh, then my muscles until all that was left was a brittle rib cage that I easily pulled apart before taking hold of my heart and ripping it out.
My eyes shot open, my heart pounded in my chest, my skin on fire. Unable to calm down, I failed to get back into any kind of meditative state. Later, when people talked to one another about the wonderful relaxation they’d experienced, I bit my tongue. I could only conclude that I was not used to that level of focus on sensory perception.
Even I, the self-proclaimed voluptuary, had neglected her own receptors.
Let’s go to the carnal aspect of the definition of “sensual.” What’s the first thing that comes to mind? Sex.
When was the last time you had sex for the sake of your senses? No, think about this. I am not talking about orgasm. I am not even talking about pleasure in and of itself. I am talking about using every given sense receptor, focusing your energy on it and really, truly experiencing what that sense tells you, not just whether it feels good or not, harder, baby, harder, deeper, deeper, faster, faster, oh, yeah, oh, yeah. No. I mean: when was the time you lived your sensory data?
When was the last time you took down the filters engendered by the need for efficiency? When was the last time you let yourself experience everything? Do you even remember? If you were able to remove the filters as one opens a window, do you think you would be able to handle it?
THE BIGGEST ORGAN
A man may have a massive organ, but his skin is still his biggest organ.
The talent with touch—like the talent with sight (art), the talent with sound (music), the talent with taste (food), the talent with equilibrium (dance)—is granted arbitrarily, at birth. Sometimes those who have it use it and sometimes, like me with art, they ignore it. Sometimes they don’t deserve it. But it’s there regardless.
I think most of us are born with the talent of touch, if only we let ourselves go there.
I knew a man once who could orchestrate wild symphonies on flesh. At 31, he was an architect of sensation. The way cooks move around their kitchens, knowing exactly what flavor is missing and how to integrate it—that was how he moved around a body. A fine instrument, the body, and he knew how to play it. Fur, feathers, silk, leather, sand, cold water, chains, liquid latex, hot wax, duct tape, pudding, mud, rope, splintered wood—the body as merzbau, everything was welcome.
There was nothing that couldn’t serve some purpose. But the magic wasn’t in the creativity, it wasn’t even in the way he handled his tools. The magic was in the understanding of reaction, learning to balance pain, temperature, pressure and pleasure in every body he encountered, like tuning the instrument. He pushed the senses to the limit, but never crossed the line.
He understood sex was more than just getting off–it’s about tuning in.
So tune in with me. Put your fingers on the back of your hand. Right now. Run them lightly over it, from the knuckles to the bone gently protruding from your wrist. Be the skin that feels the fingers and be the fingers that feel everything under the skin.
You don’t need to awaken your senses. They were never sleeping. You just have to pay attention. The next time you eat, let your taste buds overwhelm you, let your mouth feel the texture of what’s inside it. The next time you hear a song, let the notes carry you. The next time you kiss, let your mouth become your hands. The next time you have sex, let yourself become the skin throbbing inside you or wrapping around you.
Open up. Living through things isn’t the same as living those things.
Let that be your resolution this year.