Heightened Sensory Perception

by Julia Schneider

N.B. This document contains attached audio file on a nature walk

We have lost the drive to discover or remember the importance of our natural world. In our American Society at the turn of this century in the year two thousand, true regard for what the natural world provides us is being lost and replaced by fast paced, technology driven stimuli. It is the constant pressure of keeping up with and as much as one knows about computers and cell phones, one knows very little about himself. The process of reawakening the senses, by experiencing the natural world leads to an awareness and perception of oneself that enriches ones life. In order for a person to increase their sensitivity to their other senses, one should experience the natural world by submerging or engaging in it by hiking, biking, camping, white water rafting, etc. If we can focus more energy on improving this area, naturally, our senses will begin to reawaken, allowing us to gain better control over our lives. There are several different vocations which demonstrate the positive effects of such exposure and learning and the results prove worthwhile, specifically looking at the efforts taken by educators, organizations, volunteers and spiritual leaders who are dedicated to opening the minds of our youth.

There are several powerful "points of entry" described in Howard Gardner’s, The Disciplined Mind, that provide excellent insight into sharpening the senses. They instruct on how to organize, interpret and understand information based on how it affects our different senses. These methods teach us how to enhance our ability to gain knowledge. This will give way to the definitions implied by the terms true, good and beautiful.

Using an aesthetic entry point, and strong reference to the Holocaust, Howard Gardner, in The Disciplined Mind, explains this entry point by using vivid imagery describing "Robin Lakes’ Dissonance who seeks to convey the experience of the concentration camps in dance. Consider this description: In the first section…we see the dancers in a series of split-second flashes of light dying horrible deaths. A man suspended on a wire is electrocuted in his desperate attempts at escape. Bodies fall from the flaming ovens into a pile. The images are powerful in their detail; we feel the man’s spasms against the fence as death throes, we feel the limp bodies stiffening into the contorted shapes only corpses could retain…scenes gradually lengthen into scenarios-prisoners on their way to concentration camps, couples separated against their will…nameless victims have become real, identifiable people before you…you really feel as if you might have a number tattooed on your arm. The arms of barbed wire in front of you could as easily be enclosing you. You could as easily be dressed in the dancer’s rags and bandages." (195). The approach in this description uses the art of dance and setting of a stage. It captures the very essence of our mind that allows us to imagine or picture the actual scene, as described and intended. The scene is carefully arranged and performed to achieve the highest sense in one’s mind the illustration and understanding of the dance. The images are set to engage the senses and become powerful tools in giving the audience a clear picture to understanding the actual experience. This type of entry point allows us to gain our own interpretation using artistic expression set in motion. In which case, may be perceived as a beautiful art form, or a hellish description played out in a drama. This offers the reader the opportunity to associate with, and decide for himself his regard on the events that took place and their significance to him.

Using a hands-on point of entry is also a powerful and invoking approach to understanding. This is acutely demonstrated in Howard Gardner’s, The Disciplined Mind, "In some Holocaust exhibits designed for young people, each visitor receives upon entry the name and photo of an actual European Jewish child. At the end of the exhibition, the visitor learns the fate of that child." (197). Given the suggestive intention of this depiction and of the provocative substance, the visitor is lead through a series of dramatic events and given the opportunity to identify with a victim of the Holocaust through a physical representation. This is to allow that person to develop a real connection, an understanding, and perhaps an appreciation for a fellow human being who experienced the worst sensation life has to offer; torture and ultimately death through the iniquity of other human beings. By inciting another aspect of interest, like this physical and dramatic exhibition, one is able to gain this perspective and feeling of the Holocaust through a heightened sense of perception.

A Mozart masterpiece is like a beautiful and soundly-constructed building. Each piece, each artistic decision, must be carefully, by design, placed in the right fashion with the intent to create and complete a perfect structure. Howard Gardner illustrates effectively how a entire work of art can be envisioned before it has been written or played out, achieving the desired result. A building is a representation of someone’s complete thought through fruition, as is a masterpiece a voice inside one’s soul sounding out every note perfectly and finally composed on paper and eloquently flowed through the senses. In a narrative entry point, using a story telling or poetic form of communication, we can be enchanted to discover through musical works, cinema or other forms of art expressions and lead into another form of understanding and perception. As stated by Howard Gardner, in The Disciplined Mind, "Perhaps the most effective way to involve a large number of learners is through vivid, dramatic narrative. People of all ages find stories inviting." (189), we can begin to see what he means by viewing one of Mozart’s masterpieces as a story. Mozart’s works are considered complete stories because his compositions illustrate epics as a series of events as deep and complicated as his own perception and experiences of life. He innately captures his audience’s attention and his focus of intention moves us through his plays of life and his works of art steadily and effectively. Music is a powerful and boundless form of expression in any language and delivers the message of the performer accurately, gracefully and impartially.

The term learning is defined in The American Heritage College Dictionary, as "The act, process, or experience of gaining knowledge or skill, 2. knowledge or skill gained through schooling or study, 3. Psychol. Behavioral modification through experience or conditioning." (772) According to eXperinti@, "Experienced based- All learning is experience based. Whether we hear a lecture, watch a video, or read a book, our learning is "based" on those experiences. Unfortunately, we remember 20% of what we hear, 50% of what we see, but 80% of what we do." (pg. 1)

The Sierra Club Foundation is a well-known organization dedicated to the preservation and education of our wilderness, based in San Francisco, CA. Within the Sierra Club, lies Inner City Outings (ICO), a not for profit community outreach program run by volunteers trained in recreational, outdoor and safety skills in addition to environmental education and assigned in regional chapters across the US. In their bi-monthly newsletter Inner City Outings ICO National News, I found their Mission Statement: The mission of the Sierra Club’s Inner City Outings Program is to promote personal development by linking cultures, fostering respect of self and others and providing leadership skills and to promote appreciation and protection of our local and global environments through a process of spiritual growth and sharing. The ICO program meets these goals by providing safe and enjoyable outdoor experiences for persons who might not otherwise have them." (pg. 1)

I spoke with several members in different levels of ICO to gain further insight and purpose into their organization. The first ICO group was established in 1971 in the Sierra Clubs San Francisco Bay Chapter. I had the honor and pleasure of speaking to one of the first founders in the Bay Chapter, Madeline Pyeatt. Madeline is the chapters ICO leader and a teacher at Oakland Technical High School. She created several of the ICO’s activities like the rafting company and runs the trails club which is the oldest running function since its founding. "I am at more of an advantage than most ICO volunteers because most of the children who participate in my outings are also my students. I am able to see and keep track of the impression that is made on my kids first hand." (M. Peaytt) Madeline expressed her firm belief that not only wilderness skills are attained, but problem solving techniques, team work, as well as, self-confidence from being challenged and pushing one’s limits, and by being able to recognize how good it feels once they are there. "Leaders are taught how to handle people who are afraid of taking the next step or a challenge and see them through, which builds their confidence and skills as leaders." (M. Peaytt) Madeline added, "After just a single day hike or backpack trip, I am not considered the students teacher anymore, but a friend and that is most rewarding for me and my students. Trust is gained, lessons are learned, and challenges are met with guidance, teamwork and spirit." (M. Peaytt)

Madeline shared one of her prize student success stories with me, a student who entered her ICO group from the recommendation of a counselor from the local social services office. She asked me to keep in mind this was an extreme case but also a chief example of how and what the ICO provides especially for disadvantaged youth. Madeline was introduced to a twelve year old boy who was homeless and uneducated. The boys counselor thought it would be a good idea of Madeline spent time with him. She decided to take him on one of her upper level back packing day trips. On the day of a scheduled trip, the worst storm of the year occurred and all of the other kids backed out so it was just she, her new student and a co-leader left remaining to take the trip. "This boy had not had exposure to much of anything before this particular day, especially the wilderness. He took on the challenge with enthusiasm and heart and this excursion proved to be a motivating and empowering experience for him, he had a wonderful time and loved the freedom of the woods. Right away I noticed the effect of being surrounded in the wilderness under extreme conditions had on him and how he started to feel significant and strong." (M. Peaytt) Madeline adopted him and took him under her wings. Within one year, this child succeeded in the ICO program by becoming a backpacking leader certified in first aid and a white water rafting leader certified in advanced wilderness first aid. At first, he didn’t succeed in achieving this goal, however, after working even harder at it and with the support and guidance of Madeline and other co-leaders, he proved to the rafting club that he was capable and devoted, allowing him to achieve his own status as leader. Madeline also bragged after high school that her student entered the army, became an EMT and attained Combat Medic Status expertise. After the army, he decided he wanted to be a nurse, so he continued in the direction to take him there, graduated one year ago and is now working in the Intensive Care Unit in the local Galley Hospital.

This is an amazing and motivating story of a child who was at a complete disadvantage to most other children and as stated earlier, he was homeless and did not attend school until the seventh grade. Through the guidance, care, understanding, help, encouragement and tools provided by Madeline, the ICO and its volunteers, he was able to achieve a higher perception and awareness in himself, in nature and in his sense of self worth. This enabled him to turn his life around and become a productive, successful, happy and inspiring individual. Madeline is proud to call him, "My son and prize student. " (M. Peaytt)

The volunteers of ICO believe in what the wilderness has to offer young children in the way of discovering the beauty of the wild lands they treasure, the beauty they can find within themselves, and how to enjoy these areas without harming them. The ICO outings are one approach to teaching students about their surroundings, learning about their strengths and how to overcome fears and inhibitions through the use and experience of our natural world. These children are given an opportunity they normally wouldn’t have, to learn something new about the world they live in and are shown how to respect and appreciate what our natural world is. Through the guidance of the volunteers and participation in various outings which include day hikes, backpacking, car camping, canoeing, white water rafting, bicycling and cross country skiing, the children get involved in educational and enjoyable activities, which allows them to become more aware of their surroundings, themselves and their impact on nature. It is proven that through learning outdoor skills about the wilderness environment, by fostering teamwork and cooperation, integral parts of the ICO, children are better able to communicate and face the challenges they encounter in their own life with confidence and success.

In The Path to Tranquility, His Holiness, The Dalai Lama succinctly puts it this way, "Human happiness and human satisfaction must ultimately come from within one self. It is wrong to expect some final satisfaction to come from money or from a computer." (pg. 38) It is learning to rely on ones self and appreciating ones spirit, which will carry one to the next step, to climb the next rock, jump to the next stone. Hiking/foot paths are varied in difficulty and sometimes unpredictable. Some paths are rocky and steep and filled with pricker bushes that go on for miles. While others are filled with fragrant and flowery bushes leading downhill to a beautiful and lush landing of a cool stream. Other paths can be a mixture of both and compliment each other in the process. In getting through the rocky and tough terrain, one must remain focused and aware of what is underfoot, all around and what may lie ahead in order to become conscious of how to proceed. This is a challenge in itself. One relies on what they already know and are capable of doing but may call for answers and strength they do not have, nonetheless, still must generate the energy to get past the challenge or through the pricker bushes without getting scrapped, cut or even worse, scarred. One must ask oneself, "How do I get past these pricker bushes when I do not have hedge clippers?" It is at this point, that one must carefully attend to the situation at hand, and think about how they should get out of it or to sit there and cry. Most, would choose the former.

His Holiness, The Dalai Lama also states in The Path to Tranquility, "Tranquil or calm abiding is a heightened state of awareness possessing a very single pointed nature, accompanied by faculties of mental and physical suppleness. Your body and mind become especially flexible, receptive and serviceable. Special insight is a heightened state of awareness, also accompanied by mental and physical suppleness, in which your faculty of analysis is immensely advanced, thus, calm abiding is absorptive in nature, whereas special insight is analytic in nature." (pg. 57)

By asking ourselves to face the challenge and recognize what needs to be done, we can succeed in the action and realize what is implied by the terms heightened perception and awareness of ourselves through the natural world. If one remembers the necessary steps taken to get through the steep, rocky, pricker bush filled path, and what was asked of themselves, one can strike through and face any challenge posed in the path of their own life with confidence, strength and awareness.

According to eXperienti@, As Confucius said: I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand. (pg. 1)

An educator and author of Sharing Nature With Children and Listening to Nature, Joseph Cornell, reaches out to fellow educators on the importance of getting kids and adults in tune with nature. Joseph Cornell holds conferences and retreats for adults on how to deepen one’s awareness of nature. People who have attended his retreats walk away with something they could not have attained elsewhere. A statement made on Sharing Nature Foundation website from a participant in a past retreat declares "This conference was so powerful because it prepares you for both the inspirational and practical side of nature activities. I feel I have touched nature with my heart, and I have the techniques to share it with others." (pg. 1) One is presented with the necessary tools to heighten ones awareness and to perceive nature and the impact it can have on them personally. They, in turn share their experience and knowledge with the people they can have a positive influence on. "I would most certainly recommend this conference to my colleagues and friends. What made this week so special was the combination of conference and retreat. It provided so many direct experiences and a warm, loving, and supportive atmosphere in which to share new insights and inspiration." This was declared in a testimonial by a woman who also attended one of Joseph Cornell's Sharing Nature Foundation conferences.

Joseph Cornell is considered an experiential educator who uses the teaching technique of the act of doing rather than the passive being done to. I applied one of his techniques to conduct my own experiment using my seven-year-old nephew, Joey and his six-year-old friend, Ryan as my subjects to prove his philosophy. They were perfect subjects and happy to volunteer. My intention was to take them on a nature walk, blindfold them and to tell me what they heard, felt, and smelled along the way, to identify and express these things in their own words. In listening to this adventure, which I highly recommend, my subjects illustrate the reliance and sensitivity to their other senses that they needed in order to identify their surroundings. Some of their association with nature came easily, while other classifications required a moment or longer to name.

We went to a local town park in which they are familiar with. This park has hiking and biking trails, boat landing for fishers and recreational vehicles, equipped with a huge playground and picnic areas. Joey helped me gather the tools I needed in order to conduct this experiment.

We started out on our little nature walk on top of the hill and reiterated to Joey and Ryan the "itinerary". This was actually quite fun and my nephew and Ryan loved taking part in this, as did their mothers. I held Joey’s hand and my sister held Ryan’s hand with his mother. As soon as we began our journey, Joey said to me "Dew, I hear a dog barking, I hear a dog barking, Dew and that would be your ears". Immediate attention to his surroundings without using his sight, was key. Because I asked him to use his senses other than sight, he was able to experience the importance of how his other senses interact with nature. This is acutely demonstrated in the recording of our nature walk.

The next thing I asked them to do was create a sound map, an idea from Sharing Nature With Children. We sat at the picnic tables located on top of the hill and the plan was to draw the things in which they heard around them. The pictures are simple, however, this was an interesting and useful study of how and what children identify in their surroundings.

One can acquire great knowledge and understanding of many things when we allow ourselves to be persuaded and introduced to different, as well as, multiple approaches to understanding and receiving knowledge. We must be taught in a fashion that allows us to obtain our own perception. Let us open our minds and delve into the opportunities we have to employ these fantastic and universal methods of applying and achieving absolute understanding in all areas of knowledge. It is then, when we can know what is true, good and beautiful and pass these wonderful things onto our future.



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American Heritage College Dictionary. (1993). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company

April, J., Van Fleet, R., personal interview/nature walk, July 23, 2000. [Cassette Recording]. Warwick, NY

April, J., Van Fleet, R., personal interview/nature walk, July 23, 2000. [Picture File]. Warwick, NY

(Asher, D., phone interview, July 11, 2000)

eXperienti@., (2000). Definition of Terms used by eXperient@. Retrieved July 18, 2000 on the World Wide Web: http://tscnet.com/~experien/definitions.html.

Gardner, H., (1999). The Disciplined Mind. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster

His Holiness The Dalai Lama, (1998). The Path to Tranquility. New York, NY: Penguin Group

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(Peaytt, M., phone interview, July 21, 2000)

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Sierra Club, (May/June 2000). "Mission Statement": Inner City Outings (ICO) National News", p. 1.

(Stanton, M., phone interview, July 18, 2000)