“Sensemaking” and the senses

“NOW it all makes sense!”

Hear those words in your head and yes, perhaps you are in the midst of a life-changing insight. But it’s also possible that you just opened the door to a dangerous delusion with significant consequences for your way of being in the world.

Both mental moves involve similar vocabulary.

So how do you know the difference?

You won’t at first. 

That’s why it’s a potent practice just to bookmark it whenever those words show up. Then you can ask yourself, “When is this happening, where am I, what am I doing right now – and with whom? In other words, what is the context for this revelation? What is your internal state as these ideas come to mind?

Of course, there won’t always be time to pause and really think those things through, but the mental checklist could be a nice reference point tomorrow afternoon (or next year) depending how much momentum that thought generates in your body.

As the cognitive scientist John Vervaeke has repeatedly pointed out, the exact same mental machinery we use to produce our wisdom is that which we also use to BS ourselves into self-destructive nonsense. Sometimes when we think we are having an “Aha-moment”, we’re experiencing something entirely different, what Vervaeke calls a “pseudo-insight cascade.”

We BS ourselves all the time. (Yes, you may know some folks who are admirably BS-free  – I do too – but they are a rare breed and we should be studying them closely.)

For the time being, I’ll settle for just noticing when I’m bullshitting myself. When you catch yourself in the act, it gets harder to keep acting on that same bullshit and still feel like you are integrity with yourself. 

Yet BS is insidious. It can be difficult to provide checks and balances inside of your own head when your limbic system is jacked up.

For example, while I make a living helping my clients discover more peaceful embodiment, I look at my phone way too much – which is definitely not practicing what I preach!

My phone goes so far as to unexpectedly show me photos of loved ones that I myself took – just to grab my attention. I’ll pick it up for one thing and end up doing something else. I frequently find myself looking at my phone with no goddamn clue why.

The people who designed these things to extract the maximum profit out of us have been doing research on how to hijack our attention for some time now. They keep getting better at it.

To give a “technical definition” of bullshit, as Vervaeke explains it (also see On Bullshit by Henry Frankfurt), you have to recognize something called “supersalience.” 

Salience refers to that which pops out of the background and into the foreground of your attention. It’s “what strikes you” – but what’s key is that what strikes me, might not strike you in the same way.  

In thought, it’s the thing that we label “important” – yet we could easily be mistaken. Supersalience is when we give too much weight to one aspect of a thing at the expense of noticing other aspects.

You can ignore the admonition to “look both ways before crossing the street,” but just because you think it’s not important, doesn’t mean that reality won’t think differently than you do.

“NOW it all makes sense!”

We confuse the sage and conspiracy theorist when we’re not listening deeply enough.

These days we need more sages. I don’t necessarily mean inherently wise people who always share universally applicable insights. Instead, a “sage” might simply be the one who is willing to listen a little longer and deeper inside themselves before proposing answers to difficult problems. 

We don’t have to disqualify them if they sometimes turn out to be wrong. They still promote wisdom by the way they model communication. They openly and humbly grapple with the slippery nature of truth, inviting others to do the same. They listen carefully to opinions that differ with their own. They search for common ground rather than argumentative victory.

We can all aspire to this.

“Personal growth” isn’t some kind of luxury for creative types. In fact, it’s becoming a necessity for all of us like at no other moment in history. 

Not “growth” in terms of how many clicks you can elicit from the internet or the number of dollars in your bank account – “growth” in terms of the range of situations that you can navigate without nervous system dysregulation.

  • How much space are you able to hold for others in face-to-face interactions that don’t happen via Zoom? 
  • How much are you capable of noticing when you take a walk in the woods?
  • Are you able to quiet your mind in noisy atmospheres?
  • What would change if you had a “growth spurt” in these areas?

“Sensemaking” wasn’t a word I used 10 years ago. Now it’s all the rage – which makes sense since the world these days largely doesn’t.

But sensemaking with ideas only is nonsense – sensemaking requires the senses.

Our ears help us gauge the direction and proximity of the sounds we hear. Our noses detect the presence of noxious substances we’d best avoid. Our eyes help us constantly readjust the muscular engagement throughout our entire bodies as we orient to what we see.

These are the sensemaking instruments that have been dulled by screens and algorithms. Yet they are still capable of processing information undreamed of by the machines when we use them properly. 

Our senses reveal the relationships which are the building blocks of our emotions, our internal voices, and the meanings expressed through the wordless aspects of our communication. They are our most powerful weapons against numbness and willful blindness.

It’s time to polish them off and relearn how to use them.

Deep listening requires practice – and practice requires commitment, dedication, and ongoing motivation. The most reliable ongoing source for those qualities is community

(Otherwise it’s not that fun and the road to redemption seems endless.)

There is no shortage of options for how to practice. There are myriad forms of movement practice, meditative and contemplative practice, spiritual practice and more.

There is no single path to wisdom, but these days, with all the noise in the atmosphere, an essential tool for staying connected to the signals that preserve our humanity is relational practice. 

When we face each other and listen deeply – not for the flaws in each other’s arguments, but for the resonance of our deeply shared human concerns – we start to rebuild our capacity to make sense of a world that is much too vast for us to comprehend alone.

In other words, other people are one of our best safeguards against BS-ing ourselves.

A very simple practice you can try with a friend is to take turns completing the phrase, “What I’m noticing is . . .” 

Just say those words to begin, then pause and listen to your insides – and the world around you – in order to find the remaining words that would make your statement true. You can describe your emotions, your physical sensations, features of the landscape or your conversation partner, or the thoughts in your head. Just describe what is – here and now.

Then your friend does the same, although perhaps to create a more musical call and response, they could say “Hearing that, I notice . . .” and then continue. The additional phrase acknowledges that what we feel shifts moment-by-moment, particularly when we are in dialogue with another person. 

As your friend speaks, notice what happens inside you. Then it will be your turn again. Put that new feeling into words as best you can.

After a few rounds of this kind of exchange, one of you might say to the other, “what I think I’m getting about you is . . .” and then, to make the statement true, share the insights that you have gathered about this person. 

What did you hear in between their words?  What things are important to this person? Take the risk of telling them what you heard that they didn’t say directly.

You might end up making a projection and find out that you are wrong. However, if you are both open to truly learning about each other, this is not a problem, but an opportunity. 

If you are vulnerable enough to take a guess about things they didn’t say, your friend will probably be willing to let you know which of your words resonate with their experience and which ones don’t. Then they can provide you with clarifications to bridge the gap.

Allow them to do the same for you and you might be surprised to find out how much of your inner nature is visible to a person who is truly curious about you. You might learn something about yourself that you couldn’t see on your own.

To close such an encounter, each person might share a phrase or two to complete the statement, “Being with you this whole time, I felt . . .”

What impact did this person have on you? What changed in your body in their presence? What new ideas came to mind and how did they alter your sense of self or your conception of the world around you? What words could you say to this person that that would reveal something about them that they would otherwise never know?

Likewise, when you receive a reflection about your own presence, you’ll gain fresh insights into how your way of being shapes the experience of others. Make this a practice and you may even discover that you grow new ideas about your place in the world, about where you “end” and where another person “begins.”

The only reason we exist at all is because we are in relationship with each other and embedded in this world. Yet we are now living through a moment when our capacity for abstraction can trick us into thinking that we can exist otherwise. 

It’s all too easy for us to hear the notification bell, look at the screen, and find ourselves thinking, “NOW it all makes sense!”

But we have deeper resources than this technology to use for a kind of “sensemaking” that goes much deeper than “fact checking” our rivals. We have our bodies and our communities, our voices and our ears, and the capacity to produce harmony when we all commit to listening.

Here are some basic sensory sensemaking questions worth asking frequently:

  • Which words resonate in your body and which ones don’t? 
  • What invites your breath to deepen and what chokes it off? 
  • When does your attention expand and when does it narrow?
  • Whose company makes you feel lighter and who weighs you down?
  • What is learned by getting curious about the dissonance between us rather than trying to forcibly eliminate it?
  • What happens when you decline to seize upon fast and easy answers and instead slow down to ask harder questions, listening to the silence that follows as well as the words?

Ask these questions when you read the news, when you’re with your family, when you’re walking in nature, when you’re stuck in traffic, when you’re making plans, when you’re lost in thought. Listen to the words, but also to the spaces in between them – and the sensations, emotions, tastes, sounds, smells, and rhythms that they set in motion.

Then share what you hear and ask others to do the same. Rather than being captured by our own convenient stories, let’s start practicing how to make sense together.


The monthly Musicality of Being workshops are an opportunity for immersion into collective somatic sensemaking. Together we explore deep listening in the park in Washington DC, through movement, meditation and collective dialogue.

2022 workshop dates: July 30, August 27, September 24, October 22 & November 19.
Learn more & register for an upcoming workshop

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