What is sensuality?
First, let me start by saying that sensuality has kind of a bad rap in our culture. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sensual” much in the way that you’d guess: pertaining to the senses. But, as the OED tends to do, there is a fuller definition that I don’t think we always consider when using this word:00:00
Involving gratification of the senses; of, relating to, or arising from physical (esp. sexual) urges or desires and not the intellect or spirit; carnal, fleshly, base. In more neutral sense: relating to, characterized by, or involving enjoyment derived from the senses; physically enjoyable or pleasurable.
In the first sentence, that oddly negative connotation is evident from the words “base” and “carnal” and also in the way that sensuality is put in opposition to intellect. Who is to say our use of the senses is not having to do with the intellect, for surely, we could not enjoy our senses without the use of our brains, the source of intellect?
In addition, the OED mentions the association with sexuality. For many, the two words are used nearly interchangeably. Often sensuality is used merely as a softer, mood-lit version of sexuality. There’s a silk-sheets and red-roses mystique attached to the word that has more to do with advertising, as far as I can tell. Through the Huffington Post, you can decide if you’re “Sexy, Sensual or Intimate—What Is Your Sexual Style?” and through Cosmopolitan, you can “Uncover Your Sensual Side: Enhance Your Own Pleasure and Have Him Groveling for More!” Both subjects associate the word sensual with sexuality or with sex itself, which is quite commonplace. The word is frequently used as an outright marketing gimmick. I found from a quick Google search that the word “sensual” is used to sell everything from lip gloss to wigs to the massage oil.
But I was raised understanding this word in a different way. It’s a word that was defined for me in the way we prepared food, cleaned the house, and got dressed for dinner. I saw it in the way my mom and dad kissed goodnight and in the way, we resolved arguments in our regular house meetings. It was evident in most aspects of our decision making, planning, and individual communications to one another.
Sensuality is about paying attention to your senses. We have five senses through which to experience the universe: taste, touch, sight, sound, and smell, and we also have “conceptual thought,” our mind or what we think about. A sixth sense, not just an M. Night Shyamalan movie from the nineties. We are sensing beings.
For me, sensuality is more of a mindset than it is a “Sexual Style,” in the words of Huffington Post. Paying attention to your senses requires being in the present moment. Often, we can get caught up thinking about what is to come, the future, or what has already happened, the past. But I’ve found that when I’m living my life in the present time, I’m taking in what’s around me in that very moment. I don’t think about how the place I’m in reminds me of when I was a kid, or how I wished it looked different. I see that place as it is and without value. It’s the most effective way to enjoy your life on a daily basis.
Here’s a practical way of thinking about this: ever since I was in college, I have loved a good cup of tea. It started as a way to warm up during long hours of sitting and reading and also as minor procrastination while getting work done. If I was stuck midway through getting a thought out, I could always spring up mid-sentence and make a cup of tea and stretch my legs for a moment. It certainly looked (and felt) a lot better than checking Facebook for the hundredth time. This tea habit eventually grew into practice and I found that I enjoyed the entire ritual of making tea, from boiling the water to swirling the final dregs in the bottom of my cup. It’s a pause, a moment in my day that results in something so simple yet infinitely pleasurable.
Standing at the kitchen sink, I take in the orchids that crowd our window box. Each bloom reaching out and declaring “hello” with its bright, round face. Their long stems wind through the various pots and containers and filter the morning sunlight. The cup is hot in my hands and the steam warms my chest. That first sip says so much—the right amount of tea, the right amount of milk, and that bitter kick that makes my lips purse just the slightest.
This is a form of sensuality; it’s taking in all that is around you. I’m going to make tea first thing in the morning because I like the caffeine boost but, with each cup, I make each morning, I have the choice every step of the way to make it a sensual experience. Alternatively, I could rush into the kitchen, grab the first cup that I saw, give it a quick rinse to slough out any leftover debris from the previous use, fill it with hot water, and drop a Lipton tea bag in there and be on my way. Plenty of mornings look like that and I still leave the kitchen having produced the necessary cup of tea. But when I do take those steps with the kind of attention that I described, I feel different; it makes a difference in my body. There is often a solidity and a calm that comes with being deliberate and creating pleasure in any given moment.
By GIA LYNNE