Over the last two weeks we have looked at the issue of solitude – its downsides and upsides and the ways in which spiritual and psychological approaches might help us. This is what really interests me: how we can combine these two approaches – the psychological and the spiritual to really help us grow and flourish.
With the problem of feeling isolated or alone, I suggested one approach drawn from psychology – paradoxical intention – and one drawn from spirituality: a meditation where we opened to our interrelationship with all of life. Lets do the same thing now with another issue: sensitivity.
Many of us will be following a spiritual path because we want to develop our sensitivity – we want to become more sensitive – to subtle energies, the Otherworld, inner guides, Nature, Deity. But there are also people who feel they are already sensitive to these things – super-sensitive to the spiritual dimension. And there are people who feel that generally in life they are highly sensitive – not necessarily to otherworldly things, but to everyday things like sensory stimuli – noise, smells, crowds, or to other people’s emotions or needs. They might always avoid violent movies, find they cry a lot, or feel abnormally empathic.
If you feel this way, you are not alone. Some psychologists believe there is a category of people whom they call ‘Highly Sensitive’ and who possess an innate trait they have termed Sensory Processing Sensitivity. The movie trailer that follows introduces you to the idea.
The interesting point is this: if you have always been considered highly sensitive, you might well have felt or have been told to ‘toughen up’, and you might have felt your sensitivity was due to emotional and psychological factors, but Elaine Aaron, the shrink who developed HSP theory and whose book The Highly Sensitive Person has struck such a chord it has sold a million copies, assures us that SPS is rooted in our biology – and that makes sense to me – after all the nervous system is immensely complex, and the idea that some people’s nervous systems are more sensitive than others seems reasonable. Perhaps that old term ‘highly strung’ wasn’t off the mark after all. Apparently tests have been done on many animal species and a similar percentage (around 20%) have been found to have SPS.
So it’s not confined to humans, it’s evenly distributed by gender, and it’s not another way to talk about introverts as opposed to extraverts, because 30% of HSPs are extraverts.
Wikipedia tells us: ‘By 2015 the trait had been documented at various levels of study, including temperament and behavior, brain function and neuronal sensitization, and genetics. For example, genetic studies provide evidence that higher levels of SPS are linked to the serotonin transporter 5-HTTLPR short/short genotype, polymorphisms in dopamine neurotransmitter genes, and the ADRA2b norepinephrine-related gene variant.’
So it really does seem a valid categorisation, and it’s of interest if we are studying the spiritual life, because (a) a prime injunction of that life is to ‘Know Thyself’, which is why all of psychology is subsumed, in my view, within the compass of Spirituality, and (b) the question arises – how should I relate to this trait in myself and in others?
There’s a good TED talk about this, which I’ll paste in here. One of the key messages in it is: don’t try to toughen up yourself or the HSP (who may be your child). Don’t make the mistake of thinking they are abnormal. As Krishnamurti said: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Maybe those of us who are less sensitive could do well to become more sensitive. Imagine how much less brutality there would be in the world.
The Highly Sensitive Person needs time alone, needs to accept and be proud of being sensitive – not seeing it as a weakness, and in addition to these basic psychological approaches, HSPs often find that spiritual practices like retreats and meditation are balms to their souls too.
In our Tea session, shown at the top of this post, we try a meditation together that helps us access a sense of calm, while also creating a clear sense of a boundary for us. I would be very interested to hear how you experienced this meditation, and whether you identify as an HSP.
Finally, you might like this song, which in the film Sensitive Alanis Morisette said she composed as a sort of prayer, hiding in a cupboard when she felt overwhelmed with the house being filled with people. I find it very moving and healing.