A User’s Guide to the Mind:
The Sensuality of Thought


Everyone comes equipped with a mind. No one comes with a manual.

Fortunately, your mind works all on its own, performing everyday marvels without requiring any intervention from you. Only when our minds betray us do we wish we’d had a chance to read the instructions. How do you stop your mind from torturing you with critical judgments or obsessive rumination? How do you face down unsolvable problems and impossible decisions? How do you get free from limiting beliefs when you don’t know what beliefs are limiting you in the first place?

If you learn the ways of the mind, you can thwart its bad habits and transcend its infuriating limitations. But this is just the beginning. You can also learn to perform astonishing acts of intelligence: perceiving patterns, solving mysteries, creating worlds that have never existed, becoming smarter all the time. A User’s Guide to the Mind is a series of freestanding articles that provide instructions and insights into the workings of your very own mind. Here’s one of them . . .


The more you take pleasure in the process of thinking, the smarter you’ll become.

Imagine that you’re moving in to a new home, and it’s totally empty of furniture. Luckily, someone hands you a stack of cash to buy yourself some furnishings.

Now you have a choice. Perhaps you’ll choose to purchase poorly-constructed, mass-produced, uncomfortable junk. But perhaps instead you’ll acquire custom-made, quality furniture: functional and beautiful and just your style. Whatever you choose will surround you every day, influencing the quality of your life. Unfortunately, you’ve only got so much money to work with, so your choices are limited. You might have to settle.

What if I told you, however, that everything costs the same amount? With the cash you’ve got, you can buy anything you want: cheap and mediocre, or appealing and inspiring. Now what will you choose to fill your home with?

Your mind is a kind of home. You spend far more time living inside it than any house or apartment. You can furnish it with anything you want, and it all costs the same amount. What have you chosen?

Do the thoughts populating the rooms of your mind delight and inspire you, nourish and soothe you? Or do your own thoughts oppress you? Are they repetitive and predictable? Clunky and awkward? Abrasive and irritating? When you’re alone, and there’s nothing to occupy your attention, do you enjoy the simple act of thinking? Do you take pleasure in the use of your own mind? If not, it might be time to redecorate. It won’t cost anything extra.

To upgrade the furnishings in your mind, at no cost, you first need to grasp the sensual nature of thought.

Sensual thoughts make you smarter. No one wants to luxuriate in a bath that’s long since gotten cold. No one wants to surrender to a massage therapist who keeps pressing too hard no matter what you say. And no one wants to give themselves over to thoughts that stress them out, or bore them, or make them feel like a victim. The more you enjoy a bath, or a massage, or your own mind, the deeper into it you’ll go.

The more you take pleasure in the process of thinking, the longer you’ll want to think for. You’ll explore your internal conceptual landscape, follow your thoughts to unexpected places, play with possibilities. If you enjoy your mind, you’ll want to spend more time with it, discovering what it can do, and it can do more than you know.

It’s easy to recognize the sensuality in quality furniture, good food, well-made clothing, inspiring music, conscious touch. If an experience opens your awareness by pleasurably engaging your senses, it’s sensual. It’s obvious that the physical world can be sensual.

What’s not as obvious is that the mental world can be sensual. The mind, you see, is a sense organ.

Wait a second. Didn’t they teach us there were only five senses? That means five sense organs, right? You’ve got eyes and ears, a nose for smelling and a tongue for tasting, and your body overall to sense touch, pain, hunger, motion, and other physical sensations.

Buddhist psychology says differently. Dating back twenty-five centuries, and codified in the abhidharma, the Buddha identified the six senses human beings possess: sight, hearing, smell, taste, body, and mind. The first five correspond nicely with senses as we generally understand them. Mind is a curious addition.

It’s easy to understand, however, why mind makes the list. Just like your eyes sense visual objects, your mind senses mental objects. When a flower or a face is before you, you see it with your eyes. When you read the word “flower”, or the word “face”, a mental image of a flower or a face appears before you. You see the mental image with your mind. If you read the words in this sentence out loud, you perceive the sound with your ears. If you speak the words silently “in your head”, as you read, you hear them with your mind. Like your eyes and ears, the mind is a sense organ.

All thought has sensory form. Internal thoughts, like the words we hear spoken in our minds, all begin as echoes of our external senses.

Have you ever heard kids talk to themselves out loud, even when they think no one else is around? As children, we speak words out loud to other people long before we ever think words internally to ourselves. Talking to ourselves out loud is a sort of intermediate step. The developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky called this step “private speech”. With enough practice we internalize our private speech, thinking it to ourselves without making sounds anyone else can hear. Even as an adult, you probably still use audible private speech when you need to talk yourself through something. If a problem is particularly challenging to solve, for instance, you can’t always just “think” through it. Instead, you may find yourself speaking the thoughts out loud. Talk yourself through enough such problems, and your private speech will internalize, becoming thoughts perceived by your mind instead of a voice perceived by your ears.

Our mental geographies are composed of auditory “thoughts”, shot through with visual imagery and imagined sensations. As with words, mental images and sensations begin as external senses. Think of the sky. Your mental image is an internal representation of the sky as you once saw it. Now imagine a green sky with purple polka dots. Unless you once saw the aurora borealis during a fashion storm, you probably haven’t actually observed such a sky. You can easily imagine it, however, by composing a mental image from elements of scenes you have observed.

All thoughts have sensory form, and all forms can be more or less sensual. Is your mattress lumpy, or does your body surrender and release when it slides into your sheets? Is the tea in your teacup tepid and weak, or is it hot enough to feel pouring through your insides? Do you wake up and have stressful thoughts about your schedule for the day, or do you wonder at the open field of opportunity provided by your day’s many pre-scheduled adventures? We would all prefer to lay on mattresses that our bodies say “yes” to, to drink tea that feels good going down. Sensual moments throughout the day make life enjoyable and fulfilling. Sensual thoughts do the same.

One way to foster a sensual mind is to live a sensual life. Thoughts begin as echoes of external sense experiences. If you savor experiences throughout your day, your mind will be naturally filled with sensual sense impressions. But sensual echoes across the mental landscape are not enough to make you smarter.

If you want sensuality to make you smarter, you need your thoughts themselves to become sensual. You want to luxuriate in your ideas, delight in your beliefs, be turned on by your analyses, savor your inner voice as it speaks to you.

Non-sensual thinking can bludgeon you with its bluntness, oversimplifying absolutely everything, settling for cheap explanations, failing to question or inquire or explore. Non-sensual thinking can irritate and abrade, complaining, judging, and blaming, letting frustration and desperation set the mind’s agenda. Non-sensual thinking can strain and panic the mind with its need to figure everything out, grasping for shortcuts out of the land of stress. Non-sensual thinking can wear a person down, repeating the same thoughts across dramatically differing contexts, imposing the same predigested beliefs on every circumstance until everything starts to seem the same. Non-sensual thinking insists it already knows, disregards the vast ocean of the not-yet-known. Non-sensual thinking assumes it is the only way. Non-sensual thinking follows the herd.

Let’s come back to the lumpy mattress, the tepid teacup, and the stressful thoughts you wake up to. You’ll have to take care of the mattress and the tea, but let me see if I can offer you some more sensual options for your morning thoughts. I’m going to imagine that you have to get up earlier than your body might prefer, get yourself ready for work, feed your kids and get them out the door, and then get yourself to work on time. How might you more sensually think about a few of these activities?

A Not-So Sensual Thought A More Sensual Thought The Difference
  • Grrr. I never get enough sleep!
  • Here I am once again. Sleep wants to pull my body back in. Some other motivation I can’t even remember right now wants to lift me up and get me in action. I am suspended between these two competing forces. Can I observe the exact moment when I tip over the threshold, when wakefulness finally wins?
  • Studying experience as it’s happening; curiosity; learning all the time.
  • I have to brush my teeth, shower, get an outfit together.
  • Let’s consider this time in the bathroom as a break from everything, a rare moment when I can just be with myself and get in touch with my body, show it some love.
  • Shifting perspective to change meaning.
  • My kids really should be getting their own breakfast ready at this age. They need to start taking more responsibility.
  • What are my kids anyway? Are they even really mine? Are they even really kids? Maybe they’re alien beings that have been somehow left in my care, and I’m supposed to raise them as humans. I think I’ll ask them how breakfast works on their planet.
  • Playing with assumptions; taking them less seriously; experimenting.
  • So many hours wasted sitting in traffic.
  • I’m one of millions of blood cells creeping down an artery. The body of the city has low blood pressure, so the cells are just sitting here instead of rushing through. Where are we all headed, feeding outward to the office capillaries of a massive social organism? What part do I play in this unfathomably huge system. Maybe I’m an antibody going to clean up an infection site. Can I use the long journey to prepare myself, become more solid, more present, more capable of doing my part to make the whole more healthy?
  • Metaphor; respect for the mysterious nature of the world; seeking opportunities in the mundane.
  • My co-worker is being a jerk again, judging me and everybody else. I’ll just be polite and give him space.
  • Why would he be preemptively judgmental so often? He seems to be protecting or defending something. Maybe he has something he really needs to protect, something precious about him that he has to suppress at work. I wonder if I can find a way to help him feel safer instead of playing into his belief that I’m a threat.
  • Empathic interpretation; looking past surface appearances.

Sensual thoughts care as much about the process as the goal, lending them the qualities of curiosity, exploration, discovery. Sensual thoughts have room for the unknown, making them flexible, playful, unpredictable. Add curiosity to flexibility, and you start to experience a more mysterious, more subtle, more multi-layered world. All the more sensual thoughts above reside in such a world, and so they all suggest new options for how to move through the world, how to respond to circumstances in richer and more meaningful ways.

So the mind is a sense organ, perceiving thoughts that are more or less sensual. But the mind is the oddest of all the sense organs, because it produces every thought it perceives. Your eyes behold your best friend’s face, but their face was there before you looked at it. Your eyes did not create the face from nothing. The mind is different. It perceives what it produces, sensing the very thoughts it brings into being.

As you start to sense the difference between thoughts that are sensual and thoughts that are less so, you’ll want to produce lovelier thoughts. Unfortunately, you don’t always seem to have a choice in the matter. Many thoughts come unbidden, produced through some lower level brain process, some automatic psychological habit. You can’t just choose what to think. You can, however, choose how to respond to your thoughts. Thinking more sensually comes from these choices. If a thought is rough, or prickly, or blocky, or irritating, can you coax it into something subtle, or beautiful, or compelling, or seductive? Can you pause, breathe, recognize how little you know, and open your mind?

It’s your mind. You, and only you, have to live in it every day, no matter where you go. Why not make it the kind of home you’ve always wished for? Sensual thoughts, after all, are completely free.

About the Author

Steve Bearman, Ph.D., earned his doctorate in Psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He founded Interchange Counseling Institute in 2002 and is the lead teacher of Interchange's San Francisco-based year-long counseling and coaching training. When he's not counseling people, leading workshops, and advocating for social justice, Steve climbs mountains, adventures in the urban wilderness, explores the edges and limits of what's possible, deconstructs everything, and finds new ways to put it all back together.