Paths into Presence: Variations on the 5-4-3-2-1 Tool

By February 20, 2023February 22nd, 2024General
paths into presence

We know that the present moment is where the good stuff is. As gilded as our fantasies may be, and as rose-tinted our past, true deep body satisfaction is a now-moment experience. There is a deliciousness, a ripeness to having our sense experiences bloom in our awareness right here, right now. 

That’s part of why we practice mindfulness, why we try not to miss our lives while they happen. You could say it’s the goal of all healing work, to free ourselves from ruminating about a moment we already lived through. Released from unresolved feelings belonging to things that happened long ago, we don’t have to squander our creative fortunes envisioning terrible futures, either. 

We gradually become free to live life deeply and fully in the now. 

Shifting Neuroception

Like many people with trauma patterning, I personally have found that “just” being present is easier said than done, for a thousand reasons. I always appreciate, therefore, tricks that work at the biological level to help us shift our state of neuroception gently, from fight-flight-freeze-appease states back into presence.

These gentle paths into presence create subtle but palpable sensations of safety and pleasure in the body. This is even more important than it sounds! When the body feels good, we naturally open the aperture of our senses, and become patient, calm, creatively receptive, lively, loving, and at ease.   

The 5-4-3-2-1 Tool

The 5-4-3-2-1 tool is a technique for rapid orientation into the now moment. The simple and quick process goes as follows: look around the room and identify five sights, naming them out loud as you see them. 

I see my desk lamp, a blanket crumpled up on the couch, my ukulele, a pencil, and a tree outside my window.

Now do the same with four sounds, then three physical sensations, two scents, and finally one taste. 

Tastes and if smells can be imagined if nothing is around, though often people will be able, if they focus to pay closer attention, to identify something like “the lingering taste of orange juice on my tongue”, and find aromas like the smell of their own shampoo in their hair or the scent of soap on their hands.

Just sensing and naming sense perceptions works very quickly and well to break the spell of being “somewhere else”. However, more fun can be had with three small variations, if you want to sink deeper into your senses!

Three Variations of the 5-4-3-2-1 Tool

I. Slow it Down & Add Details. Make the 5-4-3-2-1 experience even richer by slowing down and lingering on each thing for a moment to take in and describe the qualities of what we’re looking at.

I see the desk lamp over there, and that the lampshade is made out of dusty rose-colored fabric printed with small birds. The body of the lamp itself is white with little blue designs on it, it looks like it might be made out of china. It looks smooth but also a little uneven, and it’s gleaming softly in the cold silvery light coming from the window.

II. Turn it into a Journaling Exercise. Turn the 5-4-3-2-1 tool into a writing exercise, in which you imagine things in each category rather than observing. Technically, this takes you out of your current now moment, but by summoning up sense memories you are connecting with your organs of now-moment awareness, which feels wonderful. I have found that using imagination in this way shifts your state of neuroception, and you will get the same result of finding yourself sensing your environment more richly in the now. 

List 12 things you love in each sense category: sights, sounds, touch sensations, scents, and tastes you love. For example, in the smell category I love: 

  1. The smell on my hands after picking lemons from the tree at my mother’s house
  2. the smell of long golden grass that’s just been dampened with a light rain 
  3. the smell of wild bay leaves when I pick one and crush it between my fingers when I’m on a hike 

III. Create Sense Effects.  In this variation, deliberately create sense effects in each category, getting up and moving around your entire house, if necessary, to find things. 

In the sights category, see if you can create visual contrasts or juxtapositions that interest you. Be curious. 

When I move my head closer to my teacup and peer in, the window of light that was reflected in my tea disappears. 

Look for aromas (kitchen and bathroom are good places to look): Ceylon cinnamon, this jasmine tea my Dad brought me from his trip to China, my husband’s toothpaste that smells sharp and clean and sparkly.

The sounds channel is especially fun:

My ceramic salad bowl makes a perfect G note like a gong when you strike it with a wooden spoon. 

And the physical sensations are an especial delight, when you look for sensations that feel interesting or pleasant: 

I like the feeling of my placing my palms flat on my cold, smooth wooden desk.  

Have fun, and may you enjoy your rich, sumptuous Now. 

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