Proprioceptive Thinking: The Sixth Sense

Lost your way? The Proprioceptive Question will guide you to the answer.

Proprio what? And what the heck does it have to do with a 6th sense??

Last summer, a dear friend of mine (Steve Bernstein, author of Stories from the Stoop) introduced me to a gem of a book: Writing the Mind Alive: The Proprioceptive Method for Finding Your Authentic Voice. Co-authors, Dr. Metcalf and Dr. Simon offered a form of meditation through proprioceptive writing. Through a powerful yet simple ritual of writing to baroque music on unlined paper, we possess the ability to create a conduit between our inner and outer world.

But not all of us are writers. Some of us find meditation in running or baking or gardening. So, I began to wonder: Could the proprioceptive method work in other forms of life?

Proprius is Latin for “one’s own” and typically refers to our body’s proprioceptive system. We are regularly taking in life through our five senses, transmitting whatever information comes into our brain, processing “from the inner world of our bodies, the world we alone inhabit.” (Metcalf and Simon). It’s this proprioception that allows us to feel our bodies, as our own. It’s why, when we have a stroke or illness, we can sometimes lose the feeling of literal embodiment. 

The 6th sense is the invaluable gift we all have to synthesize our five senses, reacting to the world around us on a physical, mental and spiritual plane. But we often lose awareness of our 6th sense, even take it for granted while we are healthy. We run on autopilot and can lose the gift of self-reflection.

Enter proprioceptive thinking—a cognitive and spiritual launching pad for those moments when you’ve lost your way, when you’re uncertain about a relationship or a situation, when you’re anxious or depressed. While proprioceptive writing involves handwriting to slow down and answer the proprioceptive questions throughout what is known as a Write, proprioceptive thinking is an opportunity to ask a proprioceptive question—either aloud or in your mind.

So, what is “the” proprioceptive question?

What do I mean by _____________________________?

Think of the above blank as your metacognitive/spiritual Mad Libs:-)Into the blank goes whatever is going through your mind as you draw, talk, swim, cook. 

I’ll give an example from my own life now. Today was spent collecting pathetic drops of water from the spigot outside my house. I was trying to garner enough water to flush a toilet in my home.

My proprioceptive question is:  What do I mean by pathetic?

By asking the proprioceptive question, I am slowing down, using language as a tuning fork for my intuition. Slowing down literally awakens our gut (and our gut is lined with millions of nerve cells that actually “talk” to the brain).

At heart I’m a writer. I can ask the proprioceptive question in my head, but the revelations flow from my pencil.

What do I mean by pathetic? I mean it’s three days without a shower or running water. Pathetic that so many people are living without water and heat and electricity for days now. Pathetic as in sad. Houston, we have a big problem. 

I encourage you to consider the proprioceptive question when you are feeling stressed or confused. The question just might recharge your inner compass. 

The Unspoken Struggle

There is a silent but desperate pain in many teens and tweens in our 21st century world

As a writing teacher, I have the bittersweet gift and responsibility that comes with reading the many hidden thoughts of tweens and teens. An English teacher is often informally consigned to the role of therapist, a safe repository of one’s typically dormant insights. While a significant number of students’ essays contain innocuous content, there are sometimes those red flags that require I share my concern with the school psychologist. Unfortunately, I’m seeing an uptick in red flags.

Since the pandemic, we know there’s been a rise in mental health concern. According to MedScape (www.medscape.com), depression symptoms have “jumped threefold, overdose deaths…increased in 40 states, and 25% of young adults have suicidal ideation.”

It is no surprise then that our adolescents are demonstrating an increase in anxiety and depression as well. This past week, I’d assigned my students the following prompt:

“Write about a time when you have felt or experienced a struggle in your life. Did it resolve? If so, how? If not, why?”

Regardless of ability (i.e. ELL learners, GT students and everything in between), my students were eager to write about their struggles. They were also hungry to be heard. Shortly after posting the assignment, a barrage of emails appeared with the following inquiries:

“This really helps. Can we do more of these prompts?”

“I normally hate writing, but I like this assignment. Can I do more than one?”

“I have a pretty big struggle. Would it be okay if I shared it with our class?”

There’s a sense of safety in writing, in getting our thoughts out onto the page. Writing also creates an immediate sense of being heard—even if it’s just for an audience of one—YOU!

Several of my “red flag” essays end with a request to not share their anxious thoughts and/or depression with anyone. They write of observed or experienced domestic abuse, estranged parents, gender uncertainty, cancer, the loss of a loved one, and bullying. The overarching emotion that binds them is a sense that they are alone and unworthy.

I want to hug each of these students. Instead, I tell them the truth: they are courageous for sharing their stories and they matter.