The many responses to my last blog entry, online and off, have been received with much gratitude. Thank you! I trust that you are now not expecting a blog on depression. That is not what I have in mind. But the drought hardened ground upon which it thrives – the persistent illusion of separation – will be a recurring theme. I get terribly caught in that thorny hedge, grown from drought resistant seeds of long forgotten trauma.
Nor am I in the business of debunking Buddhism or any or any other religion or practice. I deeply respect traditions even when I wrestle with them or disagree. I am part of the Buddhist Sangha and as such I deem it of great importance to participate as an active collaborator rather than a passive follower of premeditated “truths”. This is my understanding of what the Buddha meant when he admonished his followers to be an island onto themselves. It is also what I cherish so much about the practice of Sensory Awareness, which has its roots in the work of Elsa Gindler. As Charlotte Selver often suggested, encouraging her students to find out for themselves and in collaboration – rather than blindly following a teaching (or the Führer for that matter) – was Gindler’s foremost gift to the world.
To be sure: this is not an easy path and treacherous for students and teachers alike. Charlotte had to painfully learn that. When she followed Gindler’s advice and went off on her own, learning as she made mistakes, her independence was not appreciated by her teachers. But she knew she had to follow her own sense of the real, even though it meant painful separation. One important teaching I received from Charlotte was at her breakfast table one morning, when she suddenly turned to me and said: “Forget about Sensory Awareness. Do what burns in you.” This blog is such a following-what-burns-in-me forum: partly poetic outlet, partly laboratory, partly screening room for findings from my practice.
On recent walks in the woods I have been curiously attracted by things that are split or torn apart, by snags too. And by manmade divisions such as the ubiquitous stonewalls of New England, marking boundaries between individual sections of the same land. Incidental borders often – serving as much as linear rock dumps as they were intended for keeping anything securely in or out – these walls have long since become an integral part of the landscape and home to an array of small creatures, legged ones and rooted ones, foraging out on either side of what they do not know as wall but call home and shelter and playground.
Maybe most of our beliefs are such incidental linear dumps for thoughts, carelessly tossed away and suddenly perceived as deliberate boundaries, inherently empty of meaning but vehemently defending a perceived permanent self: thought fabrications, clothes with no emperor. Maybe these captivating features of the landscape could help me understand something about what is torn in me and about the walls I have built within and around me. I always think splits have to be mended and walls need to be torn down, but maybe they can be permeable parts of a whole, hatching ground for new life and landmarks for other lost wanderers. Just as the eye recognizes the beauty in a split stone embedded in the soft forest floor, maybe the heart can recognize the beauty in its brokenness, sheltered tenderly in the woven basket of what the English language calls rib cage, more accurately and breathably named Brustkorb in German.
The most impermeable borders are probably those in our minds, limiting our participation with the larger here and now more than any old stone wall could. Or skin and bone for that matter. Our skin is not just form and boundary, it is just as much like that old stone wall, permeable and infused with sensitivity: a place to make contact. Nor is our skeleton a coat-hanger for our flesh but rather an articulated participant in this adventurous life: responsive and gregarious.
Perception and thought may at times seem like an odd couple but they belong together and make us human. However, thought tends to puts itself in charge, even though it is completely dependent on and emerging from experience. It tends to get lost in the exciting mirror hall of its own reflections, using the sensuous world preferably as “food for thought”.
My practice is dedicated to felt exploration and the realization that we are participants in a world from which we are not essentially separate but rather active ingredient. This requires that thinking becomes a collaborator rather than an out of control tyrant.
Let it inhabit that stone wall, humbly and boldly, reaching out for nurture and play, let it take a walk on the wild side – as I enjoy doing in this blog entry – but always let it come back to the felt ground of experience.
Every moment of feeling, hearing, tasting, seeing, smelling, is an act of participation. So is thinking, but when thinking thinks it is separate and superior rather than youngest sibling and equal to the other senses, we get deluded quickly. (Maybe it tends to go overboard because it is such a latecomer among the senses in evolutionary time, much like a teenager in need to push boundaries to find her own?)
Being this breathing creature, entirely part and participant of a place, of an intimate world of air and bark, chatting humans and asphalt roads: right here, in a felt exchange with this fragrant air I’m breathing, with this chair I sit on, and this floor under me, I write down these bubbling thoughts.
However, that we are part of a place is often not our experience. Confused as we are, we tend to perceive ourselves as solicitors, barely embodied, peering into this world as if from some place that we might imagine to be somewhere in our skull or – worse – “spiritual beings having a physical experience”, as I once read on a bumper sticker.
To break through that persistent illusion I’ve made it part of my practice to roll around on the floor, rub against boulders, lean against trees and otherwise to give myself a chance to experience being in a less mind-mediated fashion, running and jumping for joy when that is what my muscles ache for. Skin and bones and tissue know more about the realities of this world, of belonging, than thinking may ever understand, unless, that is, it joins ranks with the other senses. It is through this bodily intimacy that we can connect with what is also here and wake up to who we really are.
It is often easier for the thinking mind to be integrated and find its place when I move and physically connect with things rather than sitting still in meditation posture, where I often find myself struggling to achieve something: concentration, a quiet mind, not to mention enlightenment.
All senses, including the often disregarded and intimate tactile sense, are crucial for awakening. The senses may be suspect for some Buddhists, tolerated as necessary tools for survival maybe, but essentially perceived as ghastly sirens, leading into the murky swamp of craving and from there straight to suffering. That this happens all the time is sadly true but not inevitable if we are wakeful: the same senses are also the doors to liberation according to the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s teaching on the Foundations of Mindfulness.
Sitting quietly on a cushion is for me not currently the primary tool of awakening – in fact, it is often literally a good way of going to sleep – though sitting is also part of my daily practice. It has its importance, its beauty and its place. But if I am not very careful when “sitting”, I tend to get into, what Charlotte Selver called, watchtower mentality: I observe rather than experience, “looking” for insight and liberation. Curiously, in Buddhist teachings we are often asked to watch our breath: something that is entirely impossible, as it is not visible, unless, of course you find yourself meditating outside on a frosty morning or if you look at the expanding and contracting chest of your meditating neighbor. Not commonly recommended as a mindfulness tool. Such “watching” may easily foster the sense of self.
The breath can only be felt. What an intimate communion with air and all other breathing beings.
I consider, thus, rolling on the floor to be a valid Buddhist practice alongside many others. The intimacy of visceral experiencing guides us to a felt, to an incorporated sense of what in Buddhism is called Emptiness, namely that we are part but not apart, that our human individuality is but a rather extravagant way of being a cherry blossom: beautiful and fragrant for a moment before tumbling back into the fertile earth of Impermanence, giving way to another juicy fruit.
Recommended further readings:
If you read my adventurous friend David Abram’s new book Becoming Animal you will recognize him soon as my favorite wilder brother. Visit his web site at http://www.wildethics.com.
Then there is the beautiful work of Charlotte Selver’s husband, Charles Brooks. His book Sensory Awareness – The Rediscovery of Experiencing can be ordered in its recently revised and expanded version, Reclaiming Vitality and Presence, through the web store of the Sensory Awareness Foundation.
For a fascinating history of New England’s stone walls, read Robert Thorson’s Stone by Stone. http://www.stonewall.uconn.edu.
An insightful piece on Agendas – that ambitious offspring of thoughts and beliefs – can be found here: On Having Agendas.