About Stefan

Stefan has studied Sensory Awareness and related practices since 1980 with teachers in Europe and the USA. Authorized to be a representative of this practice by Charlotte Selver, he studied and worked with her extensively until her death in 2003. He is executive director of the Sensory Awareness Foundation. Drawing at times from his background in Buddhism and Gestalt Therapy, Stefan offers individual sessions, classes and workshops in the US and Europe. He currently works on an extensive biography and oral history of Charlotte Selver.

Mindfully Into Misery

or The Blessings of Skillful Thinking

On my way up Bald Mountain I sit down on a rock to better connect with where I am. My gaze sweeps over the hilly landscape but my attention is absorbed by emotional pain and – just as much – by the aversion to that experience. What to do? What I want is to be connected with my surroundings and not distracted by internal turmoil. What I experience is how attention does not stay with what I want, agony, and resistance. Together they constitute a toxic brew.

I finally give in and allow for the sensations, emotions, and thoughts of distress to take center stage: The power of depression, of the “desire for nonexistence”, of the aversion to my experience – even to seeing budding leaves on nearby maple trees – is remarkable. All life seems to point back at my pain, magnifying it.

Paying attention to difficult emotions in this way, I seem to give them even more power. They take over and flavor all experience with a strong, bitter taste. Mindfully, I spiral down into more negativity.

It is then that the thinking mind interferes with a wholesome suggestion: How about if I bring my attention to neutral sensations rather than either trying to stay with what I deem positive and relevant around me or unpleasant but important – because it is strong – within me?

I immediately notice a plethora of neutral bodily sensations: stillness in my lower belly, the subtle warmth in my left thigh, tingling in my fingers. As attention begins to willingly settle there, these neutral sensation become a refuge where I can drop confusion and recuperate. How calm it is here and how quickly joy regains strength! The pain does not go away, but the bedrock of neutral bodily sensations holds it with warmth and care. Anguish so becomes but one of an array of things happening this moment: wind blowing through the still bare branches of deciduous trees, the song of a nearby finch, cold stone, the glistening surface of Willow Pond, sadness, the beauty of the wooded hills, joy of being.

Invigorated I get up and walk on. I am intrigued by this experience. By intentionally directing my attention away from the screaming foreground to the subtle background “hum” of neutral bodily sensations I was able to contain what would have otherwise pulled me down into an abyss of negativity. I usually tend to let attention go to what is strongest, believing that this is how to properly be mindful. But when I am not grounded by what may not shout but offer its unwavering stability quietly, I can mindfully drown in misery.

This willful choosing of a certain segment of my experience over another stands in contrast to the notion that I have to focus on what calls for attention most urgently, especially when it is unpleasant and painful. It goes against the belief that I cannot choose my experience but that I have to take what is given, i.e. what screams loudest. However, by choosing subtle bodily sensations I did not reject the painful experience. In the end the opposite was true: Opening to the whole spectrum of what was there and then intentionally taking refuge in neutral ground, I was able to gain perspective and open up to the pain rather than being overwhelmed by it. The uplifting effect of this experience on the whole day was remarkable.

Of Split Rocks, Stone Walls and Clothes with No Emperor

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.

Cherry Blossoms

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.

Beauty and the Beast, Part 2

Part II: Fluoxetine

And suddenly nothing I have learned seems of any use.

Actually, this is what I’m telling myself: “I have learned nothing in all these years. What a failure I am!” Decades of practice vanish in a black hole of a very different nature. I wake up in the morning and the first thought is: Oh no, I do not want to be conscious! I cannot stand being awake. Pressure and burning in my chest, fatigue, despair.

Can I be present with it? For a moment – but that only increases the agony.

I have to get up, it is time to make breakfast for the family. I go downstairs, put a kettle of water on the stove. I do not know how to make breakfast. I open the fridge, peer into it, hoping that something in there well give me a hint. I stand and stare, pressure is building up in my chest and tears start rolling down my cheeks. I wish I could die.

Footsteps in the bedroom above me and then noisy little feet running down the stairs. My son enters the kitchen, excited about the new day, happy to see me and ready to do something together. I quickly dry my tears, turn around and smile at him. “I need to make breakfast. Can you play on your own?” No, he cannot. He wants me.

I cannot either! I can’t be with anybody right now. I can’t make breakfast. I am bursting – and I push it all down. I have to function now. How to make breakfast? Okay, I need to ground myself, feel the floor under my feet, feel the cool milk container in my hand, follow breathing. I know how to do this.

Fuck! I can’t, I can’t stand being present. It hurts too much. I’m about to explode.

My wife has since arrived in the kitchen. She notices my state immediately, asks: “You’re having a hard time, don’t you?” I can’t stand that question. I do not trust that it comes from a place of care. I hear it like a complaint. I mutter: “I’m okay”, and continue with the impossible task of preparing breakfast.

Somehow, I manage to, I even get lunch together for Julian, but when it takes him forever to brush his teeth and hair, the buildup of pressure gets to a point where I start loosing it. My voice gets louder and more impatient and I finally break out in tears. “Just do what I ask you to do, please! I can’t deal with this any longer!” The result is as immediate as it was predictable: now Julian is upset too and won’t brush his teeth at all. My wife is upset because my state is affecting everyone.

Driving to school goes well. Julian has regained his good mood, we chat and have a nice time together. I drop him off and head back home. The person in the car in front of me is driving very slowly. Pressure building up again. “I need to get to work!” I shout. I can’t stand this anymore. Suddenly I have a very strong urge to drive off the road, crash into something and kill myself. What a relief it would be to put an end to this misery. I cannot see another way out. This has been going on for too long. Then I think of my son, I think of my wife, and I know that is not an option. I drive home, devastated, full of shame.

Such a predicament, like anything, arises through causes and conditions. When a lifelong predisposition finds fertile ground the beast can mature. I’d been there before. I will not expound on the causes for the current bout of depression; they shall remain private.

The buildup was slow and steady. It did not go unnoticed but I am a meditator with lots of practice, I’m a Sensory Awareness leader, I should be able to help myself. That is, in part, an honorable attitude. I really want to find out how I can heal by applying all that I have learned. But there is also this kind of thinking: This shouldn’t be happening to me considering all that I have done!

But life is not a rewards program and here it is: suicidal depression. Nothing seems to help. Shame certainly doesn’t and neither do guilt and pride. Alas, here they are, mixed into the poisonous brew. I try all kinds of natural remedies and supplements but nothing does the trick. Therapy doesn’t seem to help either, nor does talking with friends, or running or hiking, though these attempts at least give me some relief. It is good to have friends.

When these friends suggest that I take medication for depression I do not want to hear, though. That is not a solution for a person of my stature. My practices must work. How could they not? And if I can’t help myself how can I help others? What “helps” the teaching role: As a long-time meditator I have the “advantage” of being able to keep a good posture even when my limbs are in danger of withering away.* Actually, I have always been good at that: looking calm while screaming on the inside. I received compliments for my composure even as despairing teenager.

For how many months can I make myself believe that I can get through this with my skills? Three, six? How about a year? It only gets worse and finally I come to a point where I have to admit to myself that I can’t go on like this. I may be a failure but I need medication now. The shame! But I had come to this point once before in my life and was helped by antidepressants in a short time. Could I let myself be helped again in this way? Oh, the humiliation!

I finally give in. Within three weeks I feel much better and able to cope with life again.

This was last summer. In the fall I stopped taking fluoxetine and for a while I seemed fine. But then came our move from the Southwest to New England. All I’ll say is this: moving, selling and buying a house – very stressful! I had to resort to the pill again, even take something for anxiety and sleep for a short while. Don’t tell anybody. It will ruin my reputation of always being calm and dispassionate, even funny – and an accomplished teacher too.

The medication made all the difference. As we are settling in now I can begin to consider going off fluoxetine again. But tricky is the mind and ambition is not a good advisor. I’ll consider the decision carefully and I will allow myself to get outside help to support me in the transition.

Addendum for Buddhists
About 15 years ago, when I found myself in a similarly severe depression, I decided to go on a ten-day silent Vipassana retreat with a well-known monk and teacher from Sri Lanka. I was hoping that would help me but after only one day it became clear that I was spiraling down even more. I often sat on the cushion in tears. It did not help that the teacher had decided not to give any individual interviews at all. After the second day I went to the retreat manager and urged her to talk to the teacher. I really needed help. To make a rather long story short: after another day or two I got to talk to the teacher. His first words were that I surely must already feel better because thanks to me everybody was getting interviews now. Furthermore, he suggested that I stay with the breath and also memorize the Metta Sutta, the Buddha’s teaching on loving kindness. That would open my heart. With this advice I went back to my cushion. After ten days I was in such deep misery, I was barely able to travel home. This is when I knew I needed to see a psychiatrist. He prescribed Prozac and Charlie Chaplin movies. That helped.

(I should add that I memorized the Loving Kindness Sutra and recited it daily for some years. It’s good practice and I enjoyed it. It did not help with depression.)

(I should also add that when I decided to go off Prozac after only three months, the psychiatrist told me that was pretty stupid. I’d only feel that I was fine because of the medication. If I stopped now I would go down again quickly. He was wrong.)

In a recent conversation with Stephen and Martine Batchelor, two Western Buddhist teachers I cherish deeply, I mentioned my predicament. Their response was very clear: going on retreat is not how you treat depression. Stephen recalled an incident in a Tibetan monastery where he saw that a monk with what appeared to be a psychotic breakdown was taken to a hospital to be treated. Stephen said that he learned (and I’m paraphrasing here) that mental illness, such as depression, was considered by the Tibetans a “physical illness”. It was not seen as a “mental object” caused by craving and healed by letting go of desire, aversion or delusion but that it called for medical treatment.

Postscript: Practice? Practice!
Even though I wonder at times if all this meditating and sensing have had any profound effect on my life (or, frankly, that of many practitioners I meet) I know not to kid myself: if not for the teachings of the Buddha, the Sensory Awareness work of Charlotte Selver, and other modalities I have practiced over the years, I would probably not be here to tell the tale. The willingness to be present has been crucial even when it seemed useless. To meet and truly, deeply connect with what is, – to awaken – has a great healing capacity, and what is more, it brings about the deepest joy. It has also enabled me to recognize the beauty in the beast.

* Occasionally, I would let my guard down in my teaching when it seemed appropriate, and I do it more so now. That’s also the purpose of this blog. It turns out that people like to work with the real Stefan just as much as with the unwavering Buddha statue look-a-like.

Beauty and the Beast, Part 1

Part I: Beauty

Water running from the faucet.
It is met by stillness and joy.
Nothing missing, no question left to ask.
One sole desire remains: To be of help.

In the darkness of the depths of my belly, low down somewhere in front of the sacrum, is a place of complete peace as vast as the universe. I am not sure that is is the correct term, nor can I say that I feel it, though I notice it very clearly. It is the absence of sensation that makes it so palpable, strange as this may sound. And although I can clearly locate it in a relatively small place, it does not have boundaries but permeates throughout.

It is always there and easily accessible. I discovered this “place” last summer during a healing session that set me off to an inner journey in which I re-experienced a recurring childhood nightmare. It was one of two nightmares I would have when ill and lying in bed with a high fever. In this dream I always saw a field of upside down plastic cones, very brightly colored, similar to the figures of a board game we used to play in our family. In the dream they were upside down and their rims were incredibly sharp to the eye. It hurt to just look at them and I was always terrified by their sight. Without ever touching them I could feel how dangerously sharp they were and I always tried to escape, which I did by waking up, frightened to the core.

Now, in this session last summer, I suddenly saw and felt one of these cones very clearly as I had not since childhood. My first response was to break the spell by opening my eyes, but then curiosity got the better of me. Instead of turning away I approached the huge and brightly yellow cone. I peeked over the rim and saw that its narrowing bottom opened to an immense darkness. Horrified, I wanted to turn away. It seemed that this darkness was pure evil and needed to be avoided by any means possible.

But, again, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to dive if into that terrifying black to see what I would find. I tumbled into a vast universe of darkness and nothingness and immediately knew that there was nothing to fear, no trace of evil. Instead, I found myself floating in a  realm of complete beauty, safety, and love, with no trace of fear left. Words cannot do justice to the peace I experienced.

Winter tree in early morning frost

The inner journey went on in interesting ways but I won’t go into that now. What I was given then has never left me and is always there in the depths of my belly, though it really does not have a place. I can hear it right now in the tolling of the nearby church bell, I can see it in the slight movements of the branches of the Sugar Maple in front of my office window. And when I am really ready I can sometimes feel it in the pain in my left shoulder. It is then that I know that peace is already there, that all I have longed for has always been present.

The experience inspired me to explore with students in my classes if we could find places in ourselves that are already at peace. This turned out to be surprisingly easy for everybody, considering that it is noticed so rarely. Beauty does not shout and is easily overlooked. So often when we practice, we notice and focus on what is in need of improvement, what hurts, what needs to be achieved. And so we do not notice the peace that is already there.

Don’t just let this be an inspiring read. It is not to think about either but to be experienced. Try it out for yourself. How is your pinky? Feel it, or rather notice the sensations already there. Chances are your pinky is just fine. It has no need, it does not lack anything, it is perfectly happy. Not a single thought resides in your little finger, no doubts or unanswered questions. But it clearly lives and though you may not at first notice it as such, the experience in your finger might well be one of deep peace and even joy, very subtle at first but becoming clearer as you are being concentrated by this exploration. Of course, the pinky might not be where it is at for you in this moment, and maybe not the belly either. But it is there and you might discover it in the most unexpected of places.

Don’t believe me. Find out for yourself. Exploring in this way you may, as I have, discover that there is much more peace in and around you right now than you might ever have thought possible. By that I do not mean there is no pain, that all suffering magically disappears forever. In this moment what we experience may indeed be the much heard about “traceless fading away” of suffering, and it may even be for good – but only in this moment. Nor does the suffering in the world vanish. But it appears that even within the most painful situation peace awaits to be unlocked. If we only dare turn to it.

Beautiful when we are able to.

Part 2: Fluoxetine

Come back soon to read about the beast rearing its head.

Of Wantings and Occurings

or
What I Feel Drawn To and What I’m Supposed To Do
An October Walk

I’m sitting at the base of my old friend the Ponderosa Pine,
off Chamisa Trail in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
I want to be present, present for the tree touching my back,
present for the play of light and shadow on the pine needle covered forest floor.
Present to the wind brushing against my face.

I want to be still – but I’m not.

The ground under my buttocks is cool.
The cool makes itself known, it wants to be present too.
As does the wind, the sound of wind and trees in their interplay.
Now the sound of an airplane.
And then my doubts: is what I’m doing useful?

My eyes are searching – for what? An answer?
They are not seeing the trees – now they are. Barely.
When I look at a tree and see the tree,
why does it seem to me that I’m still not seeing it?
Because I’m caught in my mind, caught in wanting to see the tree.

Breathing makes itself known now as my eyes close.
It seems to me that I am locked into this individualized mind.
Now I hear voices from other hikers.
What makes itself known: voices,
the sound of the wind, the feel of the wind on my ear, cold,
the green of the tiny, wiggling sprout of a pine in front of me,
breathing, doubt, ridicule.
Is this self-involved? I don’t know! It looks like it.
Breathing… Pain in my knee, itch, and I scratch.

The thought that I want to be completely connected to nature,
to the tree in my back, absorbed in that.
Knowing his presence, and I guess wanting him to know mine.
And I wish there was a way for me to know that the tree knows I am here.
For how many decades have I been looking for this.
For what?
A simple response from my mother: yes I see you?
A simple response from nature: yes I feel you?
To belong.

The ground under me, the tree in my back, the wind on my cheeks,
for someone to say: yes I know you are here, I’m aware of you.
Searching – my eyes are searching.
Is this why my senses are so keen?
I’m looking out, I’m feeling out, I’m hearing out,
and thinking out for this voice that says: yes you are here and you are received.
My mother? God? Nature? My father?

Is it useful to ponder all these things?
I tend to think it would be better to just be present in my belly,
in that place that is just fine, but the next moment I’m pulled out by longing,
pulled out by aversion, and drawn out by confusion.
I seem to think that I should be able to be completely with the wind on my nose
and the call of the crow.

But fickle is attention, going every which way.
I want to control it.
In this thinking mind going every which way I have this idea or image
of what it means to be present.
These longings going every which way are not part of this idea.

How much I want to tweak my experience.
But am I not supposed to be fully present,
connected to the woods, connected to the ground?
I’m not supposed to be thinking about things.
Breathing.
This is not about me, this is about a process of consciousness.
Doubt.

Wanting – and then immediately the thought: I shouldn’t be wanting.
But I am, it is!
The sound of the wind again in the trees, in my ears,
brushing of wind against my ears.
Should I stop my mind from wandering?
Can I? Should I? I don’t know.
I think I should, and I think I shouldn’t.
I think I would be happier,
I think I shouldn’t have any preferences.
That’s all thinking has to offer: contradictory options.

I want to stop myself from wanting, but I cannot. When I want, I want.
I cannot even stop myself from wanting to stop myself from wanting.
But if I can know these wantings right away, that feels right.

I can turn my attention to the floor, to the ground under my feet,
feeling it, hearing it – and there is complete peace in that.
There is peace in my belly, so silent and sweet.
There is peace in seeing, so beautiful.
Even the pain in my knee is peace.

But I refuse to make peace with wanting.
It is so unpleasant – so alluring.

I long for absorption in concentration, one pointed awareness.
But if there is any absorption,
it is in the multitude of directions I feel drawn to, pulled to.

Walking now, I hear my steps.
I am passing by a snag, I am passing by all these trees,
I can feel the longing in my eyes,
I can feel my gaze bouncing back as it were and I see not the tree but myself,
my longing, my wanting, my desire for a particular experience,
my desire to be one.

And I hate myself for having that desire,
I despise myself for not being able to do it, to be one,
and I am amazed by all of this.
So much confusion!
Grateful to awaken to this too.

I look at the trees like a hungry ghost, wanting something, some satisfaction.
It is as though the hunger in my eyes, my hunger, makes it impossible to see
– but maybe that is just another idea, because
here I see a tree, here I see a snag, I see the trail
and there is wanting, like fog over it all,
lifting for moments of clarity
– that is not nothing.

Meditation (or Sensory Awareness for that matter) as I understand it, means to connect, being connected in a nonreactive way. This is not a passive state, it is full participation, non-manipulating participation. To be aware of something means to be engaged with it. There cannot be awareness without engagement. I can engage by fully embracing what is there, respecting “the other’s” presence because it is present just as “I” am. Pain in my left shoulder. Uncomfortable – but here it is. A fly on my forehead – irritating – but here it is. Brushing it away is fine too. Now I can hear her buzzing around my head – not much less irritating. Now the fly is sitting on my pants I can see it but I cannot feel it – not irritating. I look at it and in that moment I see that it is here just like I am here. No story necessary.

Two Walks

Part of my practice is walking in nature. While living in Santa Fe I made it a habit to go on contemplative hikes on Thursday mornings before work. Chamisa Trail, in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, was easily accessible from my home. The one-hour loop has a lot to offer: a meandering trail, Chamisa, a small creek, usually dry but occasionally gurgling its way down through the thirsty reddish earth, young fir trees, a narrow valley with the intermittent call of a crow, steep slopes – and two neighboring trees near the highest point of my hike, very different in character, which I always visited: an old, crouching piñon and a tall Ponderosa Pine. I would usually sit under the Ponderosa pine for a while and then stop by the Piñon to say hello with my hands, with my back, with my cheeks.

The intention of these walks is to reconnect with a world larger than the thinking mind, to ground myself in the presence of other than human beings, to be with and learn from creatures who seem to have found a simpler answer to what some of us think the question is here. Some time last year I started to write about these walks. Here are two walks from about a year ago.

Walk 1: I’m an Asshole

A couple of minutes into the trail, past the Chamisas, when I walk by the first of the taller trees, I stop by a young Douglas Fir to see it clearly, to be present with it. My thoughts are scattered, I have little concentration. It soon becomes clear that I want to be present but that I am not – that I want to see clearly but that I am basically blind to the tree. All I’m really here for is my desire to be present, to be quiet, to be at peace. I am such an experienced meditator, why can I not simply be present and let go of this stupid wanting? Have I learned nothing in all these years? Is it still all about me? I’m afraid it is.

And suddenly it slips out, loud and clear: I’m such an asshole!

I always want and want more, I am never satisfied, I’m completely self-centered – in short: I’m a total failure. It’s no use to try to be present with a tree, even that is just another expression of my narcissism. I pretend to wanting to be there with the tree, for the tree, but really I just want something from the tree, namely to feel good. I’m a hungry ghost! How pitiful. I walk on, anger welling up more and more, and this time I don’t hold back. I really do not like myself! I hate myself! And I’ve had it with having to love myself – I do not!

For the next hour or so I go on, listing all the ways in which I am worthless. This is the truth. I’m fucked up and nobody should tell me otherwise. I’m a failure, I’m a narcissist, and despicable. On and on I go, finding a wealth of material to confirm that I am indeed a hopeless case. But finally I settle on simply calling myself an asshole, over and over again. It seems sinful – I ought to love myself – but what the heck: this is truly how I feel about myself and I will no longer pretend otherwise.

Curiously, this ranting brings me to an odd kind of peace: as I no longer fight the self-hatred that has always been there, I feel relieved. I have arrived at a place of honesty where the struggle against these feelings has ended and I feel I can simply be myself, even though just an asshole. The self-hatred doesn’t go away with that but by removing the taboo I have more space to breath, I have given myself permission to be as I am rather than as I am supposed to be.

By the end of the walk I’m in a somber mood but quiet. I realize that there is gravity to this self-hatred but I feel relieved to not kid myself about it any longer. I feel balanced and grounded.


Walk 2: A Best Friend

Two weeks later on the same trail. I seem to fall into the same trap over and again:  The wanting trap / the lacking trap. I go on a hike and the sense of disconnect becomes so apparent. Here in this lovely valley, here are these beautiful trees – and I feel like a foreign object, a visitor, but not a part. I want to be embraced by the forest, acknowledged, but I feel tremendously lonely. It is as though the trees couldn’t care less about my presence, the birds have no interest in me – if anything I’m probably just a bother. I talk to the trees but what am I thinking: they can’t hear me or understand me and even if they could they probably wouldn’t have much interest in my human spouting. Worse: I would not understand their language. And so I go on, feeling sad and lonely, floating through a universe indifferent to my existence. I’m in distress but there is no one to hear me.

But, wait! Suddenly I notice that someone is listening. As I keep thinking about the many things that are difficult and overwhelming in my life, about how hard it is not to be heard or understood, how agonizing it is not to know and understand what this existence is about – suddenly I realize that I am listening, that I am understanding. I know exactly what I’m talking about! I continue my walk. I can talk with myself about anything and everything and I am completely understanding.

I have a friend!

Whatever I share is heard and understood, no questions, no criticism. I share my experiences with someone who has had the exact same experiences, has the same questions. How amazing it is to be fully understood, not to have to explain myself, to speak freely and to be listened to fully. Happily, I walk with myself and can now also share all the good things, point out the beautiful other presences I notice as I walk and rejoice in the beauty of life. Gone is the sense of separation.

My best friend quietly listens.


Postscript

Shortly after the first walk I went to see my occasional therapist. I told her about my experience and the staggering amount of self-hatred in me. She quietly listened and then only said: “Yes”. We didn’t discuss the matter much, she didn’t analyze it, she didn’t judge it, she didn’t try to make it better. She simply acknowledged what was there. How wonderful it is to be received.

Stefan Writes a Blog

This blog is an attempt to put in words a process of “coming to”, of exploring consciousness, connection, living. These are very personal accounts – written spontaneously with little editing – neither teachings nor necessarily success stories – but they are always about sincere attempts to awaken to a deeper truth. I share this publicly with some trepidation. After all, this comes from a Sensory Awareness Leader with 30-some years of being on a path of awakening, someone who has made it his passion and profession to guide people on a path to profound happiness, connection, healing and participation – someone who should have arrived!

Won’t it hurt my “résumé” if I declare publicly that happiness often eludes me, that I long for connection more than experiencing it, that I have not healed yet and that I am at times completely wrapped in my own story rather than participating in a world that cries out for help? Maybe.

However, it has often been my experience, that being open about my “shortcomings” can be a helpful tool, even though it is not a comfortable one, because I am not as perfect as I expect myself to be – and that may show. But who am I kidding? The truth is, I share this predicament with most people I meet. A student wrote a while ago about me being her “amazing inner wilderness guide”.  I thanked her for that compliment but said that I am often quite lost myself and maybe not such a trustworthy guide. She responded by saying that this was exactly what she liked so much about me, that I could be present with her where she is, rather than pretending I knew the way out.

And indeed, it is then that we feel most understood when we are being met where we are by someone who knows how it is to be there. From there we can venture out together through the often rather bewildering places life can take us to. From this place of not knowing we can explore and maybe even make ourselves at home instead of trying to escape.

I chose my Dharma name Joyful Dharma of the Source for this blog. I feel very fortunate to have been given this name by Therese Fitzgerald and Wendy Johnson, two beautiful Dharma teachers in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh. Joyful Dharma is also who I am – in spite of myself I do have access to a profound joy from a very deep source beyond the boundaries of ‘self’ and ‘other’, to a place that has always been at peace, connected and engaged. Deep within ourselves we know this place is right here, in the midst of the mess we’re in, though much of the time we cannot recognize it.

It is with all of this in mind that I share with you some of my meanderings in the wilderness of ‘self’ and ‘other’ – not because I think my experiences are particularly noteworthy. This is not about me but maybe I’ll meet you there and together we can awaken. May it be so.

Six Minutes at a Time


Presence and inquiry for the overwhelmed and otherwise challenged.

Having just moved, navigating through boxes, searching endlessly for things, and trying to find some kind of structure for the house, for my work day, I find myself overwhelmed and indecisive.  How can I even begin to be productive? I should sit and meditate. No, I should unpack. No I should respond to e-mails. I need to work.

I sit on my office chair and try to become quiet. But I am not quiet. I have little concentration. My mind wanders. I even try to figure out how to meditate now! I need to sit for a long time, that will help me. I need to be in my belly where there are no thoughts. Or maybe following my breath would be good. But nothing sticks, everything seems like too much.

This is then when I remember that I can dedicate myself to something for six minutes. That seems doable. I set the timer for six minutes, lean back on my chair and put my legs on the desk. No, I will not force myself into an upright and proper meditation position.

I also remember to set a clear intention for this. It could be anything but it needs to be something clearly defined. Otherwise I will get confused and frustrated. For the six minutes I will let bodily sensations be in the foreground. That is the intention to which I can keep coming back. It doesn’t matter how good I am at it. I simply come back to feeling bodily sensations when I remember.

After six minutes I feel considerably more grounded. I want more. My intention for the next 6 minutes is to become grounded in the darkness of my lower belly and sacrum. Everything else will not be important and immediately dropped when I become aware of it. For that I want to sit upright and on the edge of my chair, feet on the floor.

When the timer goes off next I feel energized. I’m finally ready to write that e-mail I’ve been wanting to write for days. It shouldn’t take more than six minutes. I set the timer and go and do it.

Now I’m ready for the day. I will keep the timer close to me and use it as needed, when ever I feel overwhelmed and indecisive.