Meditation as Participation

For this week’s blog, I want to share a talk and guided meditation for you to listen to and take part.

Meditation as participation is a rich theme which I explore in my work frequently. In short, what I mean by this is that when we meditate (when we do anything) we are not observers of reality but participants among many other participants in the web of life.

Sensory Awareness and other forms of “present moment work”, especially sitting meditation, where we don’t “do” anything but sit and perceive, may sometimes be confused with witnessing or observing what is going on, but – as we also know from modern physics – we are not removed from and peering into a reality separate from us but always active participants, even when just “following the breath” or seeing someone in despair. Perception is not passive receiving but interaction with (and interpretation of) another presence/agent.

What we interact with – air, wood, cars, glass, frogs, distant mountain tops – are also participants. Be it the air we breath or the earth under our feet – whatever we do, we do with “someone”: walking, breathing, touching. We may consider ourselves to be the main agent when we do something but what about the water when we are washing dishes? It may consider us to be mere assistants in its task while it is really the one doing the washing.

Guided Meditation and Experiential Talk
Given for the Santa Fe Vipassana Sangha on February 22, 2011 

When I took my first Sensory Awareness workshop I had already been a dedicated Buddhist practitioner for several years. I quickly realized that the two approaches not only complemented each other beautifully but that Sensory Awareness gave my meditation practice a solidity and grounded it in everyday life in ways I had not experienced before. It has been my wish ever since to bring the two practices together in my work and in the life of others.

I recommend that you participate in the guided meditation rather than just listening to it. It takes about 20 minutes and can be done sitting up or lying down.

You can also partake in the talk. You will need a fellow participant, like a rock, a mug, or some other “thing”. In this talk we used stones and sand bags but it may be worth having an everyday object ready, such as a cup or plate or something from your office desk. Including a fellow human might be even more fun.

Feel free to download the meditation and talk.

A Model of Experiencing

In the foreground of my experience is a burning, stabbing, pain in the left shoulder, radiating to just above the elbow and then further down into the index finger. The experience itself is beyond words, is what it is. Though I can describe it – burning, throbbing – words are not part of what I feel. The experience is unpleasant, and a moment ago I had a strong reaction of aversion. Along with that came thoughts of disapproval, anger, and generally wanting for the experience to not be there.

Now that I give myself to feeling it, though the unpleasantness is still there, there is very little to no rejection of the sensations. I can explore them further and, like a cluster of stars in the night sky, different places of discomfort group together to seemingly form a pattern. Aching in the left index finger, a stabbing pain just above the left shoulder blade, a similar pain in the middle of my back on the left side towards my buttocks. These three areas are connected, the discomfort clearly interdependent.

As soon as I let go of the aversion (or should I say: as soon as I am interested and the aversion fades away), I have opportunity to explore the sensations in their many facets. Suddenly I become aware of breathing and how the breath moves towards the pain in the shoulder. Aware of the movement of breath, I also become aware of new expectations and the mind becomes active: maybe this will take care of the pain. Aversion is flaring up a bit again and with it the desire to get rid of the discomfort.

The expectation that the pain go away makes it hard to feelingly be with it. I may not be able to get rid of this expectation, but I notice that what’s happening in the shoulder happens independently of desires. Could I allow it? Can I let it take its course? I notice that I now want for the breath to be there instead of allowing it to be there. I’m tempted to push it that way. Instead of allowing and reflecting, I expect and want for something specific to happen.

Then I drop into a different place, without doing. Suddenly, that peaceful darkness in my lower belly outshines all other sensation. Unmoved but holding it all together, it is the silence at the center of my experience, subtly but persistently radiant.

I realize that, though I describe these experiences as happening one after the other, they might as well happen at once: allowing and pushing, expecting and experiencing, being, stillness.

I’ve been working with an image lately that describes this process quite accurately. In this image Earth is the place of experiencing, drawn as a circle with a cross, the actuality of here and now. The Moon circling the Earth symbolizes momentum and mood. Together they circumambulate the Sun in an elegant dance.

  • The dynamic dance of the moon around earth and sun makes for a wild ride, easily causing serious nausea. It is just like that when I am swept away by emotions. Though I often seek that thrill and sometimes enjoy it, it more often than not is a source of much distress.
  • The experience of living on earth is constantly changing too, but her center of gravity provides a focal point that keeps me balanced in the midst of activity.
  • The heart of our solar system, like my lower belly, is a centering force and a source of joy beyond the pleasures of the dance of moon and earth.

Much of the time I seem to be dwelling on moon, being swept back and forth between expectation and disappointment, looking for pleasant experiences on earth: instant gratification. I’m happy when things go my way, while the unexpected throws me out of kilter: when I like what’s happening, I go for it, when I dislike it, I fight.

However: When I am able to move from  reacting to what is happening to the actual earthly experience, then I become grounded in the midst of movement, at home with earth. Things are still pleasant or unpleasant but I respond from a place of connection, engaging with the moment’s occurrences rather than reacting emotionally to their feeling tone.

Beyond the realm of like and dislike there is a place of being, unmoved by the moment’s moods. The quivering heart of the solar system, the sun, is not detached from daily life, but rather its collecting hub, holding it all together and flooding it with joy.

This radiant still-point is often hidden by clouds (especially if you live in New England). But that does not mean the sun is not there. Sight is but one way of perceiving what is. Taking time to come to living from the heart of the matter is crucial for well being. Not once a day but over and again. Because it is always here, it really doesn’t take any time to get to. Yet it does need practice or the cloud-cover will distract us. The entrance door is sensing, the felt and engaged awareness of our moment to moment experience – living on earth. From there we might awaken to that centering force which, like gravity, penetrates everything persistently with its radiance. I may call it being but, ultimately, it has no words or images and is largely a mystery to me (though only when thinking about it).

Images. Useful for reflection. Now it is time to leave the gallery of representations and plunge into living again, where sun and moon and earth and pain and joy are one in a continuous, vibrant, dance – nameless but known.

Spontaneous Song

I. In Search of a New Language

I am strangely joyful this evening,
Without reason.

Morning hike by Willard Pond. Intention clear:
To drop out of planning and into the flesh I am.
No goals but to feelingly be every step among these trees.
Alive in muscle and bone today,
Connected to the ground under me
And all that water from the rains.

This human mind is not exactly quiet
But not as tightly holding now,
Letting flesh and bones live
Just like the old oak passing by
As I bounce and run.

That’s what I have to offer.
A place for us to awaken –
Will you join me in the Mindful Barn?

Not only sitting on that cushion.
But rolling and jumping too
And trusting that juicy presence we are.
In the woods, in the cities.

I sometimes wonder about “Mindfulness”,
When there is so much that is tangibly alive.
We need to find a new language
For being awake, being
This living mind that is body,
This living body that is mind,
Body-fullness, flesh-fullness,
This cell-fulness we are.

Mindfulness – does it not, with subtlety,
Perpetuate division?
Body – Mind
And mind still over matter.
How confused does it get?!
Just look at the earth, feel and taste her!
There must be another way to speak of this
Presence and life, this cellular wakefulness everywhere.

Mindfulness is not enough.
Static it sounds, and tame, and nicely polished.
What about climbing a tree, what about leaping of joy,
And losing myself in the eyes of a cat?
What about rubbing against a boulder and rolling in mud,
And realizing it is not other?
No-mind, imbued by consciousness.
And that is not new language yet.
Maybe it has to be voiced by my feet
Gestured by my belly.

II. Death of the Cool or Who gets to Sing?

What about quietly sitting by the gushing stream
Until I sing out loud,
A song of joy, a song of longing?
All is in it as I
Sit by the water, aching to be one,
To be fully embraced,
To be emptied and then
A riverbed for something bigger than I.

A Buddhist having thoughts like this?
To be washed through by divine power?
Really?
But here it is the longing
And I give it voice.
I ask to be taken in, to be deleted.
To be filled by that which is the source of all.

Not Buddha cool, again, I think.
But by denial
Longing does not go away.
I do not know why it is here.
Nor from where it comes.
That childish call for the divine.
Do I need to?
Here it is. Better to give it voice.
Better to not pretend.

And so I sing.
I sing to the woods I sing to the water I sing to the earth
I call for the presence beyond the presence,
Not because it is there but because the longing is.
That is my business.
To give voice to what I know now.
Not cool but real.

To overcome the shame and sing.
Loudly and fully – and joyfully.
Here I am, knowing little but what stirs in me.
Broken but not shattered.

The Never Ending Story(s) of the Confused Mind

Strong, agonizing pain, emotional distress in my chest this morning when I wake up. No words to it – but thinking is very active trying to figure it out, trying to untie the knot. The unpleasantness of the pain sparks aversion. Not all the time – for moments it is just pain, just sensation. The next moment again it seems unbearable and I want it to end.

The internal battle begins:
“This has to go away, it is too painful, it is frightening.”
“No! I have to do something about it, accept it, feel it, be with it. I shouldn’t have an averse reaction. I should only be patiently feeling what is happening. I should not have the wish for the pain to go away.”
“No! It’s okay to have these thoughts and feelings of aversion. Don’t try to get rid of them.”
“No! This is unbearable. It has to stop.”
“No! I should completely accept the pain.”
Anger rising, frustration, agony.
This is the perpetual battle of the confused mind. No solution will be found here.

It appears to be almost impossible to simply stay with sensation that is unpleasant. Especially when it is emotionally charged. There always seems to be an expectation that it go away or that at least it could be understood.

Here it comes again into the foreground: burning pain. But now it is not as much emotion as it is sensation. I can be more easily with that.

I take refuge in a place that is at peace, somewhere between bellybutton and sacrum, an open space, vast and dark: From here all is fine.
From my chest nothing is fine: Burning, fear, doubt. Here is the realm of judgment, the battlefield of right and wrong, where nothing will ever be solved. It is the kingdom of never-ending uncertainty. Its only match is breath.

Breath: Somewhere between the peace of the belly and the terror of the chest, preferring neither. Breathing is the neutral force, where what is, is just what it is. It is as though breathing keeps the two sides from one another, from getting at one another, creating space, as it were, between good and evil, between pleasant and unpleasant. Equanimity.

It is very important to distinguish between perception and thinking. This burning sensation in my chest right now is simply sensation. There are absolutely no words attached to it. There is not even like or dislike attached to it. It is just sensation. I can describe it with words: burning, for example. I can have an internal dialogue about it, analyze it. But there is no trace of that in the sensation itself. Is there any inherent aversion? No, but that response is very close, like the moon circling the Earth.

Please note, especially if you have not read my last post on exploring:
These writings are not theory but practice. They are not a map but reports from the territory, from the immediacy of experiencing. 
Maps are available @ Sensory Awareness, Buddhism, Psychotherapy and many other locations. I recommend that you study them and that you follow the advice of an experienced guide when you need it – and I hope that you’ll know when you do. I sometimes think I know my way and get terribly lost. I have also used maps showing trails going nowhere. That’s even worse than not having one. At times, however, it is good to have the map snatched out of your hand and get lost in the pathless land so you can find your own way – or simply sit down by a brook and enjoy where you are.
Then, there is also the W.C. Fields attitude in International House, when someone suggested that maybe he is lost, he responds: “Kansas City is lost! I am here!”

Exploring

This entry was to be the introduction to a report of an experience a while back that seemed to call for an explanation. It now is relevant enough to stand on its own. It may sound a bit theoretical but it is important, so please bear with me. In it, I explain a central tenet of Sensory Awareness. The term Sensory Awareness, as I use it, refers to a specific practice based on the work of Elsa Gindler as Charlotte Selver offered it and which lives on in her students. (More on the work here)
Wow, I just wrote a preface to the introduction to next weeks blog.

The beauty of Sensory Awareness lies in the question: “What is your experience?” It is an invitation to explore. In a session, this question underlies an agreed-upon task, which can be as simple as coming from sitting to standing. Ideally, as a teacher* I give as little guidance (and philosophy!) as necessary but enough to provide students with a  framework within which to explore coherently. This is usually done by asking open-ended questions, such as: “As you get ready to come from sitting to standing, can you feel that there is something under you which supports you? Can you feel that something pulls on you, pulls downward? And what in you arouses in response to the pull and the support of the earth that allows for the coming to standing to happen?” Such questions are hopefully not premeditated but arise in the moment from my own experience and from what I notice by seeing the students work.

The questions serve as pointers to experience. Is it possible not to ponder them but to let them sink into our tissues and to then allow for what wants to happen to unfold? The questions are not to be answered through internal dialogue. I may later ask the student what her experience was but until then it is not necessary to verbalize, though incredibly hard not to, because we are so conditioned to give immediate answers to teachers (and the right ones too).

In Charles Brooks’ eloquent words, what we offer in Sensory Awareness is “the rediscovery of experiencing”.  The teacher’s questions ought to give authority/agency to the experiencing student to find out for herself.** In this sense, the students are not “our” students and we are – as Charlotte often pointed out – not teachers, but together we study living, “our attitude towards life”, and how life could be, if we lived without an “attitude”.

This does not mean “anything goes” as one excited student once remarked after back-to-back sessions led by first Charlotte and then myself. It seemed to her that I was giving students more freedom to do what they wanted. I was mortified. No, on the contrary: giving students more freedom means to give them more responsibility. “Here is the task. How do you go about it?” is not an invitation to do ‘whatever’ but a request for diligence and for taking responsibility for one’s own experience. It is not: “How do I want to do this?” but “How does this want to happen?”. Not an easy proposition. In Charlotte’s words: “Sensory Awareness is a demanding mistress.”

An important aspect of Sensory Awareness is reporting back to teacher and fellow students, so we can compare notes, as it were (more on the art of reporting another time). It is with this in mind that I write here. My entries are reports from my own experience rather than teachings of a method, and meant to inspire you to find out for yourself, diligently, playfully. They are spontaneous writings in response often to intentional exploration of real situations. I share them and then ask: “What is your experience?”

After such a report, Charlotte’s sole comment often was: “This was your experience.” (Sometimes followed by: “Now forget it!”, meaning: This might have been an important finding but don’t let expectations get in the way of experiencing anew next time.)

*Or, as Charlotte Selver preferred to call us, leader (because our task is to guide and not to teach.)

** Again, the Buddha’s “be an island onto yourself”. (Beware: this link is supposed to get you to the respective quote on top of the page but your mind might get sucked into the startling title for the next chapter of the Sutta.)

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.