Gratitude Is My Experience

August 17, 2034

A Memoir (yet to be lived)

I’m seventy four and I’ve lived joyfully for fifteen years.

I remember vividly that morning exactly fifteen years ago, when my eyes opened to a grey New Hampshire sky. I woke up a little later than I would usually, after a surprisingly restful night. I lay in bed, happily thinking about — nothing. The crickets were loud and the noise a of semi on nearby 202 soared over their chirping like a wailing guitar. I lay there comfortably for a little while and then I got up, looking forward to my morning meditation on the porch.

This is when it occurred to me that something was “off.” There had been no resistance whatsoever to waking, no burden on my chest, no quarreling with myself about getting up or not, no not wanting to face the day. Now I noticed this profound sense of content flowing through me, a feeling of joy and well-being beyond words which hasn’t left me since. For a second something stirred in me, wanted to rebel — wait, where’s my burden, why is noting weighing on me, what is wrong, what am I kidding myself about? — but then those thoughts quickly melted away into a smile and a warm feeling in my stomach as in a delighted response to remembering a childhood friend. There was noting to worry about. Rain started falling gently on the dark, green leaves of the mature summer forest.

I went about my business that day, as I have done every day since, simply engaging with what called for my attention next — without resistance. Making tea, sitting silently in meditation, walking those few meditative steps on the porch with a lively sense of oneness with the earth. Then I sat down at the desk to begin my workday. Few thoughts interrupted work, though I’d occasionally stop and wonder what was happening? Where is the resistance? Why am I happy? Then I’d smile, sigh, enjoy a tingling in my feet, and continue to write.

As the day unfolded, I noticed other strange changes. That is, I noticed familiar things not happening that had been part of my everyday experience for much of my life. I didn’t feel overwhelmed, for example, by the tasks on my to-do list, or distracted by incoming emails. I just did what I did, and then the next thing. And when I got sleepy late in the morning, I didn’t second-guess myself but lay down on the floor for twenty minutes, profoundly enjoying the support of the floor and dozing off a for a while. Then I got up and resumed work, refreshed and with renewed focus.

When, by lunch time, I still hadn’t experienced a moment of resistance, loneliness, unhappiness with my fate, or fatigue, I called a friend and asked her, jokingly, if she thought something was wrong with me. “I’m so happy,” I told her, “will you come and pinch me so that I’ll wake up from this strange dream?” We laughed and then she said that my voice was different. She couldn’t say exactly how, it seemed to her like a lack of something that was usually in my voice.

“I’m no longer a victim,” I responded to my own surprise as she was trying to describe what she was – or wasn’t – hearing.

I was no longer a victim of life’s strange twists and turns — and I haven’t had that sense at all since. Maybe that’s at the heart of what changed that day. Things simply happen. Not that they are not sad, and sometimes difficult, or challenging. That didn’t change. But my response completely changed. The best way I can say it is that things were not happening “to me.” They were simply occurring and I responded — I still do, gratefully so every day, fifteen years later. And happily so, joyfully.

That was at first the most “disturbing” thing. How could I be suddenly happy in a world that hadn’t changed at all, in a world full of misery? But, see, that question did not have any traction anymore and quickly faded away due to a complete lack of doubt. Doubt was gone! I’ve been living with a profound sense of trust ever since. It’s not that I think everything is or will be “fine”. It’s actually rather a complete lack of thinking or evaluating situations in this way and expecting a particular outcome. It’s more a sense of trust in the moment, which is always unknown and mysterious. But not questioned. I do still prefer outcomes that are beneficial for people, for the environment, for the earth, outcomes that bring ease and healing. I sincerely hope for that and work toward that. But I do not dwell on or get weighed down by how things are going. I may be sad, deeply sad, for a while. But it’s a very different kind of sadness. It doesn’t linger. It’s more like a thunder storm which then is followed by renewed life and joy to be and to respond as best as I can — neither knowing nor doubting but listening and engaging.

Without guilt. Oh, yes, I almost forgot that feeling. Guilt used to reign my life. I barely remember it now. It’s hard to believe but for much of the first fifty-nine years of my life the very sense of happiness seemed to be an indication of wrongdoing, of disregard. To live was to be guilty, my sheer existence was proof of guilt. I always lived with an undercurrent of thinking that I shouldn’t really exist and I suspect that is, in part, why I became a Buddhist – I somehow hoped that I could meditate myself into non-being. And then, that day fifteen years ago, I suddenly didn’t need to apologize for being or for feeling good. This was very strange at first and it took some time to get used to the fact that it was okay to be happy. But even then, it was only moments of questioning followed by a wave of warmth and release through my chest, washing away any doubting my right to live a happy life.

I’m still surprised by my happiness at times. But only for moments. Then a smile emerges on my lips as I remember the man I was so many years ago who thought that life was against him, and I joyfully go back to engaging with this wondrous world.

Allowing

The first autumn winds are blowing through New Hampshire and the sky is of a deep blue. The crisp air clears my head too. This is not something I was looking for. I simply notice a sudden clarity in my head and how refreshing the wind feels on my bare skin and how this spreads through me. What happened ‘by itself’ I sometimes try in vain to achieve through Sensory Awareness*.

IMG_1970

I have been very interested in ‘allowing’ lately. We are often quite obsessed with trying to change what we believe needs to be different – including ourselves. As Sensory Awareness ‘experts’ we might work hard to try to ‘allow change’. But what if the conditions are not such that change is possible?  Can I allow for something to be as it is? How would that affect my quality of life?

Much of the time I might go as far as ‘accepting’ something but really only under the condition that the undesired will eventually – soon! – go away. Such ‘acceptance’ is really a subtle form of aversion and might even stand in the way of change. To engage with things as they are is different. We may still not like them but as we become participants instead of victims, we might – for moments – be free of the desire for things to be ‘better’.

When we are able to let go in this way, when our attitude towards things and events changes, we often experience beauty where just a moment ago we could only see misery. And sometimes, sometimes, it just happens that something gives way to change – as if by itself.

* Substitute with your preferred system of inquiry and “present-moment-work”, such as mindfulness meditation.  ‘Sensory Awareness’ here refers to a specific practice. For more, go to http://www.mindfulnessinmotion.net. 

Life Has No Meaning: What a Relief!

or

Landscapes of Sensations

The humming of a compressor by the library three houses over keeps penetrating the outer layers of my consciousness, traveling straight to a raw spot all too close to center. It is more than a humming – overtones and undertones and felt vibration, in my head mostly. I am working at my desk and periodically I notice the discomfort this hum causes. It hurts. I complain: when is this going to stop. It’s too much! Immediately followed by my own unsolicited “spiritual” advice: I shouldn’t have a reaction to this. This is aversion. A liberated being is not bound by craving but welcomes things as they are.

I have become keenly aware lately how I constantly push myself to do things differently and better. No wonder I get tired and depressed. Not only does the world not do my bidding – I don’t do my bidding either and I fall far short of my own expectations! I constantly demand of myself to be different, to be present, to be kind, to be efficient – rarely do I let myself just be. I can apparently not be trusted and need constant supervision. I live in a correctional facility – skillfully camouflaged as it may be to look like a sophisticated Buddhist temple. I carry it with me like a snail does her house. But a snail’s house is not built of concrete walls, surrounded by hidden barbed wire and staffed with obnoxious guards!

And though I have become somewhat of an escape artist – no wonder! – I keep getting thrown back into the hole. One thing that keeps me locked up in this penitentiary is the idea that life is about me and about doing good and growing and becoming a better person. But have I become the spiritual master I think I need to be – or have I merely mastered the art of policing myself?

I’m always looking for meaning in everything. Just like the people I hear saying: we are here to learn.

Nothing against learning but – really!?

Life is more than a classroom. I feel increasingly bored with that notion – though I am apparently in the business of helping people who also want to learn and become better persons.

Could we stop this? For moments at least?

I love to move, I love to play and interact with the earth’s pull on this chair
and I really enjoy seeing you touching the floor under your naked feet.
I love to feel this breath gently moving through me.

I love to carry that bucket of milk for Sarah.
And mucking I enjoy. That goat pee is pungent.


Movement Studies. Workshop with Amoz Hetz in Zurich.
Photo by Cornelia Sachs.

The other day I walked through the woods, pestering myself with endless questions about the meaning of life and why I haven’t figured it all out yet, and when I would – and when I would finally manage to be one with everything, at which point everything would be perfect.

What a relief, when I suddenly heard myself say: Life has no meaning!

Finally I could just be, along with everything else, in this mysterious, beautiful and dreadful world.

Moments of sheer freedom – until I heard that voice saying: But!

But this time, I was awake for it and saw: this ‘but’ is but another miracle among the many colorful leaves gently tumbling through the autumn air, sailing towards the welcoming forest pool.

Together we practice Sensory Awareness, we meditate, we move, we are mindful. All in a relatively futile attempt to finally be good enough and please – our parents, the universe, god, who knows – most of all we fail to please ourselves, to measure up to our own image of who and how we should be. How did we get in this mess? This is not your fault, I hear Wes Nisker say and I smile. I love Wes.

Sensory Awareness, moving, mindfulness, spiritual practice, to use another trendy term,  is much more than achieving something and I have less and less interest in helping you – or myself, for that matter, to become a better person. I am forever puzzled by our sheer existence, by the raindrops plopping into the puddle outside my window. Why is there anything rather than nothing? There are these moments when I can ask such questions not because I need an answer but as an expression of wonder and affection.

I love “working” with you in this way. Being.

Landscapes of sensations through what we call shoulders. What is this? Someone writing this blog says: my shoulders are aching. Maybe – but what a miracle: sensation, consciousness.

The humming of the compressor has stopped.

A breath. Where did it come from? Now it’s gone.

 

Addendum: In response to this post, my dear friend and clowning mentor, Ann Willcutt, sent me part 7 of Mary Oliver’s amazing poem Rain. Oliver’s choice of the word ‘purpose’ may be a more accurate expression for what I mean with ‘meaning’.

Titled The Forest, Mary Oliver’s poem ends like this:

Where life has no purpose,
and is neither civil nor intelligent,
it begins
to rain,
it begins
to smell like the bodies
of flowers. 
At the back of the neck
the old skin splits.
The snake shivers
but does not hesitate.
He inches forward.
He begins to bleed through
like satin.

Thank you, Ann – and thank you, Mary.

A Meditation on The Mystery of Experience and Imagination

I sit leaning against a tree. Flooded by thoughts, it is a miracle that I can feel my breath touching the bark and the gentle but persistent push of the tree against my ribs. How simple life is in this dialogue, how thoroughly satisfying – how tangled it gets in my thoughts. But there is no denying it: both that dialogue and my thoughts exist for now and I cannot wish one away.

When I come home and want to write, my thoughts are so scattered, I do not know where to begin. I notice something in me struggling to get hold of the breath. How exactly it happens I do not understand but I’d say it is a wholesome habit. Without such an anchor I cannot find a beginning.

For a while it seems impossible to get there, so loud and demanding are thoughts. What is it that drives them? But questions like this are tricky: they might only lead to more thinking. If the answer does not reveal itself in the experience, I’d rather not spend my time speculating.

Finally, here is the breath: calm and warm and peaceful. No struggle – only thinking trying to explain the phenomena. But it is recognized before it gets tangled up with the breath. Good enough for now. I can write. I realize that it is not either all peace or all struggle: in my experience, they appear to exist alongside and wanting only peace is war. But when my intention is clear, I can ground myself in peace rather quickly by being present in what can be felt and touched and heard and seen, whether it is comfortable or not. With no preconceived notion – just sensing. I guess that’s why we call it Sensory Awareness. It is the foundation for living gracefully.

When grounded like this I can write from experience rather than letting the mind weave its alluring cloth of imaginary perfection. Mind is so good at dreaming the life of unobstructed happiness but reality keeps intervening and there is no counting on it to follow the mind’s script.

I have had these moments of understanding lately, where the two appear as parallel universes: the dreamlike mental fabrications and the tangible reality of day-to-day experience. And it really does feel like dreaming and somehow knowing that I am, but the dream is so convincing I keep getting confused. When I sit, quietly experiencing, I notice that quickly the commentary pushes the actual experience into the background. This process is subtle and in a way fun to notice. What I tell myself about what is happening, presents itself as the real thing. It’s like listening to a radio report about what is going on where I already am.* Somehow, the account appears more real or trustworthy than reality. It is as hard to come back to experiencing as it is to wake up from a dream at night. But not impossible – for moments at a time.

The constant friction between wish and reality has bruised me so much, I wake up wailing in the morning. But it is reality really so bad? No, that does not seem to be the problem. When I center myself in moment to moment experience I am fine with things as they are and happy to engage with them – though, frankly, such moments require cultivation and very often I refuse to live in the present but believe that my dreamed up narrative of life is better than the real thing. So, instead of living what is, I demand for things to be the way I want them to be. The perfect recipe for suffering, though knowing this does not seem to keep me from engaging in this “practice” with great vigor.

Or maybe it is not all that complicated: I just don’t like to be uncomfortable. When it hurts I pull away. And maybe that’s okay – if I can get away. But when I can’t, but refuse to be with what is, I have a problem.

I do no want to oversimplify what is ultimately mysterious. There is a place for dreaming and thinking. How the world we meet with our senses and what we may call imagination weave the fabric of life is beyond my comprehension. Just like what we call “body” and “mind” cannot be separated (and are not separate from the rest of the world), so are images part of the real that can be touched and tasted, smelled, heard and seen. Whether or not thoughts/images illuminate or obstruct what is real, that is our challenge to meet.

The beauty of this moment of touching the bark of the tree with my breath is all too easily covered with a web of imagery and desire, removing me from reality. That encounter is sacred and it needs space and time to unfold in consciousness. It has a depth and “realness” to it that I cherish deeply. It reveals the kinship with that which is more than I, a richness untouched by words.

Closing remark for Buddhists (and Sensory Awareness folks): Buddhist teachings, such as the Satipatthana Sutta, recommend that we sit erect under trees and do not lean against them. That is good practice. It keeps us alert and engaged with the pull of the earth and the strength of its density. However, it is good to lean and touch too for the world has other textures that are as revealing as a well-balanced brain on top of a spine.

* Now that reveals my age. I guess more timely images would be texting or twittering.

What Should We Be Tasting Now?

Edward Espe Brown in an interview with Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt

While teaching in Europe and with little time at hand for writing, I’d like to share with you some fascinating interviews I conducted as part of my Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book ProjectThese interviews are an important source of information for my work on an extensive biography of Charlotte Selver, but beyond that they are a wonderful collection of voices in their own right of people whose lives have been touched by her. Enjoy!

Ed Brown first met Charlotte Selver and Charles Brooks at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in the 1960s, where he was the head cook at that time. Charlotte and Charles were frequent guests at Tassajara where they conducted workshops every summer for many years. The following is an edited excerpt of my conversation with Ed.

Ed Brown

Edward Espe Brown began Zen practice and cooking in 1965 and was ordained as a priest by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in 1971. His teaching style is both light-hearted and penetrating, incorporating poetry and story-telling. Having been head resident teacher at each of the San Francisco Zen Centers: Tassajara, Green Gulch, and City Center, he has also led meditation retreats and cooking classes throughout the United States, as well as Austria, Germany, Spain, and England. Author of several cookbooks includingThe Tassajara Bread Book and Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings, and editor of Not Always So, a book of lectures by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (June, 2002), he has also done extensive Vipassana practice and on-and-off yoga since 1980. In recent years he has begun leading workshops on Liberation Through Handwriting and Mindfulness Touch, and taken up the practice of chi gung. His critically acclaimed movie How to Cook Your Life premiered in October, 2007. The Complete Tassajara Cookbook, a collection of his writings, was published in September, 2009. For more information go to: www.peacefulseasangha.com
Ed Brown: What Charlotte Selver was teaching is so unusual and it’s difficult for people to get. I remember one of the classes at Tassajara. She was instructing people: “Now turn your head to the right, and then turn it back.” And right away somebody asked: “How are we supposed to do that?” Many years later when I started teaching cooking classes I would say: “Let’s taste this”, and then people would ask: “What should we be tasting?” It’s so hard to get people to just taste. Somehow, many people would rather have the right experience than the experience they’re having.

I now teach something I call mindfulness touch. Part of the inspiration for that is having done classes with Charlotte Selver and Charles Brooks at Tassajara. In mindfulness touch it’s the same thing – mindfulness is the Buddhist concept for experiencing something without judging good/bad, without assessing right/wrong. Just to experience something. This is very challenging, but I’ve come to understand that as long as you’re judging, then you’re not experiencing. Touch mostly comes with directives, and I think most moments of consciousness come with directives, and when you’re giving out directives about what to do or how to be, then how do you experience anything?

I had some experience with Charlotte and Charles finding this out. But it took years to have that really come to fruition in my life. And then it’s so hard to shift. I had terrible childhood trauma. I don’t know what other people experience but the more I started just experiencing what’s inside instead of trying to make sure I was experiencing the right thing I went right into that.

I used to go to Charlotte’s and Charles’ classes on the back porch of the dining room in Tassajara. I would be so tired in the afternoon. I was working so hard and sleeping so little. But when I would go to one of their classes I’d be refreshed after an hour of just having awareness rather than “I need to this, I have to that.”

There’s a story that Charlotte told me about how she started doing Sensory Awareness. I use it a lot when I do Qi Gong with people. The kind of Qi Gong I do is not about getting it right, it is about sensing the movement rather than executing the movement. I don’t know if Charlotte used that language, but it’s what I’ve come to: “Don’t execute the movement, sense the movement.”

Stefan: She wouldn’t use those words but that’s what she did.

Ed: Charlotte heard about a teacher named Elsa Gindler and went to see her. She told Elsa: “I’d like to study with you.” And Elsa said: “You know too much, you can’t study with me.” And somehow Charlotte persisted until finally Elsa said okay. Charlotte said for a year she just thought Elsa was teaching the most wonderful things and everything she said was so brilliant and wise but, she said, “she just didn’t seem to really acknowledge me. When she looked at me she didn’t really seem to be appreciating my being there. And then, after about a year one day Elsa turned to me and she said, ‘Oh, thank God, Charlotte, at last, an authentic movement. You’re not posturing.’” Charlotte said it got a lot harder after that.

So that’s another thing I try to teach people, the difference between being authentic and posturing, or the difference between approval-seeking behaviors and being present and alive and showing up. Sometimes I call it getting real. And I don’t see a lot of people getting real. Zen people are often in that category, but not always. There are some Zen people who seem to be more real than others.

Stefan: In Zen you have this challenge of having a very clear form and you have to be real in it. And very often people confuse that and they try to be that form.

Ed: Yes, people confuse that and they try to be the form. Suzuki Roshi said we do formal practice with informal feeling, but a lot of people do formal practice with formal feeling. On the other hand I think that it is very difficult for people coming to Sensory Awareness directly, and not having some practice of “here’s what you do and this is how you do it”.

Stefan: That is an interesting point. I have worked with people in Switzerland who were peers of Charlotte and students of Gindler and Jacoby, and I know that in Berlin there is a precision that Charlotte had left behind. Not that she was not precise, but she, in a way, I guess she went right for the heart of it.

Ed: I do think that over the years Charlotte must have noticed that a lot of people at Zen Center are pretty “fixed” and doing something the way that they should be doing it as opposed to experiencing something about what’s going on. I’ve been trying to teach that for years, and I’m about as successful probably as Charlotte was, but who knows.

I now have a lot of tasting in my classes. Sometimes I take strawberries, and we taste the strawberries and then I add a little bit of maple syrup: “Oh, that’s nice.” And then we put on a few drops of balsamic vinegar – but not so much that you taste vinegar, but that little bit of tartness and they say: “Boy, this tastes more like strawberry now.” And then a few delicate grinds of black pepper and then they say, “It’s not like it’s peppery or like it’s hot in your mouth, but it’s even more like strawberries.” It seems like you can get strawberries to taste even more like strawberries if you’re careful and you don’t over season.

Stefan: Charlotte used the analogy of tasting a lot, asking us to taste a movement even.

Ed: Yes, well, I have had the experience over the years that some movements or things are much more delicious than others.

I’m working on a new book now about my life. I’m starting out with the time at Tassajara when after nineteen years of Zen practice I one day I was thinking well what do I do today while I’m sitting, and the thought came to me, why don’t I just touch what’s inside, with some warmth and kindness. And right away the tears started pouring down my face, and a little voice said, “It’s about time.” So that’s how long it took me – nineteen years of Zen practice – to get around to just experiencing something more analogous to Sensory Awareness. I had a lot of work to do with all of that. I don’t know if that’s true for everybody but certainly for people who had childhood abuse and alcoholic parents it seems like there’s a lot of residual drama which would make it very difficult to practice Sensory Awareness. To open to a kind of internal reality or just sensing what is you have to break a lot of rules. There are rules about that that you’ve made for yourself and if you break the rules you can’t help believing that you’re going to get hurt.

Stefan: It’s interesting that one would then choose a practice like Zen that has so many rules.

Ed: Well, it’s what’s safe – up to a point. I saw Katagiri Roshi after that. He was the interim abbot then, and I said, “Katagiri Roshi, in meditation I’m just touching what’s inside. Is that okay? Is that Zen?” And he said, “Ed, for twenty years I tried to do the zazen of Dogen before I realized there’s no such thing.” There is no getting it right, there is no way you need to be.

I do understand something about being in touch with things and actually sensing things and knowing for yourself what’s what and not having a fixed body that you need to keep. But there is something about the form of Zen that sometimes there’s almost nothing you can do besides study some difficulty. There does seem to be some usefulness in that there’s enough structure. I needed structure. Emotions are mostly from our early childhood. Emotions aren’t about today. Feelings from before get triggered. I’ve gotten lost in that for years and I spent years finding my way out of all that and so it’s hard to know what is useful or appropriate to be doing with oneself. I think that Zen in theory – formal practice with informal feeling, outwardly you are manifesting your life, inwardly you can unravel – can be very useful but I don’t think most people get that. Most people think the thing to do with your life is to keep it together but ideally you keep it together and fall apart. Otherwise you’re just keeping it together and then all this stuff that you haven’t dealt with is going to get you sick.

Suzuki Roshi used to say hindrances become the opportunity for practice. Difficulties are the way. But I think most people understand no, I’ll just do this Sensory Awareness and breeze on through. And in the meantime the people who are sitting still in the zendo say: “Well, I’m accomplishing this practice.”

Stefan: We do want to keep it together. This is really interesting for me because I’ve wondered about why we do what we do – and is it really useful?

Ed: It’s really hard to know.

Stefan: Even in Sensory Awareness I have noticed that we can trick ourselves into sensing something that is not actually there.

Ed: I spent years just trying to see if I could breathe. In Buddhism over and over people say follow the breath and I’ve studied what is allowing the breath. You can think you’re allowing the breath and it turns out you’re just having it go the way you tell it to go. And then every so often you notice something about your breath like, “oh, I guess I was creating that after all.” It’s very hard to have experience that’s really actually fresh and new, immediate. But that seems to be extremely powerful, extremely important for waking up in some way rather than just “can I get better at creating the experience I should be having.”

Stefan: I’m also seeing that whatever we do will always be new experience but from some previous condition. What is fresh experience? In Buddhism you talk of original nature. I have abandoned that notion. What is that even?

Ed: It’s a word. It’s a concept. Original nature is no nature, no fixed nature. Knowing your original nature is knowing that originally you’re free. That there’s not something to do, or fix or change. Is there some point where I could just receive and be blessed by experience rather than finding the next thing that’s wrong with it that needs to be addressed and fixed? That to me is something like Sensory Awareness.

On the other hand, sometimes you want to know, well, how do I cook this? What do I do? We live in various worlds that way, and I think people think when they start to meditate that it’s going to help them figure out what to do and how to do things better and how things will work out better, but I’m not sure – maybe, maybe not. I think it’s more finally about …..

With this our conversation ended suddenly when the phone rang and Ed went to answer it. When editing the transcript for this article I contacted Ed and asked him what he might have said there. His response: “Perfect timing! I think it is finally more about answering the phone when it rings.” He did offer another ending too, though, namely that it is not about things working out better but to be more intimate with our experience, to live from the heart rather than to function in survival mode.

When You Go To the Woods, Bring Along the Right Companion

On my walk today I decided to take it easy and not try to be particularly present or connected. If I’d get lost in thought so be it. And so I wandered up Bald Mountain, enjoying the outdoors and happily pondering away.

Unsurprisingly, there came that moment when I thought it was a waste of time to walk through the woods with presence spotty and my thoughts scattered all over. So I came to standing wanting to be present in the forest, with the life surrounding me. Seeing became predominant for a moment but then immediately the “wanting to see” became stronger than the actual experience. And with this came frustration and that familiar sense of failure. Not being able to be fully present I was overcome with feelings of separation and longing for oneness.

Okay, not Bald Mountain in New Hampshire but above Schwarzsee in Switzerland.

I was intrigued. How does this happen? I decide to come into the present moment and be with what is around me, and immediately I’m not good enough and get caught in that spiral of failure.

This was when I became aware of breathing, breathing with no self involved. Simply the knowing of it. Soon I realized that with breathing instead of thinking as the companion of seeing the trees, there was no conflict.

I played with that a bit and this is what I noticed: when I let thinking lead the way or closely accompany seeing, then the discursive mind will habitually want to take the experience apart. It will see some of the beauty and admire it, but it will likely be preoccupied with imperfections such as a lack of complete presence, followed by longing and thoughts of separation.

But when breathing is the companion of seeing, then there is no space for pondering the experience. There is simply “knowing”: bodily sensation, breathing, seeing trees and, yes, thinking is there too but not running the show.

Exploring some more, it became clear that it didn’t need to be breathing, it could be any other sensory experience, but that having such a “companion”, a simple stream of sensations as a guard of sorts, I was protected from falling into the trap of judging the experience and comparing it with some presently unattainable ideal.

And more than that: once grounded such – in what in Buddhist terms is called the first foundation of mindfulness, abiding in sensory awareness – I can become aware of thinking, emotions, distress, without being consumed by them. They may not go away but they can be equals among the many colors and shapes on the ever-changing canvas of moment to moment experience, rather than foreign objects which need to be removed.

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.