Nowhere Where it Isn’t Crying in You

Reflections on an Inspiring Quote

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“It is not first this, then this, then that – the whole person comes into motion.
There is nowhere where it stays as is, when I begin to allow movement.  
There’s nowhere, when you have to laugh, where you don’t laugh.  
Or you are only partly involved with laughing.  
Nowhere, when you are crying, where it isn’t crying in you.  
Does that make sense?  
In other words, to give myself to something means not to go point by point.”
Charlotte Selver

Before you read on I suggest you pause, read the quote again, and let it sink in.

What is your response?

Here’s what happened with me: “Yes! What a powerful, awesome statement. This is how we ought to live. Fully alive. “Nowhere, when we laugh, where we don’t laugh.”

And then: Oh, no. I don’t live up to this at all. After all these years of practice, I am still not fully involved. Rarely is my experience even close to this. I need to work very hard to get there.

And then: Wait! Just because Charlotte said this, is this really what is supposed to happen? This may have been Charlotte’s experience but is it mine?

Nowhere, when you are crying, where it isn’t crying in you: The fact that this has ultimately not been my experience, has probably saved my life. There have been times when I was so depressed that it seemed like there was nowhere in me, where I wasn’t experiencing depression. Life became unbearable. But then I discovered (thanks to Charlotte’s practice of Sensory Awareness, nonetheless) that there were places in me that weren’t at all depressed. I noticed that my feet felt usually very good, even when I thought I was ‘completely’ down. Not a shred of sadness in my left foot, no tears but only sensations, pleasant ones to boot: tingling, subtle adjustments towards the floor and – as I continued feeling – triggering a sigh and a deep breath which gave me much-needed space in my chest. No depression in my lower belly either but warmth and softness.*

What’s more, when I continued to feel what was going on in and around me, I noticed that what felt so unbearable was only taking up relatively little space in a bigger context, while the rest of me and my surroundings felt quite different. It just ‘shouted’ so loud, I couldn’t feel anything else. This recognition didn’t mean that all was well. There was still tremendous pain. But by having a larger context and places to ‘go to’ that were not infected by mental illness, I was able to hang on and find my bearings again. This is no recipe for all and for any circumstance, to be sure. But it has been – and continues to be – tremendously helpful in my life.

I have no desire to fault Charlotte. What she said in this Sensory Awareness Leaders Study Group in 1987 is something to deeply explore. This inquiry can be of tremendous value and will lead to important discoveries. But it is not something to blindly believe or to attach our hopes to, maybe not even something to aspire to. That’s for each of us to find out.

“Trust your nature more than a teacher. Teachers are dangerous.”
Charlotte Selver

In my work on a biography of Charlotte Selver, I have become very interested in finding out ‘what actually happened’, when I hear or read something. In my research I have noticed that surprisingly often what people say or write about someone is stated as though it  happened just that way, when indeed it was a story that had been passed down ‘the line’ much like in that beloved telephone game. That is not to say that it, or something like it, didn’t happen. It may well have but then again, the original ‘experiencer’ might not recognize our account of it.  I have also learned that writing about someone (even myself) is at best an approximation. Even when we quote them verbatim, we might still miss their point, and can probably only make our own. And that is okay, too, as long as we aware of it.

So, in the interest of full disclosure: The first quote is verbatim, from a transcript of an audio recording. In that sense, the quote is ‘accurate’. But it is also taken out of the context of a two-hour session and the particular chemistry of the time, place and the group of Sensory Awareness teachers with whom Charlotte worked. And – I was not at that workshop to witness how it happened. All that said, I intend to use the quote unquestioned in a chapter titled How Does a Movement Begin? It fits perfectly and it seems to belong in the particular context.

The second quote is from my on class notes, taken during a workshop with Charlotte in 1991 in Austria. I took the notes in German: “Vertraut eurer Natur mehr, als einem Lehrer. Lehrer sind gefährlich.” I wrote this down right after class, so chances are this is what Charlotte actually said – or approximately. But I cannot reconstruct the context and can’t really recall that particular class. I wonder what other participants might have jutted down or remember.

* See “Beauty and the Beast

** Photos are like quotes: They can inspire and move us. They can also be deceptive. I took this picture in Charlotte’s living room, probably during a break or at the end of a workshop she gave (aged 100!) I don’t quite remember, though I do remember taking pictures while we had tea with friends, fellow Sensory Awareness leaders. It was not a photo session and Charlotte didn’t like to be photographed. I don’t remember why she held up the gong striker but probably to threaten me because I took pictures. Then again, maybe she was posing. In any case, I am sure we laughed. Charlotte could be very funny and silly. Were we ‘all laughter’?

Anxiety, Trees and Clouds

With lots of resistance to feeling it, I wonder why I would resist the presence of anxiety but not the tree’s presence across the field. Granted, the anxiety is very unpleasant* but it is it really unbearable? Don’t I perceive it just as I perceive the tree? Is it essentially different? It is here and it won’t go away, not now or anytime soon anyway. Can I turn to anxiety just as I would look at a tree? I quickly realize that by focusing in on the pain my resistance grows. I just can’t be with it in this way. It is too much, it is too painful. Forcing to meet it head-on does not help.

This is when I actively begin to notice things I am seeing through the window. They are there too. What if I spread my attention, noticing non-threatening things, going from tree to tree, occasionally weaving in the sensations of pain and anxiety?

Just like this tree is here, this cloud, this chair, anxiety is here. It is just one of the things present. Would I want for the tree to go away? Would I want this cloud to change? That pain is here just like everything else is.

Letting my gaze wander I keep saying out loud: Here is a tree, here is a house, there is a goat, here is anxiety, here is a treetop, there is a cloud, there is a wall, here is this pain, here is a tree, here is a fence, here is resistance, here is the vibration of my voice. The wind blows through the leaved branches of the maple tree. Breath blows through the tightness in my chest.

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Autumn over Norway Pond

By and by, anxiety becomes part of the landscape. It is simply what it is, no need to resist it, no need to take it personally. No need to zoom in on it in a vain attempt to blow it out. The ground under me holds it just as it holds me. A sigh of relief, when I feel that support. I don’t have to hold that pain, the earth does.

The pain doesn’t disappear by this recognition but I feel supported and ready for the day.

* Is this accurate use of language? Can anything be inherently unpleasant? The sense of unpleasantness is not in that thing but a response in the perceiver. That’s not inherently bad either and can be very good for survival. However….

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*.

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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.

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.