Life Has No Meaning: What a Relief!


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.

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

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.

An insightful piece on Agendas – that ambitious offspring of thoughts and beliefs – can be found here: On Having Agendas.