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.

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.

“There is Always a Form”

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!

 “There is Always a Form – Charlotte Selver’s Form was Awareness”

A Conversation with Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen

Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen is a movement artist, researcher, teacher and therapist. For over fifty years, she has been exploring movement, touch and the body-mind relationship. An innovator and leader, her work has influenced the fields of bodywork, movement, dance, yoga, body psychotherapy, infant and childhood education and many other body-mind disciplines. In 1973, Bonnie founded The School for Body-Mind Centering®, dedicated to the development and transmission of somatic practices based on embodied anatomy and embodied developmental movement principles. In addition to programs at her school, Bonnie has taught workshops throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia. She is the author of the book Sensing, Feeling and Action and has several DVDs on Embodied Anatomy and Embryology, Dance & BMC, and working with children with special needs. She is currently producing other books and DVDs. 

Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt: Tell me a bit about your work.

Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen: It’s hard to describe. The form is the embodiment process. With Charlotte, the form is the awareness. It’s not about any particular thing, and in that sense they’re similar. I always felt kindred spirit. I don’t know very much about Charlotte’s work. She didn’t know very much about mine, but there was that meeting.

I remember before our first meeting at Esalen*, I sent a video of four children that I was working with – maybe twenty-five years ago – and when she saw it, she said: “And she didn’t study with me either!” Our work was just similar. I remember once, when Charles was still living, we did something with sandbags. They gave me this sandbag, and I just felt the spirit was in the sandbag, but it wasn’t about sandbags.

Most of my memories of Charlotte are just playful and pure delight. One of them is my throwing Charlotte to the ground. I don’t know what we were disagreeing about – something. She wouldn’t listen to me. I would say, “Charlotte! Listen to me!” And she’d go, “Aahaahaahahhha.” I said, “Charlotte, you have to listen to me. If you don’t listen to me I’m going to throw you to the ground!” “Aahahahah.” So I took hold of her and I threw her to the ground very gently. We just had that kind of a playful connection.

We were always laughing. Once we went to this little bird house that she had in Big Sur on the cliff. I happen to not like heights and she just – was a bird. She loved that house. I didn’t even want to go inside. But going up to the house she was so happy, she was running. She was like a bird, flying up the path.

Bonnie and Charlotte were part of a two-year training in Esalen on Somatics for professionals in the field. From left to right: Michael Marsh, Don Hanlon Johnson, Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen and Len Cohen, Charlotte Selver, Seymour Levine (one of the founders of psycho-neuroendrocrinology, Stanford Med School); Robert Hall (the Lomi School). [ca 1989; photographer unknown]

Stefan: That’s interesting you say she was a bird. I don’t think I’ve heard anybody say that.

Bonnie: Together we were birds – I wasn’t the bird; she was the bird.

Another time we met at a ZIST**-conference in Garmisch Partenkirchen in Germany. I walked – we didn’t know we were going to see each other – and she just ran, at this age, she just ran with her arms open. I think she left her cane behind. She had that light spirit. In that particular conference I brought out a hundred air balloons blown up and a hundred water balloons and spread them among 1,200 people. The person before me was Thich Nhat Hanh and everything was very quiet and peaceful. And then I brought all these toys and these balloons and the people went crazy. It was wonderful. And afterwards Charlotte asked if she could use the balloons for her workshop. So there was that playfulness that we shared.

Stefan: Can you say something about Charlotte’s place in the somatic movement, or the importance of her work.

Bonnie: I consider her one of the forerunners who prepared the way for me. I see her in the lineage even though I’m not in her exact lineage, I’m certainly in the lineage of the broader path. I also come out of the Laban work. I’m very influenced by that whole school which came out of Germany.

Stefan: She really respected what you were doing, though she no doubt had little idea of what you were actually doing. But one thing that I remember she said was something like: there’s too much form or dance or, you come from performance.

Bonnie: Yes, there’s a lot of form in our work. The form is very important, but it’s a changing form – it could be any form. There’s always a form, but her form was awareness. I mean, if you pick up something there’s a form if you are sensitive to what you’re holding. But I came from a dance background and working with children with special needs. I was certainly much more form oriented. But the essence wasn’t form, and that’s where we met.

Stefan: I don’t know your work either, but to me that question of form has always been intriguing, and it’s hard to talk about it. Charlotte certainly did not want a form in that sense, and she also certainly stayed away from expressive movements. That was her struggle because she came from that. With Gindler she said she had to unlearn so much. Before that she did Bode Gymnastik, which was very expressive and she had to shed that. Then, whenever she saw, or thought she saw, expression or form in somebody’s movement, she would want to work to shed that. But in my experience too, we cannot but express ourselves in some way. There’s always some kind of form and expression, and I’m really curious about that edge of being true, being connected.

Bonnie: In any form. Or all forms. That’s my exploration. But how one is the form, not how one makes a form.

Stefan: When you say form, what do you mean? Do you have particular movements that people do?

Bonnie: No. Charlotte gave up form where I went back to understand my form. Right now I have two yoga programs here in California. And one where we focus on embodying different tissues. In the yoga, we’re not creating a new form. It’s just whatever your form is, how do you embody it? What’s your style? It doesn’t matter. But are you just making a style? Or are you really a warrior? Is this a warrior pose or is this a loving pose? It’s very much about expression, but what is it when you are that?

Stefan: And how do we know?

Bonnie: If I say move your pinky finger, how do you know you’re moving your pinky finger when you don’t see it? You still know it. I’ve worked with a lot of dancers through the years. What is the principle for a dancer or athlete? That’s the same for a baby or a child who has severe cerebral palsy or someone with muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis or arthritis. What do we all have in common? This isn’t pathological.

These children that have severe challenges – people approach them from the place that there is something wrong with them. But they are what they are. That’s their form. Let’s honor them for what they are bringing into the world and what they have to teach us. Their form is perfect, not imperfect. I see them as my teachers. This is the place I meet them. And the same principles of movement and consciousness apply to them as to anybody.

How do we reach that level of being who we are, whatever that is? As soon as the egg and the sperm do their dance there’s a marker that goes to the membrane in which your immune system knows what is you, and there’s never been another marker like it, and there’ll never be another marker again. We’re that unique. So, how do we come to really know that marker, or that essential drone, if you think of music, that vibration that is our own?

Stefan: Would you want your clients to consciously remember? Or is it more about embodiment of that?

Bonnie: The grown-ups are different than children, because we do have a kind of conscious intelligence. We use that, but ultimately need to let go of it; otherwise you’re always witnessing, you’re not actually participating. There’s a level at which you feel the sandbag, you consciously feel it, and in a way you just forget about it. You know the sandbag. You don’t have to keep witnessing it. But in the beginning you would focus your attention because otherwise you’re just not remembering. It’s nothing to learn. And that I think Charlotte and I have in common – we never talked shop, by the way. We just played….
Maybe Charlotte thought of unlearning, when you said a form.

Stefan: Yes, the unlearning of what is extra, what is not needed, so that we then are free to connect with what is now rather than with what we have learned.

Bonnie: So it’s not a gaining from somebody else on the outside but from your own experience.

Stefan: Yes, I think that was really Elsa Gindler’s major turnaround, as I understand it. She came from teaching a form to say: if you really become sensitive to what wants to happen, what happens then? Rather than: Do this or do that. That exploration. It is really starting from not knowing every time. And I do hear that from you too.

Bonnie: Yes, it’s always the not. So students will say: “Well I don’t know.” I say: ”Great, just stay there.”

Stefan: When I first asked you to tell me about your work, your immediate response was what our response often is. It’s very hard to talk about it. It has a form, but it’s beyond that form.

Bonnie: Or the form is the process.

Stefan: So what is the goal of your work?

Bonnie: Just to enjoy the day.

Stefan: To enjoy the day.

Bonnie: Why not? Whatever you do. Because they can always get worse. Even when I was so very ill – not to say I didn’t suffer greatly – I still looked for what was in the day that was quite extraordinary. It doesn’t take away the suffering but it doesn’t waste it. (Bonnie was housebound for three years due to a collapse from post-polio.)

Stefan: In our work gravity is so important. I actually don’t call it gravity very much anymore. I call it the attraction of the earth, because gravity to me sounds like it’s a thing, but what it is is a relationship with the earth, the earth’s pulling on us constantly, and then our response. Gravity and then the support of the ground is so central, and was so central in Charlotte’s work. How does that play into your work?
Bonnie: It plays a lot. We are looking at gravity, and we are looking at space – which I know you’re doing too, but in a different way. We say, if you only feel the gravity, you can’t stop it. If you feel the gravity and the rebound, the anti-gravity, and the pull of heaven, then you have lightness.

Stefan: Charlotte never used the word space. Well, I shouldn’t say that. But that’s not something that comes to mind – space. She certainly worked with it, but not . . .

Bonnie: And she also had it. I think she was so spacious and light, and this bird quality, that gravity for her would be like the balance. But also the sun is drawing us.

Stefan: Tell me more about that. You also said the pull of heaven.

Bonnie: We’re in this position, we are the bridge between the earth and heaven. I mean, fortunately there’s attraction out there. Otherwise we would be chaos. We are rotating around the sun, and this is rotating around that. There are all these pulls. The moon is pulling on our fluids. We are under the forces of the universe. We’re spinning off the earth, but we’re also being pressed into the earth.

And we carry our ancestors. I don’t know about past lives. That’s not where my attention goes. But I know we carry all of the experiences of our ancestors. We have talked about genetics like gravity. It’s this thing that looks like this. But that thing was developed from experience with relationship to the world, and to the family, and to the emotion, and to the gravity. I always feel we heal our ancestors as well as ourselves. We’re a time machine or something. It all exists right now. I don’t know if that makes sense. So we also look at time. We are this collection and it makes a difference whether we feel it by remembering or by being. It’s not just: oh yeah, my grandfather was this and my grandmother was that, and we can trace back to seventeen hundred and something.

I’m interested because Hanna (Bonnie’s grandchild) comes from two languages that are getting lost – if you go to the generation before me and before Len and before Hanna’s other grandparents. The Okinawan speak Japanese now; they’re losing the roots of their culture, the Yiddish of our parents’ generation (except my father was English) – on my side three out of four – not the history but the successiveness is wiped out. How interesting, this little girl. If she goes back that far, the languages and the cultures are fading. And at the same time, all the possibilities that she has by this shadow of who she is.

Stefan: So in that sense, where we come from is really important because that’s – can we say, that’s who we are?

Bonnie: We carry all of those experiences. Whether or not we ever know our ancestors, our grandparents or parents or whatever. My parents met and were in the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus, so I grew up in the circus. After my mother quit the show when I was eight and they separated, and then my father, when I was fifteen, they closed the big top, I never wanted to go to the circus again. And then, when my mother died, the circus was in town. We went and I had no connection, because it was indoors. It wasn’t the stench of the elephants and the animals. There was something on television – Cirque de Soleil. It’s so boring to me. I see them doing these things. It has no meaning. And television has no meaning, because after this, there’s nothing they could do on TV that would compare – I mean these people were risking their lives every moment in performance.

This is why I would not want to take this form out of my existence. Where if I had a form that felt artificial – certainly there’s nothing more artificial than this circus getup. They dressed and everything was superficial on the outside, but there’s something real about death-defying acts. Inside they were risking their lives.

Stefan: So it’s very real in that sense.

Bonnie: Yes. It’s a paradox. So that’s an insight for me, when you say that, talking about Charlotte. I would not want to take away form. When I think of the man who led the circus band. He never missed a show in over fifty years. He would say, “Ladies and Gentlemen, and children of all ages, welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth,” and the band would hit up. Over fifty years. How could you erase that? Who would want to?

Stefan: This is fascinating. I like exploring form.

Bonnie: Yes. I know Charlotte had form. It’s just that she wanted it to be real.

Stefan: Yes. And no doubt we do have form. Or we are this form. And it comes from – from our ancestors.

Bonnie: And from our daily life, our environment.

* As part of a two-year training on Somatics for professionals in the field – see photograph.

** Center for Individual and Social Therapy, Munich