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’?

Of Split Rocks, Stone Walls and Clothes with No Emperor

The many responses to my last blog entry, online and off, have been received with much gratitude. Thank you! I trust that you are now not expecting a blog on depression. That is not what I have in mind. But the drought hardened ground upon which it thrives – the persistent illusion of separation – will be a recurring theme. I get terribly caught in that thorny hedge, grown from drought resistant seeds of long forgotten trauma.

Nor am I in the business of debunking Buddhism or any or any other religion or practice. I deeply respect traditions even when I wrestle with them or disagree. I am part of the Buddhist Sangha and as such I deem it of great importance to participate as an active collaborator rather than a passive follower of premeditated “truths”. This is my understanding of what the Buddha meant when he admonished his followers to be an island onto themselves. It is also what I cherish so much about the practice of Sensory Awareness, which has its roots in the work of Elsa Gindler. As Charlotte Selver often suggested, encouraging her students to find out for themselves and in collaboration – rather than blindly following a teaching (or the Führer for that matter) – was Gindler’s foremost gift to the world.

To be sure: this is not an easy path and treacherous for students and teachers alike. Charlotte had to painfully learn that. When she followed Gindler’s advice and went off on her own, learning as she made mistakes, her independence was not appreciated by her teachers. But she knew she had to follow her own sense of the real, even though it meant painful separation. One important teaching I received from Charlotte was at her breakfast table one morning, when she suddenly turned to me and said: “Forget about Sensory Awareness. Do what burns in you.” This blog is such a following-what-burns-in-me forum: partly poetic outlet, partly laboratory, partly screening room for findings from my practice.

On recent walks in the woods I have been curiously attracted by things that are split or torn apart, by snags too. And by manmade divisions such as the ubiquitous stonewalls of New England, marking boundaries between individual sections of the same land. Incidental borders often – serving as much as linear rock dumps as they were intended for keeping anything securely in or out – these walls have long since become an integral part of the landscape and home to an array of small creatures, legged ones and rooted ones, foraging out on either side of what they do not know as wall but call home and shelter and playground.

Maybe most of our beliefs are such incidental linear dumps for thoughts, carelessly tossed away and suddenly perceived as deliberate boundaries, inherently empty of meaning but vehemently defending a perceived permanent self: thought fabrications, clothes with no emperor. Maybe these captivating features of the landscape could help me understand something about what is torn in me and about the walls I have built within and around me. I always think splits have to be mended and walls need to be torn down, but maybe they can be permeable parts of a whole, hatching ground for new life and landmarks for other lost wanderers. Just as the eye recognizes the beauty in a split stone embedded in the soft forest floor, maybe the heart can recognize the beauty in its brokenness, sheltered tenderly in the woven basket of what the English language calls rib cage, more accurately and breathably named Brustkorb in German.

The most impermeable borders are probably those in our minds, limiting our participation with the larger here and now more than any old stone wall could. Or skin and bone for that matter. Our skin is not just form and boundary, it is just as much like that old stone wall, permeable and infused with sensitivity: a place to make contact. Nor is our skeleton a coat-hanger for our flesh but rather an articulated participant in this adventurous life: responsive and gregarious.

Perception and thought may at times seem like an odd couple but they belong together and make us human. However, thought tends to puts itself in charge, even though  it is completely dependent on and emerging from experience. It tends to get lost in the exciting mirror hall of its own reflections, using the sensuous world preferably as “food for thought”.

My practice is dedicated to felt exploration and the realization that we are participants in a world from which we are not essentially separate but rather active ingredient. This requires that thinking becomes a collaborator rather than an out of control tyrant.

Let it inhabit that stone wall, humbly and boldly, reaching out for nurture and play, let it take a walk on the wild side – as I enjoy doing in this blog entry – but always let it come back to the felt ground of experience.

Every moment of feeling, hearing, tasting, seeing, smelling, is an act of participation. So is thinking, but when thinking thinks it is separate and superior rather than youngest sibling and equal to the other senses, we get deluded quickly. (Maybe it tends to go overboard because it is such a latecomer among the senses in evolutionary time, much like a teenager in need to push boundaries to find her own?)

Being this breathing creature, entirely part and participant of a place, of an intimate world of air and bark, chatting humans and asphalt roads: right here, in a felt exchange with this fragrant air I’m breathing, with this chair I sit on, and this floor under me, I write down these bubbling thoughts.

However, that we are part of a place is often not our experience. Confused as we are, we tend to perceive ourselves as solicitors, barely embodied, peering into this world as if from some place that we might imagine to be somewhere in our skull or – worse – “spiritual beings having a physical experience”, as I once read on a bumper sticker.

To break through that persistent illusion I’ve made it part of my practice to roll around on the floor, rub against boulders, lean against trees and otherwise to give myself a chance to experience being in a less mind-mediated fashion, running and jumping for joy when that is what my muscles ache for. Skin and bones and tissue know more about the realities of this world, of belonging, than thinking may ever understand, unless, that is, it joins ranks with the other senses. It is through this bodily intimacy that we can connect with what is also here and wake up to who we really are.

It is often easier for the thinking mind to be integrated and find its place when I move and physically connect with things rather than sitting still in meditation posture, where I often find myself struggling to achieve something: concentration, a quiet mind, not to mention enlightenment.

All senses, including the often disregarded and intimate tactile sense, are crucial for awakening. The senses may be suspect for some Buddhists, tolerated as necessary tools for survival maybe, but essentially perceived as ghastly sirens, leading into the murky swamp of craving and from there straight to suffering. That this happens all the time is sadly true but not inevitable if we are wakeful: the same senses are also the doors to liberation according to the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, the Buddha’s teaching on the Foundations of Mindfulness.

Sitting quietly on a cushion is for me not currently the primary tool of awakening – in fact, it is often literally a good way of going to sleep – though sitting is also part of my daily practice. It has its importance, its beauty and its place. But if I am not very careful when “sitting”, I tend to get into, what Charlotte Selver called, watchtower mentality: I observe rather than experience, “looking” for insight and liberation. Curiously, in Buddhist teachings we are often asked to watch our breath: something that is entirely impossible, as it is not visible, unless, of course you find yourself meditating outside on a frosty morning or if you look at the expanding and contracting chest of your meditating neighbor. Not commonly recommended as a mindfulness tool. Such “watching” may easily foster the sense of self.

The breath can only be felt. What an intimate communion with air and all other breathing beings.

I consider, thus, rolling on the floor to be a valid Buddhist practice alongside many others. The intimacy of visceral experiencing guides us to a felt, to an incorporated sense of what in Buddhism is called Emptiness, namely that we are part but not apart, that our human individuality is but a rather extravagant way of being a cherry blossom: beautiful and fragrant for a moment before tumbling back into the fertile earth of Impermanence, giving way to another juicy fruit.

Cherry Blossoms

Recommended further readings:

If you read my adventurous friend David Abram’s new book Becoming Animal you will recognize him soon as my favorite wilder brother. Visit his web site at http://www.wildethics.com.

Then there is the beautiful work of Charlotte Selver’s husband, Charles Brooks. His book Sensory Awareness – The Rediscovery of Experiencing can be ordered in its recently revised and expanded version, Reclaiming Vitality and Presence, through the web store of the Sensory Awareness Foundation.

For a fascinating history of New England’s stone walls, read Robert Thorson’s Stone by Stone. http://www.stonewall.uconn.edu.

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

Of Wantings and Occurings

or
What I Feel Drawn To and What I’m Supposed To Do
An October Walk

I’m sitting at the base of my old friend the Ponderosa Pine,
off Chamisa Trail in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
I want to be present, present for the tree touching my back,
present for the play of light and shadow on the pine needle covered forest floor.
Present to the wind brushing against my face.

I want to be still – but I’m not.

The ground under my buttocks is cool.
The cool makes itself known, it wants to be present too.
As does the wind, the sound of wind and trees in their interplay.
Now the sound of an airplane.
And then my doubts: is what I’m doing useful?

My eyes are searching – for what? An answer?
They are not seeing the trees – now they are. Barely.
When I look at a tree and see the tree,
why does it seem to me that I’m still not seeing it?
Because I’m caught in my mind, caught in wanting to see the tree.

Breathing makes itself known now as my eyes close.
It seems to me that I am locked into this individualized mind.
Now I hear voices from other hikers.
What makes itself known: voices,
the sound of the wind, the feel of the wind on my ear, cold,
the green of the tiny, wiggling sprout of a pine in front of me,
breathing, doubt, ridicule.
Is this self-involved? I don’t know! It looks like it.
Breathing… Pain in my knee, itch, and I scratch.

The thought that I want to be completely connected to nature,
to the tree in my back, absorbed in that.
Knowing his presence, and I guess wanting him to know mine.
And I wish there was a way for me to know that the tree knows I am here.
For how many decades have I been looking for this.
For what?
A simple response from my mother: yes I see you?
A simple response from nature: yes I feel you?
To belong.

The ground under me, the tree in my back, the wind on my cheeks,
for someone to say: yes I know you are here, I’m aware of you.
Searching – my eyes are searching.
Is this why my senses are so keen?
I’m looking out, I’m feeling out, I’m hearing out,
and thinking out for this voice that says: yes you are here and you are received.
My mother? God? Nature? My father?

Is it useful to ponder all these things?
I tend to think it would be better to just be present in my belly,
in that place that is just fine, but the next moment I’m pulled out by longing,
pulled out by aversion, and drawn out by confusion.
I seem to think that I should be able to be completely with the wind on my nose
and the call of the crow.

But fickle is attention, going every which way.
I want to control it.
In this thinking mind going every which way I have this idea or image
of what it means to be present.
These longings going every which way are not part of this idea.

How much I want to tweak my experience.
But am I not supposed to be fully present,
connected to the woods, connected to the ground?
I’m not supposed to be thinking about things.
Breathing.
This is not about me, this is about a process of consciousness.
Doubt.

Wanting – and then immediately the thought: I shouldn’t be wanting.
But I am, it is!
The sound of the wind again in the trees, in my ears,
brushing of wind against my ears.
Should I stop my mind from wandering?
Can I? Should I? I don’t know.
I think I should, and I think I shouldn’t.
I think I would be happier,
I think I shouldn’t have any preferences.
That’s all thinking has to offer: contradictory options.

I want to stop myself from wanting, but I cannot. When I want, I want.
I cannot even stop myself from wanting to stop myself from wanting.
But if I can know these wantings right away, that feels right.

I can turn my attention to the floor, to the ground under my feet,
feeling it, hearing it – and there is complete peace in that.
There is peace in my belly, so silent and sweet.
There is peace in seeing, so beautiful.
Even the pain in my knee is peace.

But I refuse to make peace with wanting.
It is so unpleasant – so alluring.

I long for absorption in concentration, one pointed awareness.
But if there is any absorption,
it is in the multitude of directions I feel drawn to, pulled to.

Walking now, I hear my steps.
I am passing by a snag, I am passing by all these trees,
I can feel the longing in my eyes,
I can feel my gaze bouncing back as it were and I see not the tree but myself,
my longing, my wanting, my desire for a particular experience,
my desire to be one.

And I hate myself for having that desire,
I despise myself for not being able to do it, to be one,
and I am amazed by all of this.
So much confusion!
Grateful to awaken to this too.

I look at the trees like a hungry ghost, wanting something, some satisfaction.
It is as though the hunger in my eyes, my hunger, makes it impossible to see
– but maybe that is just another idea, because
here I see a tree, here I see a snag, I see the trail
and there is wanting, like fog over it all,
lifting for moments of clarity
– that is not nothing.

Meditation (or Sensory Awareness for that matter) as I understand it, means to connect, being connected in a nonreactive way. This is not a passive state, it is full participation, non-manipulating participation. To be aware of something means to be engaged with it. There cannot be awareness without engagement. I can engage by fully embracing what is there, respecting “the other’s” presence because it is present just as “I” am. Pain in my left shoulder. Uncomfortable – but here it is. A fly on my forehead – irritating – but here it is. Brushing it away is fine too. Now I can hear her buzzing around my head – not much less irritating. Now the fly is sitting on my pants I can see it but I cannot feel it – not irritating. I look at it and in that moment I see that it is here just like I am here. No story necessary.

Stefan Writes a Blog

This blog is an attempt to put in words a process of “coming to”, of exploring consciousness, connection, living. These are very personal accounts – written spontaneously with little editing – neither teachings nor necessarily success stories – but they are always about sincere attempts to awaken to a deeper truth. I share this publicly with some trepidation. After all, this comes from a Sensory Awareness Leader with 30-some years of being on a path of awakening, someone who has made it his passion and profession to guide people on a path to profound happiness, connection, healing and participation – someone who should have arrived!

Won’t it hurt my “résumé” if I declare publicly that happiness often eludes me, that I long for connection more than experiencing it, that I have not healed yet and that I am at times completely wrapped in my own story rather than participating in a world that cries out for help? Maybe.

However, it has often been my experience, that being open about my “shortcomings” can be a helpful tool, even though it is not a comfortable one, because I am not as perfect as I expect myself to be – and that may show. But who am I kidding? The truth is, I share this predicament with most people I meet. A student wrote a while ago about me being her “amazing inner wilderness guide”.  I thanked her for that compliment but said that I am often quite lost myself and maybe not such a trustworthy guide. She responded by saying that this was exactly what she liked so much about me, that I could be present with her where she is, rather than pretending I knew the way out.

And indeed, it is then that we feel most understood when we are being met where we are by someone who knows how it is to be there. From there we can venture out together through the often rather bewildering places life can take us to. From this place of not knowing we can explore and maybe even make ourselves at home instead of trying to escape.

I chose my Dharma name Joyful Dharma of the Source for this blog. I feel very fortunate to have been given this name by Therese Fitzgerald and Wendy Johnson, two beautiful Dharma teachers in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh. Joyful Dharma is also who I am – in spite of myself I do have access to a profound joy from a very deep source beyond the boundaries of ‘self’ and ‘other’, to a place that has always been at peace, connected and engaged. Deep within ourselves we know this place is right here, in the midst of the mess we’re in, though much of the time we cannot recognize it.

It is with all of this in mind that I share with you some of my meanderings in the wilderness of ‘self’ and ‘other’ – not because I think my experiences are particularly noteworthy. This is not about me but maybe I’ll meet you there and together we can awaken. May it be so.