Gratitude Is My Experience

August 17, 2034

A Memoir (yet to be lived)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allowing

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

IMG_1970

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

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

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

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

Inside

I sat beneath a stately fir,
calling out like an abandoned child:
Can you hear me, tree?
Air, do you know I’m here?
Timid voice of an embarrassed fool in the woods.

The wordless ditty which rose from me,
was answered by a rustling, as of a delicate rattle,
from the bare twigs of a young maple sitting next to me.
Rhythm to my melody.

Words joined in:
I am here, I am here – and you are too,
I sang onto the bark of the fir.
You are here, you are here – and I am too,
I sang into the air.

Still lost I got up, following
what looked like an inviting trail
deeper into the woods.
Delighted, when I noticed there was no trail
but only invitation.

Is there one consciousness or are there many
bubbling up from a groundless ground?
And why, if one, did I just imagine a male god?

Image

This is when I suddenly could sense and almost see her
an all-encompassing she,
as I stood among the trees,
my arms spread to reach into the air, touching her.
I was inside and she was woman and I was received.

When the human veil faded it gave way to more
and she was forest, and I was inside and part and not apart.
And she was air, caressing me outside and in.
She was earth and snow under my feet.
And every tree was she and I was too
and all belonged.

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.

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.

A Model of Experiencing

In the foreground of my experience is a burning, stabbing, pain in the left shoulder, radiating to just above the elbow and then further down into the index finger. The experience itself is beyond words, is what it is. Though I can describe it – burning, throbbing – words are not part of what I feel. The experience is unpleasant, and a moment ago I had a strong reaction of aversion. Along with that came thoughts of disapproval, anger, and generally wanting for the experience to not be there.

Now that I give myself to feeling it, though the unpleasantness is still there, there is very little to no rejection of the sensations. I can explore them further and, like a cluster of stars in the night sky, different places of discomfort group together to seemingly form a pattern. Aching in the left index finger, a stabbing pain just above the left shoulder blade, a similar pain in the middle of my back on the left side towards my buttocks. These three areas are connected, the discomfort clearly interdependent.

As soon as I let go of the aversion (or should I say: as soon as I am interested and the aversion fades away), I have opportunity to explore the sensations in their many facets. Suddenly I become aware of breathing and how the breath moves towards the pain in the shoulder. Aware of the movement of breath, I also become aware of new expectations and the mind becomes active: maybe this will take care of the pain. Aversion is flaring up a bit again and with it the desire to get rid of the discomfort.

The expectation that the pain go away makes it hard to feelingly be with it. I may not be able to get rid of this expectation, but I notice that what’s happening in the shoulder happens independently of desires. Could I allow it? Can I let it take its course? I notice that I now want for the breath to be there instead of allowing it to be there. I’m tempted to push it that way. Instead of allowing and reflecting, I expect and want for something specific to happen.

Then I drop into a different place, without doing. Suddenly, that peaceful darkness in my lower belly outshines all other sensation. Unmoved but holding it all together, it is the silence at the center of my experience, subtly but persistently radiant.

I realize that, though I describe these experiences as happening one after the other, they might as well happen at once: allowing and pushing, expecting and experiencing, being, stillness.

I’ve been working with an image lately that describes this process quite accurately. In this image Earth is the place of experiencing, drawn as a circle with a cross, the actuality of here and now. The Moon circling the Earth symbolizes momentum and mood. Together they circumambulate the Sun in an elegant dance.

  • The dynamic dance of the moon around earth and sun makes for a wild ride, easily causing serious nausea. It is just like that when I am swept away by emotions. Though I often seek that thrill and sometimes enjoy it, it more often than not is a source of much distress.
  • The experience of living on earth is constantly changing too, but her center of gravity provides a focal point that keeps me balanced in the midst of activity.
  • The heart of our solar system, like my lower belly, is a centering force and a source of joy beyond the pleasures of the dance of moon and earth.

Much of the time I seem to be dwelling on moon, being swept back and forth between expectation and disappointment, looking for pleasant experiences on earth: instant gratification. I’m happy when things go my way, while the unexpected throws me out of kilter: when I like what’s happening, I go for it, when I dislike it, I fight.

However: When I am able to move from  reacting to what is happening to the actual earthly experience, then I become grounded in the midst of movement, at home with earth. Things are still pleasant or unpleasant but I respond from a place of connection, engaging with the moment’s occurrences rather than reacting emotionally to their feeling tone.

Beyond the realm of like and dislike there is a place of being, unmoved by the moment’s moods. The quivering heart of the solar system, the sun, is not detached from daily life, but rather its collecting hub, holding it all together and flooding it with joy.

This radiant still-point is often hidden by clouds (especially if you live in New England). But that does not mean the sun is not there. Sight is but one way of perceiving what is. Taking time to come to living from the heart of the matter is crucial for well being. Not once a day but over and again. Because it is always here, it really doesn’t take any time to get to. Yet it does need practice or the cloud-cover will distract us. The entrance door is sensing, the felt and engaged awareness of our moment to moment experience – living on earth. From there we might awaken to that centering force which, like gravity, penetrates everything persistently with its radiance. I may call it being but, ultimately, it has no words or images and is largely a mystery to me (though only when thinking about it).

Images. Useful for reflection. Now it is time to leave the gallery of representations and plunge into living again, where sun and moon and earth and pain and joy are one in a continuous, vibrant, dance – nameless but known.

The Never Ending Story(s) of the Confused Mind

Strong, agonizing pain, emotional distress in my chest this morning when I wake up. No words to it – but thinking is very active trying to figure it out, trying to untie the knot. The unpleasantness of the pain sparks aversion. Not all the time – for moments it is just pain, just sensation. The next moment again it seems unbearable and I want it to end.

The internal battle begins:
“This has to go away, it is too painful, it is frightening.”
“No! I have to do something about it, accept it, feel it, be with it. I shouldn’t have an averse reaction. I should only be patiently feeling what is happening. I should not have the wish for the pain to go away.”
“No! It’s okay to have these thoughts and feelings of aversion. Don’t try to get rid of them.”
“No! This is unbearable. It has to stop.”
“No! I should completely accept the pain.”
Anger rising, frustration, agony.
This is the perpetual battle of the confused mind. No solution will be found here.

It appears to be almost impossible to simply stay with sensation that is unpleasant. Especially when it is emotionally charged. There always seems to be an expectation that it go away or that at least it could be understood.

Here it comes again into the foreground: burning pain. But now it is not as much emotion as it is sensation. I can be more easily with that.

I take refuge in a place that is at peace, somewhere between bellybutton and sacrum, an open space, vast and dark: From here all is fine.
From my chest nothing is fine: Burning, fear, doubt. Here is the realm of judgment, the battlefield of right and wrong, where nothing will ever be solved. It is the kingdom of never-ending uncertainty. Its only match is breath.

Breath: Somewhere between the peace of the belly and the terror of the chest, preferring neither. Breathing is the neutral force, where what is, is just what it is. It is as though breathing keeps the two sides from one another, from getting at one another, creating space, as it were, between good and evil, between pleasant and unpleasant. Equanimity.

It is very important to distinguish between perception and thinking. This burning sensation in my chest right now is simply sensation. There are absolutely no words attached to it. There is not even like or dislike attached to it. It is just sensation. I can describe it with words: burning, for example. I can have an internal dialogue about it, analyze it. But there is no trace of that in the sensation itself. Is there any inherent aversion? No, but that response is very close, like the moon circling the Earth.

Please note, especially if you have not read my last post on exploring:
These writings are not theory but practice. They are not a map but reports from the territory, from the immediacy of experiencing. 
Maps are available @ Sensory Awareness, Buddhism, Psychotherapy and many other locations. I recommend that you study them and that you follow the advice of an experienced guide when you need it – and I hope that you’ll know when you do. I sometimes think I know my way and get terribly lost. I have also used maps showing trails going nowhere. That’s even worse than not having one. At times, however, it is good to have the map snatched out of your hand and get lost in the pathless land so you can find your own way – or simply sit down by a brook and enjoy where you are.
Then, there is also the W.C. Fields attitude in International House, when someone suggested that maybe he is lost, he responds: “Kansas City is lost! I am here!”