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. 

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.

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.

Spontaneous Song

I. In Search of a New Language

I am strangely joyful this evening,
Without reason.

Morning hike by Willard Pond. Intention clear:
To drop out of planning and into the flesh I am.
No goals but to feelingly be every step among these trees.
Alive in muscle and bone today,
Connected to the ground under me
And all that water from the rains.

This human mind is not exactly quiet
But not as tightly holding now,
Letting flesh and bones live
Just like the old oak passing by
As I bounce and run.

That’s what I have to offer.
A place for us to awaken –
Will you join me in the Mindful Barn?

Not only sitting on that cushion.
But rolling and jumping too
And trusting that juicy presence we are.
In the woods, in the cities.

I sometimes wonder about “Mindfulness”,
When there is so much that is tangibly alive.
We need to find a new language
For being awake, being
This living mind that is body,
This living body that is mind,
Body-fullness, flesh-fullness,
This cell-fulness we are.

Mindfulness – does it not, with subtlety,
Perpetuate division?
Body – Mind
And mind still over matter.
How confused does it get?!
Just look at the earth, feel and taste her!
There must be another way to speak of this
Presence and life, this cellular wakefulness everywhere.

Mindfulness is not enough.
Static it sounds, and tame, and nicely polished.
What about climbing a tree, what about leaping of joy,
And losing myself in the eyes of a cat?
What about rubbing against a boulder and rolling in mud,
And realizing it is not other?
No-mind, imbued by consciousness.
And that is not new language yet.
Maybe it has to be voiced by my feet
Gestured by my belly.

II. Death of the Cool or Who gets to Sing?

What about quietly sitting by the gushing stream
Until I sing out loud,
A song of joy, a song of longing?
All is in it as I
Sit by the water, aching to be one,
To be fully embraced,
To be emptied and then
A riverbed for something bigger than I.

A Buddhist having thoughts like this?
To be washed through by divine power?
Really?
But here it is the longing
And I give it voice.
I ask to be taken in, to be deleted.
To be filled by that which is the source of all.

Not Buddha cool, again, I think.
But by denial
Longing does not go away.
I do not know why it is here.
Nor from where it comes.
That childish call for the divine.
Do I need to?
Here it is. Better to give it voice.
Better to not pretend.

And so I sing.
I sing to the woods I sing to the water I sing to the earth
I call for the presence beyond the presence,
Not because it is there but because the longing is.
That is my business.
To give voice to what I know now.
Not cool but real.

To overcome the shame and sing.
Loudly and fully – and joyfully.
Here I am, knowing little but what stirs in me.
Broken but not shattered.