Writings

She said, “If you are really mad at your brother count to 10 before you say anything!”

“Why should I count to 10”?, the little boy asked.

“Because then you will remember that you love your brother”, my mother said.

Many cultures have this idea of counting from 1 to 10 or taking three breaths or going for a walk when in an intensely emotional situation. What happens when we pause?  What happens when we do not pause?

We can think of pausing at many levels and in diverse situations. There are the ordinary moments in everyday life when pausing offers an opportunity to refresh our perceptions.  There are the intense moments when pausing might keep us from saying something we will regret later. Pausing can even refer to taking a break from a challenging activity.  In English we say “a change is as good as a rest”. Neurologically, it is often true that simply changing the type of activity we are doing can result in an influx of creative energy. On an even larger level, when considering something important, we will often say “sleep on it”. Rudolf Steiner suggested allowing three nights of sleep for a significant decision. 

In this article I will focus on how developing a practice of pausing can have a surprisingly powerful effect on the quality of our lives. I will also suggest that a primary, yet often unacknowledged reason for the potency of Feldenkrais lessons comes from inviting a pause or creating an interruption, a gap, in one’s habitual functioning and habitual self-identity. Further, I assert that some forms of meditation practice can have a similar effect on the nervous system and hence the person. Finally, I suggest that Feldenkrais practitioners can offer practices connected to pausing in everyday life to encourage longer lasting effectiveness of their lessons.

I am using the word “pause” in two ways. One is as an intentional action, an interrupting of one’s functioning for intentional reflection. The second use of “pause” is as a gap in one’s habitual identity. The first use of the word serves as a practice that can invite the latter experience.

What does it mean to pause from one’s habits of mind, one’s usual self-identity and familiar self-organizations?  If we pay attention, we will notice that we all have “default positions” for our familiar self-identity.  These default positions include ways of physically self-organizing as well as habitual ‘self-talk’. One of the functions of inner dialogue or self-talk is to keep this familiar identity intact.  Habitual inner dialogue is usually accompanied by physical and emotional patterns or self-organizations.  Interrupting one of these can invite an interruption in the others. This insight can be very helpful, when one finds that the habitual organization is not effective or satisfying. The key is pausing from the entrenched habit, stepping back and sensing oneself and one’s environment in a fresh and alive way.

How can this pausing become a life-giving habit so that the new moment can be FRESH.   How can Feldenkrais teachers encourage this shift? What does meditation have to offer on this subject?

Carried Away

We all know how it feels to get carried away by our emotions in demanding situations.   Even in ordinary, less demanding moments we often have this sense of being carried away. We can be so wrapped up in our thoughts, images and/or feelings that we lose our sense of presence. Although sometimes this can be a creative ‘carried away’ often it is an unsatisfying diminution of one’s experience.  

This kind of ‘carried away’ is often referred to as a trance state. I believe most people live in a mild to moderate trance state, a kind of waking-sleep, only rarely coming into an awakened presence. Rather than being present and alive to our experience in the moment, we are on “automatic pilot”. Interrupting this trance is central for both cultivating more satisfying experiences and for inviting greater freedom into our lives. The antidote to this condition is cultivating awareness in everyday life. This antidote begins with an intentional pause.

When we are carried away, our old reactive patterns have control of us. Later, upon reflection, we realize that our response was not to the actual situation, rather it was based on past events. We were not aware of ourselves, our ‘unconsciousness’ took over.  Moshe’s main interest was the possibility of freedom for a human being. He saw clearly that awareness was essential for this freedom. In San Francisco he said (approximate quote) “without awareness we are bound to past behavior. Not because we are bad people, it’s just that the brain does not have an alternative”. In the Amherst training, he had great fun mimicking the great mystic Gurdjieff who had a “stop” exercise in which he would yell “STOP“ and his students would stop, i.e. pause, whatever they were doing and sense the quality of their self-awareness. Pausing is a great help for uncovering the possibility of responding in freedom to a situation rather than reacting habitually.

Here we can see a concept that was fundamental to Moshe’s thinking and method, he called it “reversibility”. By this he meant that we could start an action and have the possibility, the choice, of changing our direction at any time. This is an example of freedom in action. Pausing allows one to interrupt one’s movement and choose another. A unique contribution of the Feldenkrais Method is the possibility for students to directly learn alternative patterns of action. Without alternatives reversibility is impossible.

Shifting States

Moshe liked to joke that Freud’s greatest contribution was to have people lie on their backs while staying conscious of themselves. Also, he said that if we would lie down for 30 minutes and simply sense ourselves, as we do in an ATM or FI, we would get almost the same result as when doing the lesson. I believe he was serious when he said this. What does this imply?

Usually when we lie down we are either tired and going to sleep or ill and needing rest.  When we are in our adult, responsible, socially conscious identity we are vertical, either standing or sitting. To lie is usually a withdrawal from our social mask and our habitual self-identity.  Sex is a rare exception to this. In a lesson, ATM or FI, we have this unique situation in which our adult, social, conscious brain and our more primitive, less mature “lying/horizontal” brain are connecting. This invites an unusual shift of consciousness. Such a state is conducive to creating new patterns of behavior. Creating a gap, a pause, in our usual identity is the ground of the Feldenkrais Method.

In sitting meditation, we are vertical yet not engaged in usual activity. To limit one’s movement and one’s conscious activity while vertical is also a non-habitual, highly unusual condition for the nervous system. One can experience a gap in their self-identity as the familiar inner dialogue is observed yet not identified with. When one then turns attention toward the bodily sensations that are alive in the moment, there can be a sense of freshness, a freedom from the past. Note that this kind of meditation is not based in rigorous mind control or concentration. The inner atmosphere is closer to the attitude of an ATM lesson. This attitude is essential for creating the kind of pause that we are discussing here.

Moshe emphasized the importance of feelings of safety, curiosity, and a readiness to laugh as essential for learning. He was pointing toward how our usual goal-oriented, aggressive, insecure state was the opposite of these ideal conditions. Neurologically, we can understand the difference between these states in terms of the autonomic nervous system.

Much of our health is connected to rhythmical shifting of sympathetic and parasympathetic dominance in one’s autonomic nervous system. In the world today, more than ever, there is a strong sympathetic dominance. As the quantity and speed of stimulation increases, our nervous system is living ‘on alert’. As acupuncturists keep reminding us, our adrenal glands are over-stimulated. We often feel bombarded by all the sensations and choices that we are required to process. The body pattern of anxiety is activated by this onslaught. On the other hand, our parasympathetic system is connected to healing, recuperation, resting. In this state the nervous system can grow new patterns of behavior, new responses in our lives.

Each technological innovation seems to invite greater speed, more productivity, more choice and perhaps less freedom. In this sympathetic dominance, our breathing is impeded, our blood pressure rises, the body constricts in a self-protective pattern as the blood vessels to our organs are constricted and blood is routed to the muscles.  Our bodies are living as if we are in constant danger. For awareness to blossom, people need to shift states, to move toward more parasympathetic dominance. Here the breath slows, the blood vessels to the organs expand, the heart rate and blood pressure are reduced and a feeling of well-being ensues. Learning to function effectively in this state is one of the implicit opportunities in the Feldenkrais Method. To generalize this learning outside of the lesson, pausing is essential.

This is not just a relaxation response. This is also a brain state in which new thoughts can arise and new ways of feeling in situations can emerge. This is not to say that living in a parasympathetic dominant state is the answer. Rather, it is the harmonious shifting of states that invites more ideal functioning.

The Essential Pause

All of this points in a surprisingly simple direction: the pause. Remarkably our nervous system does not need a long vacation from sympathetic dominance, rather we need high frequency, low duration pauses. Stepping off the train of habitual thought and into the present moment is the essence of the pause. Our bodily sensations are always in the present moment and thus are a reliable doorway to fresh presence.

I often ask students to commit to five pauses a day in which they sense the ground supporting them, then hear the sounds in their environment, then attend to three breaths from beginning to end (with the ground and sound in the background). In about 30 seconds one actually shifts states. For reminders, I recommend putting notes around the house, on the desk, on the computer and/or using an “app” to remind themselves of the radical pause. As this is practiced, many students begin to notice much more frequent instances of ‘embodied pauses” occurring spontaneously throughout their day.  These pauses invite interruptions or gaps in one’s self-identity. New possibilities exist, a sense of freshness arises. As simple as this seems, I can not think of a more important or effective strategy for bringing awareness into everyday life.

One on the main contributions of the Feldenkrais Method is to help students cultivate both a capacity for and an interest in their bodily awareness. It is essential to know that different states are possible for this awareness to arise. When one receives an FI lesson or does an ATM, it is important that the teacher help the student identify changes in their self- organization. Finding words for these changes is extremely valuable for accessing the new states later.

When Feldenkrais teachers encourage their students to investigate these changes during their day, the pauses necessary for listening actually can create a change in the nervous system. Awareness as a path becomes the most life-giving gift for the student. This is helpful for people addressing challenging, painful issues and/or people wanting to become less habitual, more awake in their daily lives. Pausing as an intentional practice will invite the changes that are experienced during a Feldenkrais lesson to be remembered more easily. The power of the habitual state becomes less dominant. This kind of interruption in one’s self-identity is a path to freedom.

We are excited to offer a multilingual option. Click on the language for a pdf translation in English; French or German.

In Part 1 of this article, I emphasized the following:

  • we all create a “climate” around us through our thoughts, words and deeds
  • we influence the “atmosphere” of others
  • we can be responsible for our “emissions
  • there is a connection between our individual “climate” and how we as a species approach the planetary dangers connected to global climate change

In this section I emphasize that fundamental to “positive global warming” is the experience of interconnectivity. Our daily interactions, our collective attitudes and our ecological decisions will be based in our inner sense of interconnectivity or disconnectedness.

Interconnectedness

Your physically felt body is, in fact, part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people, in fact the whole universe. This sense of being bodily alive in a vast system is the body as it is felt from the inside.
Gene Gendlin

We are inter-being, we inter-are
Thich Nhat Hahn

The essential cause of "positive" climate change can be summarized in one word: interconnectedness. Interconnectedness implies wholeness, the sense of non-separation, harmony and relatedness. I think of this in two ways- interconnected within oneself and interconnected with one’s world. 

We are a multiplicity. We like to think of ourselves as a single entity, a self, yet within each of us there are many “selves”, voices and ways of being. Sometimes it can be helpful to think of ourselves as a single entity, other times as having multiple selves. When integrated, these selves function as a coherent whole, when divided against each other a toxic inner environment is created. The “Russell” writing this is both connected to and not the same as the one who speaks to his daughter, walks with his wife, reads the newspaper, gets angry, is aware of joy, gets defensive and who attempts to bring wisdom to this morning’s seminar. When one’s “parts” are in good communication, flowing harmoniously together, we feel whole. “Unity within diversity” is both the model of the healthy individual and enlightened society. In addition to harmonious interrelatedness between our various selves, wholeness requires interconnectedness with the outer world.

Grass and worms and squirrels and salmon are always at one with their environment. We humans can sometimes be in harmony with the world and at other times function as if separate from it. Think of how unique this is. The natural world functions from implicit interconnectivity, thriving when conditions are right, dying when not. How do we manage to form our illusion of separation when even our bones do not exist in separation from the outer world? Without the pull of the earth our bones would not form. When in outer space the bones of astronauts disintegrate at alarming rates if they do not exercise every day. Similarly, our cells require oxygen from the atmosphere and our body is fed from the bounty of the earth. We do not exist as an entity distinct from this world. An inner sense of separation is a painful fiction. It is not just that you need these elements to live, you are not “you” without them just as you are not you without your heart pumping. We are not simply dependent upon our environment, we are one with our environment. To really understand this distinction, opens us to a new way of being in the world.

To be whole is to experience our interconnectedness both within the boundaries of our skin AND in relation to the  world. How does this work? As we have seen above, we do not exist only within the boundary of our skin? A person with a healthy sense of self can feel both the boundary of the physical body- their autonomy- AND sense that their self extends beyond the boundaries of their skin. Experiencing oneself as larger than the physical body creates a different relationship to life and our planet.

Before there is “I” there is “we”

“You look in the eyes of your mother. She smiles. You smile. In her gaze a knowing begins”.

Interrelatedness extends beyond our biology and into our self as social beings. We do not exist outside of our interactions, outside of our relationships. We discover or invent a sense of self through attachments usually beginning with our mothers and fathers.

We are “pack animals”. Even the introverts amongst us rely on relatedness to form their identities. We are formed by our “situations” which includes the functions, roles and relationships that make up every moment. The “you” that is reading this is not the same as the one who will be speaking to someone later. “I” comes from “we” not the other way around.

In the following quote from great Zen Master Dogen the “ten thousand dharmas” refers to all things that you encounter: all objects, situations, thoughts and feelings:

To carry the self forward and realize (experience) the ten thousand dharmas is delusion.
That the ten thousand dharmas advance and realize (experience) the self is enlightenment.

Reborn Freshly in the Living Moment

Could it be helpful to think that “you” do not get carried from situation to situation but are actually formed by the situation? Think about this seriously. Might we, ordinary people like you and me, accept Buddha’s invitation to “put down the burden of carrying a solid self”? I suggest that it is possible and helpful to have a sense of being both a creative, autonomous self  AND realizing that we are reborn freshly by the situations in which we live.

There is much freedom in this experience. To repeat, it is important to have a sense of continuity, a linking of the various manifestations of a self yet to live only as a solid self is a great burden. It is important, accurate and healthy to have both a sense of continuity and continual rebirth. One of the main functions of a meditation practice is to help each of these experiences of self and no-self to evolve. Each is needed for a healthy, authentic and evolving life.

Disconnectedness

If we are so obviously completely interconnected with our environment, how do we get lost in the tragedy of disconnectedness and isolation? Can we see that violence, environmental degradation and all selfish behavior come from this sense of separation? Imagine if we experienced ourselves as cells within a single organism. How would this change our relationships? Is losing the feeling of connectedness to both nature and others the necessary price we must pay for the cultivation of an autonomous, creative, free-thinking Self? 

Some spiritual writers point to the “Fall”, the leaving of the Garden of Eden, as the time when humanity “traded” connectedness to all of Life for individuality. Others suggest that it is in the development of our post-tribal, modern consciousness that we began to grow the autonomous sense of self and lose our sense of connectedness. I believe that it is the task of modern humanity to simultaneously grow these dual capacities. We each have a different gift to bring into this world. We can grow this unique expression of self- thinking new thoughts, doing new deeds, creating new beauty- while also sensing oneself as part of a larger whole. Self and no-self. This is the thrill of evolving consciousness!

In the modern western world we can see the great gift of creative thought in our artistic, scientific and social development. Even with all our collective troubles there are more men and women on our planet who have the possibility of realizing their potential than ever before. People throughout the world are living longer with far greater health, mobility and potential. Though it is important to acknowledge the many troubling social events and abuses of power, it is essential that we also see how living has been improving for humanity over the last centuries. For example, even with the horrendous violence against women that we read about every day, more women on our planet are casting off the shackles of patriarchy than ever. 

We can also see how our planet is being destroyed by disconnected thinking in which greed is encouraged through our social and economic systems. Rampant narcissism and “me, me, me” philosophy destroys both our happiness and our planet at the same time. The key to integrating our individuality with our connectivity is to bring awareness to our capacity for disconnectedness. 


Disconnected Thinking

"God guard me from thoughts that man thinks in the mind alone"
He who sings a lasting song thinks in the marrow bone"
W.B.Yeats

“Lost in thought, we drive down the highway, repeating to ourselves the same upsetting conversation from the early morning. Barely noticing the glistening sunrise we continue, functioning on automatic pilot”.

We have been raised to value thinking more than direct experience. It’s as if the images in our minds, the representations in our higher brains have more reality than direct experience through our bodies. This was an unintended consequence of the scientific revolution's focus on objectivity. Many of us do not believe something is real unless it has been proven in a laboratory. While objectivity can be very helpful under certain conditions, it can also invite an alienation from one’s living experience. Thinking, when in connection to life is a great gift. Yet, thinking when disconnected from life leads to disaster. We can see this on our planet and in our relationships. Being ‘lost in one's head' destroys life. Recovering an embodied relationship to life is key to balancing this tendency. 

Think of our modern educational systems in which analysis and deduction are emphasized. Recently a young mom said to me, “in kinder-garden my child is being asked to sit at a desk all day and read. There is little playtime and just one hour of music each week”. When we overvalue that part of intelligence that divides things up, mostly through the left cerebral hemisphere, we lose our sense of wholeness. Think of how throwing balls together or dancing or singing requires both inner integration and connectedness with others. These are the capacities that the modern world tends to undervalue.

Disconnected Feeling

I don't trust my inner feelings, you know feelings come and go
Leonard Cohen 

“Lost in anger, we say words we wish to take back. Once said they can never be unsaid.”

Back in the 70's, as a way out of this thought worshipping trance, many decided that getting in touch with feelings was the answer. While being in touch with feelings as a part of our total experience is invaluable, when disconnected from our wholeness, feelings are just as anti-life as thinking. Living on an emotional roller coaster does not create fulfillment. To identify one’s self with feelings does not engender security, clarity or a sense of being whole. One simply goes up and down depending on one’s temporary state.

Disconnected Sensing

Once obsession with the body is gone, you will revert to your natural state.
Nisargadatta Maharaj

“If only I could lose 20 pounds I would be happy. One more drink I will feel wonderful”

Worshipping sensations in themselves leads us down that same path of disconnection. When the body becomes the main vehicle for self-identity, we suffer. Bodies are unreliable as sources of fulfillment. There are three main ways that body identity fails us.

  1. Pleasure Compulsion: Although physical pleasure can be wonderful, if we observe closely, we can see that pleasure divorced from wholeness creates discontent. Notice how often pleasure seeking becomes compulsive and the source of more and more wanting rather than contentment. Confusing pleasure with true joy creates pain.
  2. Impermanence: Bodies decay over time. Even the most beautiful or physically fit person will experience loss. If we strongly identify our value as a person with how we look or what we can do we will suffer.
  3. Objectification: When we identify ourselves or others primarily as bodies, our human relatedness is lost. We then live in a world of objects.  Implicit in this loss is a disconnection from our deeper soul qualities including love,  joy and peace. Deep longing then is our constant companion. As the world becomes more affluent, hatred of one’s body becomes more rampant. When asked, a large percentage of teenage girls said they would rather be thin than discover a cure for cancer! Hatred of one’s body becomes hatred of one’s self.


The compulsive “thinker” who gathers self-identity from thoughts, the “feeler” jumping from one emotional state to another or the body- obsessed “senser” who identifies exclusively with how their body looks or feels is bound to experience disconnectedness from wholeness. This disconnection from self is also a disconnection from the world.

Integration

“Sitting here, sensing my bottom in the chair and cool breath coming in, I notice a feeling of curiosity as I think about you reading this article and wonder about your response. My chest tightens a bit as I imagine it being too long and then eases as I notice a soft πsatisfaction in not shortening it”.

The antidote to disconnectedness is integration. To be integrated four components must be alive at the same time.  First, we need to have a quality of presence or awareness- one is in touch with the living moment. Experiencing our bodies is key to this. Notice that to sense your left foot right now you must enter the present moment. Our bodily sensing is a doorway to presence. The same body that can lead us astray when disconnected can be open us to the living moment. This is the ground for a sense of interconnectedness.

In addition to sensing our bodily state we also need connection with our feelings in a given moment. We always have some feeling-tones that can be sensed if we pay attention. Together the sensations and feelings form a “felt-sense” of the moment. For this felt-sense to enter consciousness we need some kind of symbol, a word, picture or image to frame the moment. Thinking is a form of symbolizing, a way of creating a representation of reality. 

When sensing, feeling and thinking/symbolizing are all alive in a single, living moment, we have the experience of wholeness or integration. Our thinking becomes “heart thinking”. Our feelings include reflection. Our body sense infuses our thoughts and feelings. From this self-aware state, people can function in harmony with self and world. This is the key to radiating a warm personal climate in which people feel sustenance from your presence. It is also the key to a sense of interconnectivity that is needed for our harmonious living on this planet.

In those moments when awareness succeeds in being at one with feeling, senses, movement and thought, the carriage {i.e. our skeleton} will speed along the right road. Then man can make discoveries, invent, create, innovate and “know”. He grasps that his small world and the great world around are but one and that in this unity he is no longer alone.
Moshe Feldenkrais, “Awareness Through Movement”, p.54

Click here for pdf for printing.




























On the topic of our interconnection, here is an audio link of an excerpt of a talk Russell gave at a recent retreat at Johanneshof.

This will bridge his two writings on Positive Global Warming: Climate Change we can live with. Part one was posted in the May

newsletter (see below). Part two is coming next week.

Click here to listen.

Positive Global Warming: Climate Change We Can Live With (Part 1 )

Like most of us I am concerned about the atmospheric changes occurring on our planet. I believe the scientific consensus pointing to potentially life threatening changes. Human beings are beginning to address these issues. Though uncertain, I am hopeful for our capacity to take care of our home.

There is another kind of climate change that draws my concern. This revolves around how we directly effect our environment at each moment. We each radiate a personal climate that influences life around us. Our individual and then collective thoughts, feeling and actions help to determine the atmosphere in which we live.

When I think of my daughter leaving for graduate school in a couple of months, I am very interested in the “climate” of the people in her world.  Is there a general sense of caring that extends beyond one’s intimate circle?  How far out does this care emanate and might it even include those with differing views?   Is there a general atmosphere of fear, apprehension, contraction or do people live with a kind of hopefulness and sense of possibility? What kind of climate will she bring into her new experiences.

How can we be responsible for the atmosphere that we emanate?  Choosing life-giving thoughts and actions means to have the freedom of choice. This is a rare capacity, reflective of a new level of consciousness on our planet. As many great teachers have shown, awareness is the essential requirement for freedom.  Without awareness, we are bound to repeat the thoughts, feelings and actions of the past. We can call this the law of human behavior, sometimes called the law of karma.

Please join me in actively reflecting on these issues. Observe your influence on the beings around you in simple moments, going to the store, meeting the postal person or answering the phone. 

  • Do people usually seem uplifted, weighted down or not significantly influenced by your presence? 
  • What other words or images would you use for your effect on your world? 
  • Do you often feel free to choose new thoughts, feelings and actions in your everyday life?

Hold the questions sincerely and lightly.  I look forward to continuing this inquiry with you.

Rus

Russell was interviewed on a local Sonoma County radio show called "The Mystical Positivist ". Both interviewers are meditation teachers from the Tayu (Truth) tradition. The conversation was free flowing and covered everything from his early history to recent developments in the Embodied Life work. Russell gives beautiful, distinct descriptions of both Moshe and Gene's contributions to his work.

The interview was done in two parts, each part is less than an hour.

We hope you enjoy!

To listen to part one of the interview please click here.

To listen to part two of the interview please click here.

We are living in a revolutionary cultural moment. The term “mindfulness” and related practices are becoming common language. For the first time in history, masses of people are learning to stand “next to” their mental creations and notice them. Rather than immediately believing in or being identified with these impressions, people are actually witnessing and observing them. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Throughout human history most violence and intolerance came from people’s inability to question their own thoughts and feelings. This is a truly remarkable moment in the evolution of consciousness.

Our minds/brains are constantly generating impressions. This is what they do, this is their healthy functioning. The Zen Master Uchiyama Roshi called this  “secreting thoughts”. I would say, we are secreting thoughts/feelings/sensations or what I call “impressions”. We can say that from the infinite potential of the next moment “some-thing” is created. Mindfulness is the process of observing these creations. One does not empty the mind, one notices the “somethings”.

While mindfulness is extremely helpful in cultivating a different relationship to mental phenomena, the meditation that I practice and teach emphasizes something quite different. Though we still notice the various ‘arisings’ of mind and body, this noticing is not the center or the purpose of the practice. While this meditation, called “just sitting”, is not the same as mindfulness practice, it is not-not mindfulness. We sit with the paradox that while polishing the mirror (i.e. mindfulness) is essential, the mirror (our true nature) has never been tarnished.

This mirror image is based on a powerful and important story in the history of Zen. This historical event involves the choosing of a successor to the 5th Ancestor.

One day Hung-jen challenged his monks to compose a verse that expressed their understanding of the dharma. If any verse reflects the truth, Hung-jen said, the monk who composed it will receive the robe and bowl and become the Sixth Patriarch.

Shen-hsiu (Shenxiu), the most senior monk, accepted this challenge and wrote this verse on a monastery wall:

“Our body is the bodhi tree
And our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them hour-by-hour
And let no dust alight.”

When someone read the verse to the illiterate Huineng, the future Sixth Patriarch knew Shenxiu had missed it. Huineng dictated this verse for another to write for him:

“There is no bodhi tree
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?”   


This illiterate monk knew that true realization was beyond any activity of his mind.  Rather, it arose from intimacy with his True nature. Although this intimacy cannot be created by any meditation practice, it can be encouraged by the practice of “just sitting”. As modern Zen teacher Baker Roshi has said, “enlightenment is an accident and zazen (“just sitting”) makes you accident-prone”. Intimacy comes from directly experiencing life itself.

Intimacy, Aliveness, Wholehearted Welcoming

For me, meditation is learning to be intimate with our lives, this intimacy is radically alive. Saying “alive” I do not mean to imply that it is pleasant or unpleasant, exciting or dull or anything in particular, rather that it is authentic and directly experienced. Before our opinions, beyond our preferences, life “just IS”. This “IS” can be sensed directly.  

This “is-ness” is dynamic! You learn to surf the waves inherent in the movement of life. If carried off by thinking, one is committed to returning to the living moment. The core practice is wholeheartedly welcoming the moment. This is the practical ground for learning deep acceptance. This is the practical ground for just being yourself.

When there is a voice inside that fights or hates the moment we wholeheartedly welcome that. This meditation requires an attitude of generosity toward the moment, toward the self. We are not “doing” meditation, meditation is alive in itself. How can we know the experience/non-experience of intimacy and aliveness?

Confidence helps. 
What can we have confidence in?
•    Confidence that you are much more than the voices in your head.  
•    Confidence that this moment is impermanent and always changing .
•    Confidence that your habitual, conditioned self is just a small part of you.
•    Confidence that you are directly connected to a vast field through awareness.

How do we get this confidence? I suggest many, many short moments of pausing and sensing into the background of the living moment. Let go of accomplishing something; sense how you know you are alive right now. This sensing is most directly felt as a bodily experience. Our body is always vibrating with the aliveness of the present moment. Even tiredness or dullness have qualities that can be felt. Sense what is alive right now! This requires a kind of listening and welcoming. Direct experiencing is always ‘right there’ yet it needs our invitation, our participation.

During a daily meditation practice of “just sitting” one can emphasize this resting into aliveness. Directly sensing the way life is known right now, we can rest in the awareness that notices. Mindfully observing the particular phenomena in the moment can be included with a light touch. Do not form the sense of a “solid observer”. Allow a feather-like noting of the momentary impression. Even when you notice a long, involved ‘story’ do not take it so personally, treat it lightly. The impression then dissolves like a snowflake falling into a mountain lake.

Turning the Light Around

When zazen does zazen, you are you.
When you are you, zazen can do zazen.
This knowing is simple, authentic and direct.

We have the expression “effortless effort”. This means it takes a clear, strong committed intention to rest in the light of “just sitting”. When we turn the light around toward the experience of being alive, the experiencer and the experience dissolve and all that remains is bowing to the intimacy with living.

The point of meditation is not to control the mind or to be mindful. It is to be intimate with self and life. This intimacy is alive because you are alive. You do not “do” meditation. Warmhearted welcoming creates the conditions in which meditation can reveal you to yourself.


I will end with a famous, wonderful dialogue.

It’s Alive!

A student asked Master Chao Jo (Zhaoruo)

What is zazen?

“It is non-zazen” he replied

“How can zazen be non-zazen?

“Its Alive!", Chao Jo replied





























THE MIRACLE……..LOVE IS
Can we be simple enough
Like children
Seeing Freshly
The miracle
That Love IS
 
Beyond our
Fear
Anger
Selfishness
Confusion
Anxiety
Despair
Love IS
 
Can we be simple enough
Like the spirits of
Those Children
Imploring US
To Remember:
The miracle
That Love IS
 
Looking in the mirror
Beginningless longing
Endless failures
The broken-hearted shame of our forgetting
That Love Is

My prayer for you, for me, for all of us
Feel it…Know it…Share it…Be it
The Miracle
That Love IS!

Life is one mistake after another”- Zen master Dogen

Each year around Thanksgiving, like so many of us, I join our ancestors throughout history in thankfulness for the harvest, for the food that will see us through the winter.  There is hope, humility and a deep sense of interconnectedness with all the forces that sustain our life.  This year I want to acknowledge an overlooked source of nourishment- our failures.

Many times everyday I fail to meet my life with care.  Often I am so lost in my self-involvement that I miss the beauty that is radiating forth or I miss the opportunities to take care of life.  For me, taking care of life simply means to notice and respond to the needs of the moment.  These needs might appear as really listening to my wife, making a phone call, doing the dishes, writing an email or sitting down for a restorative moment.  

And what of our larger failures? Those errors that permeate our lives, the regrets that haunt our minds?  Looking back on the most formative moments of my life I realize how often that a ‘mistake’ became the rich soil for  powerful growth.  That car accident that almost severed my spine, breaking two cervical vertebrae, resulting in a deep compassion for people experiencing intense pain.  The loss of a job that invited a need for more self-reliance and inquiry.  Unquestioning support for a loved one’s tragic, life-altering decision which empowered in me a deep questioning of people’s true motivations.  Each painful occurrence became an absolutely essential lesson in my unfolding.  I do not mean to paint a pretty picture.  Each event hurt and can still hurt. Yet, as my teacher Moshe Feldenkrais would emphasize, “it is our resilience, the shock that we can withstand and still recover our stability that determines our health”.  If approached with care, our failures are the ground from which compassion, humility and deep questioning can grow.

When I feel harmonious with my self and my life, there is a sense of moving through my day with presence and loving-kindness.   The new moment comes and I respond, there is grace and harmony.  Yet, after more than 40 years on this path of awakening, I am awed by the tenacity of my unconsciousness, how I can miss the true needs of the situation I am in.  By situation I mean everything from the people around me, my inner life,  the plant that needs watering, actually everything that makes up the moment.  

I am also awed by the unfathomable generosity of life as the new moment, pregnant with opportunity, arises freshly.  Freshly means I can start anew, born again. The art of bowing to ‘what is’ is a deep and lifelong practice.  Arguing with reality is a losing strategy.   When I can freely acknowledge my inadequacies then the failure in the moment becomes the blessing in the moment- we awaken to the light through our darkness.  As is said in Zen, samsara and nirvana are one!  We awaken through and to our unconsciousness, those old habits of self-contraction.

When on a path of awakening, it is our failures that are our best friends.  It is through waking up in these moments of being lost that we can learn to bow.  This humility opens our heart.  When we can uncover warm-hearted acceptance of our own limitations, the hard shell of false identity begins to melt.  Then, behind this shell, we sense the tender heart of our authentic Self.  For this melting, as painful as it can be, we can be deeply grateful.

This Thanksgiving I wish you many moments of joy, beauty and love along with some failures to help enlighten your heart.  Bowing to your mistakes will free your heart to love again.

Last night as I was sleeping,
I dreamt-marvelous error!-
That I had a beehive
Here in my heart.
And the golden bees
Were making white combs
And sweet honey
From my old failures.”
(from “Time Alone” Antonio Machado)

Happy Thanksgiving

Russell

Click Here for pdf for printing.

 

Why Sit for Peace? (Russell recommends printing out for further reflection)

On Sunday, October 14, for the fourth time this year, friends of the Embodied Life School throughout the world will spend time “Sitting for World Peace”. What does this mean, “sitting for peace”?

People often ask, why do you think sitting and “doing nothing” can help the world to become more peaceful? They usually concede that the person meditating might experience more relaxation but the idea that this could influence peace on the planet seems a far reach.

Some will argue that the primary ingredients for peace in the world require ending the external conditions of poverty and oppression. While these are noble and essential goals, worthy of our efforts, these conditions are not the true, deep antecedents to peace.

For me it is simple. To radiate peacefulness into the world, human beings need three interconnected capacities: 1) to be responsible for the kinds of thoughts and attitudes we radiate, 2) to become at home within our bodies and 3) to sense our deep connectedness to all of life. All of these require an ability to rest quietly within one’s self. Let’s explore these ideas.

What do you radiate…

Everyday we live in moments that can be upsetting. We have some hope or desire, small or large that is unfulfilled. Maybe we did not get the parking space we were anticipating, a friend forgets a date, we lose our job or a loved one is diagnosed with an illness. How we respond to these moments will be determined by the mental stories we tell ourselves about them. This is human freedom! We are not free to determine what will occur nor are we always free to determine the initial thoughts that arise. We ARE free to choose the thoughts and actions we will consciously cultivate about the situation. This will determine how we will carry the situation.  

Do our thoughts and attitudes allow for a confident equanimity in the unfolding of life?  Do we create mental catastrophes and generate greater upsets from our inner dialogue about what might/should/could happen? Learning to see our mind-created world is a direct outgrowth of “just sitting” meditation (this is the form of open meditation that I usually practice, description at the end of this article).

Many of my heroes are people who have endured great challenges yet managed to find a peaceful response to life circumstance. Nelson Mandela endured 27 years in prison, yet even his guards came to respect and care for this man because of his noble, kindhearted attitude. In fact, the authorities needed to keep changing his guards because they would begin to care too much for him. His inner peace and deep acceptance radiated throughout his world. His mentor, Mahatma Gandhi would respond with great purpose and equanimity to the trials given to him by the British.

Our response to situations will be largely determined by the thoughts, images and beliefs, we generate about life and our relationship to it. To be free from unhelpful thoughts first requires noticing them. Second, we must be able to rest in ourselves and notice any hijacking by our mental habits. We learn to see that thoughts are only thoughts with no power until they are believed. To see this requires the ability to sit, alone within ones self.

Here is a story about this condition:

The disciples were involved in a heated discussion on the cause of human suffering. Some said it came from selfishness. Others, from delusion. Yet others, from the inability to distinguish the real from the unreal.

When the Master was consulted, he said,
"All suffering comes from a person's inability to sit still, be alone and listen".
(Based on a story from Anthony de Mello)

Learning to sit with our inner life, free from judgments, denial or self- criticism is the ground for uncovering peacefulness toward ourselves and others. Even when judgment occurs, as soon as we see this and choose to return to the next breath, we are cultivating the conditions for peace. Between the mental pattern and our response there is a gap, this gap allows for awareness to grow. This is the ground for freedom and peace to grow. Being friendly with “what is” is the essence of learning to live. When we can shine a light on our own patterns, the pattern begins to fade, like the darkness in a room when we light a candle.

This Bodily Life…

What about physical discomfort? Can one experience peace when the body is not at ease? No matter how well we take care of ourselves, how well we eat, exercise, think good thoughts, etc., our bodies will be uncomfortable at least some moments every day. For some of us chronically painful sensations are a daily companion. Part of this discomfort is the body’s way of communicating important messages. Some of it is simply the fact of living in an ever-changing physical universe.

As long as we have a body we will experience discomfort. To find that we can be comfortable within a moderate amount of physical discomfort is essential for both inner freedom and for deep peace. Also, so much of our physical discomfort is connected to emotional reactivity that is not consciously experienced and therefore held in our tissues. Life is often uncomfortable; can we rest in ourselves even when that is true?

The attitude of resting comfortably within discomfort assumes: 1) we listen well so that the message from our inner life is heard, 2) that we take action to alleviate the situation when appropriate and 3) we acknowledge that our fighting with discomfort or pain actually intensifies it. The old expression “what you resist persists” is revelatory. Sitting meditation is a direct way to learn about this process and cultivate our “peaceful abiding”.

A long time student of mine named June lives with many physical ailments. At first the idea of meditation was completely unappealing to her. She had learned to deal with her pain through constant distraction. By keeping herself always busy with high levels of stimulation, she could ignore her bodily sensations. This strategy was successful in certain ways but also left her feeling disconnected and exhausted. After learning to sit through the initial sensations of discomfort and the accompanying fear and resistance that would arise, June discovered that by settling into the sensations they could actually dissolve. Now, she proudly says, “sitting is my best friend”.

Connectedness to life...
 
Feeling connected to life is the basis for deep peace. When human beings sense connectedness with themselves and others, peace is the natural condition. Sitting can create a sense of deep connectedness to life.

As one drops deeper into the silence, an unexpected inner movement occurs. Deeper than the thoughts, feelings and sensations that are constantly changing is a quality of presence that is continuous. Perhaps you can feel it, if you pause and sense “what is the deepest sense of life I can know right now. Beneath the thoughts and usual sensations- what is IT?

When sitting, moments will arise when one experiences the subtlest sense of being alive- the sense of Being. For at least a few seconds we sense our connection to all of life. This is the most nourishing place I know.

There is always a pre-verbal “pulse of life” that can be sensed. It is both personal and completely impersonal. It is life itself pulsing through us. We can feel it. One “knows” oneself as part of All. At first this happens for brief seconds or even fractions of a second. Consistent sitting can connect you in a direct way to the totality of life.   You feel at home in this universe, never separate. From this connectedness an implicit caring for the world arises.  

Often while I am sitting, temporary “arisings” of mind will pull me away from deep connectedness. As soon as this is seen, the thought dissolves like a bubble bursting in mid-air. All that remains is life aware of itself in its primordial, uncreated form. After a while, this background quality of Being can be sensed even when the mind is distracted. Gaining confidence in this ground of Being through consistent practice brings profound peace and deep rest.  

In this article, I speak of learning to be at home in the circumstances of our lives. I give examples of people finding peace within extraordinary circumstances. I then speak about feeling connected to the whole world. It is important for me to acknowledge that living like this is not easy. In my personal life, all of these abilities are a “work in progress”. I am forever grateful to my sitting practice for helping these capacities to grow.


So to repeat:

Reason #1 to sit: to become responsible for our thoughts and become free from the habit of cultivating unhelpful thoughts. To do this, we must grow our capacity for awareness and our ability to see that the thoughts have no inherent power unless we believe in them.

Reason #2 to sit: to experience our capacity to be at home in our bodies even in challenging moments. When we discover the capacity to rest even when uncomfortable, life changes enormously. Pausing and befriending our bodily experience is the basis for non-struggling. As we sense the truth of the moment, the bodily discomfort will often lessen or even vanish. Imagine how different our lives would be, how different the world would be if we cultivated this kind of resting.

Reason #3 to sit: to experience our fundamental connectedness to absolutely everything. This connectedness is the ground for love. This is the perennial “peace that surpass all understanding”.

Please join me for as little or as much of the day as suits you. Even one hour of “sitting for peace” is a gift to yourself and to the world. Look at my schedule in California and perhaps we can sit together, wherever you are.

Russell

 

Basic instruction for “JUST SITTING” MEDITATION:

Feel free to sit in a chair or on a cushion. Your physical posture is very important for cultivating awareness. Most essential is to be comfortably erect with the spine long and the breath free. If you’re in a chair be sure your feet are supported by the ground. If needed, support your feet with a blanket. If you’re on a cushion sit toward the front third so that your pelvis can be higher than your knees.
 
Please let go of your ideas of meditation. Rather than 'meditation' I speak about 'just sitting', based in the Zen practice called shikantaza. 'Just sitting' emphasizes the physical act of sitting with the sensations of weight, breath and other bodily phenomena including sound. Rather than focusing on rigorous control of the mind, I emphasize "being with 'what is' from moment to moment". This 'being with' embraces whatever arises with respect, warmth and interest. Note that this embracing does not imply ‘liking’ or enjoying, it is the courageous act of opening one’s interest to the pleasant and unpleasant alike.

There are two main orientations: 1) a subtle, gentle intention to notice what appears (thoughts, feelings, sensations, and images) and 2) a warm-hearted acceptance of whatever one notices. For many students the most important initial learning is to recognize any unfriendly, voices of self- judgment. Many people are ashamed of their own minds. When we become kinder to ourselves, the whole world changes. Imagine saying “hello” to each moment with a welcoming, non-condemning attitude. Even physical discomfort, if not too intense can be welcomed. One is learning an atmosphere of “peaceful abiding”. This means not fighting the moment yet engaging with interested curiosity. To be friendly with your mind in this way will absolutely change your life!

When mild to moderate discomfort arises actively explore,” what makes this moment unpleasant”?  “What is it?”  “What is its essence?”  Is it possible to notice any resistance to the moment? Can you find way of resting in the discomfort? Also, can you warm-heartedly choose to move if you find that being with it is too much? Be gentle and kind with yourself as you courageously engage with the moment.

The job of the sitter is to consistently return to the moment, allowing the bodily sensations “to ground” the mind. Having the breathing as a gentle focus can be helpful. Notice the rising and falling of the lower belly. You can even count the exhales to give you more focus if wanted. Go 1 to 5 then return to 1. Do this the settle your mind if helpful. Through this dedicated, gentle intention one is inviting effortless awareness to dawn.

Attention and awareness are not the same- the first can lead to the second. While attention includes an intentional guiding of the mind, awareness is spontaneous and free. Interestingly, as awareness dawns the sense of a "body" drops away and all that remains is awareness itself.   Life is sensing itself through you. Embodied meditation leads us beyond embodiment, into the essential pulse of life. This is our direction.

1)    sit erect without rigidity;
2)    with interested curiosity acknowledge what arises;
3)    pay particular attention to any fighting of the moment;
4)    let your breath give you some “thing” to be with;
5)    let yourself rest in Being whenever possible.

 

Click here for pdf of article.

Click here for pdf of instruction for "just sitting".

 


 

 

As many of you know from my last writing, I recently journeyed to South Africa. I have been home a week now, here are some lasting impressions.

In the morning light, a wild giraffe, attracted to our singing and our welcoming invitations, comes toward us, looks intently and actually bows, legs splayed, forehead to the ground. It then lifts its head, again looks intently and walks slowly away with graceful dignity, a behavior never seen before by our experienced guide.

Here in the Cradle of Mankind, the vibrant earth simultaneously ancient and fresh has an unusual potency. Connecting to the ground, one feels a rare, living quality. From atop an outcropping of rock, actually the ground of an ancient civilization, we see lions running and elephants grazing. Again, as if attracted to our singing and our prayers, one elephant walks directly toward us, ears flapping gently, unhurried, steady steps.

And the white lions of Timbavati… According to the shamans (sangomas) of South Africa these are mystical Beings who have important messages for humanity. Credo Mutwa, the greatest living sangoma in Africa, claims that they carry messages from the stars for humanity's survival. They seem to appear and disappear through different eras of history. Currently, there are stories throughout our planet of the recent appearance of "white" animals- alligators, hummingbirds, dolphins, and donkeys. Again, according to indigenous wisdom traditions from various cultures, these are messengers from the animal kingdom. Can we sense these messages? Also, is it possible that the earth itself speaks to us, if we can learn to listen?

All of this is new to me. As a scientifically trained westerner, I like to go very slowly, approaching as Buddha taught, empirically, mindfully with an open heart/mind. I do know that our bodies are our direct connection to nature. I know that we can open our bodies to inner messages and experience a permeability to the world around us. The wisdom of our bodies is inseparable from the wisdom of nature. We are an expression of the natural world. How tragic that through disconnected thinking, we often alienate ourselves into a narcissistic, mechanistic universe. Setting aside my beliefs, I open to the world.
                                                                                       .   .   .   .   .   .

The dawn air on the South African plain tastes like a nourishing meal. Singing birds dance amongst the trees as the prey animals wander, feeling the relief of surviving another night. Each evening the dusk air is filled with the awakening sounds of lions and other nocturnal predators- a poignancy and aliveness radiates. Mandela, the large, dignified male white lion named for Nelson Mandela was rescued from a "canned hunting" farm where so called “hunters” pay as much as $165,000 to put a white lion's head on the wall. He shows us his huge teeth. His roar, a low, earth-shaking rumble alerts the world to his kingly presence. He, along with the other white lions are part of the White Lion Trust (http://www.whitelions.org/) that is attempting to save these great animals from the powerful, insatiable greed of the hunting industry. A bit further north 10,000 elephants (25,000 internationally) were slaughtered this year for tusks and many, many rhinoceros left for dead so that their horns could be sold as a potency supplement. We humans have abandoned our stewardship of the animal realm. 
 
We visit two underprivileged South African schools. Due primarily to HIV-Aids, the orphan rate is 70% and households are often parented by 8-year-old children. Amazingly, the vitality of the self-described “learners and educators" is infectious. Such smiles, such voices, as we share songs and dances together. The educators move with such exuberance that we are caught up in a dance just saying "hello". High-fiving the children as we ask for their names fills me with longing for an exchange- can our children be exposed to this natural, spontaneous élan and can the children here receive the nourishment and material support that our culture can offer?

In both the animals and the people I sensed a distinct dignity and vitality.  These qualities were palpable. When reflecting on the lions, I would also add the quality of courage. The courage to be the “king”. The courage, dignity and vitality that it takes to be a true king creates the revered “heart of the lion”. This quality speaks to me as I sit here writing right now.

As I am adjusting to my life back home filled with emails, electronics and new opportunities, I also long for these days when the natural world was omnipresent. Here in my rural home, I am committed more than ever to sense the offerings of nature, especially at dawn and dusk. What about people living in urban environments?  Even in the city, this rhythm of the earth, moon and sun can be sensed. More challenging but always present. This is why the great meditation traditions encourage us to settle down at these times. Can we sense these movements? Are we a part of or apart from this resonance with Life?

Honing this capacity for bodily listening seems essential to me. In this way no matter where I am the natural world speaks to me. Listening with consistency takes commitment. The reward is immeasurable. South Africa awakened something vital in me and I am excited to experience where this will lead.

Click here for pdf copy.

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