How do we live in the paradox of unconditional gratitude amidst so much destruction and sorrow?
What are "unfathomable blessings"?
Years ago, Ram Das (spiritual teacher Richard Alpert) gave me a great teaching. He came for some sessions after having his massive stroke and we enjoyed connecting on many levels. While at times frustrated or having challenging moments, usually he would return quite quickly to curiosity about the moment. In our first session, when he needed help lying down and I held him in a big bear hug, we shared a belly laugh at the absurdity of the situation. At first he hated the dependency of “needing people to wipe my ass”, but then we again laughed at how wonderful it was to be cared for so intimately.
What does it mean to stop struggling with life? Does it suggest that you like everything that happens? Does it imply passivity? Does unconditional acceptance of life “as it is,” mean that we can’t dedicate ourselves to ending injustice, reducing suffering and healing our planet?
How can we live in these realizations:” You are never separate from True Self (God, Life, Love)” along with “Everything is as it is and as it needs to be until it isn’t” while simultaneously feeling the tragedy of human violence toward the earth, her creatures and each other? How can one live fully into the “peace that surpasses all understanding” and also respond in revulsion to hate-filled crimes, destruction of the planet and selfishness revealed by human beings just like you and me?
If you are lucky enough to have an authentic practice of awakening and perhaps some help from a few spiritual benefactors, you will most likely experience the great freedom that comes from holding your self and your mental constructs lightly. By mental constructs I mean all the thoughts, feelings, reactions etc. that comprise your “story” of life.
As you learn to confidently live in the spaciousness of Being- the Unborn Mind- you do not dwell very long in your conditioned reactions. This does not mean that you do not have these reactions, rather, that soon after you notice your reactivity, your defensiveness and your struggling, you also remember the ever-present Unborn Mind. You choose to return to True Self rather than be lost in your reactivity. You learn how to be with the reactivity in a kind-hearted, curious way. Rather than having it take over the Self or pushing the feeling away or denying it, you learn to value your reactions as an expression of the Unborn, a part of your particular history. It is included as part of your life story, yet not true in any fundamental sense. Everything that IS is part of the reality of your life yet you are always much more than that particular state. You are the space in which the moment comes and the awareness that notices it (recall part 2 in this series of writings)!
So this is the edge- how to acknowledge the conditioned, historical, learned sense of self, how to value everything that has contributed to your development AND to remember the Unborn Mind. This remembering has an air of freshness, the moment feels new. As you grow more familiar with the Unborn you can even learn to maintain a kind of loving companionship with very challenging states like shame, anger or deep hurt. When held this way, the energy of these states will transform.
This is a unique positioning of oneself. One does not fall into the old stories (for very long) as if they are real and one does not fall into the “spiritual bypassing” or “process skipping” that can be so prevalent in spiritual circles. Finding this new way of locating ones self is very challenging until it isn’t. We are so often entranced by our inner dialogue, keeping alive our old stories about who we are, who others are and what life is. Most of these stories were learned before we had enough awareness to really choose what was true. Yet always, before and within the conditioned self is this Unborn Mind.
Authentic meditation practice gives us the certainty that this original ground of being is right here, “closer than your skin”. As I said in an earlier writing, one senses the silence from which sound emerges and to which it returns even as the particular sound is noticed. Knowing that this particular sound is only a temporary occurrence, one can feel that the spaciousness and infinite potentiality of the moment is never far away. Just as this is with sound so it is with thoughts, feelings- any mind state. One is either living in the Unborn or returning to it.
Emptying the cup of reactivity so that genuine responsiveness can emerge is the essence of meditation practice. It is also the essence of a path of awakening. We rest more and more in the open space out of which the moment emerges. We can learn to experience that open space during a mind state just as silence can be sensed within a sound.
I am concerned that this sounds too lofty, too extraordinary to be attainable, yet I am talking about ordinary people just like you and me. We can learn to PAUSE in our reactivity, breathe and connect with the Being that is free, even in that difficult moment. We can learn to have kind-heartedness toward the difficult moment. AND when all we can do is to notice that some reactive, self-protective state has emerged, when we are lost in a troubled state, we can be generous toward the place inside that is struggling. As this capacity grows, we notice our kindness and understanding toward others also growing.
Almost everyday I read the newspaper, it seems important to me to be exposed to all aspects of humanity, including the destructive qualities. Certain horror stories grab my innards and can bring me to tears. Yet, everyday I am also awed by the courage, generosity and loving-kindness of my fellow humans.
Just this week:
- In one story, a young girl loses her arm just two months ago and simultaneously loses her old dream of being a professional athlete yet refuses to let her loss be defining of who she is. Through new dreams and dedicating herself to helping others, she claims that life is rich and full and joy is joy even without that arm!
- A homeless man donates $20.00 each month to care for a child in Africa after hearing that the supporter of the child has died.
- A man released from prison after 25 years for a crime he did not commit forgives the prosecutor and the police and claims to have found deep peace through dealing with his incarceration.
My heart has many preferences, hopes and dreams. I do not live in a quiescent neutrality. I am moved by the people’s suffering and my own challenging moments. Everyday, I pray for my loved ones safety and happiness. Everyday, I pray for our planet and for people who are struggling to be free. I know we will all have challenges yet I also know that, in the Unborn Mind, we can be free, even in very, very challenging conditions. This freedom includes loss, grief and sorrow yet, as the ancient wisdom affirms “love is stronger than death”. Unfathomable blessings means to me that even with all the destructiveness, we can choose to lean toward the basic goodness that is life itself. This bowing to Life is the ground of knowing that the shower of blessings is continuous, always! And joy, love and peace become our home base. The Unborn Mind helps us remember. Unfathomable, Yes…………
One great tragedy of Zen, is that its very practical teachings can easily become obscure and seemingly intellectual. I notice that sometimes lofty density is presented as Wisdom. True Zen teachers always sit face to face with real people who experience sorrow, confusion and suffering. The teachings are not a way out but a way through. We can sense that being at home in the moment IS our very nature. For me, the sense of freedom that comes with this at-homeness is experienced as unconditional love. How can we know this?
Great Zen masters of the past often had one phrase, word or image that summarized their realization. This became the center of their teaching. "One bright jewel" was Xuansha's teaching, "this very mind is Buddha" belonged to Mazu. Perhaps the most powerful and resonant for me has been Bankei's "Unborn mind" also called “Unborn Buddha mind”. Often I return to this expression as a doorway. I find it an evocative entry into "True Self" or, simply, to "what is".
Let's explore this together.
While the Unborn Mind can not be effectively described in words, we can point toward three qualities or aspects.
1) For any moment to arise, implicitly there must be a space in which it can appear. This can be called the spaciousness of the present moment. Any experience, appears within a context- your chair is in a room, the room in a building, the building on some land and on and on. Thoughts and feelings appear in a space called mind or consciousness.
2) Next, for any moment to be experienced there must be the capacity for noticing. When a sound appears you effortlessly notice it. Without thought you can tell if it is the voice of a man or woman, the sound of a bird or a car. This capacity for noticing is an essential aspect of any well-functioning human nervous system. This can be called effortless awareness. Of course this is not only in relation to sound but in all aspects of our experiencing.
3) Prior to thought, before opinions and any personal reactivity is the infinite potential of the present moment also called inherent capacity. What is inherent capacity? Pause for a moment and listen to the silence that lives behind and within any sounds that are present. Even amidst great noise, we can intuit the silence that makes the sound possible. Listen softly, diffuse in attention, not in a focused way.
We are always in the atmosphere of silence, that great canvas upon which the world of sound paints. The next moment will bring unexpected, unanticipated, uncontrolled sound. This is the infinite potential of the present moment: always fresh, always unique always new.
What is the Unborn mind?
The Unborn mind points us toward the spaciousness of the present moment, the capacity for noticing it and its infinite potential. My most profound moments are the simple awe at being alive and the fact that “I” know it! Bankei would say that the great gift we received from our parents or from Life itself is this “Unborn Mind”.
Every living moment has these three elements: open space in which something can appear-"spaciousness", the capacity for noticing- "awareness" and the infinite potential of the present moment- "what is”.
Perhaps this sounds very lofty or abstract or maybe even too simple, yet all of this is directly connected to our everyday living. How is this so? Just now, I received a letter from a mother, an old student who has been caring for her brain-injured child. After a challenging delivery, many months in the hospital and hearing the dreaded words “brain injury”, she has been living in the challenge and deep, deep gratitude for this exquisite Being who has changed her life. Her child is an “unfathomable blessing” to her. She told me that her learning from previous years about saying “YES” to what is and placing Life itself above her preferences, without denying her hopes or her pain, have carried her through this time. I am again awed- this time by the human capacity to bow to Life. My heart experiences another “unfathomable blessing”.
Why is the Unborn so important to me?
Why do I know it as a doorway to freedom, clarity and loving-kindness?
How is this related to “unfathomable blessings”?
How does it speak to the paradox of experiencing constant gratitude amidst worldly suffering and destruction?
Please join me in the practice of working intimately with these questions, connecting with the "Unborn mind" and we will explore it further in the next newsletter. Your questions and comments are welcome.
In 1982, I was sitting with Moshe Feldenkrais in his apartment on Frug St. in Tel Aviv, (I recently heard there is now a plaque outside this building commemorating this remarkable man). As I sit here in California 30 years later, I am once again intrigued by one of his statements. We were discussing my Zen meditation practice and how it connects with my work as a Feldenkrais practitioner. From prior conversations, he knew that sitting meditation was of great importance to me. At the time, if asked, I would say that I stood on two legs: one called meditation- the study of movement within stillness and the other called the Feldenkrais Method- a study of stillness within movement.
We sat facing each other at his simple desk, a large, wall-size, floor-to-ceiling bookcase behind him laden with books. Without looking up he said, "go to the lower right section of the bookcase, about 3 or 4 rows from the bottom and about a meter from the wall, pull out a small black book". Following his direction, I found a slim volume by a Japanese Zen master living in Jerusalem. As he would often do, Moshe asked me to read the book as I sat across from him at his desk. He had met with this master and was curious about my impression. When I finished, I expressed my gratitude for the emphasis placed on authentic, personal experience that Zen masters including this man express. He looked up and said "if I did not have my own teaching, I would study Zen because- they are the only one's who really understand and appreciate paradox".
This comment still lives for me. Feldenkrais could live easily with inherent contradictions. He would say things like "to really be helpful, you can't care whether a person gets better". Or "it is impossible to change people, though they can transform". He enjoyed, and more, deeply valued the great importance of living in the discomfort of paradox.
There is a paradox that lives in my heart each day. I can state it like this, how does one embody the unconditional gratitude that naturally arises from experiencing the shower of blessings that are always present while simultaneously seeing all the destruction and suffering on this planet? Love and peace are always available even when sorrow is also present. One does not fight "what is" even when the circumstances are unpleasant or undesirable. When one begins to live in gratitude, even challenging moments are filled with "unfathomable blessings".
I recently heard the story of a very spiritually evolved couple who lost their child in a car crash. Without hiding from the grief and loss, the ground beneath their feet seems to be the gratitude for the "Being" they got to share their lives with and an inner confidence in the unfolding of Life itself. Can one imagine a greater testament to "bowing to Life"? Of course, there is also as much space as needed for yelling at God or at Life, let's not exclude these responses! Still, can we see the possibility of putting the living reality of our situations higher than our desire and our preferences without turning that into denial or avoidance?
Over the next weeks I will be writing about Zen Master Bankei's famous teaching of "the Unborn Mind". So much changes when we deeply appreciate this realization of the "unborn, undying" which is the Zen way of asking us to break through, under the bottom of the bottom, to our True Self. Paradoxically, the extraordinary opaqueness of the teaching turns into transparency. We are never separate from "unborn-ness". Remembering this is liberating. How can we know the Unborn mind and what does this knowing invite in us?
Please reflect on all this and I will write further on the Unborn Mind next week.
Please read slowly, with pauses for reflection.
“When we listen attentively there is neither agreement or disagreement; we are just in a state of attention”
Can you hear that sound?
There are sounds in your world right now. Notice the auditory vibrations around you without judgment, without choosing the bird and ignoring the car or any ‘this’ over any ‘that’.
In noticing these vibrations, can you sense, perhaps intuit, the silence from which they come and to which they return? (This takes a bit of time). When we become quiet enough, we begin to notice the space of silence, of stillness, out of which moments emerge and to which they return. This is relatively easy to learn, and extremely important. AND it is not enough! What happens in human interaction?
I want to learn to listen better. Even as I deepen my connection to the ground of silence, I notice how challenging it is to really listen to the people in my world, especially my most intimate relations. My opinions and needs seem to overwhelm my capacity to just take in the living experience of the other. The desire to be ‘right’ begins to dominate these and other conversations.
For example, when I hear people speaking aggressively from a different political persuasion it happens, my need to convince, to correct errors, to make it more like “I” see it. I tell myself that this reactivity is a commitment to truth yet deep down I sense the personal angst that arises when really setting aside my own views and just listening. At moments like these, remembering silence is critical.
Returning to this welcoming quality of stillness is always vivifying and restorative. In human interaction, this means giving listening a priority of place. It seems to me there are three directions to listening: 1) toward the other, 2) toward our pre-verbal, intuitive inner life and 3) toward a larger truth that is woven through the process of interacting. All three are always much more than the words that are being spoken.
True listening requires the courageous act of putting our point of view to the side, not too far away, more like next to ourselves. We don’t want to lose or undervalue our perspectives from the past yet we want to be free from them as new possibilities are forming.
There can be a conundrum here. Knowing the great value of silence, of “the place before opinions”, I sometimes undervalue the world of human interaction, which includes diverse opinions and points of view. Since all views are always only partial, I sense a temptation to linger in the more profound truth of silence. Not capable of saying “All”, a part of me says, “why say any”? As a very quiet friend of mine used to say, “if you can’t improve upon the silence don’t speak”!
Yet, I also sense that we grow each other through conversation. I am changed by your thoughtful, honest and heartfelt communications. Offering each other an expression of what is living in us can be a gift of great intimacy. We are constantly re-forming our “self” through interacting. Questioning ourselves and each other in the earnest seeking of truth has value for our individual and collective learning.
Growing the capacity to disagree, to hone our truth against a contrary view in supportive and creative ways is important. The old style of fighting for our views, of being clever to ‘win’ is not helpful. The newer strategy of seeing equal truth in all views does not evoke the highest clarity in human beings. Even as we grow our connection to silence, to that space before ideas/beliefs/desires, we can also develop our capacity for “listening-speaking”.
Listening-speaking places a high value on pausing, taking a breath, dropping down into our embodied sensations. We step out of our reactivity, out of our certainty. We allow the silence that sustains each moment to permeate the interaction, saturating it with fresh air and new possibilities. This is truly a creative act. Truth, beauty and goodness become more important than being right!
What kind of speaking arises from this deep listening? Often, the expression that comes from this inner place is something new, something that surprises the speaker. It is a fresh understanding that is born from that moment of interacting. Often these are moments of insight and new direction for both the speaker and companions.
Cultivating this kind of “listening-speaking” is both challenging and essential. The good news is that the space of silence, of stillness is never far away. It is an expression of our Being. It is closer than our skin. It always invites a sense of being at home in the Universe. From this ground, we can feel safe enough to put aside our opinions, our need to be right and really listen. Then we can also seek and often find a way to speak a newly forming truth.
This is my goal for the New Year. I will fall down many times, then I will stand up, return to silence, apologize, listen-speak and continue learning…………
HAPPY NEW YEAR
When life touches me, I feel so grateful
When feeling grateful, life touches me
Being Touched/Feeling Grateful
Feeling Grateful/Being Touched
Receiving giving, giving receiving Interpenetrating
From all alone to all one…Implicit Gratitude
“She smiled. So much lives in a simple facial expression:
‘Nothing we can do about it’.
‘Strange to be in these little metal boxes’. ‘Wonder how long it will last?’.
‘No big deal really, we are safe, fed and whole’.
There we were, commuters stuck in a big, unmoving traffic jam. In the moment of receiving that smile something settled in my body, in my shoulders where some tension was building, in my belly where some ‘wishing to be some place else’ was growing. For the rest of that day and even now as I write this, that smile brings great gratitude into my heart and a smile to my face”.
Please try the following experiment.
Reflect on a recent moment in which you felt touched by life.
It need not be an extraordinary moment just a simple experience in which you felt something like, “Yes, this is good”.
Examples include seeing a beautiful flower, tasting something delicious, hot water in the shower, a smile from a stranger or finding an unexpected seat while waiting. Really anything will do in which there is a moment of being touched.
Take a moment, close your eyes for ten seconds and recall in sensory rich detail this moment. Where are you? What can you see? Are there sounds? Any smells? Let the moment live in your memory, let it flood through you.
Continue reading after this process (note-I strongly encourage you to pause and take 30 seconds for this process, it really works!).
Now, I wonder, is a sense of gratitude implicit in being touched by life? Does a quiet voice inside echo with something like “thank you”?
My experience is that every moment of being touched by life includes the scent of thankfulness. Importantly, this thanks is not added to the moment later. It is not like a child being taught to say “thank you”. Actually, the gratitude is living within and inside the moment of feeling touched. It is implicit.
Why is this so important? A remarkable reversability arises from this observation- gratitude can evoke touching moments. Gifts will come to you through the back door of gratitude. Back door? By this I mean that through consciously cultivating gratitude-actually looking for moments of thankfulness- you will be gifted with many more moments of deep connectedness. Reviewing ANY hour of my life, even painful ones, there are many, many simple gifts for which I can experience gratitude, when I give my attention to them.
In this season of Thanksgiving, harvest and gratitude for the great gifts we are given, may we allow our inner life to be flooded with the sweetness of feeling touched. Amidst our sorrows and struggles, we can take brief moments to offer our gratitude for the simple blessings that allow our life to unfold.
Zazen- sitting meditation- is my home.
Though variously peaceful, uncomfortable, quiet, chatter-filled and delightful, it is always just what it is. Of course my whole life is always just what it is, yet in all other situations I can have the illusion of accomplishing something.
Every morning I come to my cushion, reminding myself in an embodied way that “just this” is enough. “Just this” means just being, just breathing, just sitting here, just living.
Without this ground, I am forever on a treadmill of accomplishment. My self-worth becomes intertwined with my ‘to do’ list. The day’s completions translate as “good” days or “bad” days. Meaningfulness becomes equated with doing.
My practice is called Shikantaza or ‘just sitting’. It is crucial that this is not practiced for something: not for enlightenment, not for mindfulness, clarity, stress reduction, health, or spiritual growth. There needs to be one place in our lives that is not about anything else. Just Being (and not even accomplishing ‘being’).
I also have the strong voice of the doer, the one who gets great satisfaction from work. I deeply value this part of me. Work includes all our deeds in the world, everything from our job to doing the dishes. The feeling of fulfillment from these deeds is essential to our lives.
Often when I suggest a sitting practice, people complain that they do not have enough time. They need to make every moment count. I say the busier you are, the more helpful it is to just sit. Other ways of ‘wasting time’: traversing the internet, watching TV, idle chatter, etc. while sometimes restorative are not the same as ‘just sitting’. The value of not doing anything can never be overstated or understated. It actually exists in its own timeless universe.
Let’s not fall into the dualistic trap of choosing between doing and being. Know that it is impossible to realize the naturalness of Being through doing. You can’t turn “Being” into an accomplishment. Everyday I have my goals, my ‘to do’ list, my accomplishments. And everyday I bathe in the fresh water of not-doing. I encourage you to join me in spending some of your day just sitting and accomplishing nothing.
“You never listen to me”, she said.
“Your not the only one with feelings”, he said.
“I can’t take it any more”, she said.
“Your never satisfied”, he said.
On and on they went:
Like two televisions on different channels.
Is anybody listening?
Learning to LISTEN wholeheartedly is central to a blossoming life. By listening I am referring to: listening to others, to our own feelings, to our inner voices, to our bodily process and to the whole situation in which we are living at a given moment. There are many reasons why this can be challenging. Though the following ideas are relevant to all situations, in this article, I will explore the instance of listening to other people in moments of disagreement. I will also suggest a path of resolution.
Why is listening to another so challenging?
To truly listen is to step beyond oneself. As Zen master Dogen reminds us: “To Study the Self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.”
“Self” in the sense means more than the individual, conditioned ‘self’; it points us toward the “I” that emerges in relationship. Rather than viewing the “I” as a solid entity that moves from relationship to relationship, it is helpful to picture a “Self” or even better a “Self-ing” that reforms from situation to situation. This “self-ing” includes the “historical self” and everything connected to the particular living situation. When we are dedicated to deep listening, our dominant intention is to place our self in the background and deeply receive the other, to feel how the world is from where they are living. This dedication requires a kind of surrender.
This means that our usual obsession with our own ideas and with maintaining our position is placed to the side. To TRULY listen means that we quiet our point of view and we place the other "above" ourselves. "Above" in this sense means that we want to really take in the reality of the other without adding our opinions. This is a profoundly generous act.
I am not implying that our own wanting is irrelevant, rather that we are cultivating the maturity to postpone our own needs and longings. This postponing can feel both daunting and terrifying. Something in us can feel like we will die if we don't respond immediately or even beat the other to the punch! We must make our point How can we bear this intense inner pressure?
Here our embodiment can really help (for where else do we feel the pressure and the sense of danger but in our bodily experience)? Pressure always implies not enough space. When pressure builds in a balloon, the air is consuming all of the space. When it bursts, the spatial limits are exceeded. We can feel like this in challenging moments. IF the balloon could suddenly double in size, it would not feel so pressurized and would not burst. How can we “double our size” in moments like this?
Three keys to inner space: grounding, breathing and spatial awareness.
First, grounding: directly sensing our contact with the surface under us has the effect of: 1) helping us to sense the support of a ‘larger body’ and 2) offering an escape valve for the pressure that is building in our body. To change analogies, if an electrical system does not have a ground wire it will burn out when the charge is too much. When intensity rises, we create a counter-force by bringing attention down into the ground. Sensing the earth allows us to directly experience the literal support that is always present in every moment.
Second, breathing: in moments of intensity, most of us have a habit of either holding the breath or hyperventilating. Both of these reactions create inner pressure. Holding the breath and over-breathing are unconscious attempts to have more oxygen. Ironically, the best way to insure harmonious oxygen flow is through encouraging a full exhale. Letting go of the breath is the key to recovering a natural breathing rhythm. PAUSING and sensing the breath is very helpful. This pause is fundamental to the shift we are seeking. Stepping back for a moment and sensing THIS breath will change your world. Awareness of breath will allow this shift to occur and inner space will naturally grow. Ideally, I recommend following three breaths from beginning to end, counting each exhale. Stay present to the end of each exhale.
Third, spatial awareness: The physical body is too small to contain all that we feel. How can we expand our boundaries beyond the skin? Again the key is awareness. Bringing conscious attention to the external world: hearing sounds, seeing colors and shapes, immediately grows the living space. For many, attending to sound for a few moments, with the eyes closed is particularly helpful. You might feel strange, in the middle of a very demanding moment, to intentionally see a color or listen to the background sounds, yet I suggest if you try it, the results might amaze you.
Attending to the ground, the breath and the outer world require a shift of consciousness. I encourage you to experiment. More than simply reducing pressure, these shifts allow you to listen deeply and to enjoy the present moment more fully. This listening, this stepping beyond the habitual, reactive self is the key to our fulfillment and deep connectedness to life. Simply remember: Ground, Sound and Breath.
Be gentle with yourself. These shifts of attention are quite challenging in the heat of the moment. Practice in ordinary, non-demanding moments to build a reservoir of capacity. After many years of growing my capacity, there are still moments that can overtake me. In these situations I know that something inside feels very threatened and needs my care, my good listening. If I can’t listen wholeheartedly to another, I know that I need to listen well to the place in me that is feeling pressured. This kind of “self-empathy” will pave the way for a more global caring.
It is important to let go of rules and idealism when in a challenging moment. Sometimes, when feeling overwhelmed, separating from the situation for a short period can break the magnetism. In moments like this, we can offer a truly magical communication: “I really want to hear you AND I am starting to feel overwhelmed. I am about to respond in a way that I don’t want to. Let me take 15 minutes to reconnect with myself so that I can really listen to you”. Alternatively, when a particular feeling has carried you away, it can be very healing simply to say: “I am sorry I could not listen better.”
A note: for people who do not allow themselves strong feelings and habitually defer others, it can be a positive, temporary step to allow your emotion to come forward powerfully. Allowing this can sometimes bring movement to a stuck situation. We want to be mindful of creating more suffering through our words and actions. The overall direction is to be able to be wholeheartedly listening to self and other as often as possible.
As I said at the beginning, the same quality of listening to others can be applied to our own inner voices and to the entire situation in which we are living. When there is a feeling or thought that is challenging, we usually get pulled into it. When pulled into, there is no space, no possibility for awareness. We are like the balloon bursting with overwhelming, sensations. The antidotes discussed in this article for working with other people are completely applicable to listening to your self.
“I am in a lot of pain” she said.
“Tell me about it” he said.
When Rabbi Mordechai’s son Rabbi Noah took over after his death, the disciples noticed that he did many little things differently. When asked about this Rabbi Noah said, I do things just as my father did, he did not imitate and I do not imitate.
From Moshe I received many blessings for which I am eternally grateful, two of the most important are: commitment to the process of awareness and valuing my unique ‘handwriting’.
Prior to meeting Moshe, I was devoted to a practice of Zen meditation. My initial insight “on the cushion” revolved around the central importance of being awake in the present moment. In addition, because Zen is above all an embodied practice, I saw how our embodiment could be a great ally in the process of awakening.
Early in my training, ATM’s became a laboratory for exploring embodied presence. Before, during and after the training, I was also investigating present moment awareness (is there any other kind?) in the realm of feelings/emotions through Gestalt Therapy, various awareness practices and other approaches to somatic-based psychology.
My professional identity from 1975 onward has been as a Feldenkrais teacher and trainer. In addition, for about 15 years, I also have conducted retreats and seminars, which integrate meditation and “guided inquiry” (an original system for investigating thinking, feeling and communication patterns) with the teachings of Moshe. About six years ago, while in a time of deep self reflection, I investigated the question, “if I had 5 years left to live what would I do?”. The clear and unmistakable answer was that I would devote myself to teaching the most direct and complete path to inner freedom that I could. This questioning led to the creation of “The Embodied Life” as a mentorship program in which I would guide people in the practices that have been of most importance to me.
For many years I have felt very grateful for the freedom and support that lives within the Feldenkrais community for growing our own styles of teaching. In spite of this, there are necessary limits to a collectively defined methodology. For example, it would not be appropriate to teach sitting meditation or to use practices focusing on thinking/feeling patterns that are not directly connected to FI or ATM. Because of this, I have decided not to start any new FPTP’s and am now offering Embodied Life Mentorship Programs. These programs are organized around six week-long, residential meetings- two per year for three years. Each week is an intensive and often exhilarating exploration of awareness and the art of living.
Three Practices: Meditation, Guided Inquiry, Movement Lessons of Moshe Feldenkrais
All of these practices include the same inner attitude of curiosity, warm-heartedness, objectivity and respectfulness applied in slightly different ways.
The meditation we practice is a direct, bare-bones approach to experiencing our mind/body ‘as-it-is’; this is the basis for being at home in ourselves. Beyond ideology, it directly addresses the questions: can I be at ease within my own self-created mental stories?; can I have a basic friendliness with my own mind? Rather than offering mantras, pictures or other forms of “distraction”, we practice becoming friendly with the present moment.
Guided Inquiry includes a variety of awareness experiments based in the Focusing method of Eugene Gendlin. I have been developing these experiments for more than 30 years. Learning to bring a warm, caring, curious yet objective presence to our feelings/emotions/situations is transformative. Becoming skillful with both inner and outer communication is part of this study.
As you know, the movement lessons of Moshe Feldenkrais are perhaps the most neurologically sophisticated ways of transforming our motor patterns and self-image. In this program we focus in-depth on 5 essential embodied qualities: grounding, centering, breathing, lengthening (lightness) and contacting the world (spatial awareness). The lessons are specifically chosen to invite a softening of the infrastructure of our learned self-limiting identity.
Transformation and Integration
The integration of these modalities is profound and unique. Working with mental/emotional habits, while simultaneously exploring the underlying physical patterns- all from the same perspective- potentiates each approach exponentially. Finally, the power of a committed, compassionate group of people often from various countries doing these practices over a period of time creates an unexpected support for inner transformation.
“I believe we are in a historically brief transition period that heralds the emergence of the truly human man.” (Moshe Feldenkrais, “Awareness Through Movement”, p.48)
“The Embodied Life” is directly oriented toward Moshe’s vision of the integrated human being in whom sensing, moving, feeling, and thinking function as a unified whole. Moshe predicted that this integration would be spontaneous when the movement patterns were no longer compulsive. When I shared with him my observation that while some people seem to generalize their learning from the movement lessons into other areas of their lives that many did not, he said, “it is the greatest disappointment of my life”.
We are living in a time a great transformation and evolution of consciousness. I encourage those attracted to the ideas presented here to consider coming to an Embodied Life retreat.
Wishing us all many blessings and much joy on the path of awakening.
“In those moments when awareness succeeds in being at one with feeling, senses, movement and thought, the carriage will speed along on 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
Moshe always offered unique points of view. In conversation with him my perspective was always widened, any narrow certainty challenged. He detested shallow, habitual thinking and saw original thinking as a rare human accomplishment.
In this newsletter last month, I described his ideas about the connection between living one’s dreams and health. When talking about dreams, he did not emphasize grand schemes or radical adventures rather it was about our everyday life. He encouraged us to find non-habitual ways to vitalize our life through creative expression or through finding an activity in which we felt delight.
Another favorite definition Moshe would offer when asked about health was “the degree of shock a system could absorb and recover its integrity”. Let’s explore this further.
Integrity is a fascinating word. Look at the primary definitions:
1. the quality of possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles or professional standards
2. the state of being complete or undivided
3. the state of being sound or undamaged
To re-integrate is to become whole again. This new wholeness might look very different from the wholeness that preceded it, yet, as sensed from the inside, it is undeniably authentic. Someone reintegrating after a brain injury might not do all their former activities, yet they might feel more ‘whole’ than ever before. Many times recovering clients have said to me, “I wouldn’t wish this injury on anybody and I would not trade the love and insight that has grown in my life for my former health.”
In a way we can call this human dignity- to be “insulted” or challenged by life and find one’s way back to integrity, to wholeness. Moshe always said the essence of his work was to restore people to their human dignity. Dignity is often defined as “the condition of being worthy of respect, esteem, or honor”.
One of the great gifts of being a Feldenkrais teacher has been the opportunity to work with many people finding their way back home to dignity, reintegrating themselves, amidst “insults” to their nervous systems and to their lives.
Ram Das, the popular spiritual teacher came for sessions after his debilitating stroke. As an eloquent speaker, losing his capacity for articulate speech was a great challenge. Relying on others for many of his basic functions required a new kind of humility, also inviting a new kind of dignity. His comment to me at the end of our second session still reverberates: “ what I appreciate most about you Russell is that you approach me as if I am whole just as I am. Other therapists and most of my friends, treat me like I am damaged”. His statement is not really about me but about the attitude of someone who learned from Moshe Feldenkrais.
As a meditation teacher I often ask students, “what needs to change for you to be whole in this moment?” This is synonymous with asking “what needs to change for you to be yourself right now?” When we are well connected to Self, the answer is always “nothing”. Yet, when we are disconnected from ourselves, when we are lost in our “false identities”, the inner sense is that a lot needs to change. It is important not to confuse this kind of self- connection with enjoyment, “liking” the moment or being happy. Rather, there is a basic sense of authenticity and acceptance- uprightness in the face of our challenges. Rather than whining or arguing with life, we acknowledge our reactions, our disappointments, etc. and find a way to turn ourselves wholeheartedly toward reality. This too is a definition of dignity.
To experience this “nothing needs to change”, to know in an authentic and direct way that we are whole is a great blessing. This sense of wholeness cannot be faked, our inner life, our “wisdom body” as I call it, won’t agree to self-deception. We can engage in wishful thinking or positive affirmations and the ‘place in there’, down in our bellies, deep in our chests might disagree. Integrity, wholeness is governed by ‘that place in there’.
For Moshe, who witnessed pogroms by the Russian army as a youth in the Ukraine, lived in Paris when the Nazi’s invaded and inhabited Palestine/Israel most of his life, the concept “degree of shock a system can experience and recover” was based on devastating life experience. He extended this idea further through his experience of working with many people recovering from debilitating injury. With Moshe as a model, I learned to appreciate how human dignity, in the sense of moral uprightness was connected to recovering one’s wholeness.
This conflation of the definitions of integrity as both a moral quality and as an expression of wholeness seems very significant. When holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Viktor Frankel did his profound research into the qualities that allowed certain people to survive and even thrive having endured the horror of a concentration camp, this dual sense of integrity comes to the fore. How people could create meaning in these circumstances was usually predicated on connecting with something higher or larger than their immediate circumstance. Sometimes this was a relationship with God, at other times it was concern for their fellow prisoners or uncovering something beautiful to care about.
Similarly, Tibetan monks and nuns subjected to long term, horrific torture rarely experience PTSD unlike almost all other people. When asked about this, the Dalai Lama pointed toward practices that encourage the prisoner to include the torturer in their prayers. Recovery of wholeness seems connected to a moral framework, to enlarging the view of one’s situation from self- concern to a larger sense of interconnection.
While this concept of health as the capacity to recover from shock is helpful when we think of extreme situations, it also points us in a valuable direction when considering our everyday life. In many ways we are all “recovering from the insults of life”.
Certainly some circumstances are much more challenging than others: chronic pain, the loss of loved one’s, the “worst of the worst” that we all dread. Yet, we all have situations that challenge our integrity, our wholeness everyday. Think of all the minor stresses that make up our lives- waiting on the phone, long lines, being late, waiting when others are late, traffic, so many minor irritants. How easy it can be to lose our sense of wholeness and dignity.
When we lose contact with our integrity, we can say, our health is compromised. Said another way, returning to integration, experiencing our fundamental unity in visceral, gut-level ways is a path toward our true health. One part of this recovery is expanding our concerns to include a larger web of interconnection. It is opening our hearts beyond the boundaries of our self-obsessed thoughts and letting fresh air into our situations.
What does it mean to recover our integrity in daily life? There are three main factors:
First, it is helpful to have practices that encourage us to maintain a sense of self-connection. To listen to “that place in there” which speaks from our inner life is critical. Authenticity, the sense that one feels real to ones self, is key.
Second, to have a sense of one’s wholeness, it is very helpful to be connected to all levels of human experiencing- physical, mental, emotional and relational. It is difficult to feel whole when lost in a sensation, feeling or thought. Moshe defined integration as a unity of sensation, movement, feeling and thinking. Functioning in one’s entirety as a whole being is the ground for integrity.
Third, expanding one’s sphere of concern beyond the self can enliven and refresh the moment in surprisingly powerful ways.
Moshe pointed toward the degree of shock any system could absorb and return to wholeness as a definition of health. We can now turn that around and say- our ability to return to authentic connection to Self, to integrity and dignity- is the path toward genuine health. This authentic connection to Self also includes our connection to Others- there is no true Self existing outside our relatedness to Other.
May we all find our way back home to this inner sense of integrity and dignity.
Ice melting in the Arctic, climatic changes throughout the planet, many of us are concerned about the environment that our children’s children will inherit from our decisions and actions today.
My larger concern is the “mind field” that we will bequeath to future generations. What do I mean by mind field? When one practices meditation and enters into certain expanded states of consciousness, the reality that our minds are interconnected becomes obvious and clear. Whether called consciousness, the collective unconscious or the Divine, the fact that we live simultaneously as autonomous individuals and in a state of inter-being becomes both verifiable and undeniable.
Even without these “altered states”, when one experiences the kindness of strangers and the spontaneous blessings that are constantly shared throughout the planet, we can also know this sense of interconnection. My recent writings about the Unborn Mind points toward this shared inheritance. To paraphrase Zen Master Bankei, “the greatest gift we receive from our parents is the Unborn Mind”. The Unborn is our access to and membership in the shared, collective consciousness out of which everything we experience arises.
Imagine this moment, each thought and each feeling, every creative impulse, arises from the Unborn, also known as silence. When Zen masters speak of “emptiness” they are pointing toward the infinite potential of the next moment, which arises from this vast field of silence.
Remember the old Zen story of the philosophy professor who visits the master and can’t stop talking. The master pours him a cup of tea and does not stop pouring even as it spills all over the table. The startled professor finally notices and says, “what are you doing, the cup is already full”. The master says “you say you want to learn about living and dying yet your cup is so full there is no room for anything new”.
The challenge is to allow enough empty space for the creative potential of the new moment. On one level we can say there is nothing to be concerned about. New moments are always arising and creativity lives deeply in our lifeblood. We will always have creative potential. Yet, I do worry deeply about the loss of two essential, overlapping capacities- the appreciation of silence and our tolerance for boredom.
To sit in silence, refraining from the usual means of self-entertainment: computers, TV, smart phones, reading etc. is uncomfortable for most of us. To be at home in our own thoughts, feelings and sensations, without creating distractions is rare. I believe this “wasting time” is very important for our health and creative potential. As Hafiz said, “Everything is God speaking, why not be polite and listen”. To listen means to empty your cup, allow enough space for something unexpected to emerge, to become permeable to the moment.
For me, just sitting quietly is the most nourishing gift to and from my inner world. How might this also be a gift to the larger world? First, there seems to be an alteration in the brains of people who sit consistently that seems to influence the field around you. We can say that you radiate certain qualities. People feel more at ease in your presence. There is something calming about you. Second, you are less quick to react in habitual ways. Though you can respond effectively with speed when needed, the unconscious patterns of reactivity seem to have more insulation around them. Your less skillful reactions and comments can be more readily inhibited. This generates more peace in your universe. Third, as you spend time with other people who are practicing silence, you notice a shared depth that allows a more authentic sense of self to emerge. Fourth, as anyone visiting a meditation room can attest, the space itself is influenced by the silent practice. As many say, it is as if the walls themselves are meditating.
We all hate boredom. When my father would come home to an empty apartment he would turn on two TV’s and a radio just to have some “company”. Most of us can relate to this impulse. Filling up the empty spaces protects us from all those feelings we would rather not experience. What is the price for this “filling up”? Does the temporary calming actually sustain a kind of omnipresent, low level anxiety?
Over the last 35 years as a Feldenkrais teacher I have observed a startling change in the children that I see. The level of inner agitation when in a quiet setting seems greatly elevated. I remember kids in the early days coming to my office happy to play with a little stuffed animal, a ball or one of the favorites, the plastic jack-in-the-box. Now, I notice an uneasiness, a dis-ease, that is somewhat ameliorated only when engaged with the flashes, beeps and bells of their favorite electronic toy. As neurological research is showing, our brains can be conditioned to a dependence on the “rewarding” sounds and fast, bright images that accompany all the games that they love to play. The pleasure centers in our brains actually become addicted to these stimuli. As adults we can notice the same thing, that little inner tickle that comes when a new email message arrives and the urge to immediately find out who it is from. Fully formed brains have far greater capacity for regulating these phenomena, our children’s brains are so innocent and vulnerable, sponges for the stimuli they are offered. Certain school environments such as Waldorf Schools take this very seriously and strongly discourage these kinds of stimuli for young children.
Tolerating more moments of “boredom” often can create something unexpected. If one meditates regularly or finds other ways to explore “not doing”, emerging from that open space are experiences that often seem very deep, whole and authentic. By becoming available to unscripted, unfilled moments, we can be surprised by a sometimes blissful, often illuminating present. Said another way, we become permeable to the constant blessings and offerings emanating from the Universe.
Without going into the whole sociological debate about technology (I am writing on a computer, I value my many emails each day and can relish electronic media; I am not suggesting an attempt at retro-living), I want to stand up for the great blessing of silence and boredom. In fact, I will go even further, suggesting that as more people learn to sit in silence, we will influence the mind field for future generations. I suggest that the capacity for being at home in the mystery of Being requires a willingness to take time each day turning off the various forms of entertainment and just Being with one’s living moment. If humanity loses this great capacity, we will simultaneously surrender our creative potential and our capacity for true freedom.