Sensory Awareness Foundation


Steps to Seeing with Bob Smith

Taking a fresh look at the natural world – with or without a camera – is at the heart of Bob Smith’s Steps to Seeing classes on Monhegan Island in Maine. Bob has been offering these classes for many years in the summer months and he will do so again this summer. Stefan Laeng interviewed Bob about his experience with Sensory Awareness  on March 23, 2015 in Brooklyn, New York. The following excerpt focuses on these classes that Bob offers to visitors of Monhegan Island, Maine. Bob and his wife, Penny Smith, are long-time members of the Sensory Awareness Leaders Guild. They both lead classes on Monhegan Island every summer.

Stefan: When you are on Monhegan, you offer classes based on your experience as a photographer.

Bob: Yes, the Steps to Seeing walks are offered twice a week, one in the morning, one in the afternoon.

Stefan: And the people you get are people who happen be on Monhegan. They are not necessarily interested in Sensory Awareness.

Bob: Yes. We’re speaking about people who have no connection to the work. The idea of the walk began because of people who visited my studio and after hiking around the island they came back and said, “I saw your work, and when I went on the trails I suddenly saw so much more than I’ve ever seen before.” This tossed things up for me and I began to ask myself, what I could do with that? It was music to my ears and I thought, why not take people out to the landscape and share with them how I see it.

Stefan: Tell me a few things that you do in such a class

Bob: I go out to Lobster Cove because that’s the easiest area to access. I ask them to walk in silence and just see what they see along the way. Then, when we’re out there, I start with some experiments, trying to get them to be quiet and see what’s around them. I traditionally have an order of things, a progression. I begin by asking them to find a place where they can stand securely because we’re going to work at times with our eyes closed. Then I ask that they turn around themselves and see the landscape.

Stefan: With a wide view….

Bob: Yes, we’re on a knoll overlooking Lobster Cove. Then I’ll ask them to close their eyes. Our main focus is the visual but all the other sense experiences are available. For example, if it’s a sunny day, I might ask if they can know where the sun is in the sky, without seeing the sun. I’ll ask them if they can tell in which direction the breeze is blowing. Usually there is on the island some movement of air and you can tell which direction it is coming from. Then I ask if they can notice any fragrances in the air. Finally, I ask them to open their eyes again.

Stefan: And maybe hearing? There would also be sounds.

Bob: Yes, the sounds, the ocean, and the birds. Then they open their eyes and I ask them to begin turning around themselves slowly. I suggest to them that there are three ways of seeing the landscape. There’s the vista, the distance, there is middle ground, and then the close by. I ask them to turn around themselves, being aware of these three divisions while they’re observing and seeing the landscape. And then, when they get back to where they began, I ask them to start circling again in the opposite direction. I find that one thing adjacent to another can appear differently, depending on which way you’re turning, what you see.

“There are paintings everywhere!”

Then I ask them to come together and we share what the experiences have been for that first part. What I find is that most of the comments are that the experience of seeing what’s nearby was new for them, that they hadn’t really noticed what’s in this immediate area.

Stefan: Interesting.

Bob: We then proceed further down to the cove and I start working with the contrasts that I see in the landscape. Because I’m trying to build a bridge for them so that they’ll see more and more and more, so that they have a foundation that’s being built upon by contrast. I find what comes to my consciousness in seeing is through contrast. I ask them to just look directly in front of them and name a contrast that they see.

Stefan: Something specific.

Bob: No, we’re working in general terms. For example, the contrast of color in the landscape. I’ll ask them to notice what comes to them in contrasting colors. Then I ask them to slowly turn around themselves, seeing the one contrast, just color, that they can see all around. When we’re down at the cove other major contrasts are the lights and darks, of rocks, plants, and flowers, the hard and the soft, different shapes, different sizes, and different textures. Whether something is moving or in stasis, living and not living. Any number of contrasts. Then, as they name the contrast, they turn around themselves, and I ask them, if they’ve turned in one direction the first time, to turn in the other direction the second time. The reality is that they can be seeing the same objects but the objects would be revealing themselves in different contrasts. Something next to something they would see that they didn’t even see the first time. My hope is that they can finally build or construct this view of the landscape where they see much more.
I have these rectangular pieces of corrugated where I’ve cut out a window. I call them my automatic cameras. I distribute them and ask that each person go to a place nearby that interests them from their circling experience and that they work in forming compositions with either their camera or with this cutout to see what they see. They spend perhaps ten minutes by themselves in this way.

Stefan: I like that. I especially like the idea of working with these frames instead of a camera.

Bob: Yes. I prefer working with the frames. They’re so flexible. You can bring them to you or further away from you, holding them at any angle, it’s really marvelous. Then we get together and we talk about what we’ve seen.

I then lead them to the third and final area, at the rocks where you can see the crashing waves. We look back to where we began and I’m telling them that the vista, the mid range and the nearby, where we’re standing at the final area is the exact obverse of where we began. Where we’re standing now was the vista before. Now it’s the close by.

I’m trying to have them realize that wherever they are they have this possibility of seeing so much more. I again ask them to go into the area with their cutouts and cameras. They’re working for maybe ten or fifteen minutes. Then we get together finally to discuss the entire experience. Invariably, the comments center on the coming to quiet, stepping away from what their normal activities are, and then the ability of having the experience of seeing much more of what’s around them. I share with them that we all came together at a certain time of the day, under certain weather and tide conditions, and that all this can change quite rapidly – that there are endless possibilities.

There was one comment that was made by a fellow that was so profound, yet such an economy of words, the statement was beautiful, it was indelibly etched upon my mind. He just blurted out, he said, “There are paintings everywhere!” I loved it.There are paintings everywhere. Wow. Along the way, several others had told me that “Steps to Seeing” has changed their lives. What a joy to hear.

Stefan: That’s beautiful. And this is something you developed on you own, just following your interest.

Bob: Yes. I have no idea what they’re going to do the following day, or weeks, or months – in their own lives. But I know that in that moment, that period of time, I’ve given them the opportunity to do things differently, or see things differently. They’re really in a different place as far as receptivity to what’s around them.

Stefan: And it’s not about photography, it’s about seeing.

Bob: Yes, it’s seeing. My sign for the walk says that you don’t need a camera.

Stefan: I love taking photographs. But the part with the cutout, the frame, I’m finding very intriguing because you can’t keep the picture, you have to be open for that moment.

Bob: Yes, and there truly are an infinite number of compositions that come to you as you move.

Stefan: Yes. I want to explore this also, I really like the idea.

Finally, I asked Bob if he had ever considered offering such walks in New York City, to which he responded no, because it is for him very much something that belongs to the natural world of Monhegan. But he then added:

Bob: I don’t know were we’re all going because when I’m on a bus or subway I’m interested in what I see around me. And what I see now are young people – predominantly young people – glued to their devices and completely oblivious to their surroundings. I don’t know what kind of a world that’s going to be that we’re going to inherit but it’s really strange to me.

Bob Smith can be reached at:

Sensory Awareness, Psychotherapy and Mindfulness

By Richard Lowe, LMFT








“To capitalize on the body in therapy calls for a shift in emphasis from conversation to mindful exploration; from a sole focus on emotions and thoughts to the inclusion of body sensation, posture, and movements; from discussing new possibilities to experimenting with new actions.”                                 —Pat Ogden, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy


As both an evolving science and an art, psychotherapy appears to be moving into an exciting new era in which mindfulness and the intelligence of the body/mind are being understood as important factors in the development of greater mental health. Over the last few decades research and clinical work in many different areas (stress reduction, trauma therapy, neuroscience, brain imaging, sports psychology, just to name a few) have fed this evolutionary change. This strongly confirms how the study and practice of Sensory Awareness has a lot to offer the field of psychotherapy.


We rarely appreciate how our senses provide us a great source of wisdom when we can allow it. When we’re more in touch with our sensations, free of the limitations of our busy thoughts, habitual attitudes and self-absorption, our lives are greatly enriched. At these times we experience a more freshly alive and deeper connection with what is happening in the present moment. Developing this ability is the focus of Sensory Awareness.


Growing out of the work of Elsa Gindler in Germany and later developed by Charlotte Selver in the United States, Sensory Awareness (also known as “Sensing”) strives to reawaken our potential to be more embodied and wholeheartedly present in what we do. Through direct, in-depth experimentation, this mindfulness enhancing study works to reacquaint us with the full, rich realm our bodily felt experiencing. In this process as sensations and responses which have been habitually restricted become revived, dysfunctional tensions, attitudes and habits fall away and we become more truly and simply ourselves, more grounded in the here-and-now.


While Sensory Awareness was never developed or intended to be a form of psychotherapy, it can and does have psychotherapeutic effects.  Probably for this reason it has over the years attracted many psychotherapists to be its students, including among the more famous ones Fritz Perls, Clara Thompson and Erich Fromm.


As a psychotherapist I’ve found this somatic approach to be increasingly valuable. Over the years I’ve integrated it into my work with a wide variety of clients and issues as circumstances have allowed. It’s proven to be particularly helpful in issues including anxiety, depression, stress reduction, trauma, addiction, anger management, self-care, self-esteem, shyness, and more.


Most forms of psychotherapy today are based on pathology and the medical model of curing disease. However, there is now a new growing movement to utilize various forms of mindfulness based treatments. This is more life-centered and less pain-centered, more health oriented and more self-empowering. Mindfulness with its focus on cultivating nonjudgmental attention to what’s being experienced in the here-and-now, offers a learnable, easily accessible discipline for developing greater inner peace and emotional stability.


With today’s abundance of stress and distractions it can be easy to mindlessly go through life on automatic pilot and feel cut off from one’s deeper self. Mindful awareness helps us gain a clearer perspective about what’s really going on and more clearly perceive the forest from the trees. When we’re more fully present, we become more conscious of what we’re feeling, more intentional about what we do, and more sensitive in our connection with others.


For most forms of mindfulness the key essential step involves getting in touch with one’s ongoing sensations. As Daniel Siegel, MD author of The Mindful Brain, a noted expert in the fields of neuroscience and mindfulness, notes, “… being mindful begins and remains grounded in sensory experience.” Through attending to sensing we activate that part of our brain involved with feeling and experiencing, and helps anchor our awareness to the here-and-now necessary for mindfulness.


But developing this kind of attention is not easy. All too often our busy minds and our cultural conditioning make it hard to be simply present. We are also often hindered by unconsciously held somatic restrictions in feeling, movement and breathing that have developed over the course of our lives. This is what Wilhelm Reich termed “character armor”, a pattern of chronically held tensions and areas of numbness which have formed somatically as a defensive armor against perceived threats. Such defensive armoring is actually an internalized trance state that is held in place both physically and emotionally and is usually outside of conscious awareness.


Thus, for those interested in mindfulness a practice like Sensory Awareness, which helps connect us more with our senses, can be of great value. After all, it is difficult to wake up out of a trance if you can’t sense when, where and how it’s happening.


As for therapists, whether we know it or not, we are delving into a nonverbal somatic state of relatedness. Whether or not we are conscious of it, we are attending to and reacting to our clients’ emotional condition by what we sense of their body language. Similar to the felt sense of attachment between mother and infant, our ability to tune into our client’s somatic state, and to also sense our own in relation to our client are vital in fostering a deeper quality of resonance so important for effective psychotherapy. Through such awareness a therapist can gain much useful information for developing possible interventions.


Modern neuroscience confirms how much we as human beings are dependent on our bodily nature and our sensory capacities: “One of the clearest lessons from contemporary neuroscience is that our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection with our bodies. We do not truly know ourselves unless we can feel and interpret our physical sensations; we need to register and act on theses sensations to navigate safely through life.” Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D The Body keeps the Score.


In addition, the therapeutic importance of helping clients stay in the present moment has been stressed by Fritz Perls, Irvin Yalom, Eugene Gendlin and many others. Sensing can provide useful ways to help guide clients into coming more into the now.


In addition, getting a client to stay with their felt sense awhile may promote what famed therapist James Bugental called the “inner searching process”, a process similar to Freud’s free association and Jung’s active imagination in which deep core issues, concerns and feelings spontaneously emerge and express themselves. Encouraging a client to sense into their subjective experience (usually closed eyes works best) and stay with their felt sense and allow what develops to develop, often results in important breakthroughs that help the work of therapy go deeper.


Any psychotherapy that doesn’t include the somatic aspects of both the client’s life and the client/therapist connection limits the fullest potential for growth and integration. To help clients rediscover the rich resource of their own somatic intelligence and deeper humanity is an accomplishment that pays many dividends.


For therapists the practice of Sensing offers much to enhance one’s own professional and personal wellbeing. Providing experiential practice in staying in the here-and-now, it can also improve the ability to sense more clearly what’s happening, both in others and in oneself, both of which are vitally important in deepening rapport and empathic understanding. So too, one can come to more fully embody a centered and grounded presence with clients in session.


In addition this work can provide a helpful refuge, which, like an oasis in the dessert, be an important restorative resource to help relieve stress, burnout and the emotional contagion that so often accompany the job.


Suggesting how a therapist might use Sensory Awareness in his or her own work is like putting the cart before the horse. The most essential thing is that the therapist gains a real depth of experience with it personally.  However, I will offer a few general ways some aspects of this work might be incorporated into a session.


Working with clients I find it important at times to sense what’s going on inside myself (in my belly, in my shoulders, in my eyes or in my breathing, etc.) to get a better feel for what’s happening in this energetic relationship between us. Likewise, my sense of my client’s breathing or tone of voice or tension around his or her mouth or eyes and so on helps inform me of what’s happening in this other person with greater depth and accuracy. This kind of somatic tuning in is a basic, yet subtle skill for therapists, one that is seldom taught, and why Sensing can be so valuable. In my view it should be part of every therapist’s basic training.


Helping a client to experience and stay with a real bodily felt sense of something moves therapy into a deeper place. Instead of the usual content driven talking about pattern that often bogs therapy down, a shift into sensing reinforces how the core of the therapeutic journey is experiential and process oriented. Just getting a client to pause to sense their breathing for a few minutes or how their feet meet the floor, can open a door for rich somatic exploration. Such pausing can become structured into each session, as I do with some clients, spending a few minutes in silent meditation at the beginning of the session to help clients settle down and more fully arrive.


So too, a therapist might invite a client to pause and place hands someplace on his/her body where there is a feeling that something is stuck or tense, and then take some time to really sense it and describe it. Likewise the client could be asked to go to a place on their body where there is a particular feeling and then spend some time sensing it before talking about it. The important thing is that the client uses sensing as a process and a resource to really explore an experience and to notice what changes.


Often by focusing sensing on an area that feels restricted or stuck, unconsciously held emotions become more conscious and can express themselves. In this way we empower our own bodily wisdom to come into play, and thereby allow an opportunity for needed changes to happen. Something perhaps may desire to move or stretch or express a sound or allow deeper breathing, etc. In this process much important material may come into awareness and be expressed verbally or in other ways.


Attending workshops or classes in this work can have many psychotherapeutic benefits for clients themselves, which can enhance progress in therapy. By developing fuller bodily awareness and becoming more grounded and mindfully present, he or she will be better able to feel things more deeply and more clearly sense what’s getting in the way of living a more fulfilling life. A client might, for example, gain more somatic clarity about issues with unhealthy life style choices, or habitual ways that deep connection with others is defended against. Important early memories may surface. Deeper sensing can do much to shift therapy into more fertile ground.


I find leading Sensory Awareness groups (my classes are not offered as psychotherapy) to be a fascinating way of working with people. Instead of focusing on problems, as in traditional group psychotherapy, the group engages in nonverbal experiments designed to explore the range and scope of kinesthetic experiencing, perceptual openness and overall aliveness. As students experience fuller bodily awareness, deeper calm and greater natural ease in movement and self-expression their truer self unfolds.


In this process the therapeutic dynamic is more in keeping with the school of positive psychology with its focus on uncovering people’s strengths and overall potential. Problems and deep painful feelings may indeed come up, but in an atmosphere of mutual support and self-discovery they are only part of the overall process of unfolding growth. In this it is, of course, essential that an environment of safety be fostered with respect for individual differences and needs for privacy.


It is likewise important that there be opportunities to be spontaneous and playful. In fact, in some ways it might be said that this work is a kind of play therapy. That is, a way of regaining that natural capacity and openness we had as children to explore and express our innate vitality and creativity as we reconnect and interact with life in the moment.


Over time the group becomes more bonded through the occasional verbal sharing of discoveries that arise through experimentation. This often includes surprising personal insights about long standing characterlogical patterns (negative body image, habitual self-critical rumination, distractibility, shame, rigidity, etc.). Gradually such sharing reveals how universally alike we all are, particularly in how our own insecurities, defensive armoring and vanities are so often at odds with our need for deeper connection.


All this indicates just a few of the ways that Sensory Awareness might benefit those interested in psychotherapy and/or mindfulness. By cultivating a deeper integration of body and mind and a more alive, authentic sense of a self through sensing, we can become more mindfully present in the world, relate more openly with others and reach our greater potentials. This is perhaps better reflected in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “Only in the present can we touch life and be deeply alive.”


Sensory Awareness: The Art of Living Fully

81714By Judyth O. Weaver, PhD

Sensory Awareness is the practice of coming more in touch with oneself. Not attached to any theory or method, the work transcends dogmas, disciplines, and forms. It brings us to immediate, direct experience through which we can rediscover and return to our own natural ways of being – to our birthrights.

How can we know another until we know ourselves? If we do not fully experience our own feelings, how can we understand the feelings of others? Through practical sensing experiences with our everyday activities, we relearn to accept ourselves and others, and begin to understand the importance of this kind of attention. We can then bring this attention to self-awareness, individual growth, interpersonal relations, societal and ecological issues, and therapeutic applications.

The work is not didactic; it is practice. It may begin with an experiment as simple as standing and becoming aware of our own weight and the way the floor supports us. Such a simple thing, but we may never have done it with full awareness. Discovering our connection with our breath, energies, and senses brings us to greater understanding of ourselves and how we function in the world.

Sensory Awareness offers deep learning regarding stress reduction, energy conservation, structural economy, and more natural ways of being. The approach is through each person’s unique organism as a whole – the living totality within which all our faculties arise. This experience of exploring, freeing, and deepening our innate potentials can, if we follow through, have far-reaching consequences in all spheres of our lives.

Sometimes this work feels like child’s play. Much of what we do is simple, unsophisticated, exploratory, and often it brings us to become more spontaneous. One of the differences between a Sensory Awareness session and a child’s play is the fact that we pause during these exploratory sessions and we simply, non-judgmentally share our experiences. (Of course, children do this also, spontaneously.) This simple/ not-so-easy task of relating our experiences serves an important role of bringing the deep, non-verbal experiences of our senses into the more left-brained experience of speaking and relating and integrating the two. This very simple step of experiencing our being a full-person alone and then entering body and mind into relationship (which is never separated anyway) and sharing is addressed on many levels of this work of Sensory Awareness and then it supports us as we continue our relating into the world.

Sensory Awareness is available to anyone who wants to become more whole and integrated. For teachers, it offers clarity of position that informs a sense of self, as well as more direct and less interfering connections between people. For therapists, it also enhances the connection between the client and allows transference and counter-transference issues to become clearer.

Through Sensory Awareness, we are able to live more fully in the world, rediscovering the wisdom and interconnection of our bodies and our minds – our whole selves and reclaiming our natural being.


From: Sensory Awareness: The Heart of Somatic Psychotherapy & More Background about Sensory Awareness by Judyth O. Weaver, PhD
See more articles and many beautiful photos on Judyth Weaver’s website:

An Invitation to Pause through the Practice of Sensory Awareness

By Lee Klinger Lesser

“There is no right experience. The practice is being present for what is happening, and that is different for each person.”

This practice is very simple. We slow down to pay attention to our sensations. We are developing “Sensory Literacy,” so that in any moment our sensations can help to ground us and connect us to the present moment. It is very direct and immediate. It is only in the present that we can experience sensations, and when we are in touch with our sensations, we are in touch with whatever is actually happening.

Rather than trying to chase after the past or the future, or trying to avoid what we don’t like or fear, we show up for what is. This can free a lot of our energy. For me, my sensations are a compass that keep me located in the present, and whenever I get lost and caught in habits, I can pause and return to my senses.

One of my favorite poems, entitled “Lost,” speaks to this experience of returning to ourselves.  The poem by David Wagonner is based on a Native American elder story.


Stand still.

The trees ahead and the bushes beside you

Are not lost.

Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes.

Listen. It answers,

I have made this place around you,

If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost.

Stand still.

The forest knows

Where you are.

You must let it find you.

Sensory Awareness practice cultivates the connection with sensory experience so that in any moment when we are lost, we can be found by “the forest,” by breathing, by our own natural capacity to live. Even the tension and constriction in our bodies can become an ally and a support for living. They can function like a mindfulness bell inviting us to pause and pay attention. As we notice tension or constriction we can wake up to what is needed.

“When we live in connection with what each moment is asking of us, it can transform the quality of our life.”

Instead of reacting from the tight place in me, I can pause and return to my senses. I can let breathing find me and bring me to this new here, and that will transform the quality and outcome of the conversation.

There is not a plan that we begin with “Exercise A” that leads to “Exercise B.” We are truly exploring and experimenting, allowing our curiosity and attentiveness to lead us. We are discovering what unfolds in the midst of very simple physical experiences. This practice is about being present with what is unfolding in the moment, and each moment is shaped by who is there and what they are discovering.

We might lift an arm and discover what changes while we are lifting our arm: Are there places where we notice tightness? Does the tension let go? Are we holding our breath?  Is there extra effort? We practice trusting what is needed rather than trying to fix ourselves or force something to happen. In our daily lives, we often try so hard to force change, and it doesn’t work.  There is no right experience. The practice is being present for what is happening, and that is different for each person.
lee lying down

Being in a Sensory Awareness workshop creates a non-threatening, simplified laboratory of our lives.  The patterns and experiences we discover can open insight and new possibilities for the rest of our lives.  That is what happened for me in the very first workshop I took with Charlotte Selver, a German educator who introduced Sensory Awareness to the US.


One day, Charlotte asked us to work with partners and to hold the foot of a partner. This struck me as very weird. I was not very comfortable in my own body, and I had no interest in touching someone else’s body, especially some stranger’s foot. But I looked around and saw everyone doing it. And I thought, well, I am here, so I might as well do it. I found a partner and resigned myself to this bizarre experience.

Right away a familiar pattern of thought began: Well, if I am going to do this strange thing, I am not just going to do it. I am going to do a really good job of it. I am going to be “Miss Super-Duper foot holder.” Familiar refrains circled through my thoughts: Don’t worry. I am here. I’ve got your foot. I am going to do a really good job. I really have your foot. You can rely on me. This internal conversation continued until Charlotte quietly asked, “Are you doing anything extra?” I paused and felt what was happening. I was surprised to discover that my shoulder was almost touching my ear. It was lifted up and straining. As I noticed it, it let go. Then, I felt all the extra effort I was using through the full length of my arm, which also let go as I noticed it.

Finally, I discovered that my hand was squeezing my poor partner’s foot. I had been so consumed with the idea of doing a good job and being reliable that I was not in any real connection with this other human being nor with myself. As I gave up the extra effort, for the very first time I felt the person I was with. I felt pulsations in her foot. I felt the temperature of her foot. I felt the alive human being that I was actually touching and meeting. I felt a simple and intimate connection that was beyond my own doing and effort.

The question Are you doing anything extra? has been a koan and ongoing theme for me for the last forty-three years. Whenever I ask it, I often find that I’m doing something extra. I am now more familiar with the difference between doing something extra and allowing the experience. Changes happen more quickly when I notice my extra effort and am able to let it go.

Of course, many activities in our lives demand a lot of energy and are quite strenuous. The question is: Are we in touch with what we are doing and doing what is actually needed? Or, are we isolated and distracted by our own familiar thought patterns or images of how we want to be? Are we acting in habitual, constricted or limiting ways? These simple discoveries can have a profound impact on how we live.

First published as an interview by the San Francisco Zen Center in Sangha News, May 7, 2014.