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.
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.
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.
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.