From Sensory Awareness to Vipassana Meditation
A conversation with Stefan Laeng and the pioneering Buddhist teacher, Ruth Denison
I visited Ruth Denison on April 29, 1999 at the Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center , her Buddhist retreat center in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. I do not remember exactly how it came to this visit, but it must have been on the way home from an extended time together with Charlotte Selver, as I drove with my then fiancé through the vastness of the deserts of Southern California and we seized the opportunity ,
I had met Ruth before and when I called her, she spontaneously invited Sarah and me to her home in Joshua Tree. Ruth has been in contact with the Sensory Awareness people over the years and has even revived the connection later, after Charlotte’s death. She was a regular visitor to Sensory Awareness conferences and workshops, be it as a teacher or to be a student again.
Sensory Awareness Conference at Mt. Madonna Center in Watsonville, California, 2006
It is primarily thanks to Alan Watts and Henry Denison that Charlotte’s work came to California. Charlotte gave her first workshop on the West Coast in the house of Henry in Hollywood. Henry was a spiritual seeker all his life and had been a monk in the Advaita Vedanta Order for a few years before building his home in the Hollywood Hills. In the early sixties, the Denisons hosted many of the luminaries of the then counter-movement: philosophers, psychotherapists, Zen masters. Alan Watts was one of them. He and Charlotte had been working together for a few years, and now he proposed inviting Charlotte to join them as well.
Charlotte always spoke lovingly of Henry and never failed to mention how attractive he was. “He looked like a Spanish grandee,” she always said. I’m not really sure what a Spanish Grande is, but at the time of our visit, Henry Denison was still alive, although he was suffering from Alzheimer’s. I had a chance to meet him and despite his illness, it was immediately clear why Charlotte was impressed by his appearance. He was tall and slender and with his thick, gray beard he looked very dignified. Sarah and I had a nice meeting with him, in which he remembered Charlotte with enthusiasm.
We conducted the interview with Ruth during lunch. Ruth has always been a particularly generous hostess and she had often cooked for Charlotte and her husband, Charles Brooks. So we sat in her little house and she told us about the meetings with Charlotte.
Ruth : Henry Denison and I were getting closer at the time. Alan Watts told him about this lady who had the perspective, as Henry said. She understood what it was all about. It was like an underground movement, meetings that talked about psychology, about self-development and realization.
The way Alan Watts described Charlotte sounded good. He spoke of a body-related practice, a process of becoming aware of our mental and psychological realms.
Charlotte Selver vividly remembered this first meeting and loved to say it: “I came to Henry Denison with Charles (according to Ruth, Charles was not present at this first time). Henry escorted us to his veranda with a beautiful view over a lake. We sat and waited there while preparing lunch for us. And then he came with a very nice, thin-walled wooden bowl of fresh salad and asked me to serve me. At that moment a bird began to sing in the tree below us. I stopped taking a salad. When the bird finished singing, I continued to scoop and Henry said, “You’re in!”
Suddenly we heard terrible noise from barking dogs: “Wow, wow, wow,”. In came four small dogs that jumped around him and licked him. And after the dogs came in a woman who was probably his lady of the heart. That was Ruth Denison “.
Charlotte’s visit to Denisons probably took place in 1959, when Ruth and Henry were not married yet and she did not live with him. Ruth Schäfer, her maiden name, emigrated from Germany to the USA in 1957.
Ruth : I remember what Charlotte wore. A beautiful blouse made of pure silk with cuffs, very formal. I came with two dachshunds and they made a lot of noise. I was the loud lady who burst in with dogs in this peaceful, quiet atmosphere of the utmost value and sensitivity, like dynamite. The silence was gone and the peace over. Charlotte had fun with it. She can – if something is so sublime and then suddenly everything goes up and down – she can enjoy that. She has a great sense of humor.
I had probably met Henry only a few months, maybe a year before. He was very interested in all those avant-garde people at the time, like Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood.
Henry arranged with Charlotte that the house is available for her and she can hold her seminars there, in the large living room with the fabulous terrace all around and the wonderful view over the mountains and the lake. Our furniture could simply be set aside. The big table was placed against the glass front and then there was room for twenty people who could lie there. It was a dream house. And in the guest area it was the same. There was a terrace from which you could overlook the lake and they lived there. That’s how I got my training. I cooked for the group, and whenever possible, I went with it. At the time, Charlotte’s work was a real breakthrough for many. Psychologists came, yoga teachers and artists. Through Sensory Awareness they have really got ground under their feet. The senses are sharpened and trained, the perception becomes clearer. You do not let the mind interfere with sensations. You just hear, smell, taste. So equipped, with alert senses, I came to Vipassana. I was prepared for the best. Charlotte could not understand that! But it’s also hard to understand that.
Ruth’s comment that Charlotte did not understand, in my opinion, refers to Charlotte’s refusal to see sensory awareness simply as a vehicle of liberation in the Buddhist context. Charlotte, like other students of Elsa Gindler – a Berlin gymnastics pioneer of the German reform movement in the first half of the 20th century – insisted that her practice be independent. That it was used to prepare people for therapy or their spiritual practice meant that the depth of the practice was not really recognized. And really, you could argue that Ruth did not recognize this potential of sensory awareness.
Whoever thinks that Sensory Awareness does not deal with suffering and only aims at harmony and “well-being” misunderstands what Charlotte Selver and her teachers were all about. But since Sensory Awareness has no fixed philosophical superstructure, it is often ignored and labeled a feel-good practice, a view that made Charlotte Selver very sad. Nevertheless, it may well be that Charlotte underestimated Ruth and that she, like many others, did not realize the depth of her idiosyncratic approach to teaching the Buddha Dharma.
Ruth : At first I did not know what to do with Charlotte. But later I realized that I actually lived like this. I was very down to earth and lived with my body. But when I came into this noble society with its high goals of enlightenment and spiritual awakening, I had a different idea of what that meant. So when I was asked to feel, to feel my feet, my hands, my breath, I thought, “My God,” what are they doing there? I do it all the time. That’s how it is when you’re alive. ” So I wondered for the moment, but realized quite quickly that I still lacked a lot. I just got it wrong. I made it a pleasure and to feel better.
But if you practice Vipassana, that’s another story. What Sensory Awareness is all about – you will find more harmony, you will become more alert and enjoy life more and enjoy the experience, because you pay less attention to dukkha and the inconvenience of life – this is not the case with Vipassana.
In sensory awareness, harmony is the goal, better feeling, holistic life. With that attitude, I came to the vipassana and heard that attention was also to be directed to the unpleasant. The inner peace that you experience through mindfulness of sensory impressions can help you to counteract the unpleasant with equanimity. The development of mindfulness and the development of awareness is the fundamental basis of Vipassana. We use the body and the other senses as objects of attention.
Stefan : The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana)
Ruth : Yes. But one works only with the first, with body and sensory perception, the other three then come by themselves. Because feelings, pleasant or unpleasant, as well as mental states and contents, depend on our attention on body sensations, on non-verbal levels. This binds the mind and leads away from its habitual occupations and entanglements. Instead, you begin to understand: This appears now, these feelings or this consciousness or the thought. You notice and do not get involved. Or, as the Buddha put it, in this cordon-long body, with its perceptions, feelings, consciousness, the whole world is contained, beginning and end.
In other words, it’s about dukkha, suffering. Then you have Buddha’s instruction: ” I teach for a single reason: to end the suffering and how we recognize it. “How we can relate it to our ignorance, our lack of understanding and our emotional confusion. How we create our own dissatisfaction, etc.
So when Henry and I came to U Ba Khin, our teacher in Burma, I was very well prepared. I was able to continue to pay attention to my breath, that was wonderful. For the first few days I was in opposition to U Ba Khin because I did not trust the situation. I do everything, I thought. When he noticed my resistance, he was very firm and told me that he was not talking to me, but to the evil spirits of my resistance. That was helpful.
Then everything came together step by step. The reason why you do something. You recognize the process instead of just having an overview. Many wonderful insights appear through the systematic application of mindfulness to the body. The impermanence you can see on a microscopic level, the change. You get to know the suffering and how much inconvenience the body prepares, so as not to cling to it, to always enjoy it. You learn to be open to the unpleasant and then it becomes pleasant.
I think without Charlotte’s preparation I would never have made it because my time with U Ba Khin was very short. My mind would never have been able to engage as deeply with the body as Charlotte’s work, Sensory Awareness, made possible. So I could go pretty deep during the five or six months I spent with U Ba Khin.
When I began to teach – he gave me the permission to teach – I would not have been able to guide people in the practice of mindfulness, giving them good directions on what to do, how to stick to it, and start over again, how to sit motionless for two hours, allowing the mind, as an observer, to penetrate into the realms of sensations. That’s not how you work with Charlotte. You take it easier and go outside.
I also had some Zen training. From Zen I learned to organize and to organize. From Charlotte I have this wonderfully grounded, the spirit present, the psyche and the mental objects where the body is. That means where life really takes place, where you can be in direct contact with it. Your mind becomes calm and focused. He awakens to what he is doing right now. You understand more and more. That’s what we call insight, right understanding, an aspect of the Eightfold Path.
So I leave people standing – sometimes I hear things say, like Charlotte: “Please come to a stop”. Do not get up but come to a stop. Then I suggest: feel your arms and let the shoulders of earthly gravity follow you, feel the contact with your feet, between your feet and the earth. Just like Charlotte taught us. Shift your weight slightly to the left foot, feeling the difference in how the other foot feels. This is a wonderful foundation for Vipassana.
This also made me a reliable companion. Whenever the students’ thoughts drifted away and it became too mental when they were not connected to the body, it was very clear.
But in the eyes of some Vipassana students, who came from Goenka (U Ba Khin’s best-known student), I just played around. One jumped up, ran to the door, tore it open, and screamed into the silence of the room we worked in: ” Enough of this hocus pocus! “I had to take a lot. Today, there are yoga, sensory awareness, etc. in Vipassana circles. But Charlotte was a pioneer and I was also a pioneer.
Later, I sent students to Charlotte. Those who needed a bit more grounding to sit in silence, without movement, without doing anything; Students who needed a slightly different practice, more exercise. And I also let her lie on the floor in my seminars and do things that Charlotte did. Experiments with touch or partner exercises. Or I made everyone find a stone and hold that stone, then place it in the other hand. Or chewing and eating a nut, watching the whole process, from hard to soft, to mush – and then swallowing, all of this I did.
When I started to teach, it made me uncomfortable sitting in front of them, watching their nervousness, their fidgeting, and their inner restlessness. Immediately, I could calm them down by suggesting that they raise one hand and then place it on the other hand. Or on the shoulder of someone. But I was exposed to strong criticism at the beginning.
I had students look at each other and just see what’s going on. How they can perceive the other person without losing touch with their feet, standing and the totality of their being. It is an exercise not to be distracted or distracted, but to be mindful of yourself. And then involve the other person.
Or pick a flower or smell the ground and really be there. I took her to the mountains, let her look at the view, let her know: Seeing happens when the eyes meet an object. It sometimes goes a bit farther than Charlotte’s, because what we see is more of a construct of the mind and not just perceiving in silence. The perception becomes very precise. In the process of perception, there are the eyes, the object and the mind or the consciousness. What we see is not really a vessel (Ruth is knocking on a vessel). We see colors and shapes. And then we realize that everything is spirit. Seeing, visual consciousness.
So we realize that everything is just a process, the mental process of seeing. And that it has three components: a physiological level, an object and mind. And that puts you in a position where you can do nothing but recognize that it’s empty of a “me,” it’s a process. And through that, through Charlotte’s work – I mean, as a basis – I can tangibly and concretely reveal the truth to which the Buddha refers: No self, emptiness. From the beginning I taught with the help of these beautiful experiences – the smell of the earth. I let them crawl across the floor as worms and snakes – elementary of Charlotte.
I’m eternally grateful to her and Henry, both, because I would never have met her without Henry. From Charlotte, I have received a great foundation for Vipassana practice.
Stefan Laeng is a sensory awareness teacher. He lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire, USA and regularly works in Europe. He is executive director of the Sensory Awareness Foundation. He is currently working on a detailed biography of Charlotte Selver.