Vipassana teacher Ruth Denison spoke with Inquiring Mind coeditor Barbara Gates in October 2003. Denison had come to the San Francisco Bay Area from her Dhammadena Meditation Center in the Mojave Desert for the memorial service of Sensory Awareness founder Charlotte Selver. Born in East Prussia in 1922, Denison received dharma transmission from Burmese meditation master U Ba Khin in 1969 and has taught internationally for many years. Dressed in her characteristic flowing skirt and headscarf, she spoke with drama—by turn teasing, serious and tender—and offered the dharma with her trademark evocative imagery.
Inquiring Mind: As a dharma teacher, you guide students in both stillness and movement to awaken through the senses. Before your training in vipassana, you studied Sensory Awareness with Charlotte Selver. How did you first meet Charlotte Selver and what did you learn from her?
Ruth Denison: Charlotte had brought what she first called “work on the human being” and then “unfolding” to the United States from Germany in 1938 and began giving classes and private sessions in New York City. In the late fifties, my husband, Henry, invited Charlotte to Los Angeles after he had learned about her from his friend Alan Watts. Alan told Henry that Charlotte was giving joint seminars with Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich. “Henry, you must meet this woman,” urged Alan. “She is giving us pure Zen.” Charlotte then became a resident in our home in the Hollywood Hills for a few winter seasons. She offered her Sensory Awareness seminars, which she often called “the work.”
What did I learn from her? To be a gracious hostess and to listen more intently to what my body was feeling from the inside. This, at that time, gave me ecstatic feeling and joyful energy for the things I did—taking care of the household and garden, playing tennis and piano, camping and diving. I also learned to be sensitive and present to my body’s “functioning,” and I saw that through sensing I could experience a natural quiet.
IM: Could you give us a glimpse of Selver’s approach to awakening the senses?
RD: The aim of Sensory Awareness is not attaining a particular skill; it is rather a coming to freedom to explore sensitively and to learn from exploration. Charlotte would not give us instructions, but rather propose some experiment and ask questions that were directed towards the possibility of experiencing. Are you present to your sit-bones? Can you sense standing on your feet? Could your shoulders function in greater spaciousness and could you let go of what they are holding? Can you allow more deliciousness in your throat? Can you taste how the neck is receiving the head? Can you sense how alive it is between the ears? And how the breathing is relating to what you are sensing here? Can you allow more space in your mouth or for the tongue and its saliva?
Through bringing attention to the body, witnessing the life there, and penetrating with your own consciousness, she invited merging with what you receive. She would ask, “Can we sense lying on the floor, can we entrust the weight of our body to surrender to the Earth, or can we sense the Earth supporting us, carrying us?”
Charlotte would give us plenty of time for perceiving the discoveries directly and clearly. Later, after such sessions, Charlotte would again ask questions: “What did you experience? Please tell us.” She was keenly guarding our reports to speak only of what was directly sensed and perceived. She would give no immediate comments on our sharing. She kept her comments for the end of our session, and they revealed insights about the benefits of “the work.”
Sometimes Charlotte would let us relate to an outside object—a bamboo stick in our hands or a rock—to sense its touch. Or she would propose that we let our own hands land on the head of someone else: Can you be present to the hand that receives the touch on the head of your partner? How sensitive is the hand and how alive throughout its tissues? Can you sense the breathing in it? And what is to be sensed there under the hand?
In such ways she would tirelessly ask whether we were awake to what we were sensing and whether we were allowing its unfolding. I think this is a gentle and natural approach to come to a deeper relating to oneself and all activities of daily living.
IM: After you had studied with Charlotte Selver, you practiced vipassana with the renowned Burmese meditation master U Ba Khin. What were the similarities and differences between the two?
RD: Both teachers called attention to the experience of the human life as it is lived. When I was teaching vipassana myself, I realized that both teachers used the body as a base for developing awareness. Charlotte let it happen in a most allowing and natural-intuitive way, while U Ba Khin followed the teaching of the Buddha, particularly vipassana, which is an ancient and highly organized method for awakening to oneself by oneself. It unfolds along the lines of what’s called the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These four foundations comprise the total functioning of the human being: the body, the feelings that arise from every experience, the states of mind, and the thinking processes. I became very fond of the methodical order to the Buddha’s way to awaken. I especially favor the first of the four foundations, for it is with the body, the tactile sense organism, that we can most immediately and directly experience and observe.
Practicing Charlotte’s way is an art of being present to this life; it has enhanced and secured my formal practice of vipassana. It also has refined and inspired me to deeper penetration into the body level that is below thought and concept, primal energy that seems to awaken to itself and understands. U Ba Khin’s teachings have brought me clear vision to what I was at times discovering through the Sensory Awareness path. These two paths complement each other, but they can also stand by themselves.
I could not see this on my first visit to U Ba Khin. I was actually not very friendly toward what I was supposed to be doing: feeling my sensations, feeling my breathing in the body. I thought I had already practiced that enough with Charlotte. When U Ba Khin noticed my disapproving face he called me aside and said, “You are not practicing well enough; it’s time you tried harder.” And with a stronger voice: “I am not talking to you now, but to your evil forces!”
I told U Ba Khin that I had already been able to feel my breathing and experience body sensations before I arrived there. I didn’t understand why I should watch it all again. I wanted something else, “enlightenment,” what I heard Henry’s friends back home talking about. I think I was now apologizing. He responded: “Yes, everyone who is alive is able to feel the sensations of their sense experiences, but not everyone senses them with awareness and understands what they are really saying. Vipassana lets us explore that.”
IM: Could you talk about the process of working with the sensations to purify the mind?
RD: The purification process happens when you “acupuncture” yourself constantly with your attention, with your compassion. When you attend more and more to the level of body sensations and body-life-ness, the mind cannot be so active, and the hindrances shrink. With each moment of connecting with sensations, you are reducing the active nasty qualities of the mind and its conditioning. If you can attend to that very deeply, it’s like putting dirty laundry into the washing machine; the laundry gets clean. As you find more space in your mind, you are able to penetrate more deeply to the nonverbal level, to the great-great-great-grandmother level.
As you purify your mind in this way, nothing is such a big struggle any more. The mind that gives up reacting and all its unwholesomeness becomes very open, more tolerant, more loving, more appreciated and appreciating.
IM: Attention to the senses can be the path of awakening or the path of escape, no?
RD: When we speak of the senses we must understand that they are not separate from our life. Through hearing, tasting, seeing, smelling, touching and thinking we experience our life and the world. All these six senses are the objects of attention in vipassana practice. That is to say, we as practitioners are asked to be present to these senses—as the sutras suggest—from moment to moment. In the light of this caring attention, the senses function naturally without interference, and the observing mind progressively becomes equanimous and finally awakens to know itself.
If attention to the senses opens the path of awakening, then, naturally, the absence of mindful attention to our sense experiences is a path of escape. It does not allow awakening but instead brings about all forms of misunderstanding and suffering.
IM: Sometimes focus on the senses can actually strengthen the ego. How does that happen?
RD: If you make the body and the experiences into “objects,” that strengthens the ego. “The observer and the observed are one,” said Krishnamurti, but if you see yourself as a meditator, then you separate the observer from the observed. This oneness cannot be captured. It has to be discovered by knowing the whole process. That is why Charlotte disapproved of working with rigid and codified patterns in the process of self-discovery. Experiencing the living organism and not going into any theory, you awaken with more ease.
IM: If somebody took only Charlotte’s approach, without Buddhist training and theory, do you believe he or she could become liberated?
RD: Yes. When we look closely at Charlotte’s path, we see that her practice of Sensory Awareness is an awakening process, too. Charlotte often calls it an awakening to the human potential. I said earlier that Charlotte’s path has no method, but it can also be said that her method is “allowing.” Allowing means not grasping for that which is observed. It means patience for the witnessing mind. The atmosphere of allowing carries the willingness to make a new beginning as well as the feeling of compassion and friendliness.
Allowing also means not interfering with the sense experiences. For example, when there is not interference with body sensations, the sensations are actually revealing themselves as they are. This allows a consciousness to arise that knows itself. Here we can touch what the Buddha calls anatta, no self. In other words, an “I” or a “me” can no longer manufacture dukkha, or that which brings about our dissatisfaction and suffering.
IM: Your own unconventional exercises for awakening the senses, drawing on what you learned from Charlotte Selver, have occasionally elicited disapproval and even anger from some dharma teachers and students. This has sometimes led to interesting encounters, engendering insight and compassion.
RD: I was aware of these reactions in teachers and students, but it did not stop me from continuing my way of teaching. Why? Because with every way that I have taught, conventionally or unconventionally, I have known I am in alignment with the Buddhadharma and with the dharma I received from Charlotte’s path.
One example of a student’s reaction comes to my mind. Once when I was teaching at the Insight Meditation Society, in order to explore more deeply with sensations, I asked each student to pick up a rock. We experimented with the rock—walking with it, exchanging it with other hands, throwing it up and receiving it again—for no other reason than to sense the sensations of these experiences and know that we were sensing them. Suddenly, a student leapt up very angrily. It was a wonder he didn’t throw his rock at me. He ran towards the door, past the altar, and shouted: “Enough of this hanky-panky!” As he ran out, we heard the big bang of the door.
Two years later at a fundraising party a gentleman came up to me and said: “Ruth, how wonderful you are here! Do you know who I am?” “I don’t know,” I said, “but I am happy if you know yourself. That’s enough.”
“I am the one who ran out of your sensing class at IMS,” the gentleman said. “The echo of the bang of that door followed me. I saw my anger and then I saw more. Because of this, I changed my profession. I had been a fur hunter. But now I no longer beat to death creatures caught in my traps.”
The unconventional practice of sensing a rock in one’s hand allowed this student’s heart to open to a level he’d never felt before. Obviously, it was a feeling of compassion and sensitivity that arose to the pain and misery of the animals in his traps. As he said, no more fur animals were killed by him from that moment on.