These Are Her Experiences: An Account of a Somatic Journey

Reported by Judyth O. Weaver

This is an unusual report on the process of a person’s work in the field of somatic exploration – most especially focused in the work of sensory awareness and also very much with the body/mind/spiritual integrative work of t’ai chi ch’uan. Other practices worked with less and also important are mentioned here as well. I think this is unusual for several reasons: one, because it is an account of a person working in one of the manners, sensory awareness, with two different teachers. One of the teachers being Charlotte Selver who is one of the people who brought the work of Elsa Gindler from Germany to the United States. (It was Charlotte who coined the term “sensory awareness;” other of Gindler’s students gave their work various other names.) The other teacher is myself. I have been a student of Charlotte’s since 1968. (I personally find it very interesting to learn about this student’s responses and developments to our different personalities and ways of working within the same focus and discipline. I hope you will also.)

Another reason for me thinking this report especially unusual and interesting is that the other main form of study that the person is reporting on is t’ai chi ch’uan. Whereas the work of sensory awareness is a fairly unstructured practice, t’ai chi ch’uan is very structured. It is a form. The structure in sensory awareness is that a time is set, the student comes, and working either privately or in a group (group work is more common), takes the tasks suggested by the leader and that is where the structure ends. The exploration is completely free. Whatever comes up for the student is what comes up. There is no right or wrong. What the experience is is what the experience is.

I have studied t’ai chi ch’uan also since 1968. (Interesting, I started my studies with both of these practices, one with strict form and one fairly formless, immediately upon returning home after 3 years out of the country, mostly in Asia. There my studies had been mainly in a Zen Buddhist monastery and upon other strict Asian forms. But that is another story.)

Upon my return to the U.S. I began studying Grandmaster Cheng Man-Ch’ing’s short yang form at his school in New York City, Shr Jung Center for Culture and the Arts and with his designated teacher in California. I was given permission to teach this form in 197l. I do teach the traditional t’ai chi ch’uan form that I learned, but I teach it in a very non-traditional manner. I do not teach t’ai chi ch’uan through memorization or just learning or copying the movements. Sensory awareness and many other aspects of movement/structural awareness I have studied have deeply influenced everything I do. I teach t’ai chi ch’uan through this mode of sensory/structural/energetic awareness.

As we go into my student’s experience of her somatic journey in a multi-leveled format, this article will also be multi-voiced. This student has presented me with such vivid, clear accounts of her own experiences they have inspired me to write my side of the view of her/our journey. The quotes in the first person are her writings from the accounts that she has given me over the years.

Hilary was 32 when she came to me initially to study t’ai chi ch’uan. She was from California, a teacher in a middle school where she had been teaching science and math to 13 and 14 year-old students in 7th and 8th grades. She was also a naturalist and had done quite a bit of traveling, sailing, mountain climbing and camping around the world. She first came to my summer t’ai chi ch’uan workshops at Hollyhock Farm on Cortes Island, in British Columbia, Canada. She was quiet, cheerful and amiable, and easily fit in as part of the group.

During those first weeks I was aware how much Hilary was trying to learn the movements of the t’ai chi ch’uan form. She was doing it in a scientific sort of way. She was technically efficient and very agile and limber, and was generally able to catch on to the movements easily, but the heart/soul/body connection seemed to be missing. Hilary has since told me that she decided to study t’ai chi ch’uan “to become less tense, less severe.” I was aware of the tension that she chronically carried around her shoulders and neck and head. I was amazed at her agility and balance and her abilities to climb a tree like a monkey and at the same time I was aware that she was not grounded in a deep, physical (or psychic), energetic way. I wondered about her “technical cheeriness.” I liked her very much and I was surprised, pleasantly so, when she attended the next weekend workshop I offered in Vancouver that winter. She has continued to attend almost every T’ai Chi workshop I have taught since.

During that first summer workshop I was asked to offer an evening presentation for the general community at Hollyhock. I knew this was perhaps a one-time chance to work with people, most of whom I would probably never see again, and the others attending would be the students who had just finished five days of an introduction to t’ai chi ch’uan, all of whom were trying too hard, as beginners most often do.

I, of course, wanted to offer the best experience I could to all of these people in the time limit I was offered. I focused my presentation on sensory awareness.

“ Hollyhock during an evening presentation by Judyth. The introduction was only an hour, but it was powerful. I don’t think I knew that what we were doing that evening was called Sensory Awareness! We were lying and having another person lift and gently move our heads. That in itself was an experience in trust! I couldn’t remember ever letting anyone hold my head. I had a lot of wondering about what the hands and the person might do. I know that I was not totally comfortable because it was so new and so close and I felt so at the mercy of the hands under my head. I can’t say much about my tensions then because I really wasn’t aware of them.

What I do remember vividly was when I sat up, how thick the air felt! It was so tangible. It was a momentary experience that I haven’t felt since but will always remember. It was like feeling the air like you feel the presence of water when submerged. It was a consciousness of the density of the air, not the usual feeling of nothingness in the space.

That same evening, I also remember having our eyes closed and Judyth asking us to put our hands where we could feel our breathing. That really confused me. Breathing? I think I went to the textbook place of the upper chest area. Somehow the question made me feel very unsure of myself and what I knew. I don’t even know if I could feel my breath in my lungs without doing it. I know now that I was confused because I really didn’t think about breathing, or feeling for that matter. I just assumed they existed and did fine without me thinking about them.”

Hilary went back home changed a bit and with a lot to think about and feel out.

The second summer after the annual t’ai chi ch’uan workshops Hilary asked me if I had any suggestions for her January vacation. I suggested that she go to Mexico where Charlotte Selver was offering her annual workshops. She went.

“Arriving back home my friends and family asked me what I had learned in my 2 week workshop. ‘To sit,’ I would say, feeling a bit foolish because it sounded so odd. But, for 3 months following that workshop I could not slouch while sitting! I sat entirely differently on the chair, upright, with no extra effort or holdings. Wonderful! It felt so natural and right.”

Thus began for Hilary a gradual and wonderful period of change, which is still continuing and growing.

Hilary has taken various workshops from me – from one-day workshops and once-a-week series of sessions to a month-long intensive where we met daily, three times a day. Her times of working with Charlotte span the two-week periods in Mexico, various weekend workshops, and one six-week study group which had seven sessions each week.

She has also consistently continued her personal daily t’ai chi practice while attending my weekly classes, various weekend workshops, and weeklong workshops in many different settings and opportunities for experiences. She has progressed to the study of various qi gong practices that I teach (structures), the practice of Tui Shou (the application of self- defense practices with a partner based on the structure of the t’ai chi ch’uan form and going into structurelessness, and the t’ai chi sword form and a bit of the sword fighting.

Of course the form/structure of the t’ai chi practice is only the doorway into the non-form/structure of the essence of the supreme ultimate (which is the translation of the words “t’ai chi”).

At first I noticed that Hilary almost never spoke in classes. Neither in t’ai chi classes nor in Charlotte’s or my classes in sensory awareness. That does not mean that a lot wasn’t going on in her. No, I could see that she was going through much, but that she chose not to speak. In the rare occasions when Hilary did speak she tilted her head to the right side and spoke with a voice that went more into her than out to the listeners and the look on her face was as if she were asking a question.

“I love the work, but I am finding that the world is made very complicated by my past and present conditioning, and is not always a pleasant journey. As I become more aware, I make myself more vulnerable and my insecurities are more prominent. I have a greater realization of the immensity of who I am and my actions/reactions. And I think/know that the workshops help me to shed layers and make my holdings and habits comprehensible or noticeable to me.”

Hilary was making various changes in her life. One of the largest was that she took a year’s leave of absence from her teaching career. She said she wanted to explore her educational philosophy. At the end of that first year she felt impelled to request another year. During these years I had also suggested/referred Hilary to do some craniosacral work, which also led her into some awareness of her birth and early childhood experiences that she felt she wanted to deal with.

“..which left me without any motivation to return to public education; two years of personal growth that led me back to my birth and the effects it had on me. It was two years of living out of a suitcase, not really having a home, or really having many homes! Part of the time I was crewing on a sailboat crossing the Atlantic Ocean. People would say, ‘wow, what an adventure to visit all those faraway places. For me it was wow, what a time to visit me, to be comfortable with having nothing to do, to be comfortable with me. When I am in one of Charlotte’s or Judyth’s Sensory Awareness classes, or workshops that is really what I am getting in touch with. I am getting in touch with me.”

This time away from work allowed Hilary the opportunity to attend Charlotte’s workshops and also to participate in a month-long intensive that I called “Somatics, Community and the Soul.” My intention for the month-long was to honestly, authentically live in community, in a sensorily aware community, paying clear attention to what was needed and finding the resources in ourselves to respond fully. Eleven participants were able to be there for the entire month – half of them had been students of mine in some sort of workshop and wanted more sensory awareness; the other half were completely unknown to me or others.

One of the first experiments I suggested early in the workshop was an activity that I do sometimes, in a course titled “BodyMindSpiritual Practices East and West that I have taught many times at CIIS. Knowing how often new students are requested to verbally introduce themselves at the beginnings of a new class and how inured they become to it, I give them the assignment for the second week to introduce themselves non-verbally.

“When we were beginning the month-long workshop at Hollyhock, she gave us this challenge. It was incredible, the power of the introductions! When I felt it was time for me to go, I got up and walked around inside the circle, looking directly at everyone. Speeding up as I went, I broke through the circle and ran around the outside and sitting down lay back and just breathed as my heart began to slow from its pounding. And then I sat up and was finished. I was surprised how my introduction just came to me and how it evolved as I did it and upon reflection, how it was so accurate and telling of my fear of connection.”

In the month-long workshop, we were more of a community than a class. The whole concept of community was really a learning experience. I could see how, like breathing, we get in the way of true communing with ourselves and others because of our attitudes and schedules. Working in a group affected what each person brought to the group and how each person was accepted!

We worked very simply in the month-long workshop that I soon became to call “Somatics Community.” It was the work of everyday life. I offered the group times and places for experiencing and experimenting with all the simple, little details of life.

“As I spent time working, experimenting, playing and sharing everyday for the month in Canada, I started to really become aware of all the incredible defenses I have that keep me from contacting and connecting with the world, with others, with myself. As I am becoming aware of them, I am also becoming able to choose differently when I begin to feel a certain habitual reaction coming. I can feel also what is triggering this reaction and I can look at it clearer and decide if I can choose a different response. The ability to respond rather than react is something I am working on. One of the biggest defensive reactions has been my light heartedness and excitement. I can feel the excitement take me out of touch with reality. I bounce around and run everywhere. I used to say I traveled along about 5 feet off the ground. Yes, that would be about where my head and shoulders are, where all my tension is that holds me off the ground, avoiding contact.”

And I could see changes in everyone. Hilary (and others as well) developed a sense that I could call “more grounded” or more in connection with themselves. An acknowledgement of self and resources that allowed them to glow, to be more who they were, and for the entire group to communicate and work together on a deeper level of contact and acceptance.

“This honesty was our underlying theme as we worked during the month long on ourselves, on our interactions with other members of the group, on the process of being a member of the group or our “community,” and ultimately on our role as a member of society. The experiences from the month-long workshop helped me get more in touch with the true me. As I became a bit more honest with myself I found I could choose what I wanted to be. I can choose to change so that my anger does not get in the way. I could choose to change my thoughts and that would help change my tone of voice. I could choose to believe in what I was doing and not be too fearful to act. I wanted to help others change, but in the end I learned that I can only really change me, not anyone else or the world. Through my change, others change and the world changes.”

One day each week was a day of not speaking. We continued with our general activities, just experienced them, everything, differently because of our non-verbalness. The third week of non-verbal days was also a partnered day where half the time one person was also non-sighted. The partner’s responsibility was not to lead the other around, but to allow him/her to explore, as s/he wanted, just to protect them from danger.

“One of the most powerful experiences in the month-long workshop was a day spent in silence and without sight. For about 5 hours I wore a blindfold and my partner, without talking, kept me out of trouble. It was an experiment without two of my senses. The best or the worst part was getting lost on the beach. I knew that this was where I wanted to spend my time when blindfolded, on the beach. But I didn’t realize how lost I could feel. The tide was way out so there was an incredible vastness of sand and rocks, but I was only aware of my own little sphere: what I was standing on at the time, the feel of the air around me and sounds, that seemed so far away or muffled by the air in between. I couldn’t tell any sort of direction. I could only be in the moment and let go of any sort of plan of where I wanted to go. At one point I took off my shoes and after a long exploration of the beach, with intermittent rests on the rocks, my partner said I brought us right back to our shoes. (Luckily, she said because she had not taken note of where we had left them and wasn’t wearing her glasses!) This complete feeling of vastness and feeling only my immediate surroundings was the experience that gave me new comfort in life. When I’m between careers, or in a new city, and I know nothing the future will bring, I can remember and maybe live in the present moment and be comfortable in that position.”

That month-long somatics community was a wonderful experience for everyone (as far as I know). I personally want to offer more possibilities for such concentrated work as this. Hilary says she’ll come again.

“The study groups that Charlotte leads and the longer workshops in Mexico on Sensory Awareness with Charlotte are similar to the month I spent in the Somatics, Community and the Soul workshop lead by Judyth in Canada. There the daily work in Sensory Awareness in the places of richness of nature and beach and food really have an incredible impact. The length of the workshop allows time for deep work to be started and developed even if we may only meet for 2 hours a day”

But, of course, it is not everyone who can take such a period of time away from his or her average everyday life. It is also incredibly important to be able to work in this sensorily aware mode “in the marketplace,” within ones work/family/mundane life, because that is where we need to take it after all.

“Some of my experiences I’ve wanted to continue and keep for the rest of my life. Judyth often gives a one-day sensory awareness class in Mill Valley. One spring I was able to attend the class and we were working on finding our voice. We started with hearing and ended up standing. It was all connected. The work we did on allowing the sounds to really come into us affected my standing immensely! I could have stood for three hours, it was so delicious! Somehow I was, finally, for a short time, really standing and feeling how right it was. It was an incredible feeling of oneness, wholeness”

I clearly remember this instant that Hilary has mentioned. I remember seeing Hilary come to standing. She looked to me like a flower opening to full blossom. She vibrated and glowed as her chest softened and opened and her arms floated downward to be at her sides ? not hanging and floppy and not held either. Her neck was long and her face truly radiant! Hilary was fully in touch with the floor and the heavens at the same time. She says she “could have stood for three hours.” I could have watched her for many more hours. I saw Hilary fully alive, deeply energized and not stressed or out of balance. Seeing her, I also became more balanced and energized. The whole experience was so beautiful!

“Sometimes the work is hard because it is opening me up to being emotionally vulnerable. Like Judyth’s one day Sensory Awareness class in Mill Valley when we were lying on our backs and just touching our feet. I fell apart. I really didn’t know why, but touching my feet brought up a deep feeling of sadness and tears. It was like I had never really touched my feet before. I was introducing my hand to my foot and my foot to my hand. I have protected against emotions for so long that it is very scary to allow them. Genuine kindness is one of the things that scares me the most. I do not know how to receive it. I have a habit of closing up and making light of it to avoid really dealing with it. The Sensory Awareness work allows me to begin to feel this kindness at my own pace. It helps me go behind the habitual defenses and begin to free the tears that have been stopped for so long.”

I remember this instance as well. This time also Hilary glowed-not in exactly the same colors as her previous account; this time the glow was the honesty of her emotions and sensations. Hilary softened. Her laugh was not so brittle and defensive. Her connection with her own self, bodyself, heartself, was enhanced and deep. She was moved and being with her was very moving.

Hilary has told me that sometimes her father would ask what she had learned in her last workshop. “I would answer ‘That I don’t breathe sometimes.’ He wouldn’t know what to say to that.”

I very often direct students to their breath. Not to do anything to fix or alter it, but to become more aware of it and the various impacts and understandings it can open to us. I saw changes and softenings as Hilary became more aware of her breath and what it was telling her.

“…I learned how complicated breathing is, or how complicated I make it; how much I do to interfere with this simple rejuvenating process. One morning we had been lying on our backs and I was, for once, just tuned into my breathing and not doing it. My breath went out and then there was this long, very long, pause of nothing. I wasn’t alarmed, I was curious perhaps, and maybe a bit scared that I would have to do something in order to stay alive. But then the breath came. I think that was the first time I really connected to my breathing.”

The above comment was from Hilary’s experience some years ago. Since then she has changed jobs, made many changes in her life, continued to explore in the work of sensory awareness, here is a more current comment:

“Breathing. Beginnings. Birth. How about before birth. Changing jobs or beginning new careers. How about saying hello? These are all issues I am looking at now in a continuing question to myself of “Do I choose to exist?” These questions are becoming more important in my study of myself, the study of being aware. The question of where does my smile come from? A past ‘should’ or habit or defense? Why can’t it come from the spark within me? How can I find that spark and allow it to grow?”

Hilary has been studying t’ai chi ch’uan with me for 8 years now, and she is continuing to study with both Charlotte and me in sensory awareness whenever she can.

“Two summers ago, during the T’ai Chi workshops that Judyth teaches, I felt my feet get scared. I would never have believed feet could get scared before I came to this Sensory Awareness work. It is a strange feeling in my feet that comes from what is going on for me emotionally deep inside. Most of the time I am not aware of why they are scared. I started during breaks in the T’ai Chi workshop sitting down and holding the bottoms of my feet. When we would resume I could feel a difference in how I connected with the ground. I started holding my feet every morning and could feel an incredible difference when I didn’t have time to do that. It was a teetery-totery feeling all day. Like walking on my tiptoes. That summer was the first time during the T’ai Chi workshops that I felt it was just like doing more Sensory Awareness.

My T’ai Chi practice is one of the ways I explore my fear connected with my feet and allowing connection with the earth. Charlotte hates the word “exercise.” “We are not exercising here!” She says. Exercise is mindless work. She has a very critical opinion of any sort of exercise! I happen to practice my T’ai Chi everyday, but for me, after hearing Charlotte talk, I realize that my practice is not an exercise. It is more of a sensory awareness experiment. Every time I do the form, it is different. I am different every day and every minute. It is so wonderful to feel it and be aware of it.”

The work continues, and it is basically each person working on themselves in their own way. That is why Charlotte Selver really does not like the use of the word “teach” for we practitioners of this work. She prefers to use the verb “lead.”

We all work in our own ways, our own pace. Some time ago, Hilary and I were both participating in a workshop that Charlotte offered. Here is part of Hilary’s report: “Walking back from the beach to the session after lunch, all of a sudden I asked myself how my feet were meeting the ground with each step? Was I there for the meeting like I had been with my hand that morning for the contact with another person? Could I allow that intensity, intimacy of contact with the ground and with each step? Whoa, not yet, came my answer as I realized the immensity of this question, the incredible power of the sensation of wonder offered. I realized I was scared to death of this wonder and connection.”

I am impressed and encouraged by the quality of Hilary’s questioning of herself and the depth and honesty of her answer. She has changed from a very skillful, talented, intelligent person who was insecure and not really sure where she belonged nor how to feel comfortable into a thoughtful, compassionate friend to herself and to others also, even more than she had been previously.

In the Somatics Community those who wanted to, of course, practiced t’ai chi ch’uan and/or qi gong every day. In some of my sensory awareness classes we use clay, drawing, other forms of expression to explore our states.

I received this report from Hilary some time ago:

“It has been 3 summers since I made this picture I have on my wall. I made the picture in one of Judyth’s Sensory Awareness workshops, with my eyes closed, letting my inner sense move my hands holding the pastels over the paper. A picture, motion or a color would come into my mind and I’d put it on the paper. At some point I was drawing with both hands, with different motions. I was drawing where I belonged. That was the question I had chosen when we started the evening. “Where do I belong?” The answer to that question was materializing in this final drawing. I am from an artistic family, but this was entirely different. I was not doing the art; I was just allowing the answer, the art to come out of me. When we were finished, I liked my picture, but really didn’t understand what it meant.”

Hilary moved and began teaching again. This time she was teaching out-of-school youth who had been directed by the courts to a particular educational process. She has chosen a difficult population of young people with which to work. She has a challenging and important position, being with these youngsters who have dropped out of school. Her relationship with them as a teacher can make an immense difference in their lives. She has written me many times about her frustration regarding teaching and what she is expected to do with students. She now writes me about her convictions, many connected with her developments from sensory awareness, on how she is now able to “be there” for the students and allow them to learn if/as they want. She is very successful as a teacher for them. I am sure her influence and presence is very important to them.

And she found another form of expression for herself: clay. Hilary began doing pottery and very quickly was producing beautiful, high-class pots, plates, bowls and even teapots. She has also begun to listen to her Self in different ways-thereby changing her diet and her way of life.

“For me much of life has now become a sensory awareness exploration. In my teaching of out-of-school youth I allow them to move at their own pace. In my pottery I think my sensory awareness has had a lot to do with how my bowls and pots turn out. I sure can tell by the pot if I am not grounded that day! I love the feel when I am really connected to the clay! I have been playing with the question of what and when I want to eat. I no longer have a set routine, but feel out what is needed. The process of getting out of bed has been a wonderful exploration in the past 3 years. I’ve found that given time, I can feel when I am open to going from lying to sitting and when I am open to standing. If I get out of bed too fast, I usually spend a good part of the day in a propped up position, whether it is sitting or standing. I haven’t really gotten out of bed yet! Fascinating! I am learning to honor myself.”

About another picture she made:

“A lot has happened since the summer I made the picture. I feel like a lot has changed in me. I feel more comfortable with who I am and where I am. I have come in contact with my fear and managed to hold onto it and feel it. I have found my heart and am learning to accept and receive kindness and to love myself. I have landed for the present in Seattle and have found a path to follow for the moment. I am not there yet, but I feel more like I belong. My life now seems to fit into the elements of the drawing.”

I am overjoyed to hear Hilary write and speak as she now does. And more is happening and changing. Hilary has just terminated her job teaching the out-of-school youth. During this last year she immersed herself in an extensive massage training and creditation. Her final paper was on working with post-polio syndrome. She has also purchased property and is designing a straw-bale house with earthen floors to build for herself. As I hear the process she is going through I am thrilled. She is clearly sensing her way as she deals with structure, forms, feelings and, yes, even bureaucracy. She is listening to the land and to her own inner messages as to where, how, and when to build and do other things.

She is following an organic flow of relating to information from her insides and from others on the outside. She is moving very sensitively as she takes her next steps, both structured and free flowing, on her land and in her life.

What a wonderful journey! I am so glad and proud to be on the sidelines and be able to observe and participate as Hilary continues on her more and more organic somatic discovery journey.

NOTE: All the pottery pictured here is Hilary’s work. She began experimenting with clay about halfway through her journey noted here.