These Are Her Experiences: Hilary’s Account

by Judyth O. Weaver

This will be an unusual report on the process of a person’s work in the field of sensory awareness. Unusual because it is an account of a person working in this area of sensory awareness with two different teachers. One of the teachers is Charlotte Selver who is one of the several people who brought the work of Elsa Gindler from Germany to the United States. Elsa Gindler called the work she presented to her students “Arbeit am Menschen,” meaning “work on the human being.” It was Charlotte Selver who eventually gave the name “Sensory Awareness” to the work of Gindler’s that she has continued. The other teacher noted in this report is myself. I have been a student of Charlotte’s since 1968, and received permission from her to continue the work and present it to others in 1982 or 3. 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.

In fact, this account covers even more layers than that, because the person I am presenting came to me initially to study t’ai chi ch’uan, which I also teach. I do teach traditional t’ai chi ch’uan, but I teach it in a very non-traditional manner, meaning that I do not teach t’ ai chi ch’uan through memorization or just learning the movements. I wasn’t aware that my teaching was very different from others until many people told me so. In looking at it I realized that I actually was teaching t’ai chi ch’uan through the mode of sensory awareness and the awareness of energetics.

In the field of sensory awareness many of the practitioners offer only group possibilities for study. I am one of the few that also works in individual sessions with people. Charlotte Selver has not offered any private sessions in all the 33 years I have known her. That being the case, it is difficult to distinctly track people on an intimate level. We don’t have personal, individual reports in the same way as if I were seeing someone regularly, privately. I do not keep notes regarding the people who take my group classes in the same way I do the persons I see individually.

The woman whose account is here has never worked with me privately. I have seen her frequently over the past seven years in various modes of development and various paths of study. But I do not have the same records of our work together and my impressions of her work with me as I would have had we been working in a more regular, individualized manner.

When Hilary, the person I am writing about, heard about this call for papers, she sat down and wrote her own account and sent it to me. She said she was doing it because the idea stimulated her and she also wanted to see if she could do it. She said 6,000 words sounded like a lot. It is. She got so involved in writing her experiences and retrieving them from her notes that she ended up writing quite a lot. Her writings were so interesting to me – the multi-facets of her relationship with sensory awareness and other practices and with we two leaders, that I decided I wanted to offer her experiences as an example of the effectiveness and the interactiveness of the work of sensory awareness and also as a presentation on how this work can and does interface with other modes of work and where it is situated in our larger community of somatics practices.

So, as we go into this woman’s experience in the study of sensory awareness in a multi-leveled format, this presentation will also be multi-voiced. What inspired me to write this is that Hilary has presented me with such vivid, clear accounts of her own experiences. They have inspired me to write my own side of the view of her/our journey. The quotes in first person throughout this paper are her writings from the accounts that she has given me.

Hilary was 32 when she first came to my summer t’ai chi ch’uan workshops at Hollyhock Farm on Cortes Island, in British Columbia, Canada. She was from Stockton, California, and for about five years had been 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 a lot of traveling, sailing, mountain climbing and camping around the world. She was quiet, cheerful and amiable, and easily fit in as part of the group.

Those first weeks I was aware that she 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, 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 ability to climb a tree like a monkey and at the same time I was aware that she was not grounded in a deep, physical, 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 that winter in Vancouver. She has continued to come to 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. I, of course, wanted to offer the best experience I could to these people in the brief time I was allowed. I felt the best I could offer them would be experiences through sensory awareness.

“. . . at 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 my feelings 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 winter 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.”

This began for Hilary a gradual and wonderful period of change, which is still continuing and growing.Hilary has since taken various workshops from me – from one-day workshops and a series of weekly 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 two study groups, one was six-weeks long and one was three weeks. In the study groups there are about seven working sessions each week: each of the five weekday mornings and usually two afternoon sessions, with the weekends free.

At first I noticed that Hilary almost never spoke in sensory awareness classes, neither in my classes nor in Charlotte’s. 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 sensory awareness 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’s leave of absence.

” . . . 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 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 experimental theme for the month-long was for all of we participants 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. My hope was that this would be done in a truly communal manner, that everything would be done in a consensual mode, meaning that I would not be the authority, the leader, except where is was absolutely appropriate, and even then we would all decide that that was the case. My charge to all the participants was that each person would learn, work, contribute, participate in all aspects of our life this month through close connection and communication with their senses. Eleven people in addition to myself were able to participate 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 “BodyMind 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 beginning 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 came to call the “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 acknowledgment of self and resources that allowed them to grow, 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 could choose to change so that my anger did 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 scheduled to be a day of not speaking. We continued with our general activities, just experienced them, everything, differently because of our non-verbalness. At the third week the non-verbal day 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 where I wanted to spend my time when blindfolded was 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 she 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,” as I call it, meaning within ones work/family/mundane life, because that is where we need to take it after all. That is where we are most of our time. Here are some of Hilary’s reports from our “in the everyday world working classes.”

“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. I saw her as 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. I could have watched her for hours.

“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 and full.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.

“In Charlotte’s study group 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, changed her place of living, and made many other changes in her life. All the while she has 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 now at 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?”

For five years Hilary has continued to study with both Charlotte and myself in sensory awareness and in t’ai chi ch’uan also with me for the past seven years.

“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 sitting down during breaks in the T’ai Chi workshop 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-tottery 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.”

In the attention or practice of sensory awareness we are all working at our own levels, at our own pace, in our own manner, even though we are all together in a classroom, listening and responding to the leader of the class. No matter what the instruction or invitation, we each hear it and respond to it in our own very singular way.

“I still have a long way to go in my explorations! One of the Sensory Awareness experiments during the month long was only the first awareness of what I am working on now. We were lying on our backs bringing our legs to standing with bent knees and then extending them back down to the floor. The process of doing this started some reaction in my pelvis. All of a sudden I was aware of how tense that whole region was in me. It was the first time I realized that my pelvis was more tense than my shoulders! Whatever was bottled up in my pelvis was so huge! I could feel me starting to fall apart, cry and reach that place of fear and avoidance. It was like standing on the edge of a cliff and not wanting to jump! Then the experiment ended. Judyth asked me later if it had ended too early for me. I said and knew that if I needed to have continued I would have. Somehow just the finding and feeling the immensity of this pelvic tension was enough for me at that moment. When I related this to Judyth recently, I realized and said that this is one of my big issues that I am working on right now with little steps: to make it safe for me.”

Just a few months ago, Hilary and I were both participating in a workshop that Charlotte was giving at Green Gulch Farm, I noticed when she reported her experiences that her voice was louder and came out clearer than in the past and that when she spoke her eyes stayed open and her head straight. I experienced quite a difference in Hilary’s connection with herself and also in her ability to express and connect with others! Here is part of Hilary’s report from her time at that workshop:

“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 and courage 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 to a thoughtful, compassionate friend to herself and more so than previously to others.In my classes I sometimes integrate other creative and expressive modes into our awareness experiments. It is very interesting to use sound, clay, drawing; anything can be the ground for our learning. In one of my workshops quite some time ago I incorporated drawing. I was touched when I received a report from Hilary and learned that the drawings she had done meant so much to her that she had kept them on her wall for such a long time.

“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.”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.”

And recently I received this from Hilary:

“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 surely 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.”

I am overjoyed to hear Hilary write and speak as she now does. 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.I am thrilled and awed by her growth as a more realized human. Remember, this is a person who has never had a session of psychotherapy.

“The other thing I have really gotten from all this work is a freedom to be an artist! I love my work with clay! I can feel a real connection with the art world. It is a very different connection than the one I felt growing up and doing all these art projects that my mother set up for we girls. My mother is an artist and my dad an architect, so I have lots of art genes in my family! But I think back then I was trying to do the right thing, trying to please, and I never allowed myself to be free to just express myself as I am doing now. I am now not trying to impress anyone, but just to be whatever the clay wants. It is a wonderful feeling!”

I have recently received an email from Hilary commenting on both of her sensory awareness teachers. She said:

“From my perspective: Charlotte and Judyth are very special people for me. The Sensory Awareness work from both of them has opened a whole new way of living for me. They have different styles of leading because of different backgrounds. I don’t find a big difference in the work in sessions led by different people. Maybe because I am finding all of life is a sensory awareness experience. I do find strengths that stand out in each of them:”Charlotte has an incredible presence and way of being there for what she is saying. When Charlotte is leading us in experimenting, she is also experimenting. She is a dedicated living model of the work in action sometimes. I might say under her direction the work is very organic.

Judyth titles some of her workshops “Living a Spiritual Life in a Practical World.” This describes the focus her experiments sometimes take. In Judyth’s workshops we sometimes spend time on the processing of the experiments. She brings also to the work her background in dance, T’ai Chi, and pre- and perinatal work.”

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.” For me, by this choice of language she emphasizes the true meaning of “educate,” which, as I understand it, comes from “educare” the definition of which is “to draw out.” That, to me, is the real mission for all of us in our related somatics work: to support our clients and students in finding their authentic impulses, their natural structure, their birthright of balance and well being, and to help them each draw it out and develop it as they wish, thereby expanding and strengthening their unique, true beings.

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