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The simplicity of sensation
Gesture of Awareness:
A Radical Approach to Time, Space, and Movement
by Charles Genoud
Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006
224 pp.; $16.95 (paper)
The body gets a bad rap. It’s often regarded as the spirit’s clumsy, needy, smelly, ever-present, possibly dangerous roommate. The poet Delmore Schwartz called it “The heavy bear who goes with me . . . / A caricature, a swollen shadow, / A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive.”
This was not the Buddha’s attitude. In the Satipatthana Sutta, he teaches that awareness of the body, engaged in all its mundane, biologically compelled activities, is the starting point of realization: “When eating, drinking, consuming food, and tasting [the meditator] acts clearly knowing; when defecating and urinating he acts clearly knowing; when walking, standing, sitting, falling asleep, waking up, talking, and keeping silent he acts clearly knowing.”
But you wouldn’t guess this from the way many of us practice, trying to make the meditation cushion a launching pad for blasting off into some crystalline sphere of disembodied awareness. Even our “mindful walking” and “mindful living” practice can become stiff, solemn projects, as if mindfulness were a fragile jar balanced precariously on our heads—if it smashes, we lose our precious quart of spirituality and are stuck once again with nothing but the darn ol’ body.
For the past few decades, Charles Genoud has been developing an antidote to this attitude: a body-based, non-sitting meditative approach called “Gesture of Awareness.” Now he has written a book with the same name, based on transcripts of his workshops and dharma talks, laid out on the page like modern verse or haiku to suggest the resonant silence that surrounds the directions he speaks to his students.
Charles (having known him since 1995, I can’t call him anything else) is a former translator for Venerable Geshe Rabten and student of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, but he’s as likely to quote Samuel Beckett or Maurice Blanchot as a Buddhist text. He’s led pilgrimages to Tibet for years and speaks the language fluently, but I’ve never heard him chant a mantra or seen him wear a mala—he likes things stripped to their essence. He’s a dharma teacher’s dharma teacher. Lama Surya Das, at whose retreats he often teaches, calls him “the Buddhist Einstein,” and he has been befriended and admired by the likes of Joseph Goldstein and Stephen Batchelor. Charles is soft-spoken, with a droll sense of humor, and he fills a room with something I can only describe as weightless gravitas. He is, emphatically, not a touchy-feely type. So, in a sort of Nixon-goes-to-China turnabout, he’s probably the ideal person to teach a form of practice that centers on bodily sensations and in which people sometimes even—mon Dieu!—touch each other.
Why touching? Because, says Charles, there’s something about touching or being touched by another person that induces us to be clearly present, whereas when we sit alone and try to follow the breath, it’s all too easy to space out. He’s careful to prevent this touching from being misunderstood or devolving into New Age woo-woo. First, he uses simple, noninvasive touches: typically, students might pair off and take turns, each placing a hand on the other’s shoulder or slowly raising the other’s forearm. He also emphasizes that the toucher is not healing, guiding, or otherwise helping the touched. Both people are just resting in the awareness of whatever’s going on. They are just being, in a series of shifting contexts—“clearly knowing,” in the Buddha’s words. As Charles writes,
It’s not what we may do that’s
it’s the doing of it . . .
we’re not concerned with the content
of our experiences
touching or being touched . . .
we are concerned with being . . .
what we’re exploring
is not the body
but the body’s awareness . . .
our being is not less or more
or when standing alone . . .
we’re not concerned
with the body
we’re concerned with
Simple being, simple awareness, simple presence—these are the heart of the matter, and it’s through the simplicity of unelaborated bodily sensation that we come to know it. The mind, until it is trained to rest in the body’s awareness, is good at making things complicated. Having taught meditation to high school students for thirty years, I’ve learned that athletes, who are used to knowing through their bodies, usually “get it” right away, while valedictorians take longer. (Some Buddhist magazine should do an article on how many dharma teachers are former jocks; Charles himself was a striker on the Swiss Youth National Soccer Team, and even now if you roll a ball in front of him he’s likely to break into some impressive footwork.)
The very simplicity of Gesture of Awareness practice made me, frankly, skeptical that any book could convey a sense of it. Since attending Charles’s first American teaching and several since then, I’ve had a dozen years to try to describe it to friends, and I’ve always failed because I couldn’t make my words simple enough. This book, by presenting Charles’s own words straight out of practice sessions, provides a vivid experience of the work’s essence, and could even be used as the basis for one’s own do-it-yourself workshops:
when one is
is one standing anywhere
with respect to what . . .
when you walk
by the door you may take
one of the numerous shoes there
you may walk carrying
just be walking
with one shoe in your hand
walking as slowly or
as fast as you like
we walk like this
not for the shoes
not for us
but to question our need for meaning
if we look for
meaning in everything
we’re concerned with meaning
not with experiences
not with life
just be walking
with the shoe in hand
Again and again, that’s where Charles leaves you, walking with a shoe in your hand or performing some other such “useless action,” as he calls them. Subverting meaning, purpose, and usefulness is his stock-in-trade. By doing so, he is able to subvert the web of stories that we superimpose upon the simplicity of what is, which is known through the body’s awareness. Certainly those stories are enticing—that’s their charm as well as their danger—and certainly human life requires stories about families, jobs, romances, births, deaths. We can’t obliterate the stories, and we don’t need to. We just need to know that they are stories and that beneath that web there is, in Charles’s phrase, “just another way of being.”
We weren’t always so tangled in that web. I can remember lying on my parents’ couch at the age of five or six, transfixed by the exquisite tickle of a fly walking up and down my forearm. I also spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I was able to move my finger—trying to will the action without doing it, or quickly do it before I could will it. Unable to plumb that mystery, I gave up and forgot about it until years later Charles plunged me back into similar mind-body situational koans. (Do look into that finger-moving business. If you keep at it long enough, the whole idea of a mind or will or self separate from the body starts to come hilariously unglued.)
Here’s what I think happens: We’re born in bodies and then we forget them. Because the body is the one thing that’s around all the time, while the scenery and characters and plot lines surrounding it keep changing, we become habituated to its presence and stop noticing it. It becomes a big blind spot, or numb spot, smack in the middle of our field of experience. That spot of unawareness is so big and so central that it pretty much precludes awakening. It stirs briefly into semi-waking only when something intense happens to it—the intense pain of illness or injury, the intense pleasure of sex (often accompanied by such elements of awakening as transcendence of time and space or waves of great compassion). Then we devote our lives to weaving elaborate story lines around seeking and avoiding those pleasures and pains.
On my first Gesture of Awareness retreat I realized that I had spent the previous twenty-some years trying—like many others, I suspect—to use spirituality as a way to escape from my body, obliterate my senses, and vanish into my mind. Just standing, just seeing, just hearing and touching, I started learning to go out of my mind and come to my senses. (I’ve since realized that that’s also the key to writing, playing music, and doing just about everything else that matters to me.) At the end of the retreat, I noticed that the thangkas that had lined the practice hall for the entire month depicted the buddhas and bodhisattvas with halos—the light of scintillating awareness—surrounding their bodies as well as their heads.
Right now I’m going through a crisis. (It’s about my love life. Don’t ask.) The gist of what I’ve learned from Charles in a dozen years is: in mid-crisis, feel your feet on the ground. Literally. Maybe that sounds simplistic or silly, as silly as walking around with a shoe in your hand. But it brings me back to the body’s awareness, where everything just is, the sublime neutrality on top of which I’ve been busy projecting crises. I still project them, but every time I come back to my feet on the ground (or to my fingers on the keyboard, or the mingled sounds of jets and catbirds that at this moment fill my backyard) the crises become less gripping, more diaphanous, and occasionally they implode into the vapor of insubstantiality that they were all along. As that big blind-numb-deaf spot ceases to be blind, numb, and deaf—as I become present—I find myself not necessarily awakening but at least abiding in awakening’s precondition, living at awakening’s edge.
There, as everywhere, the key is to just be, and not try to look over the edge. If you do, teachers like Charles are there to deconstruct your anticipation:
The willingness to change is rooted
in the acceptance of what is.
What is can only be present.
The wish to change is rooted
in the what should be, and can only
be made of past or future images.
Willingness to change
doesn’t mean choosing the future.
Rather it means being present
in an open way,
what could happen next,
and not holding on
to what is happening.
The willingness to change
may be the risk to be present
My wife was one of Charles’s most earnest students, attending every Gesture of Awareness workshop and organizing several of them. Along with making art, raising our kids, hosting our local sangha, helping run retreats for a couple of lamas, and providing expert amateur counseling for countless friends, Maggy knew that the most important thing she could do in her life was to walk around a room with her hand on her head, or put her hand on the next person’s elbow, or take her hand away, hearing Charles say, “Just another way of being.” When she was in the hospital dying of cancer, she turned down all offers to have a lama visit her, or to have the Bardo Thödol read to her, replying, “That’s not my practice. My practice is being present.” She had done her homework and was ready for the exam. As one calamity after another descended upon her body, she looked up at me from the bed and said, “Just another way of being.”
Dean Sluyter is a teacher, Buddhist prison chaplain, and sometime film critic. His latest book is Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies.