September 15, 2004 Founder's Letter
by Norman Fischer | September 15, 2003 at 7:54 PM
Muir Beach, CA. September 15, 2003
On August 22, in the early morning, my dear friend and teacher Charlotte Selver passed away. She was 102 years old, had lived an exceptionally long and colorful life, so her death was no tragedy. In fact it was a triumph, and a well-earned release. Her last months were full of contentment. She had wonderful caregivers, and enjoyed the sunlight in her room, the delicious food she was served, and the many good-bye visits from her friends and loved ones. And yet it was also a burden for her to stay embodied. She had many uncomfortable and disoriented moments. So when she passed on - something she said many times she wanted do, but also (loving life and friends as much as she did) didn't want to do - it was truly a blessing. In her last days she often spoke of wanting to "go home." Finally she was able to do that.
Many of you are unfamiliar with Charlotte's life and work. Born in Germany in 1901 into the prosperous and conventional Wittgenstein family, she was from the start a rebellious girl. There are many stories about her stubborn resistance to parental authority (she once threatened to jump off a bridge unless her parents would allow her to study photography), of her love of music and art, and her continual searching for a different way of living. These early rebellious years informed the rest of her life; she was an inveterate supporter of the unusual, the free, the unconventional. "Can you allow it?" she would often ask in her classes. After devoting herself to photography, and to the piano for a time, she eventually took up the problem of movement, and became a student of Elsa Gindler, who was developing the work that Charlotte later termed Sensory Awareness. Charlotte was devoted to Gindler, whose classes and personality seemed to melt the heart of the younger woman, leading her to a more open and joyful way of living. These classes, astonishingly enough, continued during what Charlotte called "the Hitler time." Gindler in the end was hiding her many Jewish students, who came secretly to the classes.
In the late 1930's Charlotte left Germany and came to New York where she eventually made contact with many of the leaders of the new movements in psychology that were being formed at that time. She set up a studio to teach Sensory Awareness and many students came. Fritz Perls, Erich Fromm, and Alan Watts all studied with her. In New York she met and married Charles Brooks, son of the famous literary critic Van Wyck Brooks. Charlotte and Charles eventually became co-leaders of workshops they gave all over the world for many years, in places as far flung as Mexico, tiny Monhegan Island off the coat of Maine, and, eventually, in Europe. When Charles and Charlotte moved to California and began giving workshops at Esalen in the 60's, they made contact with Zen Center. Charlotte had an intuitive grasp of and love for Zen practice. She loved Suzuki-roshi, and he appreciated her work as a true expression of Zen, calling it "the inner experience of entire being.". On a few occasions they taught together, and quotations from him praising her work have been included in her program descriptions for many years. In 1991 Charles Brooks died and Charlotte continued teaching until less than a year ago. She was on the road for most of every year up to the age of 101!
What exactly is Sensory Awareness, as Charlotte practiced it? Although I have taken many workshops with her, I am not sure I can say. It is, as Charlotte called it, "a beautiful work," a contemplative practice that puts you deeply in touch with the functioning of the body/mind, showing you how conception, intention, sensation, emotion, all flow together in a profound way to create the ever-changing life we live. Charlotte believed that it was possible for us to be aware of our deep conditioning, and then to de-condition ourselves, so that we can experience life more fully and more naturally. More concretely, her workshops often began with silent sitting practice, and then included things like walking, standing ("can you come to standing?" she would ask) running, jumping, singing, sitting, looking, touching, and, most famously, slapping. She often had students lightly slap different parts of their bodies to bring them alive. There was often work with partners, which gave students a sense of the deep experience of touching and truly encountering another. The work was endlessly creative and playful and full of enjoyment. Charlotte's instructions were always given slowly, in her accented English, with a kind of precision and charm in the language that I always found remarkable. After each "experiment" (she hated the word "exercise" applied to what she did) she'd listen to students' descriptions of what they had experienced, and in her responses often gave what sounded to my ears like wonderful Dharma lessons.
To find out more about Sensory Awareness and Charlotte go to the website of the Sensory Awarenjess Foundation (www.sensoryawareness.com) or see Charles' book, "Sensory Awareness, the Rediscovery of Experiencing Through Workshops with Charlotte Selver," Felix Morrow, 1974. 1986.
Yours, Zoketsu Norman Fischer