Three years ago my Humanities I in Action students and I wrapped up our yearlong study with the Heroic Cycle ritual at Mary Knoll retreat house in Stanley. Now three years later some of these students will join me again for “Service, Society, and the Sacred,” which further explores the question: what am I supposed to do with my life?
[Note to reader: I re-wrote this blog entry in July, 2018 to reflect the changes in the SSS curriculum over the past three years.]
Dear SSS students,
I’m very excited to once again embark on the “Service, Society, and the Sacred” journey with you this semester! Mr. Coombs and I started teaching this class in January, 2000, and our initial slogan was “creating a new kind of HKIS student in the new millennium.” Shamelessly idealistic, but I also think it’s true. SSS, like the other courses it has inspired, like Humanities I in Action and Mr. Kersten’s Cambodia course, offers students the chance to become a different kind of human being.
When it comes to idealism, this year has been no exception. I have personally learned a great deal in the past year, and so I’m experimenting with a new approach to SSS that I believe will make it an exciting semester. I hope that by the end of the term you’ll feel that, to some degree, you have been changed by your experience in this class. So, let me introduce this approach by posing both a big question for us to consider as well as the method by which we are going to try and come to some kind of new insights by the end of the term.
The Big Question
Let’s step back for a moment. If you took Humanities I in Action, one of the big questions we explored in the course was, “Is ignorance bliss?” We then inundated you with problems in the world – human nature, genocide, globalization and the environment. The course wakes students up to the world, and calls on them to do something – to be part of the solution rather than blindly participating in the problem.
So how about SSS? The question for you is along the same lines, but is more specific as college now looms on your event horizon. The question is: “What should I do with my life?,” which is all wrapped up in the inevitable questions of being an upper class student at HKIS – which college for which major for what purpose? It’s probably the biggest question of your teenage years and maybe of your life trajectory: what is worthy of your time? And we’re talking about decades of time. How do we even begin to answer such a question?
A Method to Approach Our Question
It’s a complicated, of course, because it certainly has no one right answer. It’s not like you can study the three steps to discovering your life purpose. So, rather than the objective study you employ in, say, your math and science classes to understand the physical world, we need another method to make sense of this different kind of question.
What I’m proposing this semester is using a method handed down from what we might call the universal wisdom tradition. Simply put, the method is a body-mind-heart framework and training that will enable you to get to know yourself better, and put in you in a better position to address the question. The goal is that through both study and training, you will better able to access your own wisdom in making sense of your future life direction.
So, let’s get started. As some of you already know, Episcopalian priest and mystic Cynthia Bourgeault (whose grandkids just left HKIS in June) has become my most trusted teacher. In her book The Wisdom Way of Knowing* as well as an online course I took with her recently, she lays out her understanding, based on the work of spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff, of the three fundamental aspects of the human person: body, mind, and heart. In fact, she claims that each of these contains an “intelligence” – and that together they can cooperatively address our central question.
Before looking at each aspect in some depth, it will help to define these three terms as she uses them:
- Body: “Sensing is the work of the moving body center [body]. It operates through a directly embodied or kinesthetic knowing.
- Mind: Thinking is the work of the intellectual center. It operates through deduction, logic and analysis, comparison, measuring and weighing.
- Heart: Feeling is the work of the heart center. It operates through vibrational resonance (i.e., empathy)” (see more at end of this entry from day 5 of online course “Spiritual Practices from the Gurdjieff Work“).
It’s important that we get in the habit of using these precise terms so that we accurately distinguish these different aspects of the self. So, a pit in your stomach ahead of an intense math exam is not something you feel, but something you sense.
So much of what I have learned in the last several years has to do with the body, and we are going to spend the first part of this course considering our bodies. Let me begin by giving you my reasons for why this will play such a prominent role in the curriculum. First, a few years ago I was continuously sick through the second semester and wondered if I might live a short life. On a very practical level, then, we need to be healthy if we are going to devote our lives to the welfare of others. In last year’s SSS class, I was shocked and disturbed to find that 2/3 of the group had both back problems and stomach issues.
Secondly, and more intriguingly, I’ve been exploring the concept of the “intelligence of the body.” That is, the body has a way of knowing that is different than the mind and heart. It is my contention that understanding yourself and your place in the world is intimately connected to how well you can tap into this intelligence of “embodied knowing.”
This idea of the body’s intelligence has become a recurring theme in my own personal reading. Writer Phil Shepherd calls the gut “the second brain.” Michael Brown’s Presence Process teaches meditators how to follow their emotion-laden sensations deep into the body in order to liberate them. In describing the Presence Process, publisher David Ord comments that it “brings to our conscious awareness those deep unresolved emotional forces from childhood that have been driving us.” Similarly, Edwin McMahon and Peter Campbell contend in their book Rediscovering the Lost Body-Connection within Christian Spirituality** that the “intellect’s eye cannot easily penetrate this inner world of felt meaning” (30) that is stored in our cells and tissues. Finally, Cynthia’s Welcoming Prayer, which deals with daily emotional pain, does the same. Whenever a strong negative emotion hits, pause and experience that emotion’s bodily sensation in an attempt to integrate the energy rather than repress it.
For many people seeing the body as a partner in the quest for wisdom requires a paradigm shift. Cynthia writes, “In many spiritual traditions of the world, the body is viewed with fear and suspicion, considered to be the seat of desire and at best a dumb beast that must trained and brought into submission to the personal will. But what is missed here – and it is of crucial importance – is that the moving center [body] also carries unique perceptive gifts, the most important of which is the capacity to understand the language of faith in sacred gesture.”
Such gestures, such as bowing, prostrations, and folding the hands are just the beginning of the many ways that the body communicates with and serves as an interface between itself and the world outside of the self. It is the awakening of this intelligence that I think partially explains the receptivity of my students to all kinds of spiritual practices (which will be a part of our course this semester), for many of them employ the body’s natural capacity for purposeful engagement to interact nobly and gracefully in one’s environment.
Of the three centers, certainly it is the body as a way of knowing that seems the most difficult for us to understand. According to Cynthia, bodily intelligence is our weakest center. She explains,
“I have learned through years and years of spiritual work that it’s from a finely developed inner sensing [of the body] that you really get the information you need to make accurate discernments in your inner journey. Both the mind and the emotions are easily blindsided or manipulated by the personal will. But the sensing/moving center never lies. If I am making a decision and sense inner constriction, I know that no matter how much I try to convince myself that my preferred option is the correct one, in fact it is not. It has taken years to learn to discern from sensation.”
This semester we will attempt to address this imbalance by learning to pay attention to our bodies. (To see a later reflection on teaching consciousness of the body in SSS this year, hit here.)
Possible Activities for the Introduction and Body Unit:
- Consideration of the body-mind-heart framework.
- Read interview with Philip Shepherd, “Out of our Heads,”Sun Magazine, April, 2013. Here’s a 3-minute video intro of the main theme of the article by Philip.
- Mark Williams 15-minutes body scan meditation.
- “The Belly and the Brain:” interview with Dr. David Perlmutter.
- “After a Breakup, an App to Help Run and Breathe,” by Olivia Gagan, NY Times, December 2, 2016.
- Guest speakers reflecting on their career path.
- Presentations on food and health issues
- Show “What Piece of Advice Would You Give to Your 16-Year Old“(22 min) as a way to introduce the body-mind-heart framework.
- Personal Stories and chart (31) from Rediscovering the Lost Body-Connection within Christian Spirituality
- Use the “Better Me” game to develop a sense of class community.
- Gong bath experience at Red Doors
- Heroic Cycle Journey Ritual (see feature picture above)
- Enneagram Personality Test – RHETI sampler
- “How Your Body Affects Your Happiness: Tal Shafir at TEDx Jaffa 2013“
- Field trip to Waveworks
- Inspiring video and interview with Jason deSilva on our “responsibility to awe”and yearning.
Major assessment: A paper that (a) demonstrates your personal understanding of key concepts (e.g, a working knowledge of the three centers of intelligence model; integrate self-knowledge from the Enneagram, journey motif, and your own lives;) (b) sets goals for yourself, particularly in care for and attention to the body this semester (c) and provide first thoughts on the key question.
The strengths of the mind in terms of understanding and discernment – critical thinking, self-reflectivity, multiple perspectives – are quite evident to you as HKIS students. What is less obvious, however, especially in a school setting, are the hidden dangers of overreliance on this particular faculty. Cynthia explains:
“The intellectual center . . . [has a] natural aptitude for reasoning, doubting, making fine discriminations. In their own right, these discriminatory skills are legitimate and profoundly necessary, built into the structure of the human mind itself. But in terms of the spiritual journey, trying to find faith with the intellectual center is something like trying to play a violin with a saw: it’s simply the wrong tool for the job. This is one reason why all religious traditions have universally insisted that religious life cannot be done with the mind alone; that is the biggest single impediment to spiritual becoming.”
Is it any wonder, then, in the mind-intensive, pinball machine-like atmosphere of HKIS that students find it difficult to come to any kind of commitment to causes, values, or beliefs? To repeat, the mind is the wrong tool for the job.
In this class we will seek to re-balance your sense of yourself from a thinking focus to a three-legged stool of body, mind, and heart. Cynthia continues, “The other reason why the mind has been regarded with a certain amount of suspicion is its tendency to pull us into a smaller, mentally constructed sense of ourselves: to confuse being with thinking. That was Descartes’ mistake in his notorious ‘Cognito, ergo sum’ [“I think, therefore, I am”]. It’s a vicious circle: the process of thinking intensifies our identification of ourselves with the thinker and makes us more and more dependent on thinking as the way of maintaining our sense of identity. In terms of Wisdom, this is like racing round and round in a squirrel cage. Nothing real can happen until we find our way out.”
While this class, like other humanities classes at HKIS, will certainly stretch you intellectually, my focus will be to bring the over-exercised muscle of the mind into sympathetic harmony with a revitalized body and heart.
Possible Activities for the Mind Unit:
- Videos on depression in Japan, Australia
- TEDx talks on depression: Kevin Breel, Stephen Ilardi
- Five Ways Parents Can Help Prevent Teen Depression by Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life
- Read three chapters from Howard Gardner and Katie Davis’ book The App Generation and vote on the most relevant ideas (my blog on this activity last year)
- Watch the feature film, “Disconnect” (and a blog entry on this film)
- Sherry Turkle’s TED talk on technology.
- Technology and Our Future speech and debate.
- As a response to the speech and debate, read Charles Eisenstein’s “Latent Healing,” in Resurgence & Ecologist, July/August 2013.
- Duane Elgin’s Dead vs. Living Universe concept in his book The Living Universe with video introduction.
- Visit by adventurer and innovator Paul Niel as a guest speaker.
- Practicing Happiness Workbook, chapters 3-6
- Buddhist monk Rabten speaks about the body-mind connection
- Gratitude (see Avaaz campaign and research), TEDx talk on gratitude by Louis Schwartzberg.
- Read “Think Less, Think Better” by Moshe Bar (June 16, 2016, NY Times)
- How You Can Meditate Everywhere, Anytime | HuffPost Rise about how to befriend the monkey mind by focusing on the breath.
- Speech and debate
In-class essay on the future
The third aspect of the triad is heart, which in contemporary parlance is often equated with our emotions. However, Cynthia explains that this is an unfortunate misunderstanding with dangerous implications:
“In the psychological climate of our times, our emotions are almost always considered to be virtually identical with our personal authenticity, and the more freely they flow, the more we are seen to be honest and ‘in touch.’ A person who gravitates to a mental mode of operation is criticized for being ‘in his head;’ when feeling dominates, we proclaim with approval that such a person is ‘in his heart.’
“In the Wisdom tradition, this would be a serious misuse of the term heart. The real mark of personal authenticity is not how intensely we can express our feelings but how honestly we can look at where they’re coming from and spot the elements of clinging, manipulation, and personal agendas that make up so much of what we experience as our emotional life today. A person with serious [emotional] control issues . . . [is] more at the mercy of her emotional agendas.”
So often HKIS students are exhorted to find their passion in life, or commended for having a passion for a subject or an extracurricular activity. However, Cynthia offers us a word of caution about our unquestioning adoration of passion.
“In the teachings of the Christian Desert Fathers and Mothers, these intense feelings arousing out of personal issues were known as the ‘passions,’ and most of the Desert spiritual training had to do with learning to spot these land mines and get free of them before they did serious psychic damage . . . . Passion [was seen] as a diminishment of being. It meant falling into passivity, into a state of being acted upon (which is what the Latin passio actually means), rather than clear and conscious engagement. Instead of enlivening the heart, according to one Desert Father, the real damage inflicted by the passions is that ‘they divided our heart in two.’
While the heart can lead us astray, through spiritual training it can also lead us to what we are trying to find in this class: a sense of direction about our future. Cynthia explains:
“The heart, in the ancient sacred traditions, has a very specific and perhaps surprising meaning. It is not the seat of our personal affective life – or even, ultimately, of our personal identity – but an organ for the perception of divine purpose and beauty. It is our antenna, so to speak, given to us to orient us toward the divine radiance and to synchronize our being with its more subtle movements. The heart is not for personal expression but for divine perception.”
In other words, if life direction is about a calling from something beyond yourself, then awakening the heart gives you a new form of perception to make a wise decision.
To give a better sense of the heart’s gifts beyond its stereotype of personal emotions, Cynthia quotes modern Sufi master Kabir Helminski:
“We have subtle subconscious faculties we are not using. In addition to the limited analytic intellect is a vast realm of mind that includes psychic and extrasensory abilities; intuition; wisdom; a sense of unity; aesthetic, qualitative and creative capacities; and image-forming and symbolic capacities . . . . This total mind we call ‘heart’.”
This wide range of “heart intelligence” is one that we generally do not draw upon, especially in formal educational settings. We will try to access your heart intelligence this semester!
Possible Activities for the Heart Unit:
- HeartMath’s 7-minute video, “The Heart’s Intuitive Intelligence: A Path to Personal, Social, and Global Coherence,“3-minute video, “The Mysteries of the Heart,“3-minute audio, “Quick Coherence Technique.”
- HeartMath’s Howard Martin presents a TEDx talk, “Engaging the Intelligence of the Heart.”
- Gregg Braden interview (8 min): “Our Electromagnetic Heart Affects Reality.”
- Introduction of various spiritual practices
- Cynthia Bourgeault speaks eloquently about what happens physiologically when people practice meditation (in her case, Centering Prayer). (For classroom use: 7:24 until the end).
- Buddhist concept of the Eight Worldly Concerns
- Read portions of Living Deeply by Schlitz, Vieten, and Amorok.
- Being vs. Doing PowerPoint with reading, “Waking up to What You Have” excerpt from Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Williams and Penman.
- Cultural/Asian identity: Powerpoint on Nisbett’s Geography of Thought
(and my blog entry on these ideas)
- Third Culture Kids and unresolved grief
- A US-based course, “Learning that Matters,” that draws on students’ cultural stories as a foundation for making change.
- Visit by a Buddhist monk named Rabten from the Kadampa Meditation Center in Hong Kong; students will do spiritual practices to help them consider their Buddha Nature.
- Video (13 m), “The Science of Breathing“
- Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique (5 min)
Major assessment: Final project and final paper
Interrelationship of the Three Centers
What is the interrelationship between these three ways of knowing? Cynthia envisions the three centers playing distinctly different, but related functions. Borrowing concepts from Gurdjieff’s Law of Three, she sets up the wisdom playing field in this way:
“In the ancient language of Wisdom, the moving center [or body] carries the ‘affirming force;’ its natural aptitude is for reaching out, embracing, making contact. The intellectual center carries the ‘denying force.’ By contrast, the mind is the denying force, questioning the body’s desire to connect.”
The heart, then, as the organ of spiritual perception, is the reconciling force between body and the mind:
“It serves as a bridge between the mind and the body and also between our usual physical world and this invisible other realm. When properly attuned, the emotional center’s most striking capacity, lacking in the mind alone, is the ability to comprehend the language of paradox. Logical inconsistencies that the mind must reduce into a simple ‘either-or’ can be held by the heart in ‘both-and’ – and even more important – felt that way – without needing to resolve, close down or protect oneself from the pain that ambiguity always brings.”
Putting It All Together
What happens when body, mind, and heart all function properly and in harmony?
“When a person is poised in all three centers, balanced and alertly there, a shift happens in consciousness. Rather than being trapped in our usual mind, with its well-informed rut tracks of issues and agendas and ways of thinking, we seem to come from a deeper, steadier, and quieter place. We are present, in the words of the Wisdom tradition, fully occupying the now in which we find ourselves.
“This state of presence is extraordinarily important to know and taste in oneself. For sacred tradition is emphatic in its insistence that real Wisdom can be given and received only in a state of presence, with all three centers of our being engaged and awake. Anything less is know in the tradition as ‘sleep’ and results in an immediate loss of receptivity to higher meaning.”
This is our semester goal: to collectively awaken your body, mind, and heart in order to consider your life’s calling.
This entry explains the underlying structure of this semester’s SSS class. Through the term we will move progressively from the body to the mind and then to the heart. At each point I hope to provide not only conceptual understandings and exploration, but actual training to begin to change your avenues of perception in all three aspects of your being. By the end of the semester, then, we will bring your new and improved self to the key task of this time in your life: considering your thoughts about college and its associated big questions.
It sounds like a daunting task, so I’d like to conclude with this final observation from Cynthia that comes late in her Wisdom Way of Knowing:
“Awakening the heart may sound like one of those lofty but unattainable ideals, beyond what a human being can accomplish. But actually, it’s only the words that are lofty; the task itself is quite doable. You could even say that we were born for it, because only with awakened hearts are we actually able to fulfill our purpose with the cosmos” (100).
Here’s to a great semester of exploration!
Now having completed teaching this semester course twice, I have some student reflections on the course and the body-mind-heart framework, featuring an essay by Amar Bhardwar that he wrote just before he graduated in May, 2016.
Right now I’m reading and putting into the practice Michael Brown’s The Presence Process, which involves two 15-minute meditations/day. Thich Nhat Hanh’s comment is the fundamental belief that undergirds the Presence Process and underscores the body, mind, and heart connection.
Amador, P. (2013). “The Unlimited Journey into Present-Moment Awareness.” SC: Super Consciousness – The Voice of Human Potential. Accessed on August 9, 2015.
Baier, R. (2014). The practicing happiness workbook: How mindfulness can free you from the four psychological traps that keep you stressed, anxious, and depressed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Bourgeault, C. (2003). The wisdom way of knowing: Reclaiming an ancient tradition to awaken the heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Brown, M. (2010). The presence process: A journey into present moment awareness. Revised edition. Vancouver: Namaste.
Elgin, D. (2009). The living universe: Where are we? Who are we? Where are we going? San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler.
Gardner, H. & Davis, K. (2013). The app generation: How today’s youth navigate identity, intimacy, and imagination in a digital world. New Haven: Yale University Press.
McMahon, E.M. & Campbell, P.A. (2010). Rediscovering the lost body-connection within Christian spirituality: The missing link for experiencing yourself in the body of the whole Christ is a changing relationship to your own body. Minneapolis, MN: Tasora.
Nisbett, R. E. (2003). The geography of thought: How Asians and Westerners think differently and why. Free Press: New York.
Schlitz, M., Vieten, C., Amorok, T. (2007). Living deeply: The art & science of transformation in everyday life. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
Shepherd, Phillip. “Out of our heads.” Sun Magazine, April, 2013.
Williams, M. & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. London: Little, Brown.
Final end-of-semester Heroic Cycle sharing time during the final exam period with the first semester of SSS class.
*All quotes come from chapter 3 of The Wisdom Way of Knowing unless otherwise noted.
** The authors write, “The missing link in religious education lies in developing new habits in our bodies, not just acquiring more information in our minds. Most people seem totally unaware of this critical missing piece in our religious and spiritual development . . . . The educational gap, especially within religious formation and instruction, lies in knowing how to take that balancing step beyond abstract information into acquiring a new habit of knowing how to be in your body a it is felt from inside” (91).
Additional comments from Cynthia on the body:
“Due to the lopsided priorities of contemporary cultural conditioning we use our thinking almost exclusively, our feeling less often and less well (since its natural clarity is often distorted by sentimentality, manipulation, or other forms of possessiveness), and sensing [the body] almost not at all. If the goal is a balanced use of all three centers, we need to start where the balance is weakest.
“Sensing and attention are closely linked in this teaching. As I learn to ground my attention in sensation, it comes more and more under my conscious stewardship. There is less of that dissipative, outward tendency that saps the force of my being. And in turn, as I become more attentive to sensation, a whole new realm of inner freedom opens up, no longer tied to the intellectual center with its mentally constructed selfhood and more and more pointing in the direction of witnessing presence. Beneath the constructed story of “me” there is another “I” in there: someone vastly more alive and interesting. Sensation is the gateway into this deeper realm.”
Last year’s SSS class at the end of a very good semester! (To read my reflections on holistic education following last year’s class, click here.)
From Cynthia’s course on Gurdjieff:
Session 5: Sensing or Feeling?
In our usual way of speaking we tend to use the words “thinking,” “feeling,” and “sensing” interchangeably. “I feel we should go with Plan A.” “I sense we are in for a disappointment.” “Feel your feet on the ground.” “I feel really awful about this.”
In Gurdjieff terminology, these terms are used with a lot more precision. For they really describe the work of three different centers.
Thinking is the work of the intellectual center. It operates through deduction, logic and analysis, comparison, measuring and weighing.
Feeling is the work of the emotional center. It operates through vibrational resonance (i.e., empathy).
Sensing is the work of the moving center. It operates through a directly embodied or kinesthetic knowing.
You can see how these centers and their work get mixed up so often. Many people “think” their feelings — i.e., measure and analyze them without ever experiencing them full on. More insidiously, many pieces of alleged “thinking” are little more than direct emotional assaults. “Sensing” is more typically used nowadays to refer to intuition and hunches than to the directly embodied knowing.
While the goal in the Gurdjieff program of transformation is a balanced and integrated use of all three centers, “balanced and integrated” is very different from “confused and muddied.” The Work teaches that a significant amount of our habitual, conditioned, and dysfunctional attitudes emerge out of a muddied or unclear use of centers. Understanding that these three centers have very different capacities and very different ways of processing and perceiving information is the key to a whole new level of sophistication and precision in inner work.
It may not seem to be a big deal whether you say, “feel your feet” or “sense your feet.” But notice how it becomes somewhat of a bigger deal between “feel your feelings” and “sense your feelings.” To feel your feelings would be to lean into them, to allow those spontaneous configurations of joy or sadness, fear or rage, to well up within you. To sense your feelings, by contrast, would be to tunnel entirely beneath their emotional content and become aware of how these “energy events in time” (for that’s actually what emotion is!) are expressing themselves as sensations within your body. When you sense your anger, for example (as opposed to feeling it), you tune into the bodily patterns expressing it: the constriction, the shortened breath, the tightening jaw. It’s a whole different set of information.
It’s fascinating, by the way, how this crucial distinction between feeling and sensing is now widely acknowledged in the healing professions and has given rise to a whole new range of kinesthetic therapies. It’s also the basis of the Welcoming Prayer, taught throughout the Contemplative Outreach network, and of the remarkable “Presence Process” pioneered by South African spiritual teacher Michael Brown. The gist of all these new modalities is the recognition that feelings very easily move “up” into story — personal narratives and self-image — and get stuck there. When they move “down” into sensation, the energy contained within them can more easily be dissolved and reintegrated into our being in a healing way.
In our work during this e-course we’ll be returning again and again to sensing. First of all, because it tends to be the underutilized faculty in most people. Due to the lopsided priorities of contemporary cultural conditioning we use our thinking almost exclusively, our feeling less often and less well (since its natural clarity is often distorted by sentimentality, manipulation, or other forms of possessiveness), and sensing almost not at all. If the goal is a balanced use of all three centers, we need to start where the balance is weakest.
More importantly — though for the time being you may have to take this assertion largely on my word — I have learned through years and years of spiritual work that it’s from a finely developed inner sensing that you really get the information you need to make accurate discernments in your inner journey. Both the mind and the emotions are easily blindsided or manipulated by the personal will. But the sensing/moving center never lies. If I am making a decision and sense inner constriction, I know that no matter how much I try to convince myself that my preferred option is the correct one, in fact it is not. It has taken years to learn to discern from sensation, but the skills to do so I owe to the Work.
Sensing and attention are closely linked in this teaching. As I learn to ground my attention in sensation, it comes more and more under my conscious stewardship. There is less of that dissipative, outward tendency that saps the force of my being. And in turn, as I become more attentive to sensation, a whole new realm of inner freedom opens up, no longer tied to the intellectual center with its mentally constructed selfhood and more and more pointing in the direction of witnessing presence. Beneath the constructed story of “me” there is another “I” in there: someone vastly more alive and interesting. Sensation is the gateway into this deeper realm.
Over these next two days, spend some time digesting this concept of “three-centered awareness” and exploring how it plays out in your own life. See if you can identify times when you’re clearly in one or the other of these centers, and also times when the lines between them grow muddy or unclear. Do you have a “dominant center,” a clearly preferred mode of engaging with new information or experiences? If you notice significant imbalances, experiment with ways to boost the participation of your most underutilized center.
If you’re not familiar with the Welcoming Practice, this would be a great time to make its acquaintance. Even if you are, you’ll almost certainly hear it differently against this backdrop of attention and sensation. Developed in the Contemplative Outreach network as an active complement to Centering Prayer, it’s a situational practice that allows you to release and transform the energy bound up in “afflictive emotions” (as Thomas Keating calls them) and physical pain. You’ll find a more information on the Welcoming Prayer in the “Resources” thread of the Practice Circle, but here’s the summary version.
When confronted with an upset, whether physical or emotional, apply this three-step process:
1. Focus or “Sink in.” This means “bring your attention to” — i.e., become physically present to — the upset as sensation in your body. If you’re angry, for example, what’s going on physically? Is your stomach churning? Your jaw tightening? Bring your attention there, without judgment or commentary.
2. Welcome. Silently begin to say the word “Welcome” as the sign of your willingness to be consciously present to this moment in your life, regardless of its psychological or physical contents. If you prefer, you can name the content lightly: “Welcome, pain;” “Welcome, anger.”
3. Let Go. As the pain or emotion begins to shift or dissolve on its own (and it will!), silently say, “I let go,” again naming it lightly if you want: “I let go this pain;” “I let go this anger.”
Share your observations and reflections on these practices in the “Session 5: Sensing or Feeling?” thread in our online Practice Circle, particularly as they relate to this highly strategic use of sensation and attention. It is here:
The Distinction Between Sensing and Feeling
J. G. Bennett
Thursday, 17 March 1949
There is one thing I advise you all to work on persistently until you have mastered it, and that is the distinction between sensing and feeling. This is one of the foundations of the practical method which Mr. Gurdjieff is now giving people to help them in their work, and there are many things which cannot be done until you are able to make this distinction in your own immediate experience; he calls this the distinction between “je” and “moi”, between “me” and “myself”. By “je” we mean that experience of ourselves which comes from our feelings; by “moi” we mean that experience of ourselves which comes through our bodily sensation. Ordinarily, both of these are outside or below the threshold of our conscious experience, they both belong to our sub-conscious, and only affect what we call our conscious state indirectly through associations, or directly when there is a process of particular intensity, such as physical pain or strong, powerful feeling, and even then, we fail to realize that these things belong to kinds of “self” feeling which we do not ordinarily experience.
You cannot expect to catch on to the idea of sensing and feeling at once; you have to work on it persistently. You have to begin by making yourself aware of sensations that you ordinarily do not notice, such as the sensation of touch when your body is in contact with something without movement. It is easy enough to have the sensation, for example, of a rubbing movement of the hand over something, but if your hand remains quietly resting on something, you very quickly lose any sensation of touch; we can easily make this experiment. It is difficult to say what posture or what position a limb is in without either moving it, or looking at it, or something of this kind, therefore you should start by working on simple things like this – that is, learning how to sense the stationary contact of your body with external objects, then learning to sense the posture of your body, the position of your various limbs without moving them and without looking at them, without thinking about them, and so on.
Then you can work on inner sensing, on feeling, or experiencing, the whole activity of the nervous system, which runs all through the body and which is, the whole time, sending messages back to your spinal column. You have to work at this until you can, at any time, experience the inner sensation of your own limbs and various parts of your body, and then, from time to time, and as you go on with increasing intensity, try to experience the whole of your body in this way through sensing, try to see how you can be aware of the whole of the life of your body, without thinking about it, without looking at it, without being dependent upon any movement or change of posture, without a feeling of pain or discomfort; just sense your body by learning to bring awareness into the whole of this nervous system which pervades the whole body.
Then work also on feeling; try to see how your feeling state is something that is independent of your mind and independent of this process of sensing that goes on in the body. Try to see how the results of your experience are all expressed in terms of a feeling state, a state of elation or depression, excitement, wonder, pleasure and sadness, desire, aversion, and try to see how all this succession of feelings comes from one part of you which you can easily experience as quite separate from what goes on in your brain and what goes on in your sensing part, and for most people is immediately and unmistakably connected with the region in the chest that we call the Solar Plexus.
Try, above all, to see how from this there comes a certain kind of “self” feeling; this is what Mr. Gurdjieff calls “je.” Try to see if you can bring together into your experience both “moi” and “je” – in other words, try to see if you can sense the whole of the life of your body, and then also have the experience of feeling yourself present in it; have the experience directly and not merely as something which colours your thoughts – have the experience directly of the succession of emotional states which is present in you.
Most of you are not easy to help over whatever difficulties you may be faced with in the work because you work too much with your thinking part; I have been noticing this very much recently with people I have spoken to at various meetings. Or else there are people whose feeling part reacts very violently to various stimuli but who are quite unable to experience this “je,” because when they have a wave of feeling passing over them it seems to swamp everything and nothing else remains. So, that for everyone, whatever their particular lack of balance may be, this work is necessary, and in any case, it is necessary because without it, it is not possible to follow certain practical suggestions which people may expect to receive if they work hard and earn the opportunity.
1.”Abandoning the Work I Hated,” Robert Markowitz, NY Times, August 20, 2015.
2. “Rethinking our Work,” Barry Schwartz, NY Times, August 29-30, 2015
4. “Mindfulness in Schools,” Lauren Cassini Davis, The Atlantic, August 31, 2015.
5. “Rising to Your Level of Misery at Work,” Arthur C. Brooks, NY Times, September 5, 2015.
6. “How to Live Wisely,” by Richard J. Light, NY Times, July 31, 2015
7. “The Big University,” by David Brooks, NY Times, October 6, 2015.
8. “A Seismic Shift in How People Eat,” by Has Taparia and Pameal Koh, NY Times, November 6, 2015.
9. Neurologist Speaks Out about the Importance of Gut Health for Prevention and Treatment of “Incurable” Neurological Disorders by Dr. Mercola, May 17, 2015.
10. “Defeating my Anxiety” by J.L. Cowles, NY Times, November 10, 2015.
11. “Processed Meats are Now Considered Carcinogenic,” by Dr. Mercola, November 11, 2015.
12. “The Life of an Introvert Described by 17 Graphs,” by Seth M, November 10, 2015
13. “The Incalculable Value of Finding a Job You Love,” by Robert H. Frank, NY Times, July 22, 2016.
14. “My Passion for Literature Succumbed to Reality,” by Bianca Vivion Brooks, NY Times, December 5, 2016.
Student Comments about SSS:
“In the past, I have made no secret my disdain for the concept of spirituality…Never have I experienced a more profound…regression of my mentality. To think spiritually is to think beyond yourself. It is to think multi-dimensionally, and to consider possibilities beyond the horizontal. Service, Society, and the Sacred has taught me to consider the people around me, as well as the prodigious organism, the universe that we are all apart of.”
-Milton Tang, Class of 2017
“Before I was born, I had an older sister who passed away due to heart failure three weeks before she was born . . .. I believe my sister sacrificed her life for me to live out my purpose. . .. This class has helped me to understand that I have a purpose in this world . . .. If I try to live a “whole self’ by learning to become a healthier [person], doing spiritual practices, and keeping the mindset of being a positive influence in someone’s life, I see a happy and fulfilled self who is living out a purpose.”
-Nicky Yang, Class of 2017