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Charlotte Selver and Sensory Awareness in Times of Violence
by Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt

This is the transcript of the introductory speech to the Sensory Awareness Conference held on March 1 and 2, 2003 at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Presented just two weeks before the United States started its invasion of Iraq, it seemed appropriate to take a look at Charlotte Selver and her work from a somewhat unusual angle. Charlotte may never have been a political activist, but the profound impact two world wars had on her life has had a ripple effect throughout her life. War has also deeply influenced her teaching in ways that have yet to be explored and fully understood.

When the soldiers come,
Lure them onto the roof of the dove
Lure them into the nest of the swallow
Lure them into the cave of the lioness
Lure them into the forest of the deer.
Approach them with open hands full of bread, and salt, and fruit, and wine –
so that they loose their way in the brushwood of your virtues;
so that they get lost in the maze of your friendliness.
Let them be amazed.
Let their generals and presidents be ashamed.
Let their henchmen run aground.
Be a lowland of courtesy
Intelligence be your weapon
Patience be your strength
Love be your narrative
Your silence be your victory – so that the governors will wonder.

Charlotte Selver was 13 years old when Germany launched a devastating war in 1914. The Germans were in a trance – and so was Charlotte’s family. In Charlotte’s words: “We were terribly patriotic... We lived very close to the Rhine-bridge. When the war started the soldiers passed over the bridge to France. And we all stood there with baskets full of beautiful things, with fruit and flowers and all kinds of goods for the soldiers. How exciting it was to see them march to war. We did whatever we could to support them. My dad even drove to the front lines to bring them more goods – until he was drafted himself. We had a map at home and we would stick little flagged pins into it every day to indicate the progress of the German army. And we would scream: Hurray, another 400 Frenchmen dead.”

But soon the German army got stuck – for years on end. Charlotte again: “The first war was a terrible disappointment. And when the soldiers came back – those who came back, most of them didn’t – they were starved and devastated. We gave them food too... I still feel sick to my stomach when I think of our excitement for war, this so-called patriotism.”

Many decades later Charlotte would often talk in class about another person who had been deeply affected by war: Alfred Korzybski. Korzybski’s work in General Semantics was based on his experience of war as a child – according to Charlotte* – and started with the question: Why must there be war? I will always remember how movingly Charlotte would talk about his work and share with us his basic finding: Because people don’t listen to each other.

Some twenty years after this war Germany was busy again preparing for the next war: Threatened in its existence by weak neighboring countries and Jews, it seemingly had no other choice.

 But lets stop for a moment: What does war have to do with Sensory Awareness?

As the US is preparing for an invasion of a distant weak country and fighting a so-called ‘war on terrorism,’ I cannot but think of stories I heard from Charlotte over the years and how much war, racism, and devastating patriotism have shaped her path.

And I often wonder about the fact that Elsa Gindler’s work emerged in a time in Germany, when this country was very much defined by war, racism, and patriotism. How did this influence the work called Sensory Awareness that we have come together to celebrate today?

This is not a scientific paper – these are just some thoughts – but thoughts worth exploring. And I hope some day somebody will give serious attention to these questions.

Gindler’s discoveries in the late teens and twenties were part of a movement that sought liberation from the suffocating customs of a very rigid society, with the corset that women were expected to wear as a fitting symbol. Soon the corset was off and there was space for breathing.

Before long that space was beginning to fill with a plethora of approaches that explored this newfound freedom in expressive dance, harmonic gymnastics, a nudist movement, vegetarianism, ancient wisdom from Asia – and not least by a new adoration of Greek aesthetics found, for example, in antique statues of humans and gods.

Gindler, having been immersed in this movement as a teacher of “Harmonische Gymnastik” soon discovered that the woman’s corset had been replaced with a – if somewhat looser – mental corset, as the goal of many of these new approaches was based on ideas and images rather than direct experience.

Struggling with her own health Gindler soon turned away from movement that was taught and developed an approach that instead encouraged her students to feel what they were doing and discover on their own how a movement wants to happen. She encouraged her students to study breathing as it occurs spontaneously in different life circumstances rather than teaching them the perfect way of breathing.

All the while Germany was losing not just a war but was soon plunged into chaos, recession, and inflation under the rigorous sanctions of the victorious nations. You all know what emerged out of this chaos – a totalitarian regime that sought to rid the world of all evil – the evil being the Jews.

Charlotte Selver was born to Germans who happened to be Jews. Her father was a businessman. He was running a factory for sausage casings – an occupation he did not enjoy very much, according to Charlotte. As a child, Charlotte was horrified by this factory. In her own words: “The casings came from the guts of animals which were slaughtered in the butchery right next door. In my father’s office you could hear the animals scream when they were killed. I went there only once or twice in my life – it was unbearable. But the casings made in my father’s factory were famous for their quality. They were shipped all over the world – South America, Africa, everywhere. They were particularly well prepared, dependable, clean, etc.. But when I was asked by my peers what my father did it was always terrible. I never knew what to say. It was like a dark shroud covering my youth.”

Years later, when the whole country was preparing to turn into a slaughterhouse, Charlotte studied with Gindler. Gindler had something to offer that was so different from the madness of the thirties in Germany it is nothing short of a miracle it could survive. When all around Germans gave up their autonomy to blindly follow a screaming dictator, Gindler offered her students a quiet space for exploration and discovery.

Charlotte has often shared with us her memories of this time; She has told us how she would drive through the streets of Berlin in fear of Gestapo road blocks; how she would sometimes witness a person being taken out of their car and arrested; how she would arrive in Gindler’s studio terrified and trembling.

And Gindler would work with them. She would invite them to find quiet in the midst of terror, to find space for breathing when fear was about to take over. She would encourage them to find access to their own inner resources in the face of danger. And by and by they would all become quiet and replenished, so that they would go back home with new courage. It was understood in those days that Gindler’s students didn’t have any private conversations before or after class in order to protect one another.

In the years to come, during another devastating war, Gindler kept her studio open to many people in danger who wanted to work with her or seek shelter. Her home was a refuge for Jews and non-Jews alike, offering sanity in a world that made no sense anymore.

By then, Charlotte Selver, had left Germany. It had become too dangerous for her and she fled to New York. During the war years it was not possible for Charlotte to keep in touch with Gindler. It is hard to know how it must have been for Charlotte to be out of touch with her beloved teacher – not even knowing if she was still alive. But soon after the war Charlotte was able to get in touch with Gindler again and before long she started to send much needed aid packages. For years to come she supported Gindler in any way she could, with food, clothing, etc. Finally, in 1951, Charlotte was able to go back to Germany for the first time. From then on she would pick up her studies with Gindler in yearly summer workshops.

But back to her first years in New York: Charlotte took with her a passion for her work with Gindler. She was determined to continue with this practice in a place where nobody had every heard about Gindler’s work. With much enthusiasm Charlotte approached new friends, physicians, psychiatrists, many of who shared her fate of exile. While many first responded with little interest and much skepticism, it didn’t take long until she was able to convince some influential people of the significance of her work. Among the many was the psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, who studied with her for some years, sent her his patients, and helped her get in touch with some of his colleagues. Around the same time she also met the originator of Gestalt Therapy, Fritz Perls, and sometime later the Zen philosopher Alan Watts. All these people were deeply touched by her work and collaborated with her in various ways over the years.

Her collaboration with Alan Watts took Charlotte Selver to California, where she eventually started to teach at Esalen Institute in Big Sur. It is fair to say that her non-verbal, purely experiential work was of crucial importance for the development of many somatic and psychological systems which came to fruition in Esalen and other places in California at that time. In those years, she also developed a deep connection with the San Francisco Zen Center, and soon started to teach at their Tassajara and Green Gulch retreat centers.

In the sixties and seventies her work – which by then she was offering together with her late husband, Charles Brooks – became very popular and was ‘en vogue’ in ways that were at times terrifying for Charlotte. The practice she had studied with Elsa Gindler so many years ago was for her too precious to be popularized. To this day it is important to her “to go into the depth not into the breadth”, as she often says.

Many of us have heard Charlotte say that what she offers us is not about ‘feeling good.’ It is not some method to fix ourselves. Sensory Awareness is a natural quality of our being. And in this sense Charlotte is not a teacher. All she does, Charlotte says sometimes, is remind us of our birthright. What she means is our innate ability to be in tune with and responsive to the world in and around us. The human organism co-evolved with its environment and is therefore perfectly able to meet its demands. What gets in the way is education, childhood trauma, false beliefs, our disconnected way of living. We are naturally at ease with the tasks of daily life if we do not lead with our ideas and our will, but are really in touch with what is going on. Even recovery from trauma is a natural process. Living organisms are very resilient and tend towards healing, balance, and renewal quite naturally – if we don’t prevent it, Charlotte might add. Charlotte’s work is to help us to get back in touch with this innate wisdom – the wisdom of creation and evolution. Her work is to question our beliefs and to encourage us to reconnect with what is real in any given moment.

And very often Charlotte will also say that if this work does not have any consequences in the way we live and act in the world, it is worthless. In my early years of studying with her she would often quote Thich Nhat Hanh: “Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”

Charlotte Selver has been offering this approach to life for about eighty years now (she first met Gindler in 1923). Until just a few years ago, she would still get up from her chair to work with her students, or lie down on the floor to show them something. Now she usually sits very still on her chair. Often her eyes are almost closed as she guides the students through an exploration. Her work has become increasingly subtle, giving much space for the most delicate movements of breath or for finding a sitting that is both responsive to gravity and to the effortless functioning of the inner organs. But although she might not outwardly go through the experiments she suggests to her students, inwardly she is totally with them. And although her eyes are not as good as they used to be, and she is almost deaf, Charlotte will at times – to the surprise of the unprepared student – suddenly come out of her almost trance like space and respond to a student’s struggle with a suggestion .

And sometimes Charlotte will suddenly come out of her quiet guidance to let the students jump and run about, asking them to be immediately ready for anything she might suggest. Work on ‘readiness’ is one of her favorite explorations. Can we live in a way that is both at ease and alert for anything that might be asked from us? In class, she will tackle this issue with great joy, asking her students to immediately respond to a variety of unexpected suggestions: “Jump up ... clap your hands twice, high above your head ... lie down ... crawl quickly through the room on all fours.” And her eyes will gleam with delight as she sees people become more and more responsive and lively. She will almost jump out of chair as she becomes more and more animated by the sight of her students. It is then when she looks just like a child – curious and playful, even a bit mischievous – enjoying every bit of life in and around her.

Charlotte is now tired. Maybe we will never again have the opportunity to experience what I just shared with you – but who knows. Charlotte has fooled us so many times. So, here we are, representing the numerous people who’s lives have been deeply touched by Charlotte. We have come together to celebrate, remember, and re-discover. Whether you have been a student of Charlotte for many years or have just heard about this conference yesterday doesn’t matter much. This work is an invitation to explore life as it manifests in us as individuals and in our connection with the world around us.

Does it have a relevance in today’s world? I believe so. Sensory Awareness can bring us to our senses. And once we see, and hear, and feel deeply, we will be compelled to act because we will realize that we inter-are with our surroundings.

Korzybski writes in the preface to his book Science and Sanity: “We need not blind ourselves with the old dogma that ‘human nature cannot be changed’, for we find that it can be changed [if we know how]. We must begin to realize our potentialities as humans, then we may approach the future with some hope. We may feel with Galileo, as he stamped his foot on the ground after recanting the Copernican theory before the Holy Inquisition, ‘Eppur i muove!’ The evolution of our human development may be retarded, but it cannot be stopped.’’

I would like to close my introduction with the same poem you heard in the beginning. This time in German. It is by the German comedian Hanns Dieter Huesch, who grew up not far from Charlotte’s birth place, although some 25 after her:

Wenn die Krieger kommen
Look sie auf’s dach der taube
Lock sie ins nest der schwalbe
Lock sie in die hoele der loewin
Lock sie in den wald der rehe.
Geh ihnen entgegen mit offenen haenden voll brot und salz und obst und wein.
Dass sie sich verlaufen im knuepelholz deiner tugenden
Dass sie sich verirren im labyrinth deiner freundlichkeit.
Mach sie staunen.
Beschaeme ihre generaele und praesidenten
Lass ihre handlanger ins leere laufen
Sei eine tiefebene voll hoeflichkeit.
Dein gewehr sei die klugheit
Deine kraft sei die geduld
Deine geschichte sei die liebe
Dein sieg sei dein schweigen
So dass sich die landpfleger sehr verwundern.

* Being quite ignorant of Korzybski’s work and life I can only share what I heard from Charlotte. I am very well aware of the fact that Charlotte’s “interpretations” of Korzybski’s life and work may not be accurate. Nonetheless, what Charlotte shared with us about General Semantics has touched me very deeply.

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Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt
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Email: / Tel.: (603) 525-7289