Photo: B. Fertman Monument Valley – The Three Sisters
“Okay. What’s a Movement Meditation? What do you think, I ask my class?”
It’s when you’re doing some kind of movement and you drop into the zone, like when shooting hoops, or doing Aikido, or running, or rock climbing.
I don’t think it has to be anything really fancy. Maybe I could be immersed in what I’m doing when I’m folding my laundry, or raking the leaves in my back yard.
“Good examples. How about Kinesthetic Contemplation? What’s that?”
It could be when we are having a new sensation within us, a moving sensation, and we want to understand it, we want to know where it’s coming from, how it’s changing us, and what it means. So that makes it a form of contemplation.
“Sounds good to me. How about a Senso-Spiritual Practice? We’re getting weirder and weirder.”
I think this one is simple. It’s like you’re taking a walk and you see a sunflower and you stop and look at it for a while. You see this incredible geometric pattern and you smell its perfume and feel how powdery soft it is and you get this feeling of it being totally miraculous, this simple sunflower. It almost makes me cry just thinking about it.
“I love that example. Can someone give me another example?”
When I play Bach sonatas, which I do almost every morning, even though Bach wasn’t very religious, I hear something that feels sacred to me, like a river running into the sea. It’s hard to explain, but as the years go by, and the more I practice, the stronger this feeling gets. And this feeling opens me up. I think it actually makes me more loving.
“Wow. That almost makes me cry just thinking about it. Anything else?”
Something happens to me when I get up early and go bird watching with my birder friends. The air is cool and fresh, and here we are, looking for these little birds, and some of them are so beautiful, like an indigo bunting, or a western tanager. And most of the time I’m so busy I just pass this beautiful world by. But when I’m bird watching my senses get finely tuned, my hearing, my seeing. Even my movements change. I can be still and silent for a very long time. And for some reason, at a certain moment, something comes over me and I feel grateful to be alive on the earth. I go home and my wife and kids are just getting up and I feel great. I’m in a great mood.
“You see, maybe this one is not weird at all. Maybe the sensory world and the spiritual world go hand in hand, and maybe it’s so obvious we just miss it. Maybe this notion that the senses are physical and the spiritual is mental isn’t quite right. We go looking for our spirituality, God knows where, and there it is surrounding us all the time. Maybe by better attending to our senses, we can more easily find entrance into the spiritual world. Sometimes I get sad thinking how little most cultures spend on the arts because art is a great way into senso-spiritual life, and nature is too.”
“Once, many years ago now, I was invited to Omega Institute in Upstate New York to teach a 5-day workshop. All the teachers who were giving workshops met the day before to get to know one another a little. A woman with the bluest, wisest eyes, a deep ecologist by the name of Joanna Macy was there. And a man, a tracker, by the name John Stokes was there with a few of his apprentices.”
“There was this burly guy with a thick beard, large forearms, and calloused palms who was as soft as a big teddy bear. He came up to me and asked me what I was teaching and I said something about sensory awareness.” He said, “That’s very much what I teach too, except I’m not the one who’s really teaching my students about their senses. The woods do that for me. How do you teach your students about their senses without the woods?”
Okay. Here’s the one no one can answer. What’s a Post-Proprioceptive Prayer?
Silence descends upon the room.
“You’re close. Can you say a little more?”
Well, proprioception has something to do with the position we are in, with knowing exactly where we are. So post-proprioceptive prayer…hmm…I don’t know.
“Let’s begin at the beginning. This may take a while. I’ve got to go step by step. But it will be worth it, so hang in there with me.”
Pre-proprioception and Proprioception
“When we are born, so I am told, as I have no conscious memory of this, we cannot identify what is our body and what is not. We don’t have an identity. We are not an “I”. We are a little bundle of sensation with no awareness that we are a bundle. Maybe Descartes was right when he said, “I think therefore I am.” Maybe there is no “I am” before we begin thinking. As a newborn we are alive but we don’t know we are alive. It’s a mystery to me how we transition from pre-proprioception to proprioception. Here are my musings on the subject.”
“Proprioception tells us our position or shape, for example it tells us if our elbow is flexed or straight. Proprioception tells us about location, where one part of our body is in relation to another part, and in relation to the body as a whole. Your right arm may be flexed and you sense its shape, but is it over your head or by your side? Proprioception tells us about orientation. Where is our body in space? Are we lying down or are we standing up? And some might say that proprioception tells us if we are moving or not. I tend to associate movement with the kinesthetic sense. But in living it is almost impossible to separate touch, proprioception, and kinesthesia.”
“Close your eyes and slowly touch your nose with your index finger. Sense how you can kinesthetically feel that your finger is moving, but that your nose is not moving. The only way you are going to have any idea where your nose is, is through your proprioceptive sense.”
“So we enter this world and we have no clue about the shape of our body, or of any part of our body. And we’ve no clue where one part of our body is in relation to another part. And we have not the faintest idea where we are in relation to the environment, because we can’t tell the difference, we can’t differentiate. And as far as whether we are moving or still, well how could we possibly know what is moving, our mother or us, the bed or us. We are pre-proprioceptive.”
“But we come out into the world with a great sense of touch. We’re transitioning from relating to a fluid environment to a solid environment. We feel this. We start rolling against a hard surface. We’re experiencing gravity when we try to lift our formidably large heads. But we’re strangers in a strange land. If we’re lucky, we have people around who love us and love touching us a lot. We’re feeling a little squeeze on our calf, or a kiss on the cheek. Suddenly we are being squeezed around the ribs and lifted high above someone’s smiling face. People are putting us in silly looking clothes and increasingly, through almost constant sensorial research we are, literally, figuring out where we are.”
“Extended proprioception grows out of proprioception. The potential for extending proprioception is built into us, but we also have to work at it. Babies work at it. Children work at it. And adults work at it.”
“We extend proprioception when we can get an object to do what we want. It’s as if we extend our nervous system into the object, much as amputees with sensorialized prostheses are now able to do. You can watch a baby learn to manipulate a baby bottle, pick up a pea, eventually write with a pencil, button a shirt, tie a shoe, ride a bike, fly a kite, and eventually drive a car. Oh no! You can see how persistently babies and kids work on extending proprioception.”
“Extending proprioception can get pretty sophisticated, playing a musical instrument, fencing, fly fishing, kayaking, knitting.”
“Not only can we extend our proprioception into objects, which is exciting enough, we can extend our proprioception into creatures as well. When my daughter was hardly a year old I’d take her to see horses at a nearby stable and she’d go wild. In the worst way she wanted to touch those horses and sit on those horses. I’m convinced there’s a horsemanship gene. Watch a great equestrian and you will see extended proprioception, two creatures moving as one. Or watch great Aikidoists, or great tango dancers.”
“This brings us to the relationship between extending proprioception and intimacy. It’s no mistake that dancing and courtship go hand in hand. Whether it is swing, or tango, or contact improvisation most humans love physical intimacy. It doesn’t matter whether this physical intimacy is sexual or nonsexual. Physical intimacy brings people literally and figuratively in touch with one another.”
“Paradoxically, proprioception helps us to differentiate ourselves from what is not us and, at the same time, it has the potential, when extended, to unite us with others and with the things of this world. It has the capacity to distinguish and to unify.”
“Marjorie Barstow, my mentor, once told me to watch my hands all through the day and see if I ever distorted them.” “Bruce, if you catch your hands looking ugly or distorted, if they wouldn’t look beautiful in a photograph, then stop right away, and you will see that you are distorting your whole body. Wait until you know exactly where you are, the relationship of the parts of your body, one to the other, as well as the shape of your body as a whole, and then release the distortion throughout your entire body and work out a way of using your whole body and your hands without distortion. Because when we are distorted, we cannot relate well to anything.”
“Marj was talking about proprioception and extending proprioception. Marj’s ability to extend proprioception was extraordinarily refined. She knew precisely where she was so when, as an Alexander teacher, she touched me it was as if I became part of her exquisite nervous system, and without any effort I became, like her, beautifully integrated. Her touch was intimate in that her hands did not feel separate from my body. They felt like they were under my skin, not on my skin. Her hands were a part of me. Yet her touch was non-sexual in nature. It was as if Marj was overlapping into me, like one circle intersecting another. We were two people with one nervous system.”
“How are you doing? Are you following me? Do you need a break? I don’t usually talk this much, but this is a bit complex. Shall I go on?”
I get nods of approval, so I continue.
“Now we have some understanding of pre-proprioception, proprioception, and extended proprioception. Before we can understand post proprioception, and what a post-proprioceptive prayer is, let’s think about what it means to pray, and what is a prayer. Again these are just my musings on the subject.”
“When I was four years old I slept in a little room with a little window near the foot of my bed. My mom would come into my room and we’d pray. Quietly she’d say, and I would say with her, Now I lay me down to sleep I pray to God my soul to keep, and if I should die before I wake, If I should die! What is she talking about? I pray to God my soul to take.” And then finally, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite.” Bedbugs! What bedbugs! “After she would leave, I was wide awake. To calm down I would do my own praying. I would sit at the foot of my bed, on my knees, in seiza, and look up out my window at the few stars I could see. Only one star was red so I decided to pray to that star. A couple years later, I found out that my red star was a red light sitting on top of a radio tower. That was disappointing.”
“I would pray for things I wanted. I remember praying for a puppy dog, and when I finally got my soft, playful puppy, which I adored, I was soon infested with worms and before I knew it my puppy was gone. After that praying lost some of its appeal.”
“It wasn’t until I was considerably older, around thirty, that I actually began to pray for other people. I no longer believed in a God who could grant wishes, but I found myself wanting to be with people, in my heart and mind, that I cared about who were in need, as if I were keeping them company.”
“Many years later, after a particularly long, dark period in my life, I shifted into a different kind of praying. I completely stopped wishing or hoping for anything, for me or for anyone else. I was beginning to accept and appreciate exactly how things were.”
“If I was suffering, or someone else, rather than making a request I would ask a question. “If God is good, then what is good about what is happening now?” And then I’d become deeply quiet, do nothing, and wait without waiting for anything. Sometimes the answer would arise almost immediately and at other times not for weeks.”
“The more I began to experience everything as good, the more I found myself feeling grateful, often for little things I had up to now taken for granted, like being able to walk, or see, or having work that mattered to me, or that my kids were healthy. Just being alive rather than not, statistically speaking, seemed totally miraculous, and I found myself silently saying thank you almost all day long. And this thankfulness became a new, more mature form of prayer for me. It seemed I was almost in a perpetual state of prayer.”
“But there was one more shift yet to happen.”
“It’s a lot like when you first fall crazy in love with someone. You find yourself intoxicated, under a spell. Everything seems perfect because you are filled with this feeling of being in love with someone. Instead of writing thank-you letters all day long, I began writing love letters all day long!”
“Step by step. We are almost there. Now we know what is pre-proprioception, proprioception, and extended proprioception. We know what mature prayer is, gratitude and love. Once we know what post-proprioception is, we can put it all together and you’ll know what I mean by a post-proprioceptive prayer.”
“When we extend our proprioception exceptionally well we find ourselves in a harmonious relationship with an object, tool, instrument, device, or with nature, an animal or a person. There are however brief moments, when a merging happens, when we no longer feel as if we are in a relationship. We, as a separate I, are no longer there. It’s a post-proprioceptive moment. It’s as if we have reverted to a pre-proprioceptive condition, but it’s not pre-proprioceptive because we’re conscious of it. Often these moments verge on the ecstatic.”
“Ecstatic, in Greek, ekstasis, means a dis-placement, a removal from a proper place. Proper, as in proprio, as in property, means that which is you. So a post-proprioceptive moment is a felt dis-placement or absence of that which is you. In colloquial terms, it’s a moment when we are ‘blown away.’”
“In Judaism we have a prayer you are supposed to say every night before going to sleep, and if you are lucky enough, at the moment you are leaving this world. It’s called the Shema. The Shema means, as a Rabbi once told me, Listen, you person who wrestles with God, I will give you a hint. God is one, not two.”
“There was a woman with whom I was deeply in love. Sometimes I’d see her and spontaneously a poem would arise in me, fully formed. All that was left was to quickly write it down and give it to her. Here’s an example of a post-proprioceptive poem or prayer, written now long ago. Note the element of mergence, a felt dis-placement, of an absence self, and of gratitude.”
Have you ever been walking in the woods
Hearing no sound of a stream, and then suddenly you hear it?
Have you ever been walking for so long in the sound of the stream
That you cannot imagine how a sound could enter and fill you so completely,
Leaving no space for words
Or even for the thought of a stream sounding
Until the sound, streaming in your veins,
Sends the trees and rocks rolling into white clouds upon a hill
That meets your back in soft green grass, where you land,
Safely, staring up at the sky, so blue, wondering,
Not who you are, but that you are?
“Some people believe that this ability to enter into a post-proprioceptive condition is the basis for all religious sentiment.”
“Roman Rolland, a French dramatist, novelist, art historian and mystic was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915. He coined the term ‘oceanic feeling.’ It meant this felt experience of oneness or limitlessness. Freud’s opinion was that this oceanic feeling, felt by some people and not by others, was ‘merely’ a carry over of a primitive pre-egocentric feeling, what I would call a pre-proprioceptive condition. Rolland and other mystics would beg to differ. For the mystics this experience of oneness and limitlessness was not ‘merely’ primitive, not only primal but sacred.”
“Perhaps there is some connection between the unity a fetus experiences within its mother, the oneness experienced through sexual unity, and the oneness experienced through spiritual unity. God is one, not two.”
“Here’s a Rumi poem that captures all three experiences of post-proprioception. How did he do that!”
When it’s cold and raining,
you are more beautiful.
And the snow brings me
even closer to your lips.
The inner secret, that which was never born,
you are that freshness, and I am with you now.
I can’t explain the goings,
or the comings. You enter suddenly,
and I am nowhere again.
Inside the majesty.
Translated by Coleman Barks
“There you go, a post-proprioceptive prayer of the highest order.”
“Another one of my favorite mystics, Meister Eckhart, encourages us to practice shifting out of a proprioceptive condition into a post-proprioceptive condition. For him this is a spiritual practice.” Meister Eckhart writes,
Start with yourself therefore, and take leave of yourself. Examine yourself, and wherever you find yourself, take leave of yourself. This is the best way of all.
“Start with yourself. First we have to know where we are. First our proprioception must awaken and become accurate. That doesn’t happen all by itself. It takes study and practice.”
“And take leave of yourself. What does this mean? What happens to us along the way is that we become ‘proprioceptively established.’ We have drawn an outline around where we are, and that outline becomes thicker and thicker and darker and darker, until it becomes like an exoskeleton separating ourselves from all that surrounds us. When this happens we can never change ‘where we are.’ We’ve locked ourselves in and lost the key. We can’t get out and nothing can get in. We are in a proprioceptive prison of the self.”
“Can we learn, gradually, to make our outline less thick, less dark? Can we learn to erase it? I think we can. You see, it’s as if we are living our lives constantly inside of parentheses*. What would happen if we could delete our parentheses? Let’s look.”
I go up to the whiteboard, pull the top off of a blue magic marker, and begin writing.
This is me.
Without the parentheses, this is me:
Examine yourself, and wherever you find yourself, take leave of yourself.
“We have mistakenly come to identify ourselves with the parentheses that contain us. Take note. Meister Eckhart does not tell us where to go. He simply says, Examine yourself, and wherever you find yourself, take leave of yourself. He doesn’t say, take leave of yourself and then go here. He doesn’t say, take leave of yourself and then do this or don’t do that. Our only job is to, one, examine ourselves, know where we are, and two, take leave of where we are. He’s having us practice a shifting from a proprioceptive sense of self to a post-proprioceptive way of being with the world.”
“This is the best way of all, he says. Meister Eckhart is saying there is nothing better. This is as good as it gets. That has been my experience too.”
“A dramatic image for taking leave, for transitioning from proprioceptive life to post-proprioceptive life is that of a cicada metamorphosing out of its shell. One really gets the feel of a creature taking leave of itself.
“Now we can’t always experience so dramatic a metamorphosis. Some of us may never experience such a dramatic transformation. To do so usually requires hitting bottom, surviving a dark night, enduring a long bardo, traversing the seven terraces of purgatory.”
“But transformation can be gradual as well. We can, little by little, emerge from ourselves. As Walt Whitman writes in Song Of The Open Road, Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.”
“When I work with you that’s what I am doing. I’m gently using my hands to help you divest yourself of the holds that hold you. I’m helping you to erase your outline, delete your parentheses and when this happens I hear some of you sometimes say, I don’t feel like myself. This is not me.”
“That’s why when I work with you I will sometimes change one side of you and not the other. In other words, I’ll help you remove one parenthesis and not the other. I’ll ask you to draw an imaginary line down through your center, dividing right and left, and I’ll ask you Who are you on this side, and who are you on that side?”
I write on the board.
(Who are you on this side? And who are you on that side?
“Let me work with some of you now, just on one side, and let’s see what happens.” Everyone stands up, and I get to work.
I feel older on this side and younger on the other side.
This person on the left feels scared and that person on the right feels confident.
This person is a fighter, and this person is a listener.
I feel like I’m trying to be invisible on this side, and on this side I want people to see me.
“This is what I mean when I speak of becoming less proprioceptively established. You are beginning to question the establishment, the ‘static quo.’ You are unfixed, in motion now, spreading into a free and unknown future, a future not wholly determined by the past.”
“Would you like me to give you some post-proprioceptive prayers to take home with you?” “Yes,” they say. I hand each of them a sheet of paper with seven post-proprioceptive prayers. “Some of these may be accessible to you and some may not. Play with them for a few weeks and see what happens.”
They begin reading.
Take a walk everyday and delete your parentheses as you take in what is all around you. That’s simple.
Lie down on the floor, splayed out. Imagine that a friend of yours has a piece of black charcoal. Beginning at the top of your head they start to draw a black outline on the floor working down one side, tracing around your head, down your neck, along the outside of your arm all the way down to your hand, in and out of each finger, up the inside of the arm, way up into the arm pit, down the torso, down the leg, around the heel, up the inside of the leg, across the pelvic floor, and just keep going until you make your way back to where you began. Sense how that feels then repeat it two or three times, each time making a thicker and darker outline. Sense how that feels.
Then imagine you are very large, like a large land mass, and all around you in every direction is land that just goes on forever. Hundreds of years go by and gradually the sun bleaches away the dark outline, the winds blow away the outline, the rains wash the outline away until it’s completely gone and there’s nothing separating you from all that is around you every direction.
When you are in a train, or a car, or a plane, whenever you happen to find yourself sitting next to a stranger, delete your parentheses. Sense how that feels. Then imagine a large hula hoop a place both yourself and the person next to you inside of the hula hoop and just rest inside the hoop together.
If you are brave enough, sit down next to a person who you feel some aversion toward, a seriously obese person, a mentally or physically challenged person, (that’s all of us), someone who looks homeless and unkempt and sit next to them. Delete your parentheses. Sit inside your imaginary hula hoop with them.
You can do the following lying down, or sitting, or standing or walking, which basically is all humans do. Imagine, and when I say imagine I don’t mean seeing a picture on the movie screen inside your head, I mean kinesthetically imagine the movement within your body, and proprioceptively imagine your shape changing. Imagine your whole body is bread dough rising, rising omni-directionally, getting lighter and more spacious within itself.
This one is good when sitting but feel free to experiment. Imagine your whole body is a sponge. Imagine it’s soaking up warm water from a deep puddle below and the more it soaks up the softer and wider and deeper it becomes. There is so much water to soak up so the water seeps and soaks its way higher and higher as the sponge swells getting wider and wider, fatter and fatter, fuller and fuller, until the entire sponge can accept no more water. It’s important to take all these images right up to the very top of your head and beyond.
Imagine from high above you sand pouring finely down through a kind of funnel, pouring finely down through your “whales spout,” where the soft spot, the posterior fontanelle, is on an infant. Gradually the sand begins to make a little pile on the ground. As the sand continues, which it does for a long time, the little pile gets bigger and bigger. The sides of the pile make a perfect angle of repose. The sand continues to pour down until the point of the pile is about a foot above your head.
Go for a walk. First sense that the environment is all around you and that you are inside the environment. Walk that way for a while. At a certain moment play with reversing it. Imagine that the entire environment all you can see and hear and smell is within you and you are all around it. Everything is in you. See what happens.
“Okay. We are finished for the day. Let me leave you with one last image.”
I get my laptop and bring up a photo I took some 20 years ago of a church built around 1744, the Santa Rosa de Lima, a mile south of Abiquiu, New Mexico.
“Imagine you are the window frame,” I say to my students who all look decidedly softer and more open than they did when they entered the room this morning.
“Who would you be without your frame?”
Photo: B. Fertman