Embodied Listening is listening with the whole body, a kind of deep listening in which we are fully present for others, giving them space and support to share their experience fully, without interrupting, judging, shifting the topic to ourselves, or even trying to be helpful before help is asked for.
Today, October 7, 2014, is the official “pub date” of Your Body Knows the Answer: Using Your FELT SENSE to Solve Problems, Effect Change, and Liberate Creativity (Shambhala Publications). Here is an excerpt from the book’s Preface describing the decades-long personal journey that led me to develop Mindful Focusing, a new integration of Buddhist and Western contemplative practices for the 21st century.
In the summer of 1971, shortly after I had returned to New York from two eye-opening years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, my high-school friend Alex invited me to bum around Europe for a couple of months. Starting in England, we took in the primordial megaliths of Stonehenge, the soaring cathedral at Salisbury, the legendary Glastonbury Tor where King Arthur came in search of the Holy Grail. I was duly impressed by these sights, yet they had the curious effect of making me feel lost, unmoored, empty. I couldn’t connect my own existence to these marvels. For that matter, I couldn’t really seem to connect with anything in the world around me at this time.
Alex, a Gandhian political activist, had recently spent time in India and as our next destination had his heart set on a “Tibetan monastery” in Scotland. With little enthusiasm I accompanied him on the long drive to a barren, windswept countryside where a former hunting lodge was now in use as a Buddhist meditation center. Feeling even more out of my element than before in this odd place, but also intrigued, I dutifully sat on a low cushion, joined in the strange chanting as best I could, and followed the simple instructions for silent meditation. And as I sat there uncomfortably, and the minutes grew longer and longer, almost imperceptibly at first I began to touch something new in myself. There was no flash of light, no altered state of consciousness, but a different quality of awareness dawning in me. I had no words for it, but knew I was experiencing something that had a rightness or realness, an actuality, that had been missing from my life.
Samye-Ling was the name of the meditation center and it included a small bookstore with a selection of the few books in English on Buddhism available at that time. One in particular caught my eye, a slender volume called Meditation in Action, by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the young Tibetan lama who had started the center a few years earlier and who, I learned, was now living and teaching in North America. I read the little book on the plane returning to the States and in October, that magical month when New England is aflame with multi-hued foliage and bright blue sky, I drove to northern Vermont to Tail of the Tiger, the new meditation centered established by Trungpa Rinpoche’s first American students (now called Karme-Choling). There I met my teacher, collected windfall apples and pressed them into fragrant cider, and began in earnest a lifelong study and practice of Buddhism.
The next summer I moved to Boulder, Colorado, the old mining town and seat of the University of Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains that Trungpa Rinpoche had made his new home and headquarters. In January 1974, after participating in Rinpoche’s first annual three-month advanced-teaching Seminary, I had the extraordinary good fortune to become his private secretary, a role in which I served for more than nine years. This period marked the floodtide of Trungpa Rinpoche’s extraordinary range of creative contributions, starting that summer with the founding of Naropa University, which have had such a profound effect on the development of western Buddhism and contemporary contemplative practice in general.
These were also years of significant personal growth for me. I met and married my wife Martha, our daughter Rebecca was born, and I made fast friendships that endure to this day. We left Boulder in 1983 to live in New York City where I went to work at Schocken Books, the small but distinguished publishing founded by my grandfather Salman Schocken. During this time I edited books, found and renovated new offices for the firm, and learned much about the challenges of the for-profit business world, including serving as president of the company for two years before its sale to Random House in 1987. There followed six years in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Trungpa Rinpoche’s new seat and today the headquarters of Shambhala International, the worldwide network of meditation centers under the guidance of Trungpa’s son Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
In 1993, I accepted an invitation from the pioneering Buddhist social activist Bernie Glassman, a Jewish-American Zen Roshi, to join the Greyston Foundation, a mandala of for-profit and non-profit organizations in Yonkers, New York devoted to inner-city community development and human services. This was a refreshing return to the kind of service that had begun during my Peace Corps years in East Africa, now blended with my Buddhist contemplative path. The twelve years I spent at Greyston were a time of real fulfillment—yet somewhere in me, at a level I was only fitfully aware of, a sense of something missing was stirring, not unlike what I had experienced as a young man twenty-five years before. I wanted deeper access to my own feelings. Also, at this time I experienced my first serious, prolonged illness.
While browsing aimlessly one day in a rural Vermont used bookstore, I happened upon a little mass-market paperback. Filling its entire cover was a slightly abstract photograph of stones of different colors, shapes, and sizes, seen through the surface of a gently rippling stream. The title was a single word, Focusing. The name of the author, Eugene Gendlin, was unfamiliar. Curious, I paid two-and-a-half dollars for the small volume.
As Meditation in Action had done years earlier, Focusing opened up for me a whole new territory of self-understanding. While mindfulness-awareness practice had illuminated many mental, physical, and emotional subtleties in my life I might not otherwise have recognized, core aspects of my make-up remained hidden. Meditation is wonderful for stepping away from the speed and complexities of everyday lives and finding refuge in a calmer, more spacious quality of mind, but it can be insufficient to bring to light the deeper roots of feeling, memory, and belief, including sources of emotional and creative blockage. Also, given its emphasis on “bare attention”—merely noting what arises in present-moment experience, then letting it go—it is not the best tool for practical problem solving (the Buddha, after all, was a monk who renounced worldly life in order to penetrate to the root of human suffering and realize the ultimate nature of reality). Focusing supplied the link that had been missing for me: a simple but powerful means to bridge from the cushion of sitting meditation to the nitty-gritty of everyday life. It was a contemplative method for uncovering and working with my deeper feelings and solving specific, real-life challenges of work, marriage, parenting, and much more.
Mindful Focusing, the method for problem-solving and inner cultivation introduced in this book, reflects the personal journey I have described. I offer it as a new integration of a powerful introspective technique from modern western philosophy and psychology with ancient mindfulness-awareness practices that originated in India three millennia ago.