Charlotte Selver
Charlotte Selver

From Sensory Awareness to Vipassana Meditation

A conversation with the poineering Buddhist Teacher Ruth Denison

by Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt

I visited Ruth Denison on April 29,1999 at Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center, her Buddhist retreat in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. I do not recall how it came to this visit but it must have been on my way home from an extended stay with Charlotte Selver together with my then fiancé, Sarah Gilliatt, driving through the vast deserts of Southern California and seizing the opportunity. Some of my interviews with Charlotte had taken place just before and Charlotte had told me stories about Henry and Ruth Denison. I must have been inspired to hear from Ruth directly about the role of Charlotte in her life. Ruth wasn’t young then and it seemed a good idea to interview her, even though at that time writing a biography of Charlotte was only a wild idea. I had met Ruth before and when I called her she immediately invited Sarah and I to stay at her house in Joshua Tree.

Ruth has kept in touch with the Sensory Awareness community over the years, and in a way renewed her ties after Charlotte’s death. She has been a frequent visitor at Sensory Awareness conferences and workshops, be it as a presenter or to be a student again. She has also been a great supporter of the Sensory Awareness Foundation and the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book project.

Photos from the 2006 Sensory Awareness Conference
at Mt. Madonna Center in Watsonville, California

It was largely thanks to Alan Watts and Henry Denison that Charlotte’s work came to California. Charlotte gave her first workshop on the West Coast at Henry’s house in Hollywood. Henry was a lifelong spiritual seeker, he had been a monk in the Advaita Vedanta order for some years before building his house in the Hollywood Hills. In the early sixties the Denisons were hosts to many luminaries of the counterculture: philosophers, psychotherapists, Zen masters. Alan Watts was among them. He and Charlotte had been collaborating for some years and he now suggested that Henry invite Charlotte into that circle.

Charlotte spoke always very fondly of Henry and never failed to mention how handsome he was: “He looked like a Spanish grande,” she would say. I’m not really sure what a Spanish grande is but at the time of our visit Henry Denison was still alive, though suffering from Alzheimer's disease. I had a chance to meet him and – in spite of his illness – it was immediately clear why Charlotte would have been impressed by his appearance. He was tall and slender and he looked very dignified with his full, grey beard. Sarah and I had a lovely visit with him, in which he recalled Charlotte with much fondness.

The interview with Ruth took place over lunch. Ruth has always been a very gracious hostess and she put on many dinners for Charlotte and her husband, Charles Brooks, at the time. Now we were sitting in her small house and she was telling us about meeting Charlotte.

“I dated Henry Denison at that time. Alan Watts told him about this lady who is getting with it. That’s how Henry put it. Getting with the process that was going on at that time. And that was almost an underground movement, meeting and speaking about psychology and facing yourself and developing yourself. Charlotte sounded good to him the way Alan Watts described her, providing a practice, a process of becoming aware of your mental and psychic domain.”

Charlotte Selver remembered that first meeting vividly and loved to tell the story: “I came to Henry Denison, with Charles [According to Ruth, Charles was not there that first time]. Henry brought us to his porch with the beautiful view, deep down to a lake. We waited and sat there while he was preparing lunch for us. And then he came with a very beautiful, very thin wooden vessel with fresh salad. He offered this salad to me. And at this moment a bird began to sing in the tree under which we were sitting. I stopped taking the salad. And when the bird had finished singing I took the salad – and Henry said: ‘You are in!’

Suddenly, we heard a terrible noise of dogs, barking: “Woof, woof, woof, woof.” And in came four little dogs jumping around him and licking him and so on. And after the dogs came a woman who seemed to be his sweetheart. That was Ruth Denison.”

Ruth recalls: “I remember what Charlotte was wearing. A beautiful pure silk blouse with cuffs, very formal. I came and arrived with two dachshunds and they made a lot of noise. I was a noisy lady when I came in into this peaceful, quiet atmosphere of highest delicacy and sensitivity with the dogs, like dynamite. The silence was gone and the peace went. Charlotte had joy with that. She can – when it is so absorbed and then suddenly topsy turvy – she can enjoy that. She has a great sense of humor.”

This was probably in 1959. Ruth Schäfer – Henry and Ruth hadn’t married yet and she did not live in his house – had emigrated from Germany in 1957, sponsored by one Mr. Newton, for whom she worked when she first dated Henry Denison. For more about Ruth’s life, read Sandy Boucher’s fascinating biography Dancing in the Dharma.

“I had met Henry, and I think maybe just half a year or a year later Charlotte came into the picture. Henry was one of those who were very interested at that time in Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood and all these avant-garde people.

Henry arranged with Charlotte that the house is available and she can make her seminars there, in the large living room with a fabulous terrace all around the house and its wonderful view over the hills and the lake. Our furniture could easily be moved. The big table was pushed against the glass wall, and then there was a space big enough for twenty people to lie down. It was a dream house. And the guest wing was the same. There was a terrace overlooking the lake and they lived there. That’s when I got my training. I cooked there, and any minute I had time I would be in the living room.

At that time it was really a great breakthrough for many, Charlotte’s work, you know. Psychologists came and yoga teachers came, and artists. They got some nice groundedness through her work, Sensory Awareness. The senses are heightened and practiced and developed to more clarity in perception. You don’t let the mind interfere in these sense perceptions. You just hear, see, smell, taste. So, equipped with this awareness of the senses, I came to Vipassana. I had the best practice and preparation. And Charlotte cannot understand! But it is hard to understand that.”

Ruth’s claim that Charlotte did not understand refers, I believe, to Charlotte’s refusal to see Sensory Awareness as a mere vehicle for liberation within a Buddhist context. Charlotte, as did most of Elsa Gindler’s students, insisted that hers was a practice in its own right. That it would be used to prepare people for therapy or spiritual practices meant that the depth of their work was not recognized. And, indeed, one could argue that Ruth likewise did not understand either.

To think that Sensory Awareness does not address suffering, that its goals are simply harmony and “greater pleasantness”, is to misunderstand what Charlotte Selver and her teachers were about. But Sensory Awareness lacks a clearly spelled out philosophical framework, for better or for worse, and is therefore easily disregarded as a feel-good practice – a notion that caused Charlotte Selver much grief. That said, it may very well be that Charlotte underestimated Ruth and that she, like many others, did not recognize the depth of her unique approach to teach the Buddha Dharma.

“In the beginning I didn’t know what to do with Charlotte. Then I caught up, because actually I lived with it a great deal. I was very earthy and I lived with my body. But then, coming into this so-called higher society with psychologists and with these high goals of enlightenment and spiritual awakening, I had other ideas about that. When I was asked to feel, to notice my feet and my hands and my breath – ‘God’, I said, ‘what are they doing? I do that all the time. You do that by living.’ You know, sometimes I was puzzled by it. Also, I realized pretty soon that there were many things missing. I took it in the wrong way. I did it just for pleasure, maybe, and for feeling better.

But when you come into Vipassana, then it’s a different story. That can hold up in Sensory Awareness practice – you do it for more harmony, you awaken more to the senses and you have more joy, a greater pleasantness to experience – because dukkha and unpleasantness are not really payed attention to. In the Sensory Awareness practice always the goal is to come to a greater harmony and to better feelings and to more wholeness, sure.

I came now with this kind of attitude to Vipassana and I heard that attention has to be paid also to the unpleasant. The inner peace you get through the awareness of the senses can help you to move in harmony through the unpleasantness, and so on. The development of mindfulness and the development of the awareness is actually the very basis of Vipassana. We use the body and other senses as objects for attention.”

“Laying the Four Foundations of Mindfulness”, Stefan interjects.

“Yes. Well, one works actually only with the first and the other three one awakens very naturally to. Because feeling, pleasant and unpleasant, states of mind and contents of the mind [depend on] our paying attention to body sensations, to nonverbal levels. [By this] the mind is contained and drawn away from its usual activity and getting caught up in it. Instead of that you begin to understand: this is arising now, the feelings, or that state of mind, or that kind of content of the mind. You notice it and you do not get involved.

So, like the Buddha said: in this fathom long body with its perception, feelings and states of mind, there is the whole world contained, the beginning and the ending. You can also replace these words with dukkha, with suffering. Then you have Buddha’s teaching: I teach only for one reason, for the cessation of suffering and how to recognize it. How to trace it back to our own ignorance, to not understanding and to emotional [confusion]. How we are creating our own dissatisfaction and so on.

So, when Henry and I came to U Ba Khin, our teacher in Burma, I was very well equipped. Paying attention to my breathing, this was just wonderful, I could continue. The first few days I resisted him because I didn’t trust the situation. I already did it, you see. But then he discovered my resistance and was very firm with me, telling me that he is not talking to me but to my evil spirits of resistance. That was helpful.

And then it comes so gradually together. You know for what purpose you are doing it and you recognize the process rather than just getting an overview. Many beautiful insights arise through the systematic application of mindfulness of the body: The impermanence you can realize on a very microscopic level, the change, the dukkha you do learn to know, how much pain is involved in it always, when you look at the body, so that you don’t get attached just to having it the pleasant way, you see. You learn now to be open for the unpleasant and then it becomes pleasant.” Ruth chuckles.

“I think I could never have done it without Charlotte’s preparation, because my time was very short with U Ba Khin. I couldn’t have gone that deep into the kind of letting your mind go into the body level as I could do now with Charlotte’s practice, Sensory Awareness. I could penetrate quite deeply in the short time I was with U Ba Khin, five or six months.

Then, when I started teaching – he gave me the transmission to teach – I wouldn’t have been able to really guide people in the practice of mindfulness, and how to give good instructions, and where it is at, and how to be more constant and start anew again and again, sitting two hours without moving and allowing the mind in a witnessing attitude to penetrate into the level of sensations. That it not how you practice with Charlotte. You do it lightly and you go outside.

I also had some Zen training. From Zen I got a little the way how to order and organize. From Charlotte I had this lovely groundedness: mind being there, and psyche, and mind energies being there where the body is. That means where your life is really occurring, and where you can have direct touch with it. So you bring your mind to a very special calm and undistractedness. And it wakes up to to what it is doing. And you begin to understand more and more. It’s called insight. Correct understanding, [one aspect of] the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.

So I would let them stand – I hear myself sometimes saying like Charlotte did: ‘Please come to standing.’ Not to stand but to come to standing. Then I would explore: notice your arms and let the shoulders drop with gravity, and notice the contact with your feet, between your feet and the earth. Just like Charlotte told us. Gently shift your weight to the left foot, and feel the difference, how the other one feels. That is a very beautiful basis for Vipassana.

It also made me a safe guide. I realized always when their minds were off and it was too mental and when they had disconnected themselves from body, that became very clear.

But, believe it or not, some Vipassana students who came at that time from Goenka [the best-known disciple of U Ba Khin], thought I was playing around. One got up, ran to the door, widely opened it and screamed into the silence of the room of my experimenting: “That’s enough of hanky-panky!” I took a lot. Now, in Vipassana circles, they have yoga exercises, they have sensory awareness practice and so on. But Charlotte was a pioneer and I was a pioneer also.

Later I sent Charlotte students. Those who needed a little bit more ground work for sitting still and being without movement, without doing anything, students who needed a little bit more practice in a different way. More through movement. And I would also in my seminars let them lie down on the floor and do things Charlotte did. Like working with touch, working with partners. Or I would let everybody collect a rock and hold the rock and give it into the other hand. Or take a nut, and let them chew and eat it, experience this whole process from hard to soft to mush – and then the swallowing, all of that I did. When I first started teaching I felt uncomfortable sitting in front of them and watching their nervousness, their fidgeting, and their inner unrest. I could immediately bring rest in by just allowing one hand to rise and then putting it on the other hand. Or on the shoulder of somebody. But I encountered terrible criticism in the beginning.

I’d let students face each other and just see what is there. How they can perceive the other person without losing contact to their feet and to their standing and to the wholeness of their being. It’s a practice in not being distracted and so much over there in the experience, but rather staying with the fullness of your own being in awareness. And then to take the other person in.

Or how to pick a flower, or how to smell the ground. Through sensory awareness. I took them into the mountains, let them look into that sight before them, let them realize: seeing takes place [when the eye meets] the object. It goes a little further than Charlotte, sometimes, you know, because it is more a calculation of the mind and not just noticing your stillness in perceiving. Becoming very clear in perceiving. In the process of perception there are the eyes (physical base), the object, and mind. These objects – it’s not really true that we see this container,” Ruth knocks on an object, “we see color and shape. And then realizing that the whole thing is mind, hmm? Seeing, visual consciousness.

So what we become aware of is realizing that this is only a function which takes place now, the mental function of seeing. And that it has three components: a physical base, an object, and mind. And that puts you into the position where you cannot help but seeing: it is empty of I, it is a process. And it’s through that, through Charlotte’s work – I mean, as a base – that I could bring them into such graphic and tangible ways to see the truth of what Buddha points to: no self, emptiness. From the beginning [I taught] through these lovely experiences – the smell of the earth. I let them crawl as worms and as snakes without hands on the floor – basic things from Charlotte.

I am always grateful to her and to Henry, to both of them, because I would have never met her [if not for Henry]. From Charlotte I received a great basis for the Vipassana practice.


Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project
Pathways of Sensory Awareness LLC
PO Box 185, Hancock, NH 03449, USA / Tel.: (603) 525-7289