Charlotte Selver
Charlotte Selver

Remembering Virginia Veach: July 7, 1932 – October 21, 2012

Virginia Veach, long-time Sensory Awareness leader, long-time president of the Sensory Awareness Leader Guild, and an amazing force in this world, died on October 21, 2012. She will be dearly missed by the Sensory Awareness community. I had the priviledge of interviewing her in 2009. The interview is below the photographs.


Gina with her daughter, Celia Sutton-Pado, and granddaughter, Leia Sutton-Barnes.



Gina with her granddaughter, Leia.
Sensory Awareness Conference 2009, Mt. Madonna Center, Watsonville, California

With Sara Gordon, Jill Harris and Helga Hoenen, Mt. Madonna Center, 2009

Gina on her 80th birthday on July 7, 2012 (above and below)

Images courtesy of Celia Sutton-Pado, Marc Pado, Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt


Every Moment Filled with Sensing

An Interview with Sensory Awareness Leader Virginia Veach

Virginia Veach is a psycho-oncologist, psychotherapist, and educator with a private practice in Marin County, California. From family therapy to war zones, from pain management to death and dying, her efforts to ease the effects of war, illness, and environmental degradation have taken her throughout the world. In this interview, Virginia speaks about the relevance of Sensory Awareness for her work, how it helped her living through severe illness and how it informed her engagement in a Cambodian refugee camp.

Below is an edited excerpt of an interview for the Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project.

Listen to a one-hour excerpt of my conversation with Gina.

San Rafael CA, December 13, 2009

Stefan: How did you meet Charlotte Selver?

Virginia: I went to Esalen to work with Fritz Perls in 1967. And while I was there, I met Charlotte. In September of the following year I moved to Esalen to be a resident fellow, and that’s when I really started working with her. Our explorations were like a beautiful fresh breeze blowing. It was as though I’d come home. I hadn’t gone looking for Charlotte because I didn’t know about her.  But when I met her, I immediately knew she was someone that I wanted to work with. Discovering what was occurring in me and in life, in the life around me – was exactly what I wanted. My reason for going to work with Fritz had to do with the fact that I had a very large tumor growing that I was needing help with, or felt that I needed help with. And what I really needed was the sensing that I was doing with Charlotte.

In 1972, I founded Ting-Sha Institute, and Charlotte and Charles were very much a part of that. They came up and gave wonderful sessions. As I was starting that residential treatment center, Charlotte wanted to be sure that I would be offering sensing. She wanted to be sure that I considered Sensory Awareness as part of the every day process.

Stefan: How did that happen that you wanted to start this institute?

Virginia:  That was because I wanted to integrate different therapies. I wanted to integrate meditation and creativity with sensing, digging in the garden with sensing, cooking with sensing, and how people interact with one another and relate to one another and the environment with sensing as its basis. We’d have sessions of group therapy, and then other sessions during the day of sensing and then we’d put the two together and have both the sensing and the therapy at the same time.  And the art and the therapy, and the meditation – all mixed together.

Stefan: What was the purpose of the institute?

Virginia: It was a residential program, but there were different groups of people that we worked with.  One group consisted  of teenagers who were really having a hard time, getting into trouble at home and at school. They and their parents needed help and a safe place to be. Another group was made up of people who were retired forcibly but didn’t want to stop being productive, and didn’t know how to plan their lives for a satisfying future.  The teenagers and the retirees really enjoyed each other.  They had an awful lot to share with one another.  It was really fun to see that kind of sharing of “what’s life going to be next?”

Other groups that interestingly enough fit reasonably well together, were the people who came for an independent retreat, for their own quiet, and those people who came because they no longer wanted to live in a half-way house, and couldn’t manage on their own. Some of the latter residents were quite disturbed.  Usually they were schizophrenics, but other forms of mental illness also. They were often quite withdrawn. These two groups could be quiet together and enjoy one another in a way that really helped the people who were very agitated – they could just be with others and didn’t have to talk to them. They could work quietly together in the garden, or they could work in the pottery studio and really enjoy being together, which was a surprise.

And we had people who wanted to learn some of the newer developments in their professions, but didn’t want to take the time off work to go back to school.  Generally, they were   psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers, anybody in the helping professions.  They wanted to come and stay for a 3-month long study period. And finally, we had residents wanting to get off various drugs – wanting to be somewhere where they’d be safe, away from home and work. We were tremendously successful, yet decided to move to another location when the property we were renting was put up for sale. Years later we did the cancer retreats.

Stefan:   So it changed into something else.

Virginia:   Yes. The cancer retreats didn’t develop until we came to West Marin. Our retreats were encouraged and supported by The Commonweal Cancer help Program, of which I was a founding staff member. I must say, that Charlotte would ask a lot about the retreats, asking how I was integrating sensing into the programs for people with cancer. She also was very, very interested in the work that I did in the Cambodian Refugee Camp.

Stefan: Tell me about that.

Virginia: I remember seeing on television news of the people of Cambodia too weak to walk, struggling, crawling on the ground, trying to get across the Thai-Cambodian border to survive. They were dehydrated and starving without enough water or food. It was just a horrific situation.

Stefan:   And the year was . . .?

Virginia: 1979, the camps were really just opening up, despite the fact that refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos had been struggling to get across the boarder for several years.  It just seemed so wrong that I would be sitting here in heaven while my brothers and sisters were in hell, and I wanted to do something to try to help.  I contacted various voluntary agencies to see if any of them were sending teams over. Three days later, I got a call back from The International Catholic Migration Commission saying, basically, “how soon can you put a medical team together?”.  I said, “right away.” But obviously, it wasn’t just going to be medicine, nobody could say where we would go. Nobody could say what the diseases were we would be facing. And nobody could say what would be needed when we got there.  I didn’t know what we were going be dealing with, so I wanted to take people with various capabilities.  I took a carpenter, technicians, people who could cook, as well as doctors and nurses. There were 14 of us all together.  Our first team was wonderful, people who were willing to face whatever was presented with open hearts and enthusiasm.  When we got to the refugee camp, we were taken to what was to become our ward: It was just bamboo poles, a thatched roof and some rock flooring. We were told to build our hospital. Thank goodness we had a carpenter.

In the shelter, we discovered some children and a dance teacher who was starting a traditional dancing group. They were dismayed when they saw us enter the shelter, but when we told them that they could stay until the ward was completed and patients were admitted, at which time we would find them another place to dance, they were filled with joy and relief. It was so important to preserve their culture and to share it with each other and the world. This meager group developed into an international dance group who has traveled all over the world, and been featured in National Geographic.

Joan Baez’s mother gave us sewing machines so people could put together scraps of clothes and make something to wear out of them. They could come in and use the sewing machines, and be with one another. So, all that was going on while the building was going on, before we could have patients in there.

Stefan: What was your professional background?

Virginia: Psychology, Physical Therapy, Ordained Minister, and Artist. It turned out that, strangely enough, being diverse was probably really good because I was the only person in camp who had ever worked with polio and T.B. We had lots of polio cases and T.B., and lots of amputees.  Nobody else in the camp had ever tried to build crutches or worked with what happens with an amputee. So, it was a good thing that I had that background.

We were a family practice ward.  That meant that we were a “catch all”. Any refugee in the triage station they didn’t know what do to with was sent to us. Like the mothers that were severely dehydrated and didn’t have enough milk to feed their babies. The water was so contaminated that if you gave milk to the babies and the water and bottles weren’t boiled, the babies would die. Fuel was so scarce that boiling the water was impossible for these weakened mothers.  We decided to take eye-droppers and drip boiled milk on the mother’s breast as the baby was suckling, hydrating the mother, not the baby. Hydrating the mother and dripping the eye-dropped milk for the baby, was very labor intensive, but babies began surviving. We banned baby bottles.

We also didn’t have much at all in the way of anesthesia.  That’s again where sensing came in.  We were able to do surgeries with people with no anesthesia and manage the pain just through Sensory Awareness, and my support.  Every moment was filled with sensing.

Sensing was essential also because we had brought only two microscopes, and there were 80,000 people when we arrived. There were some stethoscopes, and later a German surgical team brought  x-ray equipment – and swiped our technician to run the x-ray machine.  That was it for diagnostic equipment. When someone was in pain, often the challenge was to figure out whether we’re talking about referred pain or not. Was the pain in the front referred from the back, or vice versa?  Was it referred from somewhere else and the area that the person was complaining about wasn’t the problem? It’s very difficult to really pin things down unless you can work with sensing.  That way it can be traced back to its source to know more about what’s going on.  It was so essential!

Stefan: Did you have an interpreter, or how did you work with people?

Virginia: We did. And of course we had to also try to teach the interpreters the right words.

Stefan: I was thinking in terms of Sensory Awareness, to work with an interpreter and they would have to understand what you were wanting, and then they would have to find words to pass that on.

Virginia:  That’s right.

Stefan:  That seems almost impossible to do.

Virginia:  That’s right.

Stefan:  But you did it.

Virginia:  Well, often – there was one patient who was a monk. We were told He had been sent to us because he was “noncompliant and incorrigible”.  He certainly didn’t look uncooperative to me.  He was a very, very sweet man. The problem was that he was starving to death, but he wouldn’t eat.  So I had to ask him “why”.  My interpreter, at that point, was a young woman, and she said: “I’m sorry, this is really not something that’s acceptable for me to tell you.  I would not say no about anything else, but women are not permitted to speak to a monk. You’re going to have to find a man to talk to him.” The patient’s cots were fairly low, and the monk was lying down, our new found interpreter had to get below the monk to speak to him with proper respect.  Of course, I didn’t know enough so they forgave me all my mistakes. I asked him why he was finding eating so much of a problem and he said, “They serve lunch after noon.”  Monks take a vow not to eat after noon, all we had to do was bring him something to eat before noon, and he’d eat it. So, the lesson was, if you don’t understand something, ask! Don’t just assume this is somebody who’s incorrigible. It’s all part of what sensing is about. It’s that kind of give and take.

There was a little boy on our ward who had a spina bifida.  A child was brought in who was in shock. We put the two boys together on the same bed. They just lay there and held each other.  And then, little by little, they began to explore their surroundings. They’d feel their way around the bed with their fingers and then began to walk a little bit feeling their way. The little one who was in shock was blind, and the spina bifida boy couldn’t walk without help.  So the two of them, one of them guiding the other, began to expand their world– it was very dear.

Stefan: Beautiful. I’d like to go back to the beginnings of your encounter with Charlotte. That tumor was part of your decision to go to Esalen. Were you helped by the work?

Virginia: Oh, very much so.  Yes.

Stefan: Can you say how?

Virginia: I was helped in – balancing probably is a reasonable way of putting it.  But also in working with the fact of the tumor. What was going on?  What was actually happening in that process?  And then, after I did finally have it surgically removed, sensing was very integral to the recovery process. By that time, sensing was integral to all of my life. Everything that I did had sensing as its foundation.  

Later, when I developed other issues – cancer and heart disease – and had various surgeries and recoveries – I’m sure that sensing really made it possible to stay alive. Two years ago, I had an ejection fraction of 20. That means, the amount of blood that was pumped out on every heart beat was 20%, and 80% was left in the heart. Today, mine is 55%, close to normal.

Feeling, experiencing what’s going on, what’s needed: Is there any tension? Is there anything that I can do to allow support for each heart-beat? Is there any holding going on in my chest that makes things harder for the heart? What can I do to open in my chest? I remember Charlotte used to talk about feeling to the bottom of your heart. The bottom of my heart got to the point that it wasn’t moving at all. 

So when I would feel into it – sense what was going on – and really bring my attention to that area and see if there’s some way that I could improve the circulation, I could improve the electrical process, by just improving the awareness. The last time I had an echo cardiogram, they said that the apex of the heart was moving! It is sensing that made that possible, I’m sure.

I remember when Charlotte came to visit me after I had surgery for cancer. She said: “Be sure not to hold your arm too close in.  Allow enough air so that your armpit can breathe.”  She would come to see me, and we would sit and have tea and we would talk about both of us having had cancer; what her experience was and what mine was, and what sensing had done to contribute to her recovery.

Stefan: She amazingly survived breast cancer and many other illnesses and accidents.

Virginia:  I talked with her when I broke my hip the first time.

Stefan: You’re a good student of Charlotte’s, you’re following her path thoroughly!  Cancer and hip surgery.

Virginia:  Yes, it’s true. I broke my hip falling while playing tennis.  The neck of the femur got compressed in the fall, and when I rolled back, the head twisted back.  They wanted to replace it, and I said no, just pin it. So they put screws in it, and when it healed I wanted to have the screws taken out, so that I could work on trying to straighten that bone. Because it was rotated so far back that it affected the motion in my hip, and given that bones are plastic – in the real sense of that word, not in the material sense – I didn’t see any reason why it couldn’t, with enough sensing begin to lengthen and straighten.  I told Charlotte what I was doing.  She was delighted.

And then when I began losing strength and feeling in my legs and feet because of the problems I was having in my back, she was very interested in my plan to walk as normally as possible just by feeling what I could from wherever I could. How far down my legs could I feel pressure? So even though I couldn’t feel my feet, I could still sense where they must be by how my weight was coming down in response to the pull of gravity. The first time I had an angioplasty (unblocking of a blood vessel), the doctor said: “It’s maybe going through cell by cell, but it’s way too blocked for us to get a tube through there.  And we certainly don’t have time to get you to the surgeon.” Which I didn’t want anyway, so that was fine.

He said: “What shall we do? It’s your choice, because this is a bad situation.”
I said: “Well it seems to me that you need to work with me, and if we work together we can get it done.”
He: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I: “I will try opening the vessels as much as I can, and then I’ll let you know and you can try to move the tube forward, and then I’ll try to open a little farther and then you move the tube forward.”
He said: “That’s impossible.  You can’t feel in there.”
I: “Trust me, I think I can.”
He: “Prove it.”
I: “Okay, so start running the tube in me, and I will point from the outside and tell you where it is.  I’ll point to it as you’re progressing.”
He said: “Okay”, and then: “How do you do that??”
I said: “I’m just feeling.”

So that’s what we did when we got to the blockage. I would sense into my heart and into those vessels to try to open as much as I could and then he could inch the tiny little tube through.  It was very successful.  I attribute all that to Sensory Awareness. It has been part of everything that’s helped support life for me, many other surgeries, and situations. I keep discovering more and more.

Stefan: It’s interesting to me because for the past year I have had tendonitis in my left shoulder and I have been in constant pain. For a long time I thought: “I can help myself.” It got worse and worse. “I’m a Sensory Awareness leader, I can help myself.” Until I finally had to admit: “Okay, I cannot help myself”, and went to the “competition” – to a Feldenkrais practitioner.  So after months of treatments I’m getting much better. But it’s interesting and curious to me because my learning experience was to see my own limits, to acknowledge that I needed help. You were so daring. When everybody told you, you cannot help yourself, you knew you could and you did it. 

Virginia: Well I think they’re both necessary.  You can’t function autonomously, really.  We do need help, and it’s a kind of give and take process. If you take Charlotte herself, look at all the surgeries she had.  That’s called help. We do our part as much as possible. But I think that if we absolve ourselves from any responsibility, then things can’t go as well as they would otherwise.

My hope is that people will be interested enough in sensing to realize the value of it without anything else to have to lead them there, like pain. Certainly pain is a big challenge. However, pain is something that we can really work with.

If I have someone who wants help with pain, I can work with questions like: Are you willing to be curious about what you’re experiencing?” And if the person says “yes”, then that opens up the possibility of:  ”Is it so intense that if it got a little more so, you couldn’t tolerate it?” That’s important to find out. If the answer is “No”, then ”What would happen if you got out of the way of the pain?  If you didn’t try to contain it;  If you didn’t try to manage it; What would happen?”  And often people will say, “Well, it would get bigger.”  And I’d say, “How much bigger?”  So while you are there, feeling into it, does it change shape? spread? Get smaller? Where does it go?

As one feels, and is truly curious, it will change in nature. ”As it changes in shape, does it become warmer or cooler?  Does it become pulsing or steady? What happens?  And where does it stop?  How far does it go? And if it does stop, what’s stopping it?” Because pain behaves like warmth, it will radiate – well, sometimes it will get smaller and so does warmth. It’s the same kind of thing.  It’s a sensation.  But you need to be curious about it in order for it to become interesting. When the pain and sensation of breathing come together, touch each other, that’s where the action really is.  

That’s no different from psychotherapy.  Contact is always where the action is.  So, “as your sensation of breathing begins to fill you, do the sensations of pain and breathing touch each other?  And if so, what happens where they do?”  It’s all sensing.  “And if they don’t touch each other, what’s in the middle?  Why don’t they?  What is it that is going on? Not that you want to make them touch each other, but just feel. Be curious about how they are with each other.”  It’s really quite surprising that most of the time the pain will turn to warmth. Sometimes it will change to burning, then you say: “Can you let it change in shape? What will happen?” The farther out the warmth goes, the more it cools. And most of the time when it comes back, it is a non-painful sensation.

Stefan: So you would sit with somebody and just guide them through that.

Virginia: Yes.

Stefan: And they would give you constant feedback?

Virginia: Right.  It’s just that we have an idea that we want to get rid of the pain.  And then it’s hard to be curious about it.

Stefan: Yes.

Virginia: Pain sensors are so valuable, they’re so necessary!  They let us know right away if there’s a serious problem that needs attention, or there’s an area of discomfort that needs attention. If pain were a pleasant sensation, we wouldn’t do anything about it. It’s such a gift to help keep us healthy. It is important to be curious about it, and to learn from it.

So I am still alive, despite everybody’s predictions to the contrary. I’ve beaten the odds on almost everything that I’ve tried, and I don’t know how long I can keep that up.

Stefan: How old are you now?

Virginia: Seventy-seven.  And I’ve been at this most of my life. It’s really been Charlotte who has made it possible for me to put it all together. I use it every day in my work.

Stefan: Now you work as a psychotherapist mainly?

Virginia: Yes, but just two days ago, I had a client telling me that he was having a terrible time with anxiety attacks, and so we stopped right then and there and we just did some sensing: How it felt to be sitting in the chair, his feet on the ground and his weight in the chair. He began to relax a bit and then I asked him about how he felt in his chest area, and he said that it felt like he was in a cage, and his heart was being squashed. So we worked with that for a while, and pretty soon he didn’t feel caged anymore and then he could begin to talk and we could talk about what happened – but he had to do the sensing first. And that’s always true.

Sometimes it becomes obvious that what a client needs is to draw and not talk. I ask the client to just become aware of the experience of a pencil on paper – not a writing pencil, but a color pencil, softer pencil – is it possible to feel the tooth of the paper through the pencil, and if so, respond with curiosity to that as though feeling a log or feeling the sand, just wander and feel it, sensing what wants to happen, and just let your hand go where it wants to. People come up with wonderful things that they didn’t have any idea they were going to talk about. I’ve had quite a few people who have discovered their own illness that way. There was one woman who was quite sure from looking at her drawing that she had a mass in her lung. She went to the doctor and got an x-ray, and sure enough she had lung cancer. The same kind of thing happens with dreams.  It will come out – the same message will come out whether on a piece of paper, or through dreams, or sensing, which is a way into our inner knowing of how life is occurring within us. We become more alive and enlivened.


Charlotte Selver Oral History and Book Project
Pathways of Sensory Awareness LLC
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