By Kenneth McCarthy
reprinted from the Yoga Journal
In an era when public relations is often a substitute for substance, and the human potential movement seems at times like a 24-hour convenience store, it's worthwhile taking a fresh look at the roots of the movement and reminding ourselves of its profound and revolutionary origins. Some of the pioneers are no longer with us. But Charlotte Selver, a teacher of teachers and a touchstone of dedication and integrity, is still offering her unique and innovative work.
In 1938, almost 50 years ago, Selver came to the United States from Germany, bringing a practice that continues to have an enormous influence on the way we define ourselves as human beings. The intention of this practice is simply to create an opportunity for the individual to experience the unity of mind and body. In the world of the 30's and 40's, this was a strange idea in most circles. The separateness and superiority of the intellect was a concept so firmly ingrained that to question it seemed absurd. The body was something to ignore, transcend, or improve through exercise.
Within this intellectual climate, Selver worked indomitably to establish an appreciation of "entire being," the context within which all the potentials of the human being can continue to unfold.
In1963, Selver offered the first workshops in nonverbal experimentation at Esalen Institute. Many who went on to make names for themselves in various forms of "awareness training" attended those early seminars. Indeed, Selver coined the term "sensory awareness," now often used so carelessly, in 1950 to describe her work. And Selver has had a profound impact on humanistic psychology, in part due to her influence on some of the major theorists and writers of this century.
For example, in the 1940's, Erich Fromm introduced Selver at the New School for Social Research in New York, where she presented the first courses in "body awareness" given at that institution.
Fritz Perls spent a year and a half studying with her and incorporated many of her ideas into his Gestalt therapy. In particular, he took from her his emphasis on awareness and on being, rather than having, an organism.
Alan Watts, who gave joint seminars with Selver before her move to California, called her work "living Zen." The West Coast Zen community enthusiastically embraced sensory awareness and saw it as very much in the spirit of their own pursuits. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who collaborated with Selver in a benefit workshop for his Tassajara Zen monastery, called their practice "the inner experience of entire being, the pure flow of sensory awareness when the mind through calmness ceases to work - deeper than man-made awareness."