An Inquiry into Direct Experience: Authentic Movement and the Five Skandhas

by Linda Hartley

My questioning about what it means to experience life directly – not filtered through a veil of expectations, memories, projections, fantasies, fears, beliefs about how things are, or should be, but simply as it presents itself to me in this moment—has grown from many years of engagement with Buddhist meditation, T’ai Chi Ch’uan, Body-Mind Centering® and Authentic Movement. The first two—ancient, well-worn paths—invite my mind to rest in the present moment, in my body, in this place. The latter, both innovative disciplines developed within the contemporary field of bodymind exploration, offer methods to explore the dialogue between form and meaning—the interface of matter with consciousness—within a spirit of acceptance and ongoing inquiry.

Within the practice of these disciplines, I ask myself, “What does it mean to be present, fully present in the moment? What is direct experience? What draws me away from it? What encourages or allows me to enter it?”

For me, attending to sensation serves as the most direct way to experience the moment, just as it is, simply, without elaboration. When I come to my senses, pay attention to the impressions entering my awareness through the gateways of my senses, I become present, here, now.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the mantra “be here now” was the message of the time. Although misunderstandings of it often led to hedonistic indulgence, or to an unwillingness to accept responsibility; the perennial wisdom of this message is nevertheless still of great value to us. It may be during difficult times—when looking to the past evokes feelings of depression and despair at the losses, failures, humiliations of life, and looking to the future brings only anxiety and fear—we learn most directly how coming into the present brings enormous relief, even joy. Paying attention to the sensory world around and within me, I come into my body, this place, this moment. I become present, and from the experience of presence, anxiety and despair loosen their hold on me.

This is not the same as doing what I want because I may think the past and future don’t matter. It means being open to and accepting the fullness of the moment, its pain as well as its joy – accepting life as it is. I am still amazed each time I am graced with the experience of being present, its power to heal, to open and connect, to bring clarity and peace.

Developing Distance from Experience

Psychology offers us maps of how, as infants and young children, we begin to distance ourselves from the immediacy of the moment. Early experience is a bodily, sensory event. Through the body we touch and are touched in all sorts of ways; we move and are moved. Life is experienced through movement and sensation, and through this we begin to know ourselves, to develop a sense of self (Juhan, 1987).

Some of these sensations are pleasant and some are not. We learn about pleasure and pain through bodily sensation, and begin to differentiate what we like from what we don’t like. At this stage there are no names, no categories—just like and dislike, or indifference.

Emotional life begins to differentiate out of these bodily felt sensations: joy, frustration, fear, anger, excitement or satisfaction. Gradually we come to associate certain activities with specific sensations and feelings which we like or dislike.  We begin to learn ways to invite that which we want, and avoid what we don’t want.

By this time, we have drawn somewhat away from experiencing life directly. We are beginning to solidify the moment into desires and aversions, and thus to divide experience into good and bad. The wholeness and simplicity of the moment has become fractured. This process takes a massive leap as language and mental faculties develop. Language has the wonderful ability to enable us to communicate complex thoughts and feelings which we could not express in a purely bodily way. But it can also distance us further from the totality of experience; when we categorize, name, and give language to experience we must select, discriminate, discard some aspects of experience in favor of others. The private and disavowed self (Stern, 1985) is born, and the present moment is further fractured into what can be consciously accepted and expressed, and what can’t.

Of course, this process is necessary for healthy ego development—necessary if we are to live in society, contribute and communicate with our fellow human beings. It is also a natural development, as brain cells forge new synaptic connections, enabling us to comprehend and master our world. But it is important to recognise that there is loss as well as gain. What we lose is the simple and direct experience of life, moment-to-moment, without expectations, categories, judgments, exclusions. We lose life lived fully, in the body, through the senses, in the moment.

As we grow, this process will continue to a greater or lesser extent. We may be educated and conditioned into rejecting whole areas of experience. Our own vast and rich inner life may find no way to reach our conscious mind and expression. The unavowed, unlived aspects of our experience may live on in the body, hidden from consciousness—sensations and feelings experienced only as disturbing body symptoms or dream images, surfacing from the body-unconscious.

The Five Skandhas

Buddhist psychology also offers a map of the development of ego that has close parallels with this understanding of western psychology, although the overall context has additional levels of meaning which are not present in our own model. From the Tibetan Buddhist point of view, according to the Abhidharma teachings, every phenomena that appears to have a solid, enduring existence—including our sense of self—is related to the function of the ego. (The terms self and ego are often used interchangeably in Buddhist teaching.) Ego, and our attachment to it, is the source of all our suffering, for by clinging to it, we separate ourselves from the spaciousness of our true nature and the unity of life. From this point of view, the development of ego is a process by which we enmesh ourselves ever more deeply in pain, confusion, and isolation.

The Abhidharma teachings contain a description of ego development through five stages, or skandhas. This is a complex and profound description; I will speak of it here on a very simple level, according to the limitations of space and my own understanding. The first stage is called “Form,” and it is the first step in the creation of a boundaried ego, an individual sense of self, out of the open spaciousness of awareness. It includes all phenomena—forms, images, projections—which are perceivable through the senses and the mind. Our perception of reality is filtered through a veil of confusion or ignorance, which causes us to begin to solidify open awareness and perceive it as separate and solid forms of existence. This process makes things more tangible, and thus more manageable; it gives us some sense of substantiality, security, and permanence in a world which really has none of these characteristics.

In the second skandha, “Sensation/Feeling”, this solidifying process goes a little further. We begin to identify the experiences of the senses and mind—the forms and projections created at the first stage—as pleasurable and friendly, painful and hostile, or neutral.  Thus we deepen the dualistic stance. Because sensations and feelings are impermanent, the essence of our happiness and suffering, which is based upon them, is also impermanent. If we don’t understand this, we will develop attachments and aversions to things that have no real, ongoing existence.

This leads us to the third skandha, Recognition/Perception”. The first two skandhas, in a sense, involve straightforward experiencing. At the third stage, the process of solidifying open space is completed as we identify, name, and categorize our experiences. Our world is now boxed up and labeled. We begin to make judgments about this and that, and cling to a mistaken sense of the substance and reality of our projections and judgments.

In effect, all three stages happen almost simultaneously, but each is automatically constellated by the previous one, because they are pushing up close to one another, with no space to simply be. Trungpa Rinpoche uses the image of piercing a needle through a pile of paper; as soon as you have penetrated the first sheet, you make contact with the second, and so on (Trungpa, 1975). We are usually unaware of the first two stages, and jump straight to the third skandha in which we automatically label our experiences without fully and consciously experiencing the uniqueness of the moment.

For example, let’s say the color red reaches my eye; at this stage, it is not yet named, but let’s say it is red that I see. It gives me a cozy feeling, a sort of warm glow behind my eyes and in my belly; I like this sensation and would like more of it. Then I recognize and name it—red. Red is something I like, and I begin to desire more red things—a red sweater, a red car, a red door to my house. I even want to be friends with someone who has red hair! Blue, on the other hand I don’t like, and go out of my way to avoid it.

The fourth skandha is called “Formation, or Intellect”. This concerns our mental activity: our thoughts, opinions, beliefs, the internal dialogue which constantly accompanies us. Bodymind patterns, attitudes, and emotions also belong to this skandha. Here, instead of just allowing a perception or thought to arise in our awareness, we elaborate, associate, remember, develop our ideas. This process of mental elaboration takes us further and further away from our direct experience of the moment, deeper and deeper into duality.

The fifth stage, which is the fulfilment of the whole process, and also in a sense the ground for the previous stages, is “Consciousness”. In this context, Consciousness refers to a clear, articulated, intelligent quality of knowing. In the first skandha, the senses make contact with objects. By the fifth stage, the basic intelligence knows what that object is, based upon previous experiences, learning, prejudice, and conditioning. The fifth skandha contains all of the forms, sensory perceptions, feelings, and thought patterns of the previous stages. However, it differs from the explicit thought patterns of the fourth skandha; Consciousness provides the constant stream of half-formed thoughts and perceptions – the “undergrowth” or “background padding” (Trungpa 1975) out of which the explicit thought patterns of the fourth skandha develop.  The fifth skandha keeps the whole process going.

Anyone who has ever sat down to meditate will have been amazed at the unstoppable stream of subconscious thoughts bubbling up into awareness, seemingly out of nowhere, and dismayed at how difficult it is to stop the elaboration of these thoughts. This is the fifth skandha at work, keeping the whole mechanism of ego going.

The skandhas describe not only a process of ego-development which we all, as infants, go through, but a process which occurs in the moment—at every single moment—as ego constantly recreates itself. There is nothing inherently wrong with the five skandhas and their contents. They are completely natural occurrences, neither good nor bad, without which we could not orient ourselves through daily life. But there is a problem with the way in which we complicate each moment through our complex elaboration of associations, projections, judgments, and interpretations. We solidify our position, become entrenched in our opinions, and create enemies within and without.

Meditation offers an opportunity to slow down, so we notice the workings of the skandhas. We are invited to simply observe the form, the sensations, the emotions, the thought patterns, and even the subconscious undergrowth of the fifth skandha. With practice and patience, a gap begins to appear in the movement of the skandhas, so that we cease for a moment to elaborate from one stage to the next, and the next. We allow the sensation to simply be, without judging the pain in the stomach to be unpleasant, without worrying we might be developing a stomach ulcer, wondering what caused it, imagining it was stress, engaging in an imagined argument with the man who angered us yesterday, deciding he is the cause of the stomach ulcer, planning our retaliation . . . and so on.

When we simply let each event be, in its own nature and simplicity, space begins to open up again. For that moment, we are less bound by our projections, our habits, and our fears. We notice the thought or feeling or sensation; we experience the moment directly and simply. This can be such an enormous relief from the complexities and complications of constant elaboration that we wonder why we don’t do it all the time. It is the simplest of things, and yet it is the most difficult to achieve. It might be easier for many of us to earn a PhD than to learn to experience life directly, in the moment. Yet its value makes it worth trying.

Of course, in psychotherapy we spend a lot of time elaborating our thoughts, feelings, memories, and associations. The process of therapy necessitates that we explore our unconscious assumptions and attitudes, uncover our projections and judgments, make connections, associations, analyze and try to understand our behavior. There is a necessary place for this work. But if we don’t ever let go and simply experience the moment, we may remain stuck wandering unconsciously in an interminable labyrinth of the five skandhas.

I have witnessed clients, after struggling for a long time with some problem, suddenly become able to settle deeply into themselves, into their body, and simply be.  When the work of elaboration ceases, and the presence of direct experience is felt, these moments often create subtle but very significant turning points in a person’s life. They connect us more deeply to our core sense of being beyond the doing and elaborating. They enable a profound reorientation to occur. When we are ready for such moments, they can be deeply healing.

Authentic Movement

The discipline of Authentic Movement also offers a way to enter into direct experience. Like meditation practice, it invites the opening up of space in which we can witness the skandhas of bodily form or movement, sensation, emotion and imagination as they arise into awareness. Witnessing each skandha, each moment, each experience, we give it our full and conscious attention, valuing it for what it is in itself. By doing this we learn to stop the automatic running of one skandha into the next, which separates us from our direct experience of the moment, and further entrenches a dualistic position.

Authentic Movement was originally developed by pioneer dance therapist Mary Starks Whitehouse during the 1950s and 1960s. Mary studied and was deeply influenced by Jungian thought, and originally called her work active imagination in movement, or movement-in-depth. Janet Adler, one of Whitehouse’s foremost students, has further explored the relationship between mover and witness, and the mystical dimensions of this discipline (Pallaro, 1999). I gratefully draw upon her teaching in my description of the discipline of Authentic Movement (Adler 2002).

Authentic Movement offers a simple form within which a mover and a witness engage together on a journey of uncovering a clear and compassionate place within themselves. The ground form involves one mover and one witness, although Authentic Movement can also be practiced within a group, with either one witness, or a circle of several witnesses, being present for a group of movers. The witness “holds” the space—the safe container—into which the mover goes, eyes closed. Within the sacred space of the witness circle, the mover invites the unconscious to speak through movement and stillness.

The mover attends to inner sensations, feelings, images, and movement impulses, listening and waiting for each impulse, allowing them to come into form through movement. The body, in its wisdom, tells the story needing to be told at this very moment. Memories, dream images, deep feelings, archetypal energies, ancient knowledge, ritual, song, play, laughter or tears, and healing moments may be evoked, and find expression through the movement. It is the witness’s embodied presence which enables the mover to surrender to the ongoing flow of information from the unconscious. Thus, the body becomes conscious.

After the movement has ended, both mover and witness share their experience. Making conscious what was unconscious enables the mover to embrace lost or hidden aspects of himself, to transform painful feelings and release blockages. Gradually the mover “clears the density of their personal history” (Adler 2002). The witness pays attention to the sensations, feelings, memories, and images evoked in her by the presence of the mover, and learns to recognize and own her projections, interpretations, and judgments. She catches the process of the skandhas running one into the next, the elaboration of direct experience into thought patterns and judgements, and unravels them back to the skandhas of form, sensation and feeling to discover the origins of her projections within her own embodied experience.

As witness, we seek to see the mover clearly, and as we do so, we find we also come to see ourselves more clearly. The longing to be seen clearly by another transforms into the longing to see another clearly. At times, mover and witness meet in moments of what Janet Adler calls unitive experience, as the internal witness within each person evolves.

The Experience of the Mover

Entering the empty circle as a mover, turning our attention inwards, we may be confronted, first of all, with the subterranean gossip of the fifth skandha, erupting now and then in specific thought patterns or emotions. If we follow and become absorbed in the mental chatter, we will miss this unique moment—the shape the body makes as it stretches out along the ground, the smooth, cool texture of the floor, the gentle rise and fall of the belly as the body breathes, sunlight penetrating closed eyelids, a sudden soft breeze from an open window brushing the side of the face.

If instead of rolling the head to the side to greet breeze and light, spreading the hand to feel more clearly the smoothness of the wooden floor, arching the spine to acknowledge the fullness of breath filling belly and chest—we continue to mull over the conversation we had three hours ago, and plan what we will cook for dinner tonight, we miss the magic and simplicity of the moment. By retreating into a non-existent past and future, we lose the direct experience of now.

But if we pay attention to those emerging movements and allow them space to develop, we engage with the uniqueness of the moment, and discover what the bodymind is truly experiencing. When we follow these small movements, letting each movement and each moment flow into the next, without holding on or pushing away, we may be surprised by an unconscious, unintended impulse which moves us from deep within. The unconscious meets the reality of the body-ego, and a dialogue, a mutual education and integration, can occur (Chodorow, 1991). Through this practice of embodying, accepting, and allowing the process to unfold, we invite the possibility of transformation. When we allow ourselves to fully experience each skandha as it arises, we allow ourselves to inhabit each moment fully, giving equal significance and value to each emerging experience.

Often I hear students describe how they enter into the movement experience believing they feel one thing, caught perhaps in the perceptions and beliefs of the third and fourth skandhas, but as they follow their moment-by-moment experience, they realize something completely different is arising into awareness. Where we believed we were stuck in a vague feeling of discontent, we find that, by moving from our inner impulses, from the deeper self, we can transform that feeling and belief through a direct experience of spaciousness, or physical strength, or tenderness, or clean cutting anger. A woman described how she believed she was not strong enough to stand on her own, but by embodying in movement her process as it evolved moment-by-moment, she found she did in fact have the resources to stand alone, and could change her belief system as a result of this direct, embodied experience.

The Art of Witnessing

Witnessing another’s movement is a discipline which requires much practice; like meditation, it might take a lifetime and more to perfect. But we try our best to witness clearly, with compassion and acceptance, and in so doing we gradually develop the ability to be present in the moment, experiencing the moment directly, as it happens, without preconceptions and expectations, judgments, projections, or interpretations.

We do this by learning to recognize and own our projections, judgments, and interpretations. Many people, when they first experience the discipline of witnessing Authentic Movement, are shocked at the extent to which they judge, project onto, and interpret another’s experience. It is important to accept that we all do this most of the time. This is how we have learned to relate to each other and our world, and also how we learn to see ourselves more clearly. It is the natural way of ego development, and the process of the five skandhas at work, to make projections, judgments, and interpretations. It may also be a learned skill of a therapist to make informed interpretations and judgments, or assessments, based on a particular belief system and theory.

So first of all, the witness must learn to have compassion for herself, not to judge herself too harshly for judging others, for we cannot learn to accept others if we cannot accept ourselves. Then she learns how to speak about her experience in a way that gives the mover space and freedom to acknowledge his own truth. The way we give language to our experience is crucial in this discipline; the witness seeks to speak about her own direct experience, not impose her experience onto the mover as if it were the mover’s truth. We may speak about our responses to the mover, but we own them as our own.

For example, it can make a big difference to the mover if he hears his witness say, “You look sad,” rather than, “I feel the wish to comfort you.”  “I see you stamp your foot and I think you must be angry,” is very different from “I see you stamp your foot and my spine straightens, my hands clench, and I feel alert and strong.” The first statement compresses space; the second opens and expands space.

As witness, I seek to give my fullest possible attention to the mover, as far as I am able. I track the actual movements that are made. This is important, as the body is the basis of the process, and for material to be integrated, the process must first be embodied, then remembered.

I also pay attention to any sensations that may be evoked in me in the presence of the mover; proprioceptive or kinesthetic experiences within my own body, or sensory perceptions of space, light, sound, weight, and so on may all be included. An image might arise in my mind, or I might perceive a story unfolding as I witness the movement. All of these are acknowledged as my own experiences, manifestations of the skandhas arising within my own consciousness.

Sometimes, as witness, I may have an emotional response to the mover; I may feel fear, tenderness, compassion, anger, joy, and so on. Throughout all of this I try not to jump to hasty judgments, projecting my responses onto the mover, but give myself the space to feel each experience directly as my own. As with the dismantling of sequences of skandha activity in meditation, I seek to simply let each experience be, in its own place, with its own intrinsic significance, without elaborating a mountain of interpretations and beliefs about it.

Thoughts will arise; memories, associations, and insights will emerge. I simply let them be, and keep returning my attention to my body, my sensations, feelings, and the images evoked in the presence of the mover.

Therapeutic and Spiritual Practice

There is clearly a potential for therapeutic work in this practice as material from the unconscious arises and is embodied in movement, where it can be seen, felt, recognized, understood, and integrated into consciousness. Many therapists are using this deceptively simple but profound practice as a resource for their work. In particular, the dyadic form of one mover and one witness reflects and evokes the relationship of therapist and client. For many people, bodily movement offers a direct and powerful way to access unconscious material, though it must be understood that this is generally not appropriate work for the borderline or psychotic person, or a vulnerable client who needs to strengthen ego boundaries, not loosen them.

Especially in long-term work, transference and countertransference issues may arise. Through ongoing witnessing of her own emotional and somatic responses, the witness-therapist monitors this. Through the owning of her experience, her mover-client is enabled to more fully acknowledge his own unique experience, and to recognize both his individuality and his relationship to another.

Authentic Movement is also a discipline of awareness training. I liken it to a meditation practice done in the presence of, and in relation to, another. It has been called a “feminine form of Zen.” I also see it as a form of “embodied, relational, spiritual practice.” As mover, through the experience of being witnessed by another with acceptance and compassion, my own internal witness can develop. As witness, I train myself to become aware of my direct experience in the presence of the mover, and come to recognize the mover within myself. In moments of clear seeing, we are distinct but not separate—we are two and we are also one. When practiced in a group, Authentic Movement facilitates a deepening sense of community, as conscious awareness within the collective body evolves.

Training in direct embodied experience gives a secure grounding for such moments of intuitive knowing where duality—just for a moment—falls away, and we dance together in a shared truth. The miracle of the bodymind and its senses serve as an open doorway into mystical experience, which is always direct experience.

Note: I am deeply grateful to my teacher Janet Adler whose descriptions of the discipline of Authentic Movement I draw upon here.

[First published in Self & Society Volume 30, No1, 2002]

Further Reading

Adler, Janet. Offering from The Conscious Body.  Rochester Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2002

Chodorow, Joan. Dance Therapy and Depth Psychology: The Moving Imagination. New York and London: Routledge, 1991

Hartley, Linda. Wisdom of the Body Moving: An Introduction to Body-Mind Centering. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 1995

Hartley, Linda. Somatic Psychology: Body, Mind and Meaning. London and Philadelphia: Whurr/Wiley, 2004

Juhan, Deane. Job’s Body: A Handbook for Bodywork. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1987

Lama Norlha, The Five Skandhas, in The Dharma by Kalu Rinpoche. Albany NY: SUNY Press, 1986

Pallaro, Patrizia editor, Authentic Movement: Essays by Mary Starks Whitehouse, Janet Adler and Joan Chodorow. London and Philadelphia Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd, 1999

Stern, Daniel N. The Interpersonal World of the Infant. New York: Basic Books/HarperCollins Publishers, 1985

Trungpa, Chogyam Glimpses of Abhidharma. Boston and London: Shambhala Publications, Inc. 1975

Linda Hartley, MA, RDMP, RSMT, UKCP reg. has worked since 1977 in the fields of dance and somatic movement therapy, bodywork, and transpersonal and body psychotherapy. She founded the Institute for Integrative Bodywork & Movement Therapy through which she runs an ISMETA-approved training program, teaches Authentic Movement and works as a therapist in private practice in the UK.

Linda is author of Wisdom of the Body Moving, Servants of the Sacred Dream, and Somatic Psychology: Body, Mind and Meaning, and editor of Contemporary Body Psychotherapy: the Chiron Approach.

Photographs by Kimberly McKeever 2011



This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to An Inquiry into Direct Experience: Authentic Movement and the Five Skandhas

  1. THankyou so much for these articles
    Very much appreciated
    LOVE from NAvanita

  2. Janice Geller says:

    Dear Linda,

    I am reminded of a session we had many years ago, when you brought my arm into supination and pronation over and over. I often come back to this experience. We did not speak about it after. I never asked, and you never said, what you were exploring, or what I was experiencing. The memory of the experience is in my sensation. I feel it often when I move my arm. I found you article profoundly insightful.

    Love, Janice

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *