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A Conversation with Charlotte Selver
By Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt

   The following excerpt from conversations with Charlotte Selver came about because the Swiss “arbeitskreis heinrich jacoby / elsa gindler” asked for an article about the development of Charlotte’s work.  Thus, I tried to explore this with Charlotte. It turned out to be a very difficult task. It soon  became clear that Charlotte has very little interest in tracing the development of her way of working. Instead, what fascinates her is our attitude toward life.  Time and again she spoke about people who, in their way of being, embody what came to be her central interest: that life cannot be mastered by a method but needs to be met with an attitude of openness and discovery.
   The most remarkable thing about these conversations may well be the persistence with which Charlotte kept coming back to speak about Elsa Gindler, how she hesitated to admit other influences (until the surprising end of these conversations).  Gindler is the essence, everything else is at best a confirmation of Gindler’s discoveries. She often didn’t respond directly to my questions but remembered situations or people who embodied this quality of immediacy, which is so fundamental for her.

Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt: How did your own style develop from what you learned from Gindler?

Charlotte Selver: Gindler posed a question and we were asked to explore it in our daily lives. Often we were asked to write a report.  She didn’t teach something, and she didn’t give lessons.  She didn’t want us to take notes, for example.  How the work developed for each of us and how we develop through the work – that was important for her.  We spoke about our attitude in specific situations, with people, and so forth.

SLG: Did Gindler offer experiments like you do?

CS: Experiments were based on our experiences in daily life situations.  There were no static experiments. We reported something and then realized how we had been in this situation. We kept coming back to the same questions: how do I approach something, what is my attitude, what is necessary? Then there was the question of  how we overcome difficulties, or resistance, and how we meet challenging situations.  For what she taught was not a method, it was always influx, there were no exercises.  Whenever a question posed itself, how one met a person or a task, that is what we explored.  We sometimes chewed for weeks on a question until we could really meet it.  And each of us had his or her own ways of exploring.  What was so wonderful about Gindler, was that she was not set in certain ways. Everything was always influx, became clearer or was questioned.
   Gindler asked questions or we discovered something: “Can you feel how you move through the air?” Or, “what becomes conscious when you walk or when you come to standing?” Always without teaching – we had to find out. We each had our own experience or didn’t have an experience or weren’t sure, or weren’t ready. The question of readiness was very important, becoming ready for something.  And then, when one becomes ready, what happens then, what changes?  Am I really ready or am I pushing?  What is this, becoming ready?  How does it feel? On this we often worked for hours. What was typical about Gindler was that she did not teach but that she let us discover. Each of us had to make his or her own discoveries.

SLG: When you started to work with Gindler you were already involved with Bode Gymnastik. These two approaches must have conflicted. What effect did this have on your way of working?

CS: I found that Bode Gymnastik was unnatural. It was learned and not discovered. By and by the way I worked changed completely. I was at that time quite successful with Bode Gymnastik but when I started to work differently, I lost most of my students and had to start to anew.

SLG: Are there any traces of Bode Gymnastik in your work today? Perhaps in certain experiments, for example when we jump or skip?

CS: Gindler worked with everything: we ran, we jumped, we walked, we stood; we did everything that was natural – but not as a lesson. I had to give up everything I had learned and I discovered that what mattered was to meet what was given in a certain moment.

SLG: Did you have to find a new approach again when you came to America?

CS: There wasn’t a certain way of working. One has to meet what is given. We aspire a full encounter and if that doesn’t happen one has to work for hours, days, sometimes years.
   I remember how we had to run a lot with Gindler. We worked a lot at beginning, starting – how we become ready or how we spoil it. Gindler didn’t have set tasks. We worked on a task until we discovered something or, if we were unsuccessful, until we gave up. Everything was very spontaneous. What was beautiful about Gindler was, that she always asked the right questions.

SLG: How did your encounter with Alan Watts influence your work?

CS: It didn’t change through meeting Alan Watts. It was just another opportunity. Our work is about meeting a situation fully. We worked together for many years, Watts would give a lecture and I would pick up the theme for my work with people.  He didn’t know what I was going to do.  Often he wrote me about his lecture ahead of time and I explored the practical implications. What was beautiful about Alan and I was that he trusted me and I was interested in what he had to say. I learned a lot about spontaneity and how to react to a situation without much thinking.

SLG: What was the role of Zen or Korzybski?

CS: I learned a lot. There were a lot of similarities but my work isn’t about aligning with this and that.  It is always spontaneous, there is no dogma.  Through Zen I learned much about becoming quiet, about reactivity, about meeting the unknown. The most important thing I learned was not to insist on certain ways but to become reactive. You can see that in children who are not spoiled yet – and in Zen masters. Suzuki Roshi always looked like a child to me – he was so open, free, and humble.  He was fully in the present moment.  Then there was the other Suzuki, Daisetz, the great scholar.  I met him at a conference about Zen and psychoanalysis in 1957 in Mexico.  All the participants introduced themselves with their titles, professor doctor such and such – there was no end to it. And then came this little old man, Suzuki, and he just said: I am a student of Zen.
   In Korzybski’s General Semantics reactivity is also essential, as is the realization that we are a sensitive network in which everything is connected with everything and that we are always addressed as a whole.  And again there is the silence, we have to become quiet in order to be receptive.  The silence has all possibilities, it doesn’t turn its back.  In silence there is reactivity, immediate readiness.
   There was also a meeting with Ram Das many years ago.  He lived near Esalen. Charles and I went to his place and there was this man all dressed in white. Ram Das sat there with his eyes closed.  Many people were sitting around him and there were many gifts lying in front of him. Everybody had brought a gift: raisins and almonds, this and that.  Once in a while he would open his eyes and there was this incredible quiet coming from them.  Then he would turn to a person in the room and ask: “What can I do for you?”  Then, after a short conversation, he would close his eyes again. Suddenly I recognized this man, and I realized that I had met him years before in New York.  Back then he was one of the most nervous and restless people I had ever met. When he now turned to me and asked me what he could do for me, I said: “Nothing, just to look in your eyes is enough.”

SLG: Were there any other important encounters?

CS: I will never forget how I worked with Erich Fromm. I always went to his office. There was very little space. There was his desk and there was a fireplace with marble slate in front. Once I asked him to come from standing to lying.  I will never forget how feeling he was, how carefully he pushed the poker aside and then quietly lay down on the marble slate. I will never forget this – everybody else would have been bothered by the poker and the cold slate.  Later I told him: “I would love to have more students like you.”  That made him very happy.

SLG: There was also a time when you and Charles were very interested in Carlos Castaneda.

CS: Yes, Castaneda.  We often went into the mountains with our students and sat there. Then we read from his books and tried to reenact some of the scenes. Somebody would, for example, lie down and go to sleep. Then we would wake him up: “Wake up! Wake up!”  But the person wouldn’t wake up.  Then two people would pull him up: “Wake up!” But he would fall down again.  We set all this in scene, it was very exciting.  We wanted to experience it and not just read about it – but by and by we became less presumptuous
   This was a wonderful time of discovery.  I couldn’t tell you what influence it had on my work but every new discovery influences the way we live, what we use, and what we let go of.  All these discoveries had great consequences on the way I lived, where I lived, and what happened. It wasn’t just Elsa Gindler.


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Stefan Laeng-Gilliatt
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