Christopher Ash

About me: The ‘I’ in this essay is a white, Anglo-Celtic, Australian male, born in 1950. I lived my first thirteen years in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney My first ‘spiritual’ experiences were those of a child exploring the Australian bushland of these mountains. That’s probably sufficient to make sense of the following.

  1. 1967 to 2009

I began my meditation in 1967 and discovered the Buddhadharma in 1969. I absorbed myself totally in Buddhist thinking for twenty years, then I remember one day saying to a friend, “I am going to find out what the West has to offer which might be comparable.” (I had never forgotten how inspired I was when I found Socrates in my high school days.) My friend’s response was, “What on earth could they have that’s in any way comparable?!”

Of course, I found gold in my own culture – particularly in the process philosophy of Eugene Gendlin, and in his two practices: Focusing and Thinking at the Edge. Now, after thirty-plus years studying Psychotherapy and Phenomenology, I am happy to share these riches.

Thinking back, I must have found Gendlin about 1996, when I began my psychotherapy training. At first, I only learned his Focusing method, so I didn’t think I had two paths. However, as I increasingly entered into the process philosophy which was behind the Focusing practice, I realised that I was learning a much deeper teaching, here – deeper than one that merely addressed surface personal issues – and that it resonated with the Buddha’s teachings.

I didn’t initially realize what a gift there could be in having ‘two paths,’ until around 2007 I heard a conversation between Ken Wilber and Rabbi Schacter-Shalomi in which they actually suggested that it is advantageous to have two paths.

By this time, I was becoming concerned that my thirty-something years of committed Buddhist practice might somehow conflict with my growing commitment to Eugene Gendlin’s Philosophy of the Implicit. I wondered whether I needed to just adopt one path. Now, in the Wilber-Shachter-Shalomi conversation, here was the idea that it’s skilful to hold two paths. They were suggesting that both could be held while keeping the integrity of each intact.

The approach made intuitive sense; which is to say, I wasn’t at that stage able to articulate anything more than obvious reasons for the skillfulness of this strategy. It was obvious, for instance, that in this way I could balance the rigidities of one against the more flexible places in the other. Also, that one may address areas of life that the other doesn’t address. (This was important to me, because Buddhism arose in a cultural and historical situation which is distant to our age; and, it had always been my orientation to take what was perennially wholesome from Buddhism, rather than blindly adopt everything I found there.)

Some fifteen to twenty years after adopting this ‘two paths’ approach, I came to realise that it had a very deep power to open the creative space of the Middle – the space of experiencing as such.

How’s that? In teaching my version of Buddhism to others, I came to understand that the ‘two paths’ approach required that I relate to each of them on their own terms. Even if they conflicted, I resolved to understand the conflict as providing opportunities for richness, for more possibilities of experience – rather than have to choose one of them. Both, I could see were united as regards their primary concerns, so it was possible to let them speak to each other on equal terms. I could have one over to my left side, and the other to my right side, and dip into them with reference to the open, inquiring, compassion and responsive middle – where bodily-felt meaning arises.

So, the most wonderful result has been a process of dis-identifying with views – because in each case it has been important to resonate their concepts against my ‘bodily sense’ in the open middle. This process of always coming back to experiencing (where I am participating in the ‘more’ that life always is), has been an unexpected gift.

While obviously honouring what each of them says, and not clinging to views, I learned to use concepts as ‘means’ related to experiencing. Each had to be held in their own integrity – each allowed to function in my bodily experience, rather than to function in opposition to each other. Gendlin’s language theory helped, here.

(If I live long enough, I’d like to write a book on ‘The Philosophy of Language in the Buddha’s Language-use.’ I don’t think he developed a precise language theory, but there is an implicit philosophy – or several – in the way that he approached language-use. I rather think of the Buddha’s important comments on language as Buddha’s Language Notes. Just the same, his language-use, and the things he said about language, are very consistent with Gendlin’s language theory.)

So, the two paths implicitly ‘crossed’ (a Gendlin term) in me, and that is different to concocting an ‘intellectual synthesis.’ To practice this way meant activating a state where I was not identified with any path (including the ‘two path’ approach, of course), not attached to doctrine, nor to achievements as defined by either.

However, there was a change to come – and that involved ‘kamma/karma’; by which I mean, the inheritance of one’s past intentions as implicit sequences of body, speech and awareness having a present implying. I did thirty years of Buddhist practice before I explored Western philosophy, motivated by the intuition that I was learning something truly precious.

2. After 2009

Here, I’ll shift my style of presentation, as I articulate this. I’m wanting to be rigorous in an experiential way; and not just decide that this project is ‘Buddhism Meets Gendlin,’ without going back to the feel of the whole situation.

On the one hand, the truth is as I said above: that my actual practice is like that ‘two paths’ idea; in that, it’s fruitful to be at the right distance to each of these wisdom models, so that they can affect me just as they are in themselves, unpolluted by the other. That’s good for letting them activate what they have intrinsically.

It’s also good because I’m not concocting an identity out of either. They will cross, but in the intricacy of skin, flesh and bones – not in disembodied identity-constructing thought. This is the karmic bit: the two paths do cross in me; they form something novel affecting all levels of the experienced body, as the ongoing implicit process of the body (that is, as what many traditionally call the Unconscious).

And, in this changed body, I’m feeling (and this moved me when I realised it), I’m feeling that my allegiance to Buddhism isn’t just an intellectual choice. Neither is it some emotional attachment. It’s the way they cross that leaves me presenting this printed as Buddhism meets Gendlin. In my actual living, the orientation to Buddhism is still fundamental, after all.

The old, less process-oriented language would be something like: Buddhism is my ‘main path.’ And if I say it that way, I then remember how Gendlin wanted us to apply his process concepts and his felt-meaning methods. He wanted us to apply them in what we’re already doing. And saying that brings out that I’m already doing exactly that, and I have been doing that for twenty-plus years.  

This felt comprehension now makes me now look at Gene Gendlin’s work differently. It was his role, his profession, to be a philosopher. Philosophy is a whole path, for some, with integrated elements of devotion, ethics and wisdom. However, for me, experiential philosophy is a skillful means on the path called Buddhism; and Buddhism attends to those inter-affecting elements differently than Gendlin’s public phenomenology does. (Privately, he studied the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, and Kabbalah with his friend Rabbi Schacter-Shalomi. Two paths!)

Furthermore, I did thirty years of Buddhist practice before I explored Western philosophy in depth. If I don’t acknowledge how Buddhism lives on in my body, in the reality of body-environment interaction, then I run the risk of not manifesting the fruit; that is, of losing the foreward movement of all those decades of bodily-lived sequences of behaviour and mental-emotional development which were guided by the Buddhist altruistic intention.

Wholebody mindfulness (mindfulness immersed in the body, augmented by the wisdom practice called Focusing) makes it possible to not lose the power of all those sequences of devoted exploration as they can manifest, now – all those years: the intellectual and philosophical study; the decades of sitting meditation; the daily mindfulness practice; the psychotherapy work (as a client and a therapist); ordinal relationships; my language teaching; the caring for others, including my work in hospice and death and dying; and so on. (I’m tempted to quip: the full catastrophe.) So, it’s a ‘carrying forward’ of all of that as it lives now, to actually have Buddhism meets Gendlin as the focus of attention, in this project.

And, ironically, as felt wisdom, this resolution of a long-standing conundrum (“Do I have a primary ‘path’?”) points to the primacy of being a human being first and foremost. It highlights the living intricacy of being human. I’m a ‘human’ being before being a Gendlin advocate, and before being a Buddhist advocate. Realising that Buddhist practice is my primary loyalty doesn’t change the fact that I actually don’t want to be identified with these bodies of knowledge. I, the person, was indeed attracted to them because ‘human experiencing’ is at the core of both The Philosophy of the Implicit and the Buddhist Way. Understanding human experiencing is the key to liberation.

  • Christopher Ash,
    Blackheath, NSW, Australia
    September, 2021