A Thousand Secrets

“A thousand secrets are hidden in simply sitting still.” — Karlfried Graf Dürckheim

A few weeks ago, my good friend Walt recommended Hara: The Vital Center of Man by the German diplomat, psychotherapist, and Zen master, Karlfried Graf Dürckheim on this post. For anyone interested in practices for developing attention through body awareness it is essential reading. I couldn’t praise the book highly enough.  Not only is it clear and practical, it opens up a way of practice that I find initiatory and life affirming.

Dürckheim offers a bold and vital introduction on how to work with hara but before he begins he offers this important distinction about spiritual practice in general:

“…practice does not generate the experience of Being but only prepares the way for it. The grace which may flower from this experience is not the product of a doing but of a permitting of what fundamentally is, of what the aspirant himself is by reason of his participation in the Great Being within his own being. Practice therefore means ultimately just this: learning to let the in-dwelling reality of Being emerge.”

A pioneer in this field of integrating the body, mind and feeling, Dürckheim does an exceptional job in making the ancient zen practices of hara accessible. He urges us to avoid clinging to the partial that only upsets the whole. He shows us how to put our trust  in the fundamental rhythms of life, and to let go of fears that prevent us from allowing “it” to breathe. Our tensions, he observes “are caused by nothing but I and its fears for its Own existence,” and warns that the “practice of deep relaxation can be significant and efficacious only when it is carried out in full awareness of its inner meaning and not merely for the relief of bodily symptoms.”

Nope, it’s not a self-help program. Studying and practicing the ideas in this book doesn’t lend itself well to finding solid answers but leads to a deeper questioning, a revitalization of one’s practice, and hopefully under-standing.

I don’t want to give too much of the book’s contents away, but I will share one of many instructions Dürckheim suggests for reintegrating one’s compartmentalized being into a simple, coordinated and unified whole. Over the last few weeks, the following excerpt has served as a a kind of revelation for me, a gentle reminder to try to have contact with the inner life that continually calls to  from the center of our being:

“…drop the shoulders, release the lower belly and put some strength in it. For this it is sufficient to say “I am, I feel myself down here, a little below the navel.” It would seem so easy to follow these instructions, but not only is it far more difficult than we suppose to effect a change in the bodily center of gravity but long practice is needed before it becomes habitual. Indeed to learn to feel oneself constantly down there is tantamount to overcoming the unconscious dominance of the I, and to feel oneself permanently rooted in a much deep region. This new placing of the whole center of gravity comes to full fruition only after years of practice. Yet, as with all spiritual exercises, everything is contained in the very first lesson. But the beginner cannot realize this.”

The Work of Karlfried Graf Dürckheim



I re-encountered the remarkable work of Karlfried Graf Dürckheim (October 24, 1896 – December 28, 1988), German diplomat, psychotherapist and Zen-Master recently in the autobiography of Alan Watts: In My Own Way. According to Wikipedia: Dürckheim was born in Munich. He was a descendant of old Bavarian nobility whose parents still had a fortune, eventually lost during bad economic times. In his early twenties, he was reading in the Tao Te Ching of Lao-Tzu.

“Suddenly it happened! I was listening and lightning went through me. The veil was torn asunder, I was awake! I had just experienced ‘It’. Everything existed and nothing existed. Another Reality had broken through this world. I myself existed and did not exist… I had experienced that which is spoken of in all centuries: individuals, in whatever stage of their lives, have had an experience which struck them with the force of lightning and linked them once and for all to the circuits of True Life.”

Meister Eckhart became very important for him. “I recognize in Eckhart my master, the master. But we can only approach him if we eliminate the conceptual consciousness.”

Dürckheim was a professor at Kiel for a few years. Then it was discovered that he had a Jewish grandmother. Eventually he became an envoy for Nazi Germany’s foreign ministry under Joachim von Ribbentrop. Before World War II, in 1938, he was sent to Japan, residing there for eight years.

After the war, Tokyo was occupied by Americans. Dürckheim went into hiding in Karuizawa and was arrested on October 30, 1945 by agents of the US Counter-Intelligence Corps. He was imprisoned for a year and a half in Sugamo Prison.

“That time of captivity was precious to me because I could exercise zazen meditation and remain in immobility for hours.”

Graf “Duerckheim” is identified by Albert Stunkard in Zen Teaching, Zen Practice, (Weatherhill 2000) edited by Kenneth Kraft, as the person who suggested to Stunkard that he should visit D.T. Suzuki in Kita Kamakura, not far from the Sugamo prison. That visit started a chain reaction of visitors to the Suzuki residence, one of whom was Philip Kapleau, author of The Three Pillars of Zen and founder of the Rochester Zen Center. Dürckheim thus was directly responsible for launching Zen into the American mainstream.

Along with psychologist Maria Hippius, Dürckheim founded the “Center of existential and psychological formation and encounter” in the early 1950s. It was located in the Black Forest village of Todtmoos-Rutte. His books were based on his conferences, and were influential in Europe.

“What I am doing is not the transmission of Zen Buddhism; on the contrary, that which I seek after is something universally human which comes from our origins and happens to be more emphasized in eastern practices than in the western.”

Dürckheim’s “Initiation Therapy” dealt with the encounter between the profane, mundane, “little” self — the ego — and the true Self. “The therapist is not the one who heals, that is, who intervenes with his own skills; he is a therapist in the original meaning of the word: a companion on the way.”

***

Here are the words of Karlfried Graf Dürckheim recounted in Alan Watts’ autobiography:

“A great deal of my present work is in helping people who underwent great spiritual crisis during the war. We know, of course, that sometimes, in extreme circumstances, people have a natural  satori or spiritual awakening when it appears that all is finished for them–and they accept it. This happened often in the war, and when those who lived through it tried to tell the tale to their friends it was shrugged off as some king of hallucination, a brief fit of insanity in a desperate situation. When these people come to me, as they often do, I have the happy opportunity of showing them that, for once in their lives, they were truly sane.

There were three typical ways in which these crisis came about. You heard the whistle of a bomb falling straight at you, and you knew that this was quite certainly the end. You accepted it, and quite suddenly the whole universe made sense. All problems, all questions vanished, and you understood that there was no ‘you’ other than the eternal. But the bomb was a dud, and you lived to remember the experience….You were in a concentration camp, and you had been there so long that you were fully convinced that you would stay there for the rest of your life. Finally, you had to accept it, and in that moment you understood everything….You were a displaced refugee far from home. You had utterly lost your friends and relatives, your possessions, your job, your very identity, and saw no hope of regaining them. You accepted it, and suddenly you were light as a feather and as free as the air.”

–Alan Watts: In My Own Way (California: New World Library, 1972), 321.