The Preface to Awareness Through Movement

The question of situating a method such as the Feldenkrais Method is not a simple one. After decades developing his work in a European and Israeli context, the conduit of Feldenkrais into North America was the Esalen Institute, the spiritual home of the 1970s personal growth movement.

I will write in another post about how the problem of situating “somatic education” (if I may use that phrase as a general term for Feldenkrais and things like it) is not a trivial one at all. “Posture education” is not unknown to our culture; in its recent history, it was deeply tied with policing bodily markers of class and race. This concern was not at the front or even (perhaps) back of Moshe’s mind; but neither was he a child of the personal growth movement. His entry to North America (and the training of the largest single group of practitioners) was through a California personal growth setting, while it might not have been. F.M. Alexander’s entry was through schools of acting and music; another possible entry would have been through sports. Another would have been rehab medicine.

Indeed, he initially sought scientific audiences for his work, publishing his first book with the mainstream academic publisher Routledge. It may not have been apparent to foresight as we see in hindsight that a group like the Humanistic Psychology Institute was an odd home for an engineer with some theoretical room but little personal patience for psychologizing the pain and limitation that could arise through inefficient self-organization.

Awareness Through Movement was published in the U.S. in 1972 (the year he taught at Esalen) and must have played a role in bringing people to the San Francisco training that began in 1975. One can see it as situating the work for this new audience.

Apart from introducing the important idea of the Self-Image as governing action, Moshe's Preface to his “most accessible book” situates his work as a rebellion against the postwar era’s “grey flannel suit,” the value placed on social conformity.

In an era of “general agreement that the most important thing is to improve the social processes of employment, production, and provision of equal opportunities for all,” he writes, we stand in danger of reaching such a goal:

There is little doubt that in time we shall be able to develop units in the form of man that are educated, organized, satisfied, and happy; if we use all our knowledge in the field of biological inheritance, we may even succeed in producing several different types of such units to satisfy all the needs of society.

This utopia, which has a feasible chance of happening in our lifetime, is the logical outcome of the present situation. In order to bring it about we need only produce biological uniformity and employ suitable educational measures to prevent self-education. (ATM, p. 5)

Conformity as such (in the sense of sameness) does not bother Moshe; it’s the mechanism of achieving it that is his concern. His concern is with the cost to the individual of strengthening our orientation towards social approval as a reward for action and weakening our orientation towards internal satisfaction as a measure of success. This rhetoric made a nice fit for the children of the 60s, in the throes of the sexual revolution and the rejection of parental authority in all its guises.

But his rejection of conformity came from a very different place than the California summer of love. He was speaking as one of the pioneers of the state of Israel, the bold man who had walked as a boy across Europe and later dug right in to nation-building at all levels, from training fists to leading government departments. That’s the man who felt dismayed at the bland social conformity of the post-war world.

We carry this tension to this day in our work: our North American California-stamped Method says there’s no good or bad in organization, judgment has no place in the practice of the Method, you just sense what you sense, don’t judge it, and go with the flow. All process; no standards. And here we are, inarticulate and non-analytical in our understanding of the work.

The notion of Feldenkrais as the rejection of social conformity came from the birth of Israel and filtered through the Esalen Institute…where does it reach people bred through Sesame Street and “Free to Be You and Me”? Does the message of liberation from social conformity reach to Generation X and beyond in the same way?

If I had done a content analysis on my training program, probably more people gravitated to the theme of “limits” than “freedom.” Many of us found in this dialogue with our organism a more discriminating understanding of the range of ease of movement, the approach to limits, the backing off of limits. This turns the transgression of limits into a choice instead of a compulsion or an accident that arises through lack of perception.

This is there in Moshe as well: as I emphasized above, conformity in the sense of sameness doesn’t bother him, only conformity in the sense of failing to consult oneself. Some lessons are designed to show that we can trust the commonalities of the human skeleton in gravity to create fine coordination in movement. But this also can be a bit of a fantasy: roll around on the floor alone enough, and you’ll magically achieve integration into a harmonious society.

For me the process gave content to the notion of freedom that it had lost in my education in metaphysics. The metaphysical debate on freedom and determinism is by and large at its heart a debate about scientific reductionism–and not the most interesting approach to the debate on reductionism at that. “If reductionism is true then we lose freedom”–well, reductionism isn’t true, but you aren’t going to figure out that it isn’t and why it isn’t by thinking about freedom. You’ll just think, “maybe contemporary physics isn’t determistic either” (true); and then you’ll have proved too much. Not only can humans be free, so can rocks and molecules and all matter. You have to think about the historical and social contingency of the production of scientific knowledge to see something interesting about why reductionism is false, in my view.

So, never having been able to attach much real content to freedom and determinism as they are discussed in metaphysics, Feldenkrais brought home to me something I might have seen from other life occasions too, I suppose. But it became familiar, like second nature, a tool I can reach for in many many situations, through all that rolling around on the floor. It brought me the insight that freedom is situated in the confluence of learned abilities, sensory discrimination, and external constraining/enabling factors. Insfor as my situation permits certain actions, insofar as I can perceive that in my situation and make perceptual distinctions well enough to act intelligently, and insofar as I have developed the capacity as in the skill or ability–or the capacity is near enough that I can risk it and perhaps learn something new–I have freedom in action.

I did learn something too that is more closely related to his rejection of conformity. It is about an orientation to a certain inner sense of satisfaction. But I don’t see that in opposition to external social validation, as Moshe did. I can orient myself to academic achievement or to this inner sense of satisfaction, and either of these things can be taught, encouraged, reinforced by external sources, or driven by internal self-conception. To pose them in opposition is to deny that there is a genuine need for social approval and that its seeking can be informed by respect for that same sense of internal satisfaction. These can work together in the psychological balancing of human relations as the balancing of the skeleton in gravity works with external constraints as intrinsic to the situation of freedom: it is in managing these external factors skillfully in a situation that does not overpower my capacities that I find freedom.

Elusive Obvious

I’m reading the Elusive Obvious, one of Moshe’s half-dozen books. He wrote it after the first San Francisco training of the mid-seventies, in response to a request to “summarize his teachings” of that four-year training program.

Moshe is a little like some eccentric old uncle who likes to brag about all the Nobel Prize winners he’s ever known and laid hands on–and who have respected him. It used to bother me a lot more before I realized just how challenging it is to introduce an new practice to the world. Recruiting famous people to the cause is an effective method, and who he recruited and boasted of says something. He didn’t go after the Beatles.

The Introduction focuses on something that is a central puzzle in the work: how can the same method be a means for rehabilitation of the severely neurologically damaged, a means for personal growth for the kind of anxious, medically health but vaguely unwell character we now label “the worried well,” and for promoting achievement for the president of the World Health Organization (Lord Boyd-Orr, proudly listed among his early pupils)?

The puzzle is real–when people hear about the Method, the first thing they want to know is whether it is for the sick or for the healthy. I had a social worker client once who came because a client of hers recommended it. She reported that her colleagues thought she was batty to take up a Method on the recommendation of her client.

What perhaps she understood is that someone who needs personal improvement with such urgent seriousness, and whose organism is in such a state that it can’t afford to fool itself, is a terrific source of recommendations for methods that work. Of course, that isn’t the ordinary way to understand the relationship between professional and lay expertise.

Feldenkrais connects the needs of this diverse group of characters through the idea that we are all overwhelmed in some sense by what our culture and upbringing tell us is possible, and fail to develop our own individual capacity to its fullest extent–and convince ourselves that our dreams can never really be achieved.

This thought may perhaps seem somewhat banal; it certainly wears on its sleeve our culture’s romantic heritage. Somehow before civilization, back when we were animals, we were in touch with our true somatic birthright…yada yada yada. If you go deep, deep inside yourself, you can find your true self and become who you really are. I dealt with this banality in learning the Method by not engaging with it at this theoretical level, but working with it in practice alone. After all, those who grew up on “Free to Be You and Me”–and found themselves at the end of the great journey of self-discovery cast out in the post-boomer job market of the mid 1980s–might well read freedom and individuality different from the children of fifties’ conformity launching into the world at that great pre-globalization moment of unprecedented prosperity and relative income equality. But let me situate his idea of the dream of achievement from which we are alienated by our culture in the context in which Moshe gives us this story pattern in the Intro to the Elusive Obvious.

He is attempting to explain what the great benefit is that all these diverse characters can find in his Method. He describes it in terms of getting “better” and feeling “more human.” But what does that mean? And then he tells two (highly gendered) stories of pupils who let him in on the one thing they have always wanted to do but that society has inscribed in their bodies as unachievable: the woman with cerebral palsy who always wanted to dance, the boy with an arm injured from birth who always wanted his peers to stop treating him as delicate but instead to give him the great pleasure of being beaten up, like all other boys his age.

The seeds of his deconstruction are not hidden too deeply here. That dream beyond the occluding effects of culture is highly culturally specific: the girl who wants to dance, the boy who wants to fight.

At the time I began with Feldenkrais, I somewhat identified my philosophical training as that which had injured me, so I wasn’t particularly interested in alienating myself from a practice that I found interesting, and that I thought might help me, because of a few post-foundationalist, feminist, and anti-romantic intellectual scruples.

Those of us who came of intellectual age in the heady “everything is constructed” days of the late 1980s have in various ways been working out paths through and beyond the idea ever since. I saw Bruno Latour speak at Illinois not long before I injured myself: is there an answer to the question of which ecosystem conquers which that is not determined by social forces and interests? He held the hard constructionist line against the scientists who turnout out (as they increasingly were in those days of the Sokol hoax) to challenge the philosophers, sociologists, and anthropologists of science. Latour’s spur to take it further came out of the realization that in a world where vested interests are denying the reality of global warming, perhaps turning out hoards of graduate students trained to question all “facts” as socially constructed is a strategy that should be rethought. (I was pleased to re-encounter the Actor Network Theory version of Bruno Latour on returning to academic life.)

I “thought” the question through with 8 months of “put your foot here, push there, turn to the left, look up, look down…” on the floor in Colima, Mexico and a five-year sabbatical from academic life. My mind, restlessly contextualizing, critiquing, viewing the world from a distance and askance, was not the only thing rolling around on the floor. It shifted in my self-understanding from sovereign processor (or even maker) of experience, to one player among many who may be crowding–or absent from–the stage. Meanwhile gravity goes on forming bones and somehow, through processes deep in my brain (what does “deep” mean?) and distributed in the dynamics of my physical structure, I am managing to stand, walk, and get on with my day, not falling over, despite human beings being the most unstable animals around. Some days I was in more pain and some days less, and some days I more or less constructed as a person “with chronic pain”–one of those marvelous diagnoses that writes the state of medical knowledge or lack thereof straight into a patient’s body and mind as a thing they “have.” Year by year, I know more about how to organize myself to do what I want (and I might want to spend more or less time for every desire interrogating it critically or acting on it; and these are choices that sometimes I get to make and sometimes not).

Speaking of the struggles of an intellectual attempting to convince herself to take her embodied experience seriously, it is relevant that half the introduction to the Elusive Obvious is taken up with an orientation to what he means by “learning” and “education” in this context. He compares his method with two cases: learning to dance by going out dancing and dancing with someone more experienced, gradually gaining in confidence, and building implicitly on skills one didn’t know one already had, and an encounter he had with another famous friend, Heinrich Jacoby (perhaps less famous today than some of his other boasts). Jacoby taught him to draw in an evening: he asked Moshe to draw a lamp, then pointed out that in reality he saw not lines but light and shadow–so why had he drawn lines? Moshe astounded himself with the fantastic quality of the drawings he was then able to turn out if he paid attention to light and shadow instead of lines. The simple question Jacoby had given him removed a deep cultural preconception and opened a world of technique in which he could immediately put his own perceptual abilities to work in achieving what he had never imagined possible to him.

These two stories of learning bear little relation to academic learning. It’s not about sitting in a classroom and taking notes, learning the theory of, or memorizing facts. We often say (and Moshe does here too) that the learning is non-linguistic, sensorial. But we can get caught up in inappropriate intellectual dichotomies here too. Moshe talked about Feldenkrais not being classroom learning at a time when there was much more uniformity and passivity to classroom learning. Furthermore, his examples don’t demonstrate that learning has to be non-verbal (as we sometimes think in Feldenkrais, and sometimes take to philistine conclusions). The second example shows the power of a well-placed question or observation to open up a new world of perceptual and technical exploration.

The scientific and secular orientation of the work is strikingly evident in this Introduction. I wrote about it last year here. The vocabulary of humanism is not prominent today in the world of “alternative medicine” and we find ourselves as a practice in the position of watching a band wagon speed by: the route to public acceptability seems to be through the idea of a spiritual dimension of human health. Perhaps, we imagine, Moshe can be recast as a Hasidic mystic, just like Madonna.