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.

We act according to our self-image

We’re taking our lovely new dog to obedience school. She’s very clever and she enjoys it a great deal. The joke about obedience school is that mostly it’s about training the owners, not the dog. Indeed, the first day it was my turn to take the dog, one of the assistants came over and commented generously that the dog was doing great but I was doing terrible!

There’s no path directly from my nervous system to hers telling her what to do, that doesn’t pass through her own understanding and interpretation based on her own experience. Without the kind of consistency that lets her establish meaning for what I say and do, she can’t do anything with my (to her) random interventions. True of any self-directing animal; true of humans, with many more layers of language and conceptualization and self-understanding, history and culture.

One of the things that greatly attracted me to the Feldenkrais Method when I first encountered it was its tenacious grasp of the irreducible role of subjectivity. After a year of seeing pictures in ergonomic information flyers of the ear lined up over the hip joint lined up over the ankle (great! when I see myself walking down the street from a distance, I’ll be able to tell whether my posture is “good”!)–finally a method of working with my sense of orientation and alignment in space from the inside out. Which is, after all, how I encounter myself and make my way through the world.

We act according to our self-image–or in the words of the opening of Feldenkrais’s book Awareness Through Movement:

Each one of us speaks, moves, thinks, and feels in a different way, each according to the image of himself that he has built up over the years.

These words came to mind when I saw lately The Wind that Shakes the Barley, particularly in the scene where the two brothers face down at the end–a conversation, across a table, two human beings exchanging words–each with his unshakeable commitment to his own side in the exploding Irish Civil War that followed on the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922. All the power of gunshot and explosives, all the violence so physically real, that comes from two human minds and the ideas they hold–and the human connections and commitments that those ideas signify.

The human will is an extraordinary force of nature. We saw this movie after a week that included Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland as well. Every bullet blasting a body open, every bomb tearing apart the landscape–only came into action because a two or more human wills met one another with ideas that could not be made consistent. Not for trivial reasons or for sheer superstition either–those wills are oriented to money, resources, power–history and our place in it.

We act according to our self-image indeed, and that self-image is our orientation to desire, to hatred, to biography, to community, to the land we find ourselves in and the resources that come out of it, always short of our desires and short of the needs of most people on the planet–our orientation to all of history as we understand it and all the futures we image are or may be coming.

It is a great human mystery–How could it be otherwise? And yet how could mere ideas translate into all this carnage?

How we learn (with) Feldenkrais

In his book Awareness Through Movement, Moshe imagines that a reader, after working through the twelve lessons he presents there, could continue with his or her own daily practice, thinking up new lessons and spending as much time as he or she chooses on them (p. 64).

It is not my experience that people approach their learning in and through Feldenkrais that way. I know that for years I enjoyed coming and lying on the floor, being guided through these beautiful sequences of movements, doing less, feeling more, and most importantly, having no homework.

But I find for myself and for many students these days, there is much more interest in having a “personal practice,” as we say now, influenced by yoga. I’ve been setting up a project I call [[DIY ATM|”Do-It-Yourself ATM”]] designed to create better conditions for the possibility of people doing just that.

If you sign up at [[DIY ATM]], you have access to recorded ATM lessons, and brief discussions of principles and activities to make use of in doing the work. And you can share your experiences and your inventions with others in the process.

Feldenkrais teaches a deep form of basic literacy–the “logic” of the human being in action. We all learn to write for ourselves, in our own handwriting; this does not mean that we do not appreciate those who have cultivated and studied more extensively the art of writing and do it as professionals. Indeed the development of our own capacity to compose strengthens our ability to learn from and to appreciate those who make it a life study in another sense.

Register (it’s free) and try it out.

The project may be interesting to you as well if you are a practitioner; you are welcome to contribute lesson recordings or schema and theme discussions.

Avowing a dream

I have a dream…an unavowed dream that is about to become avowed…

It is a dream that ca. US$300 a year per practitioner could buy Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioners a professional organization that wouldn't respond to its members' requests for support in practice-building with veiled suggestions that real grown-ups don't expect their professional organization to support such trivial and grubby things.

A dream that we had something, well, like our beloved FGNA only…a little less disparaging of us.

But alas the latest issue of In Touch came today. I'm so sorry to say that what we have is like FGNA, only more so.

Mission statements are important things. At some point when I wasn't paying attention, the FGNA adopted a mission statement that reads:

Because the Feldenkrais Method® transforms people’s lives in deep and profound ways, freeing them to enact their avowed and unavowed dreams: It is the mission of the Feldenkrais Guild® of North America, a membership organization, to act in stewardship of the legacy of Moshe Feldenkrais. (Mission Statement of FGNA, 2004)

That might be a nice mission statement for FEFNA, the Feldenkrais Educational Foundation of North America, whose membership is the public. But for the practitioners' member organization?

In Touch features a dreamy lead article gathering and sharing the fruit that such a confused mission statement could be expected to bear in an organization with a culture like ours, disparaging the very notion that the practitioners' professional organization should serve practitioners.

The analogy with IBM — yes that's it! Behind the member request that FGNA act as an organization serving practitioners is the selfish demand that FGNA turn out diet pills instead of doing that dream magic thing FGNA does so well! Diet pills to fill my personal bank account! Legacy of Moshe be damned.

The public encounters the method through practitioners. Practitioners look to their professional organization for support in practice building because small or non-existent practices mean two things at one and the same time: they aren't making a living and they aren't getting to share the magic they love with the public.

These two things, making a living and sharing the method, are not separate, and they certainly are not opposite.

If they were, why in the world would we have this whole apparatus of training programs and service marks and a Guild?

Refinement for the masses

The coordination of ourselves in the field of gravity as the fundamental form of action in the world is like the air we breathe, or like water for sea life. It’s so ubiquitous that we don’t isolate it as a process that can itself be investigated and improved–or as a kind of window on anything that we do.

We might study logic and argumentation to improve the quality of our thinking, or rhetoric and literature to improve our quality of expression. In doing so, we thereby improve our capacity in a wide range of fields of action. When it comes to the coordination of our physical body in action, we think that’s something for someone else. Surely top-flight athletes pay attention in a detailed way to the coordination of themselves in action, but you can only do that if you’re already superhuman — strong, accomplished, talented — and you’re attempting extraordinary feats.

Feldenkrais’s method demonstrates that anyone can make intelligent application of processes of subtle refinement (decades of training and natural talent are not required) in order to achieve improvements in capacity that are astonishing, from the point of view of our ordinary “folk science” (or advanced science) understandings of the nature of strength and flexibility.

Through gradual and patient experimentation with options for the coordination of yourself in action, not only do you discover a number of specific keys to improved function, you also strengthen your own capacity to sense more of yourself more clearly in your environment, and learn/discover/create fresh in each moment the most appropriate action available to you for your intention.

Take part in the Do-It-Yourself ATM process to check it out.

The famous book lesson

Okay, so I’m the last Feldenkrais blogger out there who has figured out how to put a YouTube video in their site. This is Lea Kaufman, and is it possible that she’s doing this in Colima, during the second training program? (I was in the first Colima program.)

Capturing a moment

There is some discussion of non-human images! Can a stuffed monkey do Feldenkrais?

I like the way that the angle of the monkey’s head suggests a curiosity about something –just over her shoulder? And the perspective of the photo, right down on her level, makes that expression somewhat infectious for me. I want to know too.

What's this cat thinking?On an Amherst tape Moshe plays with his wooden doll (Year 2, Tape 33, AM #1). He gets a remarkable expressiveness out of it. The attitude of the whole body in the simple sense of its configuration and balance in gravity already says so much. We think it’s the details of facial expression that tell us about a person’s mental state. Not true!

Now the cat has joined the monkey, and we all know the line about cats and curiosity. But does that communicate subconsciously a feeling that what we do is dangerous?

This cat’s just about to do a very popular “Feldenkrais” move, i.e. rolling over. (How did this guy get his name attached to so many primitive human patterns?)

Cat and monkeyNow this is the luxurious lengthening stretch we all know so well. Have we still got the curiosity?

The monkey hasn’t moved.

A new self-help process: personal growth through reverse googling

It’s divination for the modern era.

Get yourself a website, or a blog, and find the function to track the google searches that find you. Treat that like a divination, like a prediction of the future, like a message from the deeper wisdom of the universe about what to do or where to go next.

My results: a few weeks ago there was a flurry of messages for me from the universe, very specific and direct, that Lynette Reid needed (or already has? temporality is not linear in the world of google search divination) muscle memory training.

More than anything else, people care about one leg being stronger, longer, or faster than the other. That’s probably the number one concern of the “universe according to google” that brings people to kinesophics. It’s much more of a going concern than walking on volcanos, although there is an occasional volcano enthusiast out there.

What message is there for me in this? Is this the wisdom of crowds, or the mania of crowds?