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.

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