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.