Today when we hear about the mind-body link and the influence of emotions on health, we tend to think in the “stress” paradigm. We understand the stress response as the tendency of the organism to “flee or fight” when faced with a danger–or, if we keep up with the latest research, the “flight-fight-flock” response–to run away, fight, or seek to strengthen our social ties, since as social creatures we survive through group belonging and cooperation.
In an earlier and more Freudian era, the general form of emotional distress at the challenges and surprises of life was thought of as “anxiety.” Feldenkrais argued that the fear of falling was the primitive fear, and that the general form of anxiety that haunts us, compromises our health, and stands as a barrier to action and self-realization, was a survival and ossification (as it were) of this primitive fear of falling.
His picture was that when support is withdrawn (and the infant then feels that initial drop–which for all evolution knows is a sensation that might end with the infant on the forest floor far below the habitat of its tree-dwelling clan), the primitive reflex is a general contraction of all the flexors of the body–the muscles that fold joints closed and curl the spine. Think of the fetal position and the feeling of security that we describe as “returning to the womb.” Curled in a little ball like this, one is least likely to suffer injury to crucial internal organs when hitting the ground–with the spine in an arc, the force of impact is dispersed tangentially.
Fifty years of science have developed our thinking. The primitive falling reflex (Moro reflex) is not exactly as Feldenkrais described it; how that relates to the adult startle reflex is controversial.
Nonetheless today’s lesson can be illuminated by considering it in relation to Feldenkrais’s ideas of the general body pattern of anxiety.
Being curled up in a little ball isn’t useful for very much action in the world. The opposite overall pattern of muscle activition is extension: opening the joints, growing taller. This figure looks like it’s having a lot of fun, and like it could accomplish anything, right?
It isn’t really about one tendency being good and the other being bad. We could make up stories about “the sort of people” who are flexed and the sort who are extended. Or we could recognize that there are times in life when it’s appropriate to leap in the air with your arms flung overhead and face the world, and times when it’s appropriate to curl up and pull inside and make yourself comfortable that way.
While we may carry this heightened “tonification” of the flexor muscles as a habitual kind of anxiety, we also have more than that going on. (We are more than our anxieties!) We probably have to do all sorts of habitual work to counteract that flexion. We wouldn’t be able to stand up and walk around if we couldn’t let go of some of this flexor work, or counteract it with equally strong extensor work. So, for instance, your low back has to work hard to hold your chest up, your neck to hold your head up. Furthermore, the very contraction of the flexors prepares the extensors for powerful work. A runner starts a race from a highly folded position: both mechanically and neurologically the wave of flexor contraction prepares you for a strong action of the extensors.
Feldenkrais also argued that in situations of chronic anxiety and inability to exercise control or have an effect in the world, we calm that anxiety by controlling what we can control–by instituting our own personal forms of self-control by exercising some voluntary muscle activity that we choose more or less arbitrarily (perhaps imitating someone we admire, perhaps something of personal historical significance). It’s like (a favourite example of Wittgenstein for the ineffectual action we can’t help) pushing on the dashboard of a car when we’re in the passenger seat but want it to go faster; or like pressing the walk button for the tenth time. Since it really does give us the experience of exercising control, it really does calm the anxiety. A very familiar example would be the way we clench our jaws under stress, or tighten our shoulders. Some methods institutionalize this form of relief (tapping techniques in psychotherapy).
Feldenkrais said, why not increase your capacity for effective action in the world? Then you don’t need to tighten your jaw to give yourself the illusion of being in control.
Many “cousins” of the Feldenkrais Method in the world of somatic work are methods that directly treat emotional issues as embodied–and that can be a potent approach. Emotions don’t exist entirely in thoughts and words–they are actions and sensations of the whole organism. Some forms of somatic work interest themselves not so much in the specific stories (memories, thoughts, associations) that are living in the body, but in an underlying overall somatic dynamic of emotion. Feldenkrais’s specific story about that underlying somatic dynamic was this story I’ve been relating of anxiety as fear of falling.
You may then find yourself, because of all this rolling around on the ground and refining your sense of yourself in action in gravity, actually responding to life with less anxiety–less literal and figurative fear of falling.