Practice to Become Your True Self . . . Ideas from Moshe Feldenkrais and Shunryu Suzuki

meditator

Have you heard about the countless benefits of meditation?

They include:

  • better brain functioning and attention span
  • stress reduction and sounder sleep
  • improved functioning of metabolic and immune systems
  • more emotional control and optimism
  • increased sense of social and environmental connection

“That’s great,” you might say, “but I find meditation very difficult.” And if I asked you why perhaps you’d say:

  • “I can’t sit in that position comfortably for more than a couple of minutes.”
  • “My mind always wanders.”
  • “Meditating makes me sleepy”
  • “I have too many things to do to sit around and do nothing.”
  • “It’s so boring!!”

These statements may or may not resonate with you, but they do describe real challenges involved with regular sitting meditation. But more fundamentally, I think they describe the difficulties of practice, that is, some activity that you return to again and again to develop your self over a long period of time.

I recently began to meditate on a regular basis and I have found it immensely rewarding. I believe the main reason that this is the case is because of what I had already learned about practice, thanks to my immersion in the Feldenkrais Method.

I discovered Feldenkrais about 5 years ago and was astounded by the way it immediately opened up new pathways in my life. The method is a unique and fascinating practice of self-study carried out through a process of making gentle movements. By cultivating your awareness of increasingly subtle aspects of the experience, you can radically rewrite your possibilities. The Feldenkrais Method can help you discover better balance and flexibility, reduce stress and chronic pain and generally find more ease in your body and mind – in a lot less time than you might expect.

In my own case, I was so taken with it that I joined a training program and today I am beginning to make a living as a teacher of Awareness Through Movement. It’s the best job I’ve ever had because every day I get to share my own learning experience with other people who also want to improve their lives.

I don’t think I would be having such a fruitful experience right now as a beginner at meditation if it were not for my previous self-study through the lens of the Feldenkrais Method. The potentially difficult aspects of meditation that I mentioned at the beginning of this post would have likely derailed me. Luckily, my meditation practice has been informed by my Feldenkrais practice, giving me tools to understand what I am doing as I sit, how to sit comfortably, how to observe my thoughts patiently, how to stay focused on my breath without wandering, and how to discipline myself to return to sit again and again.

feldenkrais gesturing

Moshe Feldenkrais, somatic pioneer

The first time I tried meditation, some 20 years ago, I did not have these tools.

While I remember that the experience was a revelation to me at the time, it was also very difficult. My back hurt when I sat for long periods of time and I often found myself slumping. When I tried to “clear my head of thoughts” and only concentrate on my breathing, it often felt like a nearly impossible task. My brain kept generating new thoughts and my inner critic kept telling me that this meant I “wasn’t getting it.” I had heard that some people had great visions when they meditated, suggesting they were on the way to enlightenment. I kept hoping to have an experience like this myself, but never did.

Needless to say, I didn’t stick with it.

A few months ago a good friend invited me to an event that involved a guided meditation. It was a good experience for me. More recently, painful events in my personal life made me want to explore meditation further. I had the recurring feeling that there was “too much going on in my head”, that my own thinking was distracting me from connecting to people around me and causing me to make unnecessary mistakes that were hurting me. So I began sitting in meditation on a daily basis, eventually building up to regular sessions of 20-30 minutes in length.

For guidance, I reached back into my past for the one book I remembered about meditation, a work that I knew was highly respected, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. It was a good choice because, again and again, in describing the practice of zazen (sitting meditation), he emphasizes its simplicity and the many ways in which it can be adapted to fit the experience of the individual. He urges the newcomer not to be fazed by the difficulties that may be encountered. Instead he points out that facing these challenges is part of the process of growth.

As I read the book, I found that much of what Suzuki has to say about how we build self-awareness felt congruent with the ideas of Moshe Feldenkrais. So, in the remainder of this post I would like to draw on the words of both Suzuki and Feldenkrais, as well as a few of my experiences with zazen to offer some ideas about how to successfully define a personal practice of cultivating self-awareness. While I will talk principally about meditation and the Feldenkrais Method, I think that these ideas would also be relevant to many other practices.

Compared to my experiences years ago, the difference that struck me most immediately is that I am no longer distracted when I sit by physical discomfort. First of all, I have simply learned how to sit more comfortably and functionally, thanks to having done dozens of Awareness Through Movement lessons that teach this skill. But beyond this, when I experience physical discomfort as I sit – which still happens – I am able to observe my body position and make small adjustments or movements that help me find relief.

I am also greatly aided by the understanding the Feldenkrais Method has given me of what “good posture” means. First of all, it is not the same for any two people because each of us has a slightly different structure and a different way of using our bodies on a daily basis. Nor is “good posture” the same in all situations. In fact, Moshe Feldenkrais preferred a different term, “acture”. He sometimes joked that posture was good for posts, but not so good for living creatures.

I described in a previous piece how the experimental musician, John Cage, (who, by the way, was very interested in Zen practice) made a fundamental discovery about sound when he tried to discover total silence, but instead encountered the tones created by his own living body. He concluded that so long as we are alive, silence does not exist.

One day as I was sitting in meditation, concentrating on my breath, I became aware that with each inhalation I was shifting my weight a little bit more onto my left sit bone and returning to the right as I exhaled. In that moment, I remembered Cage and then had a parallel thought: that “sitting still” only proves that, so long as we are alive, in fact there is no such thing as total stillness.

(My idea wasn’t an original one. Feldenkrais described it succinctly when he said, “Movement is life and without movement life is unthinkable.”)

In the next moment I did something that I probably would have assumed was “against the rules of meditation” in the past. I allowed myself to become interested in how my weight shifted with my breathing and then did a deliberate experiment – not unlike an Awareness Through Movement lesson. After observing several times how I shifted left with my inhalation, I began to invite a different movement of shifting my weight to the right each time. After doing this many times, I then began to alternate shifting my weight once to the left, then once to the right.

Then I stopped, and I forgot about it completely. But in the meantime I had found a more comfortable sitting position, making it easier for me to concentrate again on the simple cycling of my breath.

This experience brought together several other important pieces of what I have learned from Moshe Feldenkrais. While Feldenkrais had very clear ideas about ideal posture and movement, he never taught people to place “the head here, the hips there,” etc. Rather, he would invite them do experiments just like the one I performed where they would be directed to notice their habitual biases in movement, explore new patterns and then, through this process, arrive on their own at a new state of equilibrium.

If Feldenkrais had one rule of thumb, it was simply that one should always look for the easiest path with the least strain. And what countless people have discovered through his work is that removing strain from the body also removes strain from the mind.

In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki does give fairly precise descriptions of how the body should be arranged in zazen, but he also makes clear that one can meditate in various positions. And, like Feldenkrais, he draws a connection between body and mind, explaining that the importance of posture is to create fertile ground for taming our swirling thoughts.

“Our body and mind should not be wobbling or wandering about,” he says. “In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it.” What posture is he talking about? Suzuki says, “The most important thing in taking the zazen posture is to keep the spine straight.” “You should be sitting straight up as if you were supporting the sky with your head.”

suzuki

Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki

Many Awareness Through Movement lesson include difficult puzzles where you are asked to do subtle or non-habitual movements. Many people find these situations frustrating and they push themselves harder to try to “achieve” what is being asked of them. Feldenkrais’ solution for this situation was always to tell his students to use less effort, to give up the idea of accomplishing anything. He sometimes even told them to “do it badly.” Feldenkrais knew that most of us chronically invoke will power when we don’t know how to do something and, ironically, by straining ourselves, we create more noise in our system that prevents us from gaining new insights and learning.

Shunryu Suzuki similarly cautioned his students against trying to achieve something when they sat in meditation, instead inviting them to cultivate a “beginner’s mind”:

“In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something.’ All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something.”

As I continued my meditation practice and continued to read Suzuki’s book, I found that much of what used to appear so difficult to me about meditation was the result of my previous attitude. I used to think that one must sit still, sit straight, and only notice the “in-out-in-out” of the breath without thinking at all. Anything else was doing it wrong and meant I would never attain enlightenment!

But now, thanks to the teachings of both Feldenkrais and Suzuki, I am able to sit and simply allow whatever experience I have to transpire, even if it should seem that I am “doing it badly.” Suzuki says: “Even in wrong practice, when you realize it and continue, there is right practice. Our practice cannot be perfect, but without being discouraged by this, we should continue it. This is the secret of practice.”

My movement training has given me a heightened awareness of the subtle ways in which I am not sitting still, making the process of observing my breath anything but boring. Because I am able to become so interested in these small movements, I am much better than I once was at keeping my attention on my breath and a couple of times I have experienced what Suzuki describes when he says, “you should keep your mind on your breathing until you are not aware of your breathing.”

In a similar way, he says, “we must make some effort, but we must forget ourselves in the effort we make.” What I have learned from both Feldenkrais and Suzuki is that in order to be more at peace, I must learn more about myself and, in order to do that, I must strip away everything that is unnecessary. Yet, I don’t have to be a perfectionist. If I simply commit to continuing the process, the process will get easier by itself. And the more I know myself, the more I will be able to help others to know themselves and find their peace as well.

There is no single way to achieve this kind of peace, so there is no need to prescribe a uniform path that everyone must follow. If you are engaged in a practice that you hope will improve your life, it likely will – but not if you are always grading your performance or looking for results. You should take seriously what you learn from any teacher about the forms of your practice, yet not so seriously that you cannot conduct your own experiments or make your own adaptations.

According to Suzuki, “there is no particular way in true practice. You should find your own way, and you should know what kind of practice you have right now.”

When I teach my Awareness Through Movement class, I direct my students through a specific series of movements, but I do not demonstrate a “correct way to move.” My goal is to teach in the spirit of what Moshe Feldenkrais said to the students of his first training in the United States in 1975:

“I am going to be your last teacher. Not because I’ll be the greatest teacher you may ever encounter, but because from me you will learn how to learn. When you learn how to learn, you will realize that there are no teachers, that there are only people learning and people learning how to facilitate learning.”

And Suzuki:

“The moment you meet a teacher, you should leave the teacher, and you should be independent. You need a teacher, and you should be independent. You need a teacher so that you can become independent. If you are not attached to him, the teacher will show you the way to yourself. You have a teacher for yourself, not for the teacher.”

I have previously written about a conversation I had with some of my students who were trying to understand why the improvements they felt in class didn’t last as long as they had hoped. In that post, I pointed out that it can be hard to maintain the self-awareness that we have during an Awareness Through Movement lesson when we return to our normal activities. Yet, if you just continue to practice cultivating awareness on a regular basis – whether it be through the Feldenkrais Method, sitting meditation, yoga, martial arts, prayer, the expressive arts, or any other practice – I think you will find that the forms that define your practice will not confine you. On the contrary, they will help you to more clearly define your path towards living in harmony with your true nature in each moment.

Suzuki says, “Actually you will find the value of Zen in your everyday life, rather than while you sit.”

My Feldenkrais practice has fundamentally changed me and given me the confidence to now struggle with some larger life questions. There are a number of issues in my relationship to my self that I have carried around for years, but mostly avoided. (Perhaps you can think of something in your own life that also fits in this category). Expanding my self-study to now also include meditation is one way that I am now beginning to work on these questions – not by fighting them, but simply by sitting with them. And I am so glad I have finally begun!

I hope that these thoughts will give you some encouragement if you are exploring a new self-awareness practice, or even if you are continuing with a practice that you have had for many years. In the hopes of offering you further inspiration, I have included a few more choice words below from Moshe Feldenkrais and Shunryu Suzuki.

Good luck in your practice!!

* * *

Continuing your practice…

“It must be fully realized from the start that the learning process is irregular and consists of steps, and that there will be downs as well as ups . . . We must not become discouraged, therefore, if we find we have slipped back to the original condition at any time; these regressions will become rarer and return to the improved condition easier as the learning process continues.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

While you are continuing this practice, week after week, year after year, your experience will become deeper and deeper, and your experience will cover everything you do in your everyday life.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

* * *

Attitude towards encountering difficulties…

“You should not be bothered by your mind. You should rather be grateful for the weeds, because eventually they will enrich your practice.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“Focus on your difficulties and you have difficulties for life.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais   

“When you are sitting in the middle of your own problem, which is more real to you: your problem or you yourself? The awareness that you are here, right now, is the ultimate fact. This is the point you will realize by zazen practice. In continuous practice, under a succession of agreeable and disagreeable situations, you will realize the marrow of Zen and acquire its true strength.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“It is an illusion if the person, while he is listening, while he is thinking and looking, he is judging at the same time, saying, ‘This is good,” “This is not good,” “That’s it,” “That is not it.” At this precise moment he interrupts the ability of his awareness to see clearly and correctly.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

* * *

Not being bound by habits…

“As long as you have some fixed idea or are caught by some habitual way of doing things, you cannot appreciate things in their true sense.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“Nothing is permanent about our behavior patterns except our belief that they are so.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“To do something new, of course we must know our past, and this is all right. But we should not keep holding onto anything we have done; we should only reflect on it. And we must have some idea of what we should do in the future. But the future is the future, the past is the past; now we should work on something new.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“New thinking leads to new actions”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

* * *

Developing self-reliance…

“The object of this learning is to remove outside authority from your inner life and eliminate the old habit of listening to others about your own comfort and convenience.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“We should remember that the purpose of practice in a particular place is to study ourselves. To be independent, we study.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

* * *

Finding your own individual path…

“I believe that knowing oneself is the most important thing a human being can do for himself. How can one know oneself? By learning to act not as one should, but as one does.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“Each one of us must make his own true way, and when we do, that way will express the universal way. This is the mystery. When you understand one thing through and through, you understand everything. When you try to understand everything, you will not understand anything. The best way is to understand yourself, and then you will understand everything.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“As we become aware of what we are doing in fact, and not what we say or think we are doing, the way to improvement is wide open to us.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“Our way is not to sit to acquire something; it is to express our true nature.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

* * * 

Finding one’s place in the universe…

“Within the boundary of our body and in a restricted space and period of time around it, we are the most important part of the universe, but outside these limits we are of no importance or significance whatsoever . . . Recognizing our insignificance, the unimportance of what we think, do, or cannot do, we find ourselves in full mastery of ourselves to the potential limit of our ability.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“You are living in this world as one individual, but before you take the form of a human being, you are already there. We are always here. Do you understand? You think before you were born you were not here. But how is it possible for you to appear in this world, when there is no you? Because you are already there, you can appear in the world.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“It’s a question of becoming, of knowing himself, and using himself in such a way that he does not regret the past few years for what he hasn’t done, or the future for that matter. It means he feels the way a tree in a field feels – it’s part of nature. The tree by itself would not live, the earth without trees could not live, and a human being should feel the same way – that he’s part of this world.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“When we practice zazen our mind always follows our breathing. When we inhale, the air comes into the inner world. When we exhale, the air goes out to the outer world. The inner world is limitless, and the outer world is also limitless. We say “inner world” or “outer world”, but actually there is just one whole world. In this limitless world, our throat is like a swinging door. The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, “I breathe,” the “I” is extra. There is no you to say “I.” What we call “I” is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no “I,” no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

* * *

Connecting movement and life…

“Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“For us there is no need to be bothered by calmness or activity, stillness or movement. When you do something, if you fix your mind on the activity with some confidence, the quality of your state of mind is the activity itself. When you are concentrated on the quality of your being, you are prepared for the activity. Movement is nothing but the quality of our being. When we do zazen, the quality of our calm serene sitting is the quality of the immense activity of being itself.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

* * *

The rewards of regular, disciplined practice…

 “The instrument of awareness is an instrument of freedom for the human being.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“At first the effort you make is rough and impure, but by the power of practice the effort will become purer and purer.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“Do it slowly, slowly, so slowly that it will be boring. When you begin to become bored you will find that it really is not so boring.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“When your practice is calm and ordinary, everyday life itself is enlightenment.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

* * *

Learning without goals…

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the experts mind there are few.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“To learn we need time, attention, and discrimination; to discriminate we must sense. This means that in order to learn we must sharpen our powers of sensing, and if we try to do most things by sheer force we shall achieve precisely the opposite of what we need.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

“If you try to stop your mind or try to go beyond your conscious activity, that will only be another burden for you. “I have to stop my mind in my practice, but I cannot. My practice is not good.” This kind of idea is also the wrong way of practice. Do not try to stop your mind, but leave everything as it is. Then things will not stay in your mind so long. Things will come as they come and go as they go. Then eventually your clear, empty mind will last fairly long.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

“One has to set about learning to learn as is befitting for the most important business in human life, that is, with serenity but without solemnity, with patient objectivity and without compulsive seriousness . . . Learning must be undertaken and is really profitable when the whole frame is held in a state where smiling can turn into laughter without interference, naturally, spontaneously.”

– Moshe Feldenkrais

 

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5 thoughts on “Practice to Become Your True Self . . . Ideas from Moshe Feldenkrais and Shunryu Suzuki

  1. I love this post Seth! Practicing Zazen & Feldenkrais have been to of my biggest influences in life. Thank you for sharing your insights, and for so brilliantly weaving together words of wisdom from two wonderful teachers.

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    • Thanks Buffy – Glad to know that you have also found both that nice bridge between Feldenkrais and meditation. I’ve just started with meditation, but I have the same sense I did when I initially found the Method: “Wow, this does so much for me!” – which gives me a powerful sense of optimism when I think of building my practice over many years. I’d love to trade more thoughts with you about this some time down the line!

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  2. Thank you, Seth! Welcome to regular Meditation practice! I, too, appreciate your artful juxtaposition of the words of these 2 Masters’ common themes. On anther note,
    since also becoming a certified Leadership Embodiment Coach, (Wendy Palmer, Aikido Sensei is the originator) we do sitting ZaZen Practice with eyes open whereas in my other meditation forms, I learned visualizations with sound and practice with eyes closed. I’ve found it fascinating now to do ATMs with eyes open, too, after many years of developing a habit of exploring ATM’s with eyes closed (unless otherwise specified). It’s a whole different world as you and these 2 Masters point out to sit with eyes open and aware. This seems to prepare me to transition better to every day life’s intentional actions after meditating than when sometimes
    ” lost in my own world” eyes closed. Anyone else notice this?

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    • Hi Olivia,

      Thanks for the comment! In general, for both ATM and meditation, my default is to have the eyes closed, but yes, it’s good to play with having the eyes open as well. In the end, it would be nice to take some of the awareness of our practice into everyday life with all it’s comings and goings – and having the eyes closed then won’t help!!

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