Microscopic Infinities and the Difference that Makes a Difference

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Still shots from 1977 film, Powers of Ten

 

One of the things that many people find difficult when they first try out an Awareness Through Movement class is the idea of doing “less”. You come to class, lie on the floor, spend a couple of minutes just feeling your body and then do the simplest movements you can imagine – that sometimes feel like doing almost nothing . . . so why does the teacher still keep telling you to make the movement even smaller, make the movement slower . . . to “do less”?!

It’s perhaps the simplest and yet most revolutionary idea that Moshe Feldenkrais introduced to the world when he created the Method that now bears his name. Now a little over three decades since Feldenkrais left the planet, countless numbers of people continue to experience the power of that idea by slowing down and paying attention to themselves in a way that they normally would never do – and those that stick with it find that almost everything they do in life gets easier.

But this simple idea is often not so simple. And many people find that slowing down can really be a challenge. I have now been practicing Awareness Through Movement for nearly five years, and I still find this idea a challenge. But a recent experience gave me a new way of looking at this idea, something that has made doing less a bit easier.

Just as things can get infinitely large to the point where we can barely fathom their magnitude, things can also become infinitely small, and similarly beyond our ability to imagine . . . unless we have a telescope or a microscope.

And this is truly a case where a picture is worth a thousand words – and a film is worth infinitely more.

So, here is an amazing film, The Powers of Ten (1977), by Charles and Ray Eames.  It was recommended to me by a good friend after I told her my experience of a new way to find “less” – and the rich rewards it afforded me. I’d like to invite you to invest the nine minutes it takes to watch this stunning demonstration of magnitudes before I explain what happened to me:

So, did you watch the movie?!

OK, here’s my story.

Not too long ago I was lying on the floor doing an Awareness Through Movement lesson and it was one of the ones we sometimes refer to as a “quiet lesson” – where the movements are especially small and subtle, even compared to other Awareness Through Movement lessons. I decided that this would be an opportunity for me to learn something new on the microscopic level, so from the very beginning of the lesson, I was thinking of my movements in terms of millimeters.

But then the instruction was given again and again to make the movement smaller and slower. So when I tried to do this I quickly ran into a problem – I was already going just about as small as I possibly could go without ceasing to move! My first response was to move mostly in my imagination and then I tried to imagine smaller and smaller movements until I seemed to come to another place where nothing could be further be divided into smaller parts.

How to continue?

It was at this moment when I began to imagine my body under a microscope. Then when I would arrive at my tiniest denomination of movement, I would imagine “zooming in” so that the fraction of a millimeter would suddenly appear to be a whole meter long. From there, it was no trouble to cut this new “meter” in half, and in half again, and again . . .

Somewhere in the midst of nearly an hour of this kind of exploration, I began to actually feel for the first time the sense that the arising of a thought is already the beginning of a movement, and I began to try to stop the movement at earlier and more embryonic stages of this mental seed of action.

This was all well and good for most of the lesson – and was further reinforced when the entire class was explicitly asked to make movements so small that a bystander would not be able to observe them. But after all that, how was I to accomplish the idea of “doing less” when asked at the end of the lesson to do a movement billions of times larger than what I had been doing for the previous hour?!

“Roll to your side and come up into standing.”

What I arrived at was the sense that doing anything beyond simply hearing the instruction was already too much. So I simply lay on the floor trying to resist any sense of having any intention to move and simply observed myself. And I was amazed, after about a half a minute, to observe myself doing exactly what had been asked. I rolled to my side, came into a sitting position and then into standing. But it was as if I didn’t move at all. I almost had the sense that I was watching myself from the outside as my body transitioned through space. It was perhaps the closest I’ve come to experiencing the total absence of effort in movement.

I don’t think I will ever forget this experience, and I now bring it with me when I teach.

For example, I recently asked a group of my students to make their movements smaller by the following process: “Do the movement again, taking the same amount of time as the previous movement, but make the distance you move half as large,” I said.  “Now, do a movement the same size as the last one, but make it take twice as long in duration.” And then I repeated each of these two instructions again, several times.

But then I had to acknowledge that all of this was much easier said than done. Furthermore, I noted, it might seem exasperating. So then I invited them to think of it another way.

“Do you remember when you were a little kid and you saw what was on the other side of a microscope for the very first time?” I urged them to become that child again, to gaze in wonder at the enormous universe of sensation and experience to be found in the first millimeter and microsecond of each action.

Just as in the film, Powers of Ten, when we observe the very smallest and most initial moments of our movement patterns, we often discover that every aspect of the larger structure is already present.

For example, if you turn your head to one side, you will most likely also move your chin either towards or away from your chest. You may not notice it at first, but once you place your attention on this part of the pattern it becomes clearer and clearer. And the clearer it gets, the smaller and smaller a movement you can make, and still observe it.

And perhaps if you turn your head one millimeter to the other side you will notice that your chin moves in the other direction. At this stage the difference between the two sides is still tiny, but it is already indicative of a pattern that will be dramatically different when enacted on a larger scale. The importance to the end result of such subtleties is what Feldenkrais practitioners sometimes call “the difference that makes a difference.”

Well, this might be interesting, but what does it matter?

It matters in every way!

Because most of us are constantly enacting patterns that don’t serve us – not only patterns of movement, but also patterns of thinking, patterns of communicating, patterns of not being fully present in each moment.

But when we can observe the patterns of our life in midstream at an earlier and earlier moment of each act, then we have more and more time to catch ourselves and change direction if we need to do so. Each thing we do becomes more considered, more precise, and more expressive of our true self – because we are less and less at the mercy of the autopilot of our ingrained habits.

One of the clearest expressions of this change that I can observe in myself is when my wild-spirited 7-year-old daughter again and again challenges my notion of “what we are supposed to be doing right now” by continually returning to her natural drive to explore and play.

So, when I ask her to put on her shoes to go to school and a minute later I find her barefoot playing with her dolls, I have time to observe myself as I tense and draw a breath, preparing to raise my voice and unleash fury. I also have time to admire her seemingly limitless imagination and remember what a space cadet kid I used to be. And then I’m often surprised to simply observe myself as I calmly say, “Maria”, and wait for her to look up and make eye contact with me. “It’s time for school. Please, put on your shoes!”

Before I began my Feldenkrais training, I had a number of parenting moments that did not turn out anything like this. And yes, Dad is still capable of losing his temper these days, but it happens less and less. So when I think of the math involved in the millions of interactions yet to come between my daughter and I as she grows towards her full adult potential of confidence, creativity and self-awareness, I can’t think of a better reason to continue exploring the realms of microscopic infinity to find the difference that makes a difference.

That is why I practice the Feldenkrais Method!

 

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What Does it Mean to Feel the Sound of “Biological Optimism” in Your Bones?

What does it mean to look at your life with an attitude of biological optimism?

(I’ll explain the idea shortly, but for now, just notice how the words sound and feel.)

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When I read something that really touches me, it often feels like the writer has put into words something that I have long been looking for, but couldn’t articulate for myself. I feel something release inside me when that thing is recognized and given a name.

When I began to practice the Feldenkrais Method, I began to have this experience over and over. My body was responding in fresh ways to the words I heard in Awareness Through Movement classes and in the new books I was reading.

One of the first books I found was Mindful Spontaneity by Ruthy Alon (just that title made me feel good!). I can clearly remember that there was a particular paragraph that generated a feeling in my body that I’d spent years trying to find. To put it into words, I would have said, “this is what I want to do with my life.” It was a strong enough feeling that I trusted it. That was when I decided to enroll in a formal practitioner training program.

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Ruthy Alon

In her book – which reads like poetry – Alon describes what she calls “the true gain” that comes from dedicating oneself to the Feldenkrais Method, a life perspective she calls “biological optimism”:

Can you imagine your feelings when you discover that you are an ever-changing live organism, capable of self-correction and advancement for as long as you live? The optimism which accompanies the learning process, people’s enthusiasm when they discover it, as well as their appreciation, are what make this method so attractive and inspire commitment in both students and teachers.

These words resonated very deeply with me because by now I could match them to sensations I had felt in my body. I had learned a reliable process I could engage whenever I needed to reduce pain or stress and find more lightness in my body. That knowledge created an entirely new image of my future where I was much more in control.

So, let’s flash forward a couple of years to an experience I had in my training, when one day we had a guest teacher, Julie Francis, a Feldenkrais practitioner from Chicago. As she guided us through a series of movements, she invited us to relate to ourselves in a particular way:

See how softly you can do the movement . . . Let it be soft . . . Let it be easy.
Do less than you know you can do . . . Let it be simple.
Why the struggle? . . . Why struggle?! . . . Why do we struggle?!
Life is hard ‘cause we make it hard, right? Movement is hard ‘cause we make it hard!
I was watching this little girl today doing these movements . . . I was having breakfast this morning and there was a – probably an 18-month old – and she had a stroller and she was standing outside her stroller and she was doing THIS lesson! . . .
. . . And she had this giant monkey on her bum-bum and she’s bending over and there’s that little monkey smiling at me. It was the cutest thing! And there was not an ounce of struggle in that body.
So where did the struggle come from?!  . . . Let it go!  . . . Be that little girl! . . . EXPLORE!
These are not lessons to be done correctly! These are lessons for learning. If we focus on doing something right we learn nothing (except to struggle and try to do something right).
But if we get curious and say, “Ah, what is that, what is that?!” – What happens? . . . Suddenly, it becomes play!

Now, when is the last time you heard something like that in your movement class?!

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Julie Francis

*  *  *

When I began to teach Awareness Through Movement, I decided that I would invite my students to “move like a child again.” I chose this theme because, like Julie Francis, I find a lot of inspiration in the joyful way that children move. And I like the idea that by rewriting the narrative of how we relate to our bodies, we can recapture some of that joy in our bodies that we all used to have. During our playground years, words like “right”, “wrong”, “must”, “should” and “correct” were less present in our vocabularies – and our movement.

Teaching this method has brought me to a deeper understanding of how the sound and feeling of our words reflects our ways of thinking, acting and making meaning.

For example, if a student come to my class and tells me, “I have pain in this shoulder”, and another student comes and tells me, “this is my bad shoulder”, these two student do not think about their shoulder in the same way. Likewise, they are to likely act quite differently when I invite them to investigate how they might move their shoulders without pain.

My job is not to judge that one student’s ideas or actions is better than the other, but to give them both more options for how they relate to their shoulder – and to their whole self. And one of the ways that I do this is by offering them new words.

As a student, I have experienced many new and wonderful feelings in my body by moving in response to the words of my teachers. Now that I teach, I have the amazing opportunity to watch others translate my words into physical movement.

What I have learned is that if you face some difficulty in life, whether you locate it in your “body”, your “mind”, or your “self”, it might be worth thinking about the words you choose to describe it. It also might be worth exchanging those words for different ones. The sound of new words can bring new meaning, a change that you can often feel in your bones.

Perhaps the most radical way to create a new mental narrative is by eliminating words altogether. Moshe Feldenkrais sometimes advocated this approach. The central concern of his life’s work was to help people find their full potential and he felt that language was one place that many people created obstacles for themselves.

He once put it this way:

When thinking in words, even subliminally, we are logical and think in familiar patterns, in categories that we have thought, dreamed, read, heard, or said sometime before. Learning to think in patterns of relationships, in sensations divorced from the fixity of words, allows us to find hidden resources and the ability to make new patterns, to carry over patterns of relationship from one discipline to another. In short, we think personally, originally, and thus take another route to the thing we already know.

*  *  *

Recently, I have been inspired to take a new look at my use of language by Daniela Picard, a Romanian-born Feldenkrais practitioner who today resides in Bat Yam, Israel. Daniela, who has been teaching for 27 years, once described our Method to me as “systematic playfulness.” (click here to watch a wonderful video of Daniela inviting her students to explore new ways to put on a jacket – you don’t need to speak Hebrew to understand!)

In one conversation I told Daniela that I had never understood why some people only seem to use the word “crazy” to describe negative things. “I’m known for my crazy ideas,” she responded, and went on to tell me a beautiful story.

Once, after a fall from a bicycle, Daniela’s knee had become very swollen. After a day of teaching, she went with some others to eat and on the way from the car to the restaurant she was “walking funny.” But this did not mean that she was limping. Rather, “it was like a dance or something – but there was no pain.”

Some among her company became embarrassed by the spectacle and a friend asked her, “how do you have the courage to do this?” For Daniela, the answer was simple:  “I told them it was more important to me to move without pain than what someone I will never see again might think about me.”

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Daniela Picard

I think Daniela’s story is a nice example of how words like those of Ruthy Alon and Julie Francis can be turned into action. If we live life playfully, we can find creative solutions that make us stronger.

Sometimes this process begins by changing the words we speak or opening our ears to hear something new. Sometimes it means following a feeling before we can explain it logically. Sometimes it means that feeling good is a good enough reason for what we do. Sometimes it means that learning can be fun.

Do you like the sound of that? 

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