Parkour Day 2 – More Baby Steps Towards Freedom

This is a follow up to my post yesterday about my first explorations with parkour.

I got really great feedback and that encouraged me to write about it again.  I’m definitely no expert yet, but I’m reporting directly from my experiences as I enter a new territory that seems to promise me a whole new universe of learning and inspiration.  It feels important to record some of these thoughts while they are fresh.

I’ve been very gratified by the response to the first post, and if you didn’t see it, I hope you’ll look at it before continuing to read this one.  Meanwhile, one experienced traceur sent me a terrific video that really gets inside of the mind of how this game is played and I think it adds a new dimension to what I’m trying to explain here, especially for others like me, who are new to parkour.  (Look for the link at the bottom of this article)

But first, I want to report on my second day of solo explorations, because I had some more fun experiences and insights, even being the beginner that I am!

Here’s some of what I discovered this morning:

A surface doesn’t always need to be under you to support you . . . 

Anyone who has seen crazy traceurs running sideways on walls on YouTube already knows this, but here’s how I learned the lesson directly: I was at the playground again and decided to run up a slide.  Given the angle, the slickness, and the moisture on the bottom of my boots from the snow everywhere, it didn’t go so well!

But I was pretty sure that those guys and gals on YouTube would have done it, so I tried to think of it another way.  The first thing I realized is I simply had to be fast.  But even as I worked with speed, the next two attempts were fails and I went slipping backwards and down.

But then as I looked at the slide, my attention was drawn to the raised edges that serve as guard rails for the kids.  The next time I went up, I wedged my feet in sideways in the corners of the slide, meaning I had to also push myself a little left and right as I went.  A little more progress.

The final piece was to identify a railing at the top of the slide to leap towards for a hand hold since there was no way I could stop part way up and rely on my feet not to slip back.  Two attempts later I made it to the top of the slide and then celebrated by sliding back down on my butt, the “old school” way . . .

I climbed a tree – by mistake!

Having mostly practiced jumps, I decided to start looking for things to grab with my hands.  At first I tried to grab things to climb upwards, but at a certain point, I just starting to test “what can I grab?!”  That took me away from only aiming for things that were strictly overhead, meaning that after jumping and grabbing, my momentum and body weight took me in all kinds of new directions.

So, there was a tree, on a bit of a slope, and tree branch.  I jumped and grabbed and then my legs were swinging way out in front of me, threatening to pull fingers away from their grip.  Luckily, I saw (surprise) the tree!  So I just put my feet on the trunk and pushed my hands on the branch and suddenly . . . I was in the tree!  Having cleared the hurdle of the trunk, now in the branches, it was a simple thing to go from one branch to the next and go further up.

I looked down at the earth below and enjoyed the feeling.  When the hell was the last time I climbed a tree?  I couldn’t remember!

OK, it was inevitable, I took my first real fall this morning.

It wasn’t bad, but I definitely just lost control and went down!  All that moisture again . . . I hopped up onto part of the playground equipment and when I landed it was just like a banana peel under my feet.  I fell backwards, very fast, my feet slipping out from under me.  But I didn’t hit my head – I stuck my elbows out behind me.  The left elbow was banged pretty good, but I determined quickly that nothing was damaged, so I decided to keep moving.

Turned out to be no . . . big . . . deal!

(Then there was the time back in college when I was walking about in a fog and did a similar banana peel thing at the top of a staircase . . . I did hit my head that time, on the top step – and then on every one of the next 20 steps down to the next floor!  That one sucked a lot more . . . glad I’m working on my movement these days!)

Rolling . . .

I’m not ready for super-high or long jumps yet, but I was just trying to imagine the idea a bit. One thing I knew from the videos was that a key thing to do in landing a jump from a height is to not try to kill your momentum all at once, but, instead, keep moving.  One of the main ways traceurs do that is by rolling.

Oh, I thought, I should practice my rolling . . . then my next thought: but it’s cold and snowy and I’ll get all wet and dirty!  In other words, I might as well have said, “forget this parkour thing, it’s not civilized!”

Hmm, well, anyways, I’m glad to report that I snapped out of it a couple of seconds later and I can still give people my business card (which says “move like a child again”) without feeling like a hypocrite!

Just another imaginary limitation – in this case, like many others, tied to ideas of social correctness.

Testing . . . 

On my way home, I got curious about a high fence I saw. Could I climb it?  Not today, I knew, I was tired.  But I found myself drawn to it anyway.  I didn’t even really realize what I was doing at first, but I just had to touch it, just to know.

Know what?

Oh, I saw that this fence was not well anchored at all.  No, let me find a different fence to mess with!  Only afterwards did I realize what this touching the fence was all about.  I realized how this practice was now drawing me into a new and more intimate relationship to my surrounding environment.

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The evolving self-image . . . 

Finally, the Feldenkrais practitioner inside of me was happy to discover that all this action and playing around had brought me a new sense of my own body. We all carry certain habitual patterns of tension, overworking some of our muscles, underutilizing others, and this is what a Feldenkrais teacher can draw your attention to in a class or private session.  Awareness of the pattern is the first key to letting it go.

I’m no different than everyone else, and often feel stresses and strains that I can’t so easily release.  And that’s probably why I found all day that it was easier to place my hands on a bench to my left and swing my legs over it to the right, rather than the reverse.  But I worked on both things and afterwards, I found that my awareness had been refreshed.  My pattern hadn’t disappeared, but I was looking at it from different angles now and I had new ideas for ways to make little shifts inside myself.  Some of those little shifts were suddenly making a real difference for me.

Hey, cool!  I don’t always have to lie on the floor and move slow to know my body better.  I can also do it by running around outside!

I’m coughing and sneezing at the moment and it’s cold outside so that might mess up my plan to go out and practice again tomorrow morning.  But I doubt it.  I’m having too much fun!

– – –

If I don’t end up going, I’ll probably end up seeing a few more videos for inspiration.  Here’s the one I mentioned already – it really illustrates how this practice can grow a path towards a greater feeling of freedom in your life.

I think that feeling is what is what is really drawing me in right now!

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Parkour Vision: What I Learned in One Day and One Night…

 

I love to lie on the floor and do Feldenkrais lessons.  But, as a Feldenkrais practitioner, I feel it’s my duty to tell you, if you really want to change your life, you’ll need to take some of that exploratory curiosity that you embrace in class and take it with you up into the field of gravity and out into the big, bad world out there!

I was just reminded about this . . .

The other day I was doing something I often do, sitting on my butt watching YouTube videos of people doing amazing movement.  Trying to be a little more proactive, I switched to watching a video about how to do amazing movement, in case it might be useful the next time I actually got off my butt.

And, actually, it was useful.  This video helped me start to see that the basic first steps of the art of parkour are not so crazy and flashy as those other videos I was watching.  I thought: hey, I could probably do that!

As fate would have it, the internet delivered me another gift – a real human being named John Cedric Tarr who I “knew” on-line since he is a Feldenkrais practitioner just like me.  John lives in Sweden, but he happened to be in DC and had a few extra hours the next morning.  Would I like to meet up?

“Yes, of course!” I shot back, my fingertips making daring leaps from one letter to another across my keyboard.  As we discussed logistics and it became clear he’d have some time to kill before I could connect with him, he wrote, “no problem, I’ll just do some parkour…”

OK, now I had no excuses left!  Long story short, John gave me my first parkour lesson in a playground near my house yesterday morning.  And tonight I went back to the park to explore what he showed me for the first time on my own.

Wow, my entire world just changed!!

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John Tarr, Feldenkrais practitioner, adventurer

 

Here’s some what I learned from John:

  • The main thing isn’t being a daredevil, but yes, you must face your fears. So, start small, where everything is entirely safe!  Jumping from one ledge to another is no different than jumping from one line on the sidewalk to another.  So start practicing your precision jumps where the height of the jump doesn’t pose any danger.  And start with short jumps . . . there’s no hurry!
  • Vaulting over a bench or a fence starts by placing your hands down and kicking your legs behind you.  That doesn’t require half the work that would be needed to lift them over the bench going forward.  The first few times you don’t even worry about going over to the other side.  Just place your hands and kick your legs up behind you, then start over.  Later you can add a little forward momentum and your legs will fly right over the obstacle.
  • How do you pull yourself up to that high place above you that you can just barely catch with your hands? It’s not all about pulling!  Swing your legs and you’ll get more momentum.  Then hook one more part of your body on the support and swing again, you’ll get there!
  • Repeat! Repeat!  Repeat!  Jump over the bench 20 times.  It will get easier!  And, guess what?  There isn’t any such thing as a “right way” to do it!  Did you land on the other side of the bench?  Yes?  OK, that’s the “right way” to do it!
  • Just a little bit of parkour makes the entire landscape look different.

About that last point: there we were in the playground and John spotted the swings.  He jumped up and grabbed the bar they were hanging from.  Then before I knew it, he hooked his elbows over the bar, swung his legs and used that momentum to carry himself all the way up to resting the front of his hips on the bar with his entire arms above.  Then he jumped back down.

 

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Voila!

I tried, with less success.  He suggested that I use a different hand grip and then proceed by swinging my legs over the bar.

I thought, “seriously?!”, but on my third try, I hooked one ankle.

“Now see if you can get your knee over it.”  I could, but my next move was a false one and I jumped back down in order to avoid further embarrassment and/or injury.

But this was my just first try.  There was a bigger lesson than the success or failure of the effort at this stage  As I told John, “When we came here and I saw that swing set, I never imagined we could get on top of it!”  By encouraging me to try and giving me a couple of simple suggestions, John showed me that something I had ruled out completely was actually possible.  I hadn’t “conquered” it yet, but now that swing set looked entirely different!  I see it and think of it has potentially being part of the territory where I can move.

Thanks John!!

So today it snowed in DC and I spent most of the day indoors.  But at a certain moment, I thought, “what the hell am I doing inside?!” and I knew I needed some fresh air to keep myself sane.  I decided I would go back to the park and see what else I could learn.

I just did what John showed me, but this time I really practiced, repeating each little movement adventure dozens of times and running all over the playground, having more and more fun as I got more used to the idea of being a kid again.

Here’s what I learned from my own adventures:

  • One of the key ingredients to turning the environment into my playground is making decisions. 1) I look around for something to do.  2) I decide: I will jump over that bench.  3) I decide how I will jump over that bench: I will put my hands right THERE in order to support myself and swing my legs over.
  • Another key ingredient: the eyes . . . once I decided that I was going to jump over that bench by putting my hands there, then my eyes would zero in on that point out of all the other possible stimuli of interest in the environment and my entire experience would be in relation to that single point until I was on the other side of the bench.
  • Once I developed the understanding of my eyes and how they could zoom in on the points of support that would help carry me from one place to the next, I realized that this way of seeing the space changed the way I saw everything. Suddenly, I was looking at each structure and judging it – can it hold my weight or not?  Is it close enough to reach or too far away?  I began to see pathways of points that led from where I stood to places I might not previously have imagined that I could arrive to.
  • Nothing I attempted was a test. Many times I began to try to jump a fence and a clear voice inside told me, “NO WAY DUDE!!”  At that point, it was a simple choice: injure myself or bail out and start over?  Never a hard decision!  But usually, after a few more attempts and adjustments, I jumped the fence.  Other times I said, “this fence is for another day.”

. . . And, tomorrow is another day!!

My conclusion: we can all do more than we think we can.  Sometimes it’s a good idea to question your idea of your limits.  Some of those limits are entirely in your imagination.

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Practicing balance + having fun = making practicing balance more fun!

 

 

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Finding Meaning in the Results of the U.S. Presidential Election

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Join 2 FREE events on the meaning of the US elections, Saturday 12/3 in NW Washington DC and Saturday 12/10 in Takoma Park, MD

What do the results of the U.S. presidential election mean to you?

If you find that the answer to that question is hard for you to put into words, let me offer you another option . . .

Today, November 9, 2016, I had a couple of opportunities to have meaningful discussions with good friends and colleagues who, like me, practice the Feldenkrais Method.  Everyone had something to say about the headlines, of course, but very quickly we began to discuss something else: ourselves.

Who are we?  Why do we do what we do?  What are the contributions we want to make in our families, in our communities, in the world?

Feldenkrais practitioners work “with movement,” but that is a more of a description of how we do what we, not what we do.  In fact, the movements we use are only a means to ask questions, in order to find answers that often lie way below the surface.

Among the colleagues I spoke with today, no two of us practice the Feldenkrais Method the same way.  Even for those of us who had been together in the same training, no two of us learned the same things.  In this sense, we realized we could say that each one of us actually had taken a different training.

Because a Feldenkrais training, above all, teaches you to listen deep inside yourself to understand better who you are and it offers you the opportunity to become more of who you wish to be.  Your ability to make meaningful shifts in your life depends on your willingness to ask yourself question after question, and learn to stop arguing with the truth when you something inside that you speaks loud and clear.

But there was one thing we agreed that we had in common.  Doing this work had transformed each one of our lives, and that is why we do it.

At the end of our discussion today, everyone involved expressed their gratitude for what had passed between us.  Somehow we all felt a little lighter at the end.  We all felt a little clearer about who we are, and what contributions each of us wants to make in our families, in our communities, and in the world.

I personally felt grateful for the way our conversation showed us the ways that each one of us is unique and also the ways that we are bonded together by what we have in common.  Both things were celebrated.

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I’m guessing that you too have spent today in conversation with important people in your life discussing the results of the U.S. election.  And probably you also have an internal dialogue with yourself about this.

I wonder, where do your conversations go, once they move beyond the familiar names, faces, words and phrases that now dominate the headlines?  Did you also begin to ask questions about yourself?  What you do?  Why you do it?  The role you play in your family, in your community, in the world?

I have some other questions for you.  These are questions I also ask myself, but I won’t make this about me . . .

Are you satisfied with your life?

Maybe that’s an easy “yes” or “no” answer . . . but how did you decide?

My guess is that you didn’t need to think about it.  The answer was right there in your body.  And maybe the answer wasn’t the same as a simple word or phrase.  But probably that unique sensation that only you can feel is quite familiar to you.

What could you do if the feeling in your body, the one you connect with your overall idea of where you stand today after all your years on this planet, is not what you want to feel?

Maybe you would like to ask yourself a few more questions.  And surely you will hear yourself forming answers in your mind with words, but please notice also what your body has to say . . .

What makes you unique?  What is it that you do . . . or that you know . . . or that you observe . . . or that you discovered . . . or that you think . . . that others do not?

And how does that thing affect your relationships with the other people in your life . . . the people you love . . . the people you know . . . the people you put up with because you think you have to . . . the people who you form opinions about from a distance?

Do you feel that your uniqueness is a special thing that draws people towards you?  Or does being unique in this way somehow “set you apart” from others?

What is it about you that you have in common with people around you?  A common activity?  A common origin?  A common appearance?  A common language?  A common habit?  A common worldview?

And when you identify yourself with other people in this way, what feeling does it bring you?  PrideEmbarrassmentClarity of purposeDoubtStrengthWeakness?

In short, what qualities in you makes you unique and different, and what qualities do you share with others?

And, most importantly – what judgements do you make about this?

Is it OK to be different than everyone around you in some way?

(Perhaps that depends on what makes you different.  If the difference is plain for everyone to see, you probably already know what other people think about it, and you have to be very clear in yourself about whether you will accept their judgements or whether you will define yourself on your own terms.  But what if the difference is something that no one can see?)

Do you ever find yourself celebrating something inside of you that other people do not appreciate?  Do you ever find others celebrating something about you which does not bring you joy?  How does this affect which parts of yourself you show and which parts you hide?

Is it OK for you to be “the same” as others?  When you see other people who are “like you”, how do you define that?  When you see those common elements, does it make you feel “special” and feel good about yourself?  Or does is make you feel “ordinary” and feel bad about yourself?

What are your hopes and dreams?  Are they unique to you or are they common to everyone that you know?

And, does it matter?!

How important is it to you to be different?  How important is it to be the same?  Is one of those things more important to you than the other?

How do you feel when you see another person who is somehow “different” or the “same” as you?

These are questions without “right” answers, but if you are willing to ask them and listen inside for your body’s answer, you might learn something new about yourself.  Perhaps you will even notice that some of the answers are to be found in particular places in your body.

Perhaps you could place one hand on that place and listen to your breathing as you look into the mirror of your life.  Would you like to make a little more space for your breath in that place?  Is there something you feel when you ask yourself these questions that suggests the need to make a shift in order to do that?

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There are a lot of words in the air these days that have been repeated so many times that they begin to lose their meaning – unless we reclaim them for ourselves.

What does “America” mean to you?

Or “love”?  Or “hate”?  “Us” or “them”?  “Same” or “different”?  “Citizen” or “immigrant”?  “Woman” or “man”?  “United” or “divided”?

Do you feel the need to find the same meaning in these words as the people around you?

When you hear these words in conversation, how much are you willing to show of the parts of you that make you “different”?  How much are you willing to show of the parts of you that make you the “same”? 

And how does your willingness to show your true self or hide affect each unique fellow human being around you?  Do you make more space for them or less?

In my experience, if I am totally honest, questioning myself this way is never easy.  Often, the most truthful answer is “I don’t know”, but this doesn’t mean I get to stop asking the question.***

But I’ve discovered that the process becomes more meaningful and the answers that I find are more useful to me if I’m willing to listen beyond the words I find in my mind.   Often I get closer to the truth if I acknowledge the feelings in my body – which are much less likely to lie to me.

I’ve also found that the more I listen to myself and get clear about what I really think and feel, the easier it becomes to be who I want to be, do what I want to do, and share what I want to share with the other people around me.

And it’s that last thing that I think is the most important right now.

How we relate to ourselves determines how we relate to everyone else around us.  How we listen to ourselves determines how we listen to each other.

The U.S. election, just concluded, was not the same election for any two of us, but we all still share our humanity in common.

So here is my invitation to you: ask questions.  Maybe the questions I’ve asked here are a useful place to begin, but surely you will discover many more.

Listen.  Feel.  And try to find the places inside where you might need to allow something new to move in order for you – and everyone around you – to breathe more freely.

Some questions are difficult, even to ask, let alone to answer.  And sometimes listening requires you to remove yourself from the noise of your surrounding environment.

But sometimes we can’t go to a movement class or put down what we are doing for a moment of silent meditation.  So in the end, in order to truly help us, the quiet practices we do on our own or with the people closest to us must also serve us in the louder hustle and bustle of our daily lives, among strangers as well as among friends.

How do we begin?

We begin with what’s comfortable, because that is the only place where we can be honest with ourselves.

But if we are willing to continually listen to the feelings in our body that accompany the words we hear and the words we speak, we also will not be able to ignore the places we discover that we are not comfortable.

Because usually these places are precisely the places inside that we have ignored for too long, the places where we have made ourselves blind by refusing to look at the parts we don’t want to see.  Maybe we have become stuck in these places because we were afraid to ask ourselves the questions that might allow those parts of ourselves to move, and breathe again.

When we find those places, it’s a good moment to ask another question:

Am I more comfortable with truth I feel or the lie that I tell myself? 

And there are no right answers, but maybe just asking the question will change the way you breathe.  And that already will change how you relate to the world around you.

My Feldenkrais colleagues taught me one more important lesson today about how we become more of the people we want to be, do more of what we want to do, and give the world more of what we know that we each have inside of us to give . . .

Sometimes life seems to ask us almost impossible questions and at first we have no idea how to respond.  Perhaps it makes sense that we sometimes have the instinct to hide.  But there is something we can always do that makes it easier to show our face to each other.

We can stop worrying so much about whether we are the same or different.  We can show each other our faces and look into each other’s eyes – no matter what it feels like –  and we can begin to look for the answers together.

Join 2 FREE events on the meaning of the US elections, Saturday 12/3 in NW Washington DC and Saturday 12/10 in Takoma Park, MD

*** Thanks for reading – please see the comments for an important clarification by Allison Rapp on the process of asking questions . . . and please feel free to join the conversation! – SD

 

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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.)

*  *  *

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.

ruthy 4

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?!

julie francis

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.”

daniela 2

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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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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What is the Meaning of that Music in my Head?!

thinking music

In my previous post, I said I was trying to create a new habit: writing more often! I also promised to explore the theme of how practicing the Feldenkrais Method can bring benefits to your life beyond the realm that we typically think of as “movement.”

If you have found this blog, I’m guessing you already know something about the Feldenkrais Method and what happens in an Awareness Through Movement class. If not, I highly suggested you have yourself a first-hand experience!

What follows is not about what we do in class, but it is not unrelated.

In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the following story would never have unfolded if I had not been practicing the Feldenkrais Method since 2012 and become familiar with its highly potent strategies of self-examination and transformation. These strategies, enacted in the process of investigating skeletal movement, are, in my opinion, nothing less that a basic template for how to transform any problem in your life into an opportunity.

Simply put, in an Awareness Through Movement class, we do three things:

First, we observe ourselves in action in order to discover our habits.

Second, we explore new patterns of action that differ from our habits in order to increase our range of options.

Third, we listen inside of ourselves to try to determine which pathways – whether they be the ones we are familiar with or not – point most clearly towards goals we have set ourselves. This final step actually happens somewhat organically. We don’t usually have the sense of deciding on a new way of moving. Rather, we find that our explorations have made this new experience somehow inevitable.

Along the way, we also sometimes encounter unexpected surprises. Some days bring dramatic insights and we feel big changes while other days muddy the waters and we find more new questions than answers. But if we stick with the process – and make it a practice – we learn to become more and more curious about ourselves. Once that happens, whatever twists and turns the road may take, the more we cultivate this curiosity, the more we discover the true possibility of living the words of Moshe Feldenkrais’ most famous phrase: “If you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”

So here is a story about my own current struggles with a very, very deep habit. You may not relate to this story directly in the sense of having had similar experiences. However, I think you may find something useful in my account of how I decided to interact with my habit and what it taught me. Perhaps it will give you some ideas related to some habits of your own . . .

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For practically all of my life, I have identified myself as a “musician”, a “music lover”, a “musical person”, or some other variation on this theme.

As a teenager, I discovered Bob Dylan and took my guitar to the Pike Place Market in Seattle to sing my own original (Grunge-influenced!) folk tunes for the passers by. In college, despite having very little formal musical training, I majored in music and briefly joined the Ghost Trance Ensemble of the genius saxophonist, composer and improviser, Anthony Braxton, playing the stand-up bass. I later led and co-led my own ensembles and even invented an imaginary language called Beeayboll to explore my interest in the musical sounds of human speech. While in the end I did not build a career as a musician, I still give occasional performances and continue to regularly turn musical ideas over in my head.

All along, I have also been a fanatical music listener.

When I hear my favorite music, I don’t simply “sing along”. If I’m alone or unguarded I will move my body in synch with each turning phrase and squeeze my eyes shut to relish the most magical moments. If I’m happy, I will celebrate with music. If I’m sad, I will turn to music for solace. Raised by devoutly atheist parents, I often thought of music as “my religion” as I was growing up and today I still see music as a vital piece of my identity.

So, for me it was a somewhat radical experiment when I recently decided to find out what it might mean to remove music from my life.

Why would I want to do this? Let’s just say that one day I realized that music isn’t only a passion for me. It is also a very, very deep habit.

Well, after nearly a month of this inquiry, I have concluded that it would be nearly impossible for me truly remove music from my life. Nor do I wish to do so. However, considering the idea has helped me to ask myself important questions that I had never previously considered.  I have begun to test long-held assumptions about myself, including the romantic notion that music has always played a beneficial role in my life.

To begin, I decided that I would not listen to any music at home, driving my car, or anywhere else. Then I decided that I would stop singing, something I usually do throughout my day. Finally, I gave myself my most difficult challenge: would it possible to remove music from my thinking?!

Two days into my first experiment (not listening to any music) I noticed that a favorite artist of mine had released a new video on YouTube and I clicked it. I watched half the video before I realized I had “broken the rule.” I decided to let myself go with a warning.   After that, I was disciplined for another couple of weeks before similarly forgetting and again clicking on a music video online. I have now gone another couple weeks without any further listening.

Interrupting the habit of perpetually filling my environment with music has taught me a couple of things. First, by noticing how often I had to inhibit the urge to press “play”, I learned just how strong my habit is. Second, by spending more time in “silence”, I began to more fully appreciate the rich sonic environment around me.

At first my apartment felt “empty” without the constant presence of a symphony or the joyful chorus of a favorite rock song. But as I accustomed myself to listening to the sounds already present around me, I became interested, sometimes even fascinated, by ticking clocks, the interaction of my footfalls with the creaky floor, the buzz of the refrigerator and the wave-like ebb and flow of traffic sounds on the street below my window.

I chided myself as I rediscovered the inherent music of the environment because it was not something I hadn’t previously known about.

It was more than two decades ago when I was first introduced to the composition 4’33” by the great American experimental musician, John Cage, often known as “The Silent Piece.” In the 1952 premiere performance, the virtuoso pianist David Tudor sat at the bench for 4 minutes and 33 seconds without playing a single note.  All he did was open and close the lid over the keyboard to denote the start and end of each of its three “movements.”  What the audience heard was the sounds of wind and rain outside the window and the uneasy sounds of their own lack of silence.

By exploiting the atmosphere of heightened attention in the concert hall, Cage focused our ears on the sounds that were already there, allowing us to begin hearing their musical nature. Cage considered 4’33” to be his most important work, and for many musicians – myself included – his illumination of the musical environment opened up new universes of possibility.

But the sound of a buzzing refrigerator is only interesting if you listen to it as music – otherwise you may just find it annoying. When I rediscovered the joy of listening to subtle environmental sounds, I noticed how quiet I had to become inside myself. The thought arose that my habit of always having music playing had also been a way of not allowing myself to find that quiet space. In fact, I wondered, was I trying to avoid that place by always covering it up with sound?

The second proposition, not to sing, was even more difficult than the first. I have always enjoyed singing my favorite songs, filling my chest with air and feeling the vibrations in my throat and in the air around me.  So I often sing to accompany a task like washing the dishes.

Furthermore, one of my particular interests when I was an active composer was to investigate the sounds of language and the wide range of expressive possibilities of the human voice. So, just as often as I sing songs, I also like to sing overtones, beat-box, sing while inhaling, invent novel phonetic combinations and other carry out other vocal experiments. (This is another realm of my life where the process of investigation of the Feldenkrais Method has enabled me to make exciting discoveries.)

But by deciding this past month not to sing, I discovered that there is also a certain compulsivity in my music making. Previously I’d already noticed  that I would often start to sing hardly before I realized what I was doing, surprising myself with the sound of my own voice. And, on many occasions, singing to accompany a task would derail it completely. There I would be, standing at the sink holding a dirty dish in one hand and a sponge in the other – and just singing!

Just as with the urge to listen to music, this past month I found myself having to actively inhibit the urge to sing. And on more than one occasion I actually did begin to sing before I was able to stop myself. I also noticed how often I would begin to drum my fingers or make some other percussive movement with my body without ever seeming to decide to do it.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with singing or drumming one’s fingers. But it a humbling realization when you discover a pattern of your own behavior that seems to operate outside of your control.

As I struggled not to listen to or make music, I uncovered my deepest musical habit: constantly listening to or making music inside my head. As I observed the sounds of my mental radio, I identified three general ways in which they manifest.

The first category, probably quite familiar to you, is the experience of having a song “stuck in my head” (eg., think of any of the Christmas tunes you have been subjected to repeatedly over the last month…).  In other words, some music that I know or have recently heard seems to play continually in my mind, whether I want it or not.

A second category, of a different character, might be called “musical inspiration”, where some creative impulse inside of me opens up and I begin to hear music that I have never heard before, a kind of spontaneous mental improvisation. This experience was something that I deliberately cultivated for years when I was a regularly performing musician.

A third category of mental music lies somewhere in between the first two: I hear some kind of repeating musical phrase or pattern that might not be identical to any music I have previously heard, but likewise, is something less than “inspired.” This last experience is like listening to a musician playing a couple of bars of a composition that she is trying to perfect over and over. While at times I find something interesting in the repeating figure, just as often, I feel like I’m listening to a broken record.

Over the past month, I have tried to develop a new habit: turning the knob on my mental radio to the “off” position each time I hear it playing. But what I have found is that sometimes, it seems to be stuck in the “on” position!

I may command my brain to cease the music it is playing, but moments later when I try to turn my attention to another thing, I find that it is playing once again. So I have had to dig deeper to try to understand why I turn my mental radio on and come up with new strategies for how to turn it off.

Many years ago, some wise person advised me that the best way to banish the annoyance of an unwanted song “stuck in my head” is for me to replace it with a different, more likeable tune. And that is what I have so often done. But the idea of my current experiment was to replace that song with “silence.”

To explain what this has meant in practice, perhaps it would be useful to return to the story of John Cage’s 4’33”.  Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry about Cage’s famous composition:

In 1951, Cage visited the anechoic chamber at Harvard University. An anechoic chamber is a room designed in such a way that the walls, ceiling and floor absorb all sounds made in the room, rather than reflecting them as echoes. Such a chamber is also externally sound-proofed. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear silence, but he wrote later, “I heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation.” Cage had gone to a place where he expected total silence, and yet heard sound. “Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.” The realization as he saw it of the impossibility of silence led to the composition of 4′33″.

I certainly don’t live in an anechoic chamber, so in my own attempts to “silence” my mental radio, what I have discovered is that I am replacing the music in my head with the music of the environment. What this means in practice is realizing that I am doing something “in my head” and then consciously turning outward to reconnect to my surroundings.

A startling revelation has been that each time I shift my attention outwardly, I have the experience that the sound of the buzzing refrigerator, the traffic outside or whatever else I’m hearing, literally seems to get louder. In other words, when I play music in my head, I turn down the volume on the world around me. And I’ve also noticed that when I don’t have the experience of a mental musical interruption it is often at those times when I am socially engaged, looking another person in the eyes and sharing in conversation.

As I’ve said, I love music, and I have no wish to truly remove it from my life. But I have recently discovered that, perhaps because music is such a powerful force, if I don’t bring awareness to how I interact with my musical nature, it can become a stumbling block in my life. I have had wonderful experiences of connecting to other people through the plane of music. But now I have to also acknowledge the real danger that I can lose myself in music, removing myself from being present in the “here and now” with the people all around me.

When we practice Awareness Through Movement, we are always engaged in a similar struggle – how to connect to ourselves and our environment in the “here and now” so that we can choose to act in the way which serves us the best – rather than flying on autopilot with no sense of where we are going.

I don’t yet have all the answers to my questions about the role of music in my life, but I have discovered an improved quality in my relationship to music, to sound, to myself and to the people around me. I have a new awareness of my habits that gives me opportunities to choose a different way of being in the world at certain moments where previously I may not have seen a choice. This awareness gives me a greater sense of control over my life and greater confidence in the idea that I can reach toward my goals.

There is actually a lot more that I could have said about this investigation and what it has taught me, but I think I’ve said enough for now. But some time soon I will revisit some of these themes and another initiative I have recently undertaken (which also informed my experiments with music): starting a modest, but consistent practice of sitting meditation.

In modern life, too many of us have become disconnected to our bodies, which is why Moshe Feldenkrais thought that exploring movement was such a potent strategy for people to begin to realize their vast untapped potential. But he always made clear that the changes that could take place would extend far beyond the physical plane. As he once put it, “Movement is life. Life is a process. Improve the quality of the process and you improve the quality of life itself.”

At the beginning of this post, I said that this was not a story about the Feldenkrais Method. But the more I think about . . . yes, it was!

 

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