On Monday I began a Feldenkrais Training Program in New Mexico, directed by Alan Questel. I’m here, in part, to attempt to unravel my longstanding habit of prioritizing achievement and results over the process of learning itself. Consistent with this desire to privilege the journey instead of the outcome, at this moment I am not “committing” to completing the program. Before traveling to Santa Fe, I visited family. My oldest niece, who will graduate high school next year, asked me if I’d had fun in college.
“Not really,” I said, refusing to sugarcoat my experience at Bryn Mawr. “I was too much of a grind, focused on grades, and didn’t enjoy myself.” Then, I believed the end justified the means. Now, I remember very little of what I supposedly learned, and mostly recall the tremendous pressure I put on myself to get a high GPA, believing that academic performance was the ticket to a “good” job and therefore success in life. At the time, my self-image did not allow me to take time off or even transfer to another school; I was gripped by a fierce drivenness and fear of being seen as having made a mistake that didn’t allow for exploration or deviation from a “track”. By the end of the four years, however, I couldn’t wait to get out of there. That pattern of pushing hard, finishing things that maybe I didn’t want to do in the first place, and then burning out does not offer the possibility of a sustainable, satisfying life. Yet, I’ve had trouble rewiring this habit on my own. As my college classmates gather soon for a 25th reunion, I will be attempting to free myself of at least some of the compulsive behaviors that are celebrated in certain circles.
On Monday morning, as I and nearly 20 other adults lay upon denim colored quilted blankets at the Center for Spiritual Living, Alan sat at the front of the room and guided us through the first Awareness Through Movement lesson. On sucking. At first, we sucked at an imaginary nipple with our heads in place; next, he asked us to imagine that the nourishment we sought was not stationary, but moving. What was it like to turn the head to the left, then back to center, or to move it to the right, to orient towards the source of food?
For what seemed an eternity, but was probably 45 minutes, I moved my lips and tongue in ways that I hadn’t practiced much in more than 45 years. To be asked to mimic an infant, while strange, felt oddly fitting: if we were going to learn about movement and development, it made sense to begin with the fundamental reflex of feeding and its effect on the central nervous system. In the midst of it all, I noticed some soreness in my cheeks, and wished the lesson would end already as I wasn’t able to find the pleasant sensation. Sucking, often maligned as inappropriate past a certain age, especially when thumbs are involved, was actually serious business, involving more muscles than I even knew I had. Afterwards, he asked us to stand up, walk around and notice any changes. Several people reported feeling more connected to themselves and to the environment, as if the wall that normally separated them from others had become more porous. I noticed that my mouth felt more spacious after having practiced a greater range of movement. A few people spoke of their initial embarrassment at and aversion towards the exercise.
Later in the day, we tried to answer the question, “What is learning?” Alan mentioned that even now, decades after Moshe Feldenkrais trained him in the method, he is still engaging that question and refining his response. In a small group inquiry, we explored the idea of moving from unconscious incompetence (not being aware of what you don’t know how to do), to conscious incompetence (being aware of what you can’t yet do), to conscious competence (knowing how to do something yet the doing involves concentration) and, finally, unconscious competence (being in a state of flow). Moving through that progression requires curiosity, sufficient time to integrate and assimilate new information into one’s actions, and a willingness to practice or engage in an iterative process. Learning, then, requires an ability to suck (at first), and remain kind and patient with oneself during the messy, possibly painful or discouraging experiments or approximations that follow.
Many of us might not allow ourselves to learn new things because, like my fellow trainees who felt uncomfortable sucking at an imaginary breast, we wish to avoid both our own experience of awkwardness and the possibility of being judged or teased by others. If we don’t want to suck or have others see us suck, we might curtail our choices in life. As Moshe Feldenkrais wrote in The Elusive Obvious, “We organize our life around that which we can do to our satisfaction, and avoid those acts where we feel we are inept. We decide that the activities that involve our ineptitudes are not congenial to our character, are uninteresting, and we usually have more important things to do.” Those justifications for not trying new things have, in my life, often led to a sense of dreariness and colorlessness, of life occurring in a box. If there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s far better to take risks and suck than to be stuck.