In the Jewish calendar, we’re in the midst of the Days of Awe, a period of introspection that began with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and culminates with Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, also known as the Day of Atonement.
Atonement is a loaded word. It suggests that sin has transpired and repentance is due, concepts that carry enormous baggage for many. In progressive synagogues, sin is often reframed as “missing the mark”. We’re encouraged to look with compassion at areas of our lives where we’ve let ourselves or others down and also at ways in which we can move closer to the mark. Atonement is often restated as the more easily digestible At-One-Ment: what does one need to either do, or not do, to feel more whole and connected to themselves, families and friends, communities and God?
In the Jewish tradition, rather than making resolutions at the New Year, we unmake them, beginning the next turn around the sun with a clean slate. In the Kol Nidrei service at the start of Yom Kippur, congregants declare that all vows are “absolved, remitted, cancelled, declared null and void, not in force of in effect.” It’s a beautiful practice, yet it addresses primarily visible vows; in traditional Judaism, even verbal promises are considered moral obligations, not just written ones.
But what about our unconscious, unverbalized vows? How do we make them conscious and either fulfill or release them?
It’s possible to live, year after year, repeating self-defeating patterns and habits, or holding onto unhelpful, unarticulated vows, despite making effort after effort to honor one’s word or improve. It’s possible to live, season after season, without fulfilling what Moshe Feldenkrais calls one’s unavowed dreams. It’s a bit of paradox, to fulfill something of which we’re unaware, to bring to fruition an invisible seed.
In his book Awareness Through Movement, Feldenkrais wrote, “In order to change our mode of action we must change the image of ourselves that we carry within us.”
Many of us may not know the full scope of that image. We might see the front, but not the sides or the back, let alone what resides within. We might not be aware that a story we told ourselves years before about who we are is still written into our nervous system and musculature, forming our movements and our shape. A woman who has told herself for years that she has to appear intelligent might hold her spine excessively straight, inhibiting spontaneous motion and perhaps emotion. A man who internalized as a child that he was clumsy might walk in such a way that he trips, reinforcing that belief, perhaps unwittingly. Repetitive thoughts don’t simply exit our minds into the atmosphere; they create emotional energy that is stored in the body.
How can we rewrite those stories and nullify unhelpful vows, of which we might not even be aware? Using pen and paper to reframe our experiences can be helpful, but so can Awareness Through Movement lessons that disrupt, even in small ways, existing physical habits that are so subtle they exist below our radar.
“A fundamental change in the motor basis within any single integration pattern with break up the cohesion of the whole and thereby leave thought and feeling without anchorage in the patterns of their established routines,” Feldenkrais explains in that same book.
“In this condition it is much easier to effect changes in thinking and feeling, for the muscular part through which thinking and feeling reach our awareness has changed and no longer expresses the patterns previously familiar to us. Habit has lost its chief support, that of the muscles, and has become more amenable to change.”
Our muscles carry our stories, of which we might not be aware. Feldenkrais shared a Tibetan parable to illustrate how the muscles, if left to their own devices, can take us places we might not want to travel anymore.
“A man without awareness is like a carriage whose passengers are the desires, with the muscles for horses, while the carriage itself is the skeleton. Awareness is the sleeping coachman. As long as the coachman remains asleep, the carriage will be dragged aimlessly here and there. Each passenger seeks a different destination and the horses pull different ways. But when the coachman is wide awake and holds the rains the horses will pull the carriage and bring every passenger to his proper destination.
“In those moments when awareness succeeds in being at one with feeling, senses, movement and thought, the carriage will speed along on the right road. Then man can makes discoveries, invent, create, innovate, and ‘know’. He grasps that his small world and the great world around are but one and that in this unity he is no longer alone.”
At the conclusion of Yom Kippur, Jews pray that they will be inscribed in the Book of Life. The more I practice Feldenkrais, the more I’m aware that to be fully in life requires uninscribing chronic patterns that show up as muscular tension. Although I’ve attended Yom Kippur services throughout my life, I’m considering trying something new this year: spending the day at home on my Feldenkrais mat, practicing greater At-One-Ment.