My fourth grade teacher Miss Fredericks, whose heavily lacquered blond bouffant resembled a golden helmet, gave us an exercise I still remember. She handed each of us a sheet of mimeographed instructions and asked us to read them to ourselves, silently. Perusing the purplish letters on the white sheet, I began to follow the instructions, each one numbered, none necessarily connected to the one before. At one point, following a directive exactly, I stood from my chair and spoke something aloud. Since I was the first student to do so, I felt rather smart and smug. I sat down, resumed reading the piece of paper, and got to the final line:
Do not follow any of these instructions.
My triumph quickly turned to embarrassment. The other kids, whether slower readers or simply less compulsive, competitive, eager or impatient than I was, didn’t make fools of themselves. I can’t be sure of the objective of that particular lesson: To read thoroughly? To not get ahead of ourselves? Had she been clairvoyant and knew it would help us assemble IKEA furniture because we’d remember to read the instructions all the way through before getting started?
I thought about that incident today in the second segment of my Feldenkrais program when the trainer, Katrin Smithback, made a point of telling the group to first listen to all of the instructions for a movement sequence before beginning to do it. Still, after describing what she wanted us to attempt to do, she interrupted herself to point out that some people had, contrary to her comment, executed the movement while she was still talking.
The moment was ironic in that the ultimate point of practicing the Feldenkrais Method is to become one’s own inner authority. And, everyone in the room, trainers especially, knew that we can choose how to participate in a given movement lesson (we can modify, adapt or rest if needed for self-care). Except I suspect that at least some of the people who began moving before Ms. Smithback finished talking were not at choice but were acting compulsively, much like my nine year old self. In no way am I suggesting that their behavior was immature; rather, it’s striking that such habits are with us from an early age, perhaps even younger than nine, and that it’s difficult for us to become aware of them, let alone change them (if that’s what we want to do).
Since I wasn’t one of the students who began the movement before the instructions were completed, I can’t know what was going through their minds, or if they themselves were even aware of their thoughts. But I understand the temptation to jump the gun, to prove to myself that I can do something, or to simply get to the end of a task. Even today, I have to remind myself when assembling something or using a new appliance to identify all the parts and read the instructions before starting; often, that saves me a headache later on, even though pausing to get organized often feels like I’m reining in a galloping horse.
In Feldenkrais, the movements themselves are not the point; Moshe Feldenkrais even referred to them as idiotic. The attention we bring to the movement is what transforms what would otherwise be a mindless exercise into an opportunity for awareness, learning and growth. And, the attention we bring to ourselves while listening to instructions before we start moving, can also be an awareness opportunity.
Noticing and identifying sensations that arise before beginning a movement exercise can shed light on what happens before starting any activity. Perhaps there’s a tightness in the chest due to impatience or urgency, bubbling energy created by anticipation or eagerness, or perhaps another strong impulse arises in the body, each of which might compel a person to skip the present moment and fast forward to the next one. Throughout the next few weeks of this training segment, I am also going to try to focus my attention on what is happening within me when we’re not moving. Perhaps that will yield just as much insight as the Awareness Through Movement lessons themselves as to when I’m making a choice or being driven by a compulsion.