“The object of this learning is to remove outside authority from your inner life” – Moshe Feldenkrais
Friends invited me to a “Night of Gertrude Stein” at a bookstore the other evening. I knew little about her poetry, save for the oft-quoted line: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”. The event was to last four hours. I said I’d join at halftime. As I arrived, a man and a woman read aloud at the front of the room. It took me a few minutes to decipher that they were reading from the same text and the woman was (deliberately) further along, creating a syncopated echo. I noticed that my ears gravitated to her voice and that I wanted to track what she was saying. Thanks to my Feldenkrais studies, I was aware that there was more than one way to listen. Could I generalize my attention to take in the sounds created by the two voices, even if the cacophony made no sense? What if I focused on the man’s voice, making it the foreground instead of the background? I experimented with these choices and treated them as equally valid, rather than trying to “figure out” which was best or trying to grasp every word. In the end, my habit of wanting to make sense of the language was strong and the woman’s voice dominated my experience.
Other readers chose passages that showcased Stein’s propensity to use the same words again and again, much like her rose line, variants of which populate Stein’s work. I found myself by turns impatient with and mesmerized by hearing nearly identical sounds in close succession, over and over. And over. After the reading, my friends (one a poet, the other not) and I discussed our impressions.
“I hadn’t realized that repetition was such a hallmark of her work,” I said, adding that maybe Stein’s poetry was an acquired taste.
“Theres’s no such thing as repetition,” said the poet.
I suppressed the urge to raise my eyebrows. He explained that each time the words are spoken, it’s a new moment. They are not said in exactly the same way each time and, if we’re present, we hear them differently each time. Of course! As my Zen teacher would add, it’s our conditioned mind that wants to label these sounds “repetitive” rather than listening afresh in each moment, much as we might appreciate birdsong or classical music (per Gertrude herself: “There is no such thing as repetition. Only insistence.”)
While driving my friends home, the non-poet shared that he wished he’d been educated in how to best participate in such an experience, since much of Stein’s work does not make sense to a mind that’s been trained to form narratives and create meaning, an “elusive obvious” habit writ large. His experience, and mine to a lesser degree, seemed similar to how I reacted to my first Feldenkrais lesson. Then, I had expected something other than what was happening and my mind, not knowing how to be with confusion, rebelled and took me out of the moment by judging the experience.
A Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement (ATM) lesson and a Stein poem share language as a means of cultivating greater presence. A Feldenkrais teacher might say the same instruction more than once. Perhaps we don’t hear it precisely or at all the first time, if our minds are elsewhere. Maybe hearing it a second time helps us tune in more closely or reminds us to direct our attention to physical sensation instead of inner narratives. Perhaps a third or even fourth listening is required to refine our kinesthetic sensing, to feel a part of the body normally off the radar. Moshe Feldenkrais, a student of hypnosis, knew that using language in a particular way can induce a trancelike state, allowing people to experience themselves beneath the level of discursive thought. Ditto for poems whose words are arranged not to communicate meaning or even evoke emotion but to open us to deeper or novel ways of perceiving, allowing us to hear our innermost selves, often drowned out by culture and society.
Like Stein’s poetry, which that evening did not follow an obvious thread if any at all, ATMs are also designed as a journey without a destination, in which the movements are not the point. One tenet of Feldenkrais’ “How to Learn” manual is: We do not say at the start what the final stage will be. Since there are no poses or goals in a lesson, the mind’s habit of planning or achieving is temporarily deactivated and the student is invited to inhabit each moment fully, with as much curiosity and attention as they are willing and able to bring to bear. That willingness and ability are, for many of us, skills cultivated over time, similar to learning how to appreciate spoken word events or wine tastings.
After dropping my friends off, it occurred to me that the evening had enlarged my self-image to include attending poetry readings more than once in a blue moon, rather than believing it’s “not my thing” or “I don’t get it”. As I contemplate teaching Awareness Through Movement lessons in the future, perhaps I can learn from poets how to deliver phrases so they sound fresh each time while continuing to practice listening with my whole self and tune into the sensations evoked by the sound of language, rather than clinging to literal meanings. Had I followed my old script and skipped the reading, I would not have discovered that Moshe and Gertrude, born in dissimilar places at different times and identified by others as having seemingly distinct professions, have at least one common denominator*. Regardless of whose phrasing one prefers, the two mavericks shared a message of inner freedom as well as similar visages. That they resemble twins separated at birth makes me laugh which, according to Moshe, means that I’m open to learning.
*(they also shared Jewish roots, the loss of or separation from parents at a relatively young age, and later residence in Paris.)