We act in accordance with our self-image – Moshe Feldenkrais
I first learned about the environmental artist Andy Goldsworthy from a life coach many years ago. At the time, I was about to leave a consulting job in a toxic work environment to do….well, I wasn’t sure what I’d do next. I just knew I had to jump ship before the job itself and management’s highly questionable ethics completely sucked the life from my soul. I don’t recall the exact exchange with the coach, but I must have said something about wanting to be an artist or at least being more creative. He mentioned Goldsworthy. I looked him up. Later I watched a film about him, too, Rivers and Tides. Goldsworthy spends a lot of time outdoors creating site specific sculptures and installations out of materials at hand: rocks, sticks, leaves, ice, snow. Many of his spontaneous creations don’t survive changes in temperature or weather. Back then, the idea of investing so much effort in a potentially ephemeral project that few people would see did not sit well with me. If I were going to create things, I wanted them to be tangible and built to last forever, or as long as possible, and not to disappear in a downpour or dispersed by wind. It also seemed rather lonely if not eccentric to be combing the countryside for materials and to be outdoors in all kinds of weather. That didn’t fit into my self-image at the time. Instead, I spent many years creating unique jewelry and mosaic art, some quite heavy, which I and others could hold and feel in our hands.
My Feldenkrais studies have shown me, as I’ve written elsewhere, that it’s possible to live more lightly, to value the process and the journey just as much, if not more than, the destination and to relish in the delights along the way. We might wish to make a mark on the world but, if we do, perhaps it’s not in a way that we intended or expected, and we might never even know who, exactly we’ve touched or reached. The path might be more roundabout or a series of squiggles, loop-de-loops and backtracks instead of following a straight line or a strategic plan. If we are so focused on achieving a specific result that we charge headlong into it, make ourselves tense and anxious, or are so driven that we miss the learning along the way, then the goal, even if achieved, may not feel so sweet in the end. The satisfaction might be fleeting, followed by emptiness, especially if the goals are not truly our heart’s desire in the first place. Certainly, that’s been my experience; when I received promotions at work, the event wore off quickly, given that I wasn’t fully invested. In American culture, many of us are told that we can be whatever we want and that nothing is out of reach. That might be true, yet we also have to know ourselves as we actually are and not cling to a fantasy self-image we created or absorbed from the culture at a young age, especially if we thought that fantasy would help us earn approval, admiration, respect or belonging, or whatever else it was that we craved.
Which is why my old self, the one who hiked by checklist and didn’t want to visit the same mountain twice, remains astonished that I keep finding so much enjoyment in a small patch of woods, doing nothing in particular except keeping a casual eye out for mushrooms and other marvels of the forest, whether decaying, dead or alive (e.g. herons, frogs, snakes). I return again and again both to observe what has changed since my last visit and to see if, maybe, I’ll finally get restless and bored. During my last woods visit, something shifted. I followed an impulse to wander off the marked trail and ascend a gentle slope. While I’m aware that stewards of the land remain on trails, this particular terrain is not endangered or as fragile as alpine or coastal ecosystems, nor heavily visited. Since I walked softly I figured I would not harm the hill, where burnt logs and pine needles mingled with live trees and rotting stumps. But just stepping off the beaten path for a short period subtly changed how I perceived the forest and how I experienced myself. To chart my own way across the terrain made me feel, just a little bit, like Andy Goldsworthy, who strides across the landscape, surveying it for inspiration, rather than arriving with a preconceived idea or a plan. At times he goes off into nature and returns without doing anything if the muse doesn’t strike or if conditions are unfavorable. The humble act of transgressing both my habit and the established walking paths also echoed a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement Lesson, in which we slowly explore unfamiliar movements without a goal orientation. That practice, whose effects range from exhilarating to destabilizing, or both at the same time, helps us begin to feel, paradoxically, both different and more like ourselves.
When I stopped bushwhacking and returned to the regular trails, and resumed photographing mushrooms of all colors, textures and shapes, I began to arrange the compositions, adding leaves in contrasting colors here and there, or gathering various mushrooms to photograph together. There was something subtly Goldsworthy-esque about my spontaneous choice to intervene rather than snap a picture of what I saw, exactly where I saw it. Until that day, I probably subtly believed that the precise position or location of the leaf or mushroom was somehow sacred, and that my role had been simply to witness and document rather than play and experiment. In kneeling on the ground and getting my hands dirty, I began to get an inkling why people like Mr. Goldsworthy do what they do. In my small experiment, it felt like a form of meditation, co-creation and cooperation with the elements, rather than operating from ego or a grand plan. To create with what is in front of me, even if it’s a simple composition, struck me as a very different exercise than collecting or purchasing materials to either execute a specific idea or to be inspired by them later, as I once did. To be automatically constrained by what the natural world offers in the moment, and to work with the ambient light and prevailing weather, requires 360 degrees of awareness; one can’t interrupt the project, leave it in a dry, safe studio, and return later to finish it.
I don’t know where this tiny internal shift and insight will lead. In a way, I don’t want to know or anticipate, as that could likely choke off future creative impulses. Maybe I like playing in the woods for no reason other than it feels good. Maybe it’s the absence of a reason or goal, and the absence of people, whose very proximity creates an expectation to direct my attention to them rather than to my internal experience, that allows my playful and creative self to emerge. In our numerically oriented society, where we count steps walked and miles cycled/swum/run and track vital signs as well as productivity, it’s mildly subversive to do something for its own sake, without measuring it, monetizing it, or logging it into an app. Perhaps that’s the shared lesson offered by Feldenkrais’s and Goldsworthy’s seemingly distinct disciplines: what’s valuable often can’t be quantified or replicated, let alone put into words (even though I try).