When I began walking on the same trails in the same woods, I wanted to see if I could transform my addiction to novelty-seeking by cultivating pleasure in one place. To return to a familiar patch of ground felt like a constraint in a Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lesson, where the strategic use of limitations creates new neural pathways and movement possibilities. In this case, I wondered if a geographic constraint would move or shift something within me.
To remain engaged and prevent the habit of speed from taking over, I had to look more closely at the environment and even move differently through it. I began noticing mushrooms and started photographing them. At one point I made mini art installations out of leaves and berries, occasionally breaking the rules and stepping off the trail to do so. In the process of driving to this small forest, I found a closer patch of woods; being practical, I relaxed my constraint and allowed myself to visit it, too. In that second woods I once ran into a happy group of elders gathering mushrooms. They had collected a few specimens I had photographed just minutes before. At that time, I had no interest in harvesting them myself. The learning curve associated with mushroom safety felt steep and I didn’t want to turn my whimsical, goal-less wanderings into something even a twinge more serious, let alone scientific.
But there was more to it than that. Moshe Feldenkrais said that “we act in accordance with our self-image”. In my mind, I was an explorer and artist, content to capture the mushrooms’ beauty digitally and amass a collection of photos to savor, appreciate and share. The aesthetics interested me, nothing more, not even their names. It’s as if the boundary of that particular self-image had been drawn in permanent marker and couldn’t be changed. That idea of me lived alongside other self-images that seemed to exist as distinct, starkly drawn cartoon characters. Even though they inhabited the same body, they weren’t integrated. For example, my “foodie self” also loves novelty, adventure and artful presentation, yet the foodie typically goes dormant when I’m outdoors and emerges at the grocery store, farmer’s markets and restaurants. The way I feel when I am fully identified as a foodie is quite distinct from my internal experience of wandering in the woods or swimming in a lake. As a foodie, I am more focused on details, distinguishing subtle flavors and obtaining a delicious result. When I move without a goal or agenda and let my attention wander, I feel expansive and free. Since my foodie persona has thought of herself as fairly sophisticated if not a bit of a snob, defined as much by what (and where) she didn’t eat as by what she did, the idea of picking wild mushrooms couldn’t cross that permanent marker boundary. I literally could not see myself doing it.
In an Awareness Through Movement lesson, often seemingly unrelated and small gestures are gently repeated. The lessons are specifically designed to not be goal oriented or even make sense. Because we can’t anticipate what is going to happen in a lesson, we can’t match the movements to some preconceived notion of how it’s supposed to go. The nervous system is allowed to relax and discover the easiest way to accomplish the task. I have tried to implement that approach in other areas of my life as a way to outwit perfectionism, which is always comparing what I do to some impossible ideal or imposing an arbitrary time limit on activities, as if speed and efficiency are always virtues. Frequent walks in the woods have helped me learn another way of being: if I were to turn each walk into a goal or carry a checklist of what I wanted to see, it would be a recipe for disappointment and disaster. Some of the most sublime moments have arisen when I’ve unexpectedly encountered wildlife or exotic mushrooms. To march into the forest with the goal of seeing a deer or a heron would very likely send the animals fleeing. Yet when I tread lightly and softly, devoid of an agenda, I am more likely to catch sight of them. The same is true for working with ourselves. If we want to contact our innate ease and wellbeing, we need to let it emerge rather than summoning it on demand.
While walking on a public trail one cool morning I spotted a coral colored, fan-like mushroom known as chicken of the woods, a variety I hadn’t seen in a long time. Illuminated by the sun, it begged to be photographed. As I stooped to snap a picture, it occurred me to take the mushroom with me after I’d finished the rest of my walk. That it was quite large and I didn’t have anything to put it in didn’t stop the spontaneous thought from arising. As I continued my aimless stroll, I loosely pondered how I could inconspicuously transport this beauty (laetiporus sulphureus) to the car. By the time I was ready to leave, the temperature had warmed up. I removed my hoodie, wrapped the frilly fungus in it and tucked the package in the crook of my arm. Having long been indoctrinated by various mountain clubs to “leave no trace“, which means neither leaving anything behind or removing objects from natural settings, I felt like a crook for taking it with me, even though mushrooms regenerate and are themselves parasites.
I’ve often had the experience of standing up at the end of an Awareness Through Movement lesson and feeling light and free, in stark contrast to the tension or unease I had experienced before lying on the floor. The state change can be mind-bending because we’ve been so conditioned to believe that either tedious effort or expensive equipment or expertise is required to resolve “problems” that arise in our bodies. All the small and seemingly pointless movements of the lesson culminate in a “aha” moment for the nervous system which has found an elegant solution. Back in the kitchen, I brushed the dirt off the mushroom before washing and patting it dry. I trimmed the rough parts and cut the rest into smaller pieces. I looked up recipes. First, I sautéed it with olive oil and garlic. The fungus was surprisingly dense and filling, more meaty than mushroomy, and completely delicious. Just a few pieces satisfied. The next evening I made “fried chicken of the woods”, dipping the mushroom in gluten-free flour, then egg, and more flour. As I prepared this dish I had my own “aha” moment. It suddenly made perfect sense that I would enjoy learning more about and foraging mushrooms, an activity that had once existed outside the boundaries of my self-image. After all, like appreciating fine cuisine, it requires the ability to notice distinctions and differences. There is the thrill of the hunt and, if one is lucky, the delight of the discovery. And, like many things in life, I had to come to this realization in my own circuitous way, rather than through a logical inquiry or via another person’s unsolicited feedback. When an insight arises on its own and when I least expect it, I can be sure that it’s mine.
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