Life can be discombobulating if not frustrating for those of us who crave a degree of certainty and predictability yet who also want to embrace the mystery of existence, be open to surprises or connect with the divine. At what point does too much certainty, predictability and routine crowd out mystery and preclude the possibility of transcendence? Can too much seeking to feel communion with the Universe be destabilizing if not destructive?
I have veered from one extreme to the other. Practicing Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons has brought these aspects of life into greater balance. They help cultivate an attitude that allows me to find more possibility within structure and to connect to mystery within the mundane.
I was reminded of all this at a party last Friday to celebrate the birthday of one of Moshe Feldenkrais’ earliest American students, now 78 years young. Given the last-minute invitation, my introvert aversion to large (and often noisy) gatherings, a sense of fatigue, plus a cocktail of other excuses to skip it, I almost did not attend. My awareness of my habits helped me choose to go. I also gave myself permission to leave within an hour.
I’m glad I stayed long enough to both sing “happy birthday” to the honoree and have a conversation with Tiffany Sankary Wilkinson, the creator of Feldenkrais Illustrated. She’s also an Assistant Trainer of the Feldenkrais Method, a title that doesn’t do justice to the experience, dedication and Olympian hoop-jumping required to obtain it. Earlier that day she’d been at the Boston Feldenkrais Training, where part of her job is to give Functional Integration (one-on-one) lessons to students.
Tiffany told me and another friend that she gave one lesson where she felt as if she didn’t know what she was doing. In mentioning this situation to her mentor and supervisor, she received this response: “Good!”
I broke into a smile.
“Once you know something, there is no mystery,” I said. “It’s over.”
In that moment, my skin and spine tingled. I’ve felt such electricity periodically since I discovered Feldenkrais, but it had been many months since I’d been visited by those crackling sensations, whose otherworldliness makes me stop in my tracks. I take these moments of heightened aliveness to mean that I’m on the right track, or I am saying things I need to internalize. Indeed, how many possibilities have I cut off for myself because I “know” how life is, or how a person is, or how I am? I’m sure I do this a hundred times a day, sometimes a hundred times an hour.
The Feldenkrais Method is both beautiful and confounding because it’s based on awareness and a moment-to-moment process of inquiry, not a series of steps or protocols that lead to a particular outcome. Each interaction between practitioner and student is unique and unscripted. In that way it’s like creative writing, where a person has to show up to the page or the computer screen to find out what will emerge, even if one sits down with a general intention or idea. There are certain basic things a person needs to know (e.g. skeletal anatomy or grammar), but allowing one’s intellectual understanding to dominate, or succumbing to the temptation to replicate a past success or find a “winning formula”, can stunt the process and compromise the result. If we know a lot, and let the fact that we know impede our ability to learn, the muse can’t get involved to create a surprising or more fulfilling outcome. To invite a breakthrough we have to enter the realm of “not knowing”, which can feel hellish for those of us conditioned from a young age to value knowing or looking smart.
As a child, I often was the first kid in class to raise if not wave my hand with the answer. I prided myself on responding quickly and getting good grades. A huge amount of my identity and self-image became staked on mental quickness and being right, and on the rewards and recognition I received. Our society models a linear process of accumulating knowledge with the goal of becoming an expert rather than the more meandering path of trial and error, of gathering wisdom and becoming a master. Making the transition from wanting certainty and external validation to tolerating greater amounts of ambiguity to find satisfaction and meaning has been extraordinarily uncomfortable, unnerving and humbling. The process has been made tolerable by “aha” moments that periodically punctuate what otherwise feels like a run-on sentence of doubt. Often I want to cling to my old habits as if they are a life preserver. But the magic in life is found when we learn to stop consulting our intellects first and can, instead, tune into our bodies, allowing the subtlest of sensations to guide us towards, or along, the right track.