The Risks of Freedom

Passing from restriction to freedom is alway scaryPassover begins tonight, and I, like most Jews around the world, will be sitting down with family and guests to discuss the mythic liberation of our people from slavery. We’ll use ritual and conversation to explore the idea of liberation in the text before us, in the world around us, and even in our own lives. Amid the joys of food and family, song and conversation, I am always struck by the way in which the central theme of the holiday mirrors the work I do every day as a Feldenkrais teacher, as I help my students free themselves from the compulsions of their habits and the limitations of their own self-images.

This year, the student I am thinking of most is me.

Have I lost you yet? Don’t I teach some sort of movement-improvement method? What does this Jewish holiday and these abstract ideas of freedom and self-image have to do with learning to move better?

Everything, it turns out. We move, Moshe Feldenkrais pointed out, not according to the way we are shaped, but according to the way we think we’re shaped – our “self-image.” If we are to change our habits of movement, we have to change who we think we are. Sometimes this is blessedly simple: you come to a Feldenkrais class, lie on your back and follow the directions, and by the end you feel yourself in a whole new way, and everything seems easier. But sometimes it’s not so easy. When we leave that class or private lesson and go back into the world, if we’re not careful, we will slip into our old way of doing things.

Why do we do this? Let’s explore this question with a few stories. The first story will come from the book of Exodus, the second from my life.

The deep symbolism of the Exodus story

The biblical story, I imagine, is familiar to most people. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, until God heard their cries of suffering and sent Moses (or Moshe – I’ll leave it to you to contemplate any comparison between Moshe Feldenkrais and his biblical namesake) to bring them out to the wilderness, where they could encounter divine reality and discover their destiny, and continue to the Promised Land. But an interesting thing happened as soon as the people got out of Egypt. Apart from a few moments of celebration, all they did was complain! They remembered nothing of the suffering of slavery, and instead whined about the food they used to get for free!

It has been suggested that this part of the story is symbolic of the way of humanity. Slavery is predictable. Like our habits, we know what we’re going to get, even if we don’t like it. The wilderness is wide open and unpredictable. When we give up our constraining habits, we are faced with the open-ended possibilities of freedom, and that can be as frightening as it is exhilarating.

The day I learned this Jewish teaching happened to be in the middle of my training as a Feldenkrais practitioner. That very afternoon I shared some hands-on Functional Integration work with a fellow student. After we were done, she told the group “something shifted while Josh was working with me, and a whole lot of new options opened up for me. Somehow, I feel both exhilarated and frightened.” I could barely contain myself when she said that. “Oh my God” I wanted to shout “I just learned this same thing in the context of Torah study!”

At that moment I realized two things:

1) Spiritual truth can have a physical manifestation that is deeper than mental symbolism.

2) Physical experience has a spiritual, or at least existential, aspect to it. When we question our habits, we question our sense of self in some fundamental ways.

Like the Israelites, we long for freedom from our habits, but this freedom is not always comfortable, and we are pulled back to the familiar. Our self-image, it seems, seeks to perpetuate itself.

Expanding our self-image

Does this ring true to you? Have you ever been at the edge of your “comfort zone” and felt simultaneously excited and frightened?

I think most musicians are deeply familiar with this feeling of risk. Whenever we go out on stage and truly play or sing our best, we are simultaneously putting ourselves in the position to out-do our selves, and risking that something will go wrong. When we play from the heart, we invite the music to express, reveal, and possibly even change us.  ‘Playing it safe’ is never as satisfying, to us our to or listeners.

On a less transcendent level, this risk is there every time I sit down to practice, (not to mention to play for someone who is going to give me feedback on my musical interpretation or my technique). I am faced with the choice of doing things as I have always done them, or taking the risk of trying something new that might not be as dependable.

I see this same challenge every time I teach someone a new way to move. As a Feldenkrais teacher, I try to ease people through this sort of transition by providing a safe, neutral space as they discover new ways to move and be. The psychological part of the work stays private.

Expanding my self-image

I see myself in this sort of situation right now in my practice. I’ve been very happy with the teaching side of my work, but doing things the way I’m used to doing them just isn’t paying the rent. So alongside my new website, I am making some fundamental changes, from the way I communicate with you to the classes I offer. It’s an exhilarating and frightening time for me!

One change I am making is in my newsletters. Instead of eking out an announcement every time I have something new to teach, I’ll be writing blog-posts that give you, my readers, some value for the time you spend reading them. Most of my writing will be shorter than this post, and will include some ideas for you to reflect on and some movement experiments for you to try on your own. I hope you will try them and share your thoughts and reflections with other readers on the blog!

To get myself in the habit, I’m taking on a challenge of writing seven posts over the next seven weeks. Each post will use as its inspiration one of seven themes from a kabbalistic practice of self-reflection for the seven weeks between Passover and the festival of Shavuot. From this starting-point, I will explore the question of how we can change our selves to be more successful at whatever we choose to do. As with this post, I will frequently be drawing from my own experiences as a musician, but I promise there will also be plenty of explorations for everyone else. When I’m done with these seven posts, I expect I’ll slow the pace down to about two a month, but we’ll see.

Meanwhile, alongside the writing, stay tuned for offerings that more explicitly address both the needs of musicians and these sorts of spiritual/existential questions.

Some food for thought

Will you join me on this adventure? I’m inviting you not just to read, but to participate!

What habits are constraining you?

When you think of changing these habits, can you feel the excitement? The anxiety? The resistance in your body?

What would it be like to let go of this resistance? To allow your self-image to change?

Come along with me. I don’t know exactly where I’m going, and I certainly don’t know where you need to go. But I have learned a thing or two over the years about how to explore, and I know that it’s always easier with company. Let’s get moving!

9 thoughts on “The Risks of Freedom

  1. John

    Great post Josh! Being that I’m biblically illiterate, I’d never thought that a biblical teaching could have relevance to my work. Your self perspective on your own work is also inspiring. Keep it up!

    1. Josh Post author

      Thanks, John!

      For me, much of the joy of religious teachings is their breadth. I believe you can find beautiful things in any religion that are deeply relevant to the reality of life — whatever your religion, and whatever the reality of your life. That’s how religions evolved: as ways for us to make meaning of our life. I think this capacity for meaning-making is as fundamental to humanity as the way we make sense of our movement as we interact with the environment.

  2. Anne Ellinger

    Josh, thanks for taking the time and risk to put your insights and feelings into writing. I’m looking forward to learning from you through this medium, which works much better for me than the spoken word.

    I really loved hearing the ways you connect the Exodus story and Feldenkrais. Definitely got me thinking about my own physical self-image and the ways I might be attached to old habits or afraid of new freedom. You motivated me to start at least imagining myself moving in new ways, such as going up and down stairs with ease, even if I can’t yet do them physically.

    I’m curious to hear more what fundamental changes you’re looking to make in your business, and what you find those plans exhilarating and frightening. I appreciate your courage in expressing these vulnerable feelings!


    1. Josh Post author

      Thanks so much for taking the time to write, Anne!

      It’s great that you’re starting to think outside of what seemed possible to you before. I hope that, with time and practice, you’ll start to be able not only to imagine yourself going up and down the stairs more easily, but to be able to feel who that person is who is the you with less trouble with stairs — or, for that matter, what it is that you do that makes it harder for you now than it has to be.

      Of course, as you know, this doesn’t come just from blog reading (at least, not for most of us!), but from actually engaging with the details of this work to discover new ways to move. You discover something new in the way you feel your feet, a different way to let your pelvis move, or to feel your chest and hold your head… it all comes together, and forms a different picture for you. But if you don’t let go of the idea that ‘stairs are hard,’ progress will be slower, so good for you in being open to change!

      As for my business, well that’s a good question. For one thing, I’m putting my time and energy into writing about what I do and how I care about it, rather than putting that same time into more traditional “advertising” of my work. That involves a fair amount of trust that the people who want to work with me will find me. I’m focusing on working with musicians, and with this Jewish spirituality stuff, because I think that’s where I have the most to contribute. Will people want to work with me when I’m just being me, and not trying to be what I think they want?

      But the hard part of it really is just letting go of the old ways of doing things that weren’t working for me all that well, and it doesn’t matter exactly what they were or what the new things are. I’m letting go of the ‘devil I know’ for the sake of possibility.

      Thanks again for writing! ~josh.

  3. Pingback: New directions, new adventures - Josh Schreiber Shalem, The Moving Musician

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