If you’re Jewish, and you take the High Holidays seriously, you might have had the experience that, as the Days of Awe progress, you’re just beginning to touch something, just beginning to see and feel your life for what it really is, just beginning to realize what it is that you need to do to really turn over a new leaf in the new year… and… then it’s all over. the final shofar blows, and … you feel lighter! The Holidays have worked their magic once again.
But what of that glimpse? What was that possibility of redemption? Of transformation? Of some fundamental shift in your relationship to the way you inhabit your life?
And what does this have to do with Awareness Through Movement?
Every summer now for over a decade I have had the great pleasure and honor of spending a few weeks teaching Feldenkrais at the beautiful World Fellowship Center at the foot of the White Mountains near Conway, New Hampshire. I spend the first half of my stay teaching, coaching, and performing at the Early Music Week, and the other half teaching a four-day intensive Awareness Through Movement retreat.
The casual observer might get the impression that I am advocating a way of being and acting that includes no commitment to goals or to improvement, a sort of anything-goes / take it easy / do whatever you like / it’s all good / whatever comes naturally philosophy with no sense of purpose or forward momentum.
Nothing could be further from the truth. What I am talking about here is the approach that allowed me to make my own impossible possible: to recover from chronic hand pain which for years made me feel like I would never be able to play my instrument again. It took me close to a decade of patient commitment to transform myself from a lost, confused, and pretty-much disabled recent college grad, to a serious student of movement, then a serious student of music, and finally a professional musician and Feldenkrais teacher. Many times I was tempted to give up, or just grit my teeth and push through (which, I quickly realized again and again, would amount to pretty much the same thing), but I am now very glad I kept with it.
In my last post, The Paradox of Desire, I talked about how we tend to get in our own way when we really want something. This time we’ll look at the paradox from another angle, and see if we can find a way to resolve it.
The second theme of this series is gevurah – translated as might, power, or discipline. If the first element, chesed, is an outpouring, gevurah balances and channels it by imposing limits and control. But gevurah carries its own paradoxes with it as well.
I don’t mean something you’d like to have happen to you, like ‘win a million dollars.’ I’m thinking about something in the realm of action – a desire that you might actively pursue. What do you really want out of life?
If you’re like me, you’re probably getting ready to roll your eyes right now. Is this going to be one of those motivational messages, “law of attraction” nonsense? Fear not. I’m not interested in spiritual ideas unless they hold some tangible reality for me. And the truth is, we all have strong desires, which affect our lives in a variety of ways (not all of them beneficial), and it’s worth your while to pay attention to your desires and how they affect you.
Desire is the origin of creativity. This feeling of wanting to do something. This is chesed, the first of the seven mystical atributes which I am taking on (in a hopefully demistifying way) in this series of blog-posts. Usually translated as “lovingkindness,” for my purposes here it is perhaps better described as the outpouring of passion.
Passover 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?
Spirals are embedded in every level of our being, from our DNA to the structure of our bones, ligaments and muscles. Learning to feel these spirals and take advantage of them is a major theme in the Feldenkrais work. Realizing the flow and ease that come from moving with spirals has been one of the most enduring lessons I have learned in my own movement – one of those things that doesn’t go away even when I’m stressed and fall into all my old habits.
This is why my spirals workshops and classes are among my favorites, and why it’s one of the three of four themes I like to teach in my summer retreats at the World Fellowship Center. One of the things I don’t get to do all that much in my workshops, though, is to explicitly examine the anatomy which we so clearly learn to feel in our Awareness Through Movement lessons. So here’s an attempt to take a look a these spirals in writing. (Or scroll on down to the bottom of this post, if you just want a quick way to feel these spirals for yourself.)
We musicians tend to think of making music as inherently strenuous. That the way to musical mastery is paved with hard work.
We train through countless hours of solitary practice. We drive ourselves to do better, never accepting ‘good enough.’ We know we should be relaxed as we play or sing, but our tight shoulders, sore necks and tired backs tell a different story, even if our fingers or lips seem as nimble as can be. Like athletes, we drive our bodies to the limits of our ability, to do essentially unnatural things. We hold our breath and grimace with the emotion of the music we are expressing, because otherwise, why bother? How can I express sorrow or suffering if I don’t feel it myself?