Why I teach “Deep Listening” (Part 1 – Movement as Metaphor)


Dear colleagues and friends,

I hope you will read the following and respond with your thoughts . . . 

I am truly honored to have my first ever opportunity this year to teach at a national Feldenkrais conference! It’s only the third conference I’ve ever attended, having graduated from my training in 2016 . . .

I will be offering Awareness Through Movement lessons on Thursday and Friday mornings, both of which will explore the theme of Deep Listening.

On the first day I will incorporate an exercise by experimental electronic music composer, Pauline Oliveros.

Oliveros actually created an entire somatic practice called Deep Listening which I find to be a beautiful compliment to Feldenkrais work. However, most of what I will present are my own ideas and processes, developed from my own life experience and through the practice of the Feldenkrais Method.

So, what is Deep Listening?

Let’s keep it simple for now: it’s high quality attention.

And while sound offers a rich entryway into discovering Deep Listening, it is more than merely something we do with our ears. It means “listening” with the whole body – with the whole self.

I could say more about the specifics of the lessons, but instead I’ll just invite you to look at the descriptions on the conference web page. (You could also take a look at the video I made to promote a recent Deep Listening workshop, or pick up a recording of that workshop.)

My goal here is to describe why I am teaching Deep Listening – not only at this year’s conference, but in my own teaching practice in Washington DC.

I hope it stimulates discussion in the Feldenkrais community.

Here are three reasons why I teach Deep Listening: 

1) I am slowly but surely “finding my own handwriting” as a Feldenkrais practitioner.

While there’s a voice in my head that sometimes asks me what I could possibly offer to fellow practitioners with more experience than I, there is another internal voice that commands more of my attention.

I’ve been working very hard to understand the Method within the frame of my own life.

And I’ve come to recognize that whenever I quiet my anxieties about whether I’m “doing Feldenkrais correctly,” I always improve my ability to connect with students because I am speaking with more of my own true voice .

Teaching Deep Listening makes this easy for me because it’s an experience where I can draw on so much more than my Feldenkrais training.

My fascination with sound and what happens in my body when I create or receive it goes back as far as I can remember.

Raised by devout atheists, music was my religion growing up. It was the place I went to connect to forces greater than myself when I felt broken, a place where I could transcend the limits of my body through pure feeling.

For many years, I aimed at a musical career. While that never came together, to this day I remain deeply imprinted by the years around the turn of the millenium when I lived in a vibrant community of composers, improvisors and revolutionaries in Middletown, CT, centered around the musical visionary, Anthony Braxton.

In Middletown, I learned to listen to the world – and myself – in a new way.

I was part of hour-long performances with Braxton where his 10-piece band would split into three sections, playing three different compositions at three different tempos.

I was a founding member of a community orchestra that was open to any musician of any age – playing any instrument at any level of skill – and only performed original material.

I co-founded a quartet where we used twenty-six coded melodies to develop a functional language that could be used to make spontaneous group decisions mid-performance and opened up new realms of interactive musical composition.

I participated in an experiment where a dozen people laughed for an hour, and then studied the recording.

I taught myself to throat sing and speak in tongues, and invented my own imaginary phonetic language.

I composed compositions for 2 orchestras, for 10 people speaking simultaneously, for an instrumental sextet accompanied by electronics, for 5 musicians playing one instrument, and much more.

Another very different (but highly relevant) chapter in my personal sound history was the nearly ten years I spent working in meat factories in New York, Los Angeles and DC.

(yup, that’s me . . . )

At the time, my focus was as a social activist, but I was still enthralled by the complex layered soundscapes of the industrial workplaces where I spent my days.

And, in my final factory years (around the time I discovered the Feldenkrais Method), I was already carrying out my own experiments with sound in my body. After work I often went running, playing games with irregular number patterns that I used to coordinate my breathing to my feet, while mentally singing musical accompaniments.

At some point after completing my Feldenkrais training I realized that my unique history in relation to sound was an asset to me as a practitioner. Because of it, developing original Awareness Through Movement processes to explore sound and movement wasn’t difficult for me.

What was challenging was giving myself permission to do so . . . 

Did I have the “right” to create my own original processes?

“Right” or “wrong” aside, as soon as I did, an entirely new world opened for me.

I was now working with strategies that were already deeply embedded in my body – felt sensations I could define with clarity and use with consistency to continually refine my own experience. And I could invite my students to do the same.

I don’t actually know when and where Feldenkrais made that famous comment to his students about the importance of learning to write in their own “handwriting.”

(If you know, please leave a comment!)

Like any new practitioner, what I know about this incredible man all comes through the filter of the archival materials he left behind him and the oral history, as told – in a wide variety of ways –  by those in our community who directly knew him.

That said, the way I heard it was that Moshe was talking about a way of teaching his work that was free of dogma and open to the personal creativity of each practitioner.

Your “handwriting” is (gloriously) different than mine. So what I hope to share with you with my Deep Listening lessons is, above all, the experience of joy and aliveness that can open up when you acknowledge, embrace, and pursue your own unique personal path.

My hope is to inspire a discussion about what it means for us as movement teachers to give ourselves permission to look beyond the confines of what we learned in our trainings.

I believe this is how we find our “own handwriting.” And, in my my opinion, it is perhaps the single most important thing we must do to become highly effective.

When I say this, I’m betting that my relatively short teaching experience actually gives me the opportunity to make a unique contribution to this discussion.

I’m very curious to hear the voices of both the “new” movement teachers as well those with the invaluable perspective that only comes from experience.

Isn’t that what Moshe was saying?

We all have a unique contribution to make.

How can each of our individual contributions strengthen our community and increase the effectiveness of what we offer to the world?

2) What makes Deep Listening practice so valuable . . . 

To describe my Deep Listening workshop earlier this year, I wrote the following:

From the day we are born, our ability to learn is based on our ability to discriminate differences. By refining our perceptual skills, we open new doors of possibility in relation to ourselves, our environment, and our fellow human beings. Particularly recommended for meditation practitioners.

The original material I created for this workshop was first developed when the choreographer Nancy Havlik asked me to help her prepare her dancers for a performance involving vocalization. Most of them them weren’t comfortable doing this in front of an audience.

(By the way, I’m very excited that Nancy will be co-teaching with me a workshop on the weekend before the conference, “Improvisation for Everyday Life”!!)

Specifically, the task she gave me was to create an experience that would help them to “embody the text” she had used to inspire her work. So the approach I took was to try to reverse-engineer my own experience of embodying sound.

Lacking formal dance training I had only recently identified myself as a dancer after years of spontaneously and creatively moving to music. But I had always thought of dancing as “the highest form of listening.”

During my factory years, I experienced many times how my body fed off the sonic environment to find efficient, rhythmic and pleasurable movement as I worked.

I wanted to help these dancers discover the ever-present interaction of external (environmental) and internal (biological) rhythms. I was betting that drawing on a richer awareness of that felt experience would make it easier for them to feel comfortable making sound.

This is the heart of Deep Listening – even if you remove the component of sound. It’s about growing your awareness of the interaction between your insides and the outside world.

Two of the comments after the workshop were deeply satisfying to me.

One dancer said, “Now I think I understand for the first time what they mean when they say ‘the beat of the city.'”

Another said, “This made me realize how I have used sound throughout my whole life to process pain.”

To me this feedback reflected something much deeper than comments I often hear from students that tell me that various kinds of joint pains are eased during my classes.

(Of course, those comments are always welcomed!)

What struck me was that these dancers were describing something else: a shift in their felt experience of the relationship between their bodies and the surrounding environment.

A shift like that is invaluable. That’s why I don’t just teach Deep Listening to artists or clients with musical leanings.

Instead, I offer Deep Listening processes to clients whenever I feel that their biggest challenge to progress is not with a particular part of their physical self – but rather with their overall ability to pay attention.

My experience has brought me to the conclusion that many of us stop evolving our practice when we lose the willingness to dig deeper to the next layer.

In the Feldenkrais world, we can become overly seduced by the comfort of the being on floor (which is a strategy – not a principal – of our Method), and stop refining the use of our attention. When this happens, the movement lessons no longer provide us with the same stimulus to reimagine ourselves that they once did.

We Feldenkrais practitioners often ask our students if they can “do less.” When we do so, we may be tempted to feel that, because we already learned so much through our trainings about reducing unnecessary efforts, that now we’ve “got it”.

But what if you could do even less than that?!

My experience of Awareness Through Movement practice became exponentially richer when I started placing a stronger accent on the microscopic world of movement.

If I was moving a millimeter, how could I move a half-millimeter? And if it took me one second to move that half-millimeter, how could I make it take a whole minute?

Finding these places made it necessary to pay attention to movement – or “listen”, as Feldenkrais would say – at a much deeper level.  I started trying to observe my movements in their embryonic forms. I listened for the impulses that preceded even the mental images of the movements I was about to make.

I also became increasingly fascinated by the game of trying to find dozens of new angles I had never previously considered from which to examine each action.

Next came the challenge of trying to articulate the rich yet subtle details of what I was uncovering in words. That remains a struggle, but I feel called to engage with it in order to offer my students the possibility of a similar inquiry.

I’d like to pause for one moment here to emphasize that I do not think that all valuable Feldenkrais work should focus on the microscopic landscape. A similar understanding of the “macro” world of large, powerful movements and how to perform them with graceful whole-body coordination is also clearly essential to effective Feldenkrais practice – and being a competent human.

Still, I think it’s incredibly valuable to know how to listen deeply enough that we are capable of visiting that microscopic  world, because it does so much to build our sensitivity. And for many of our students, especially those with chronic pain, it is only in this tiny world that we can provide the experience of  safety.

So practicing Deep Listening – high quality attention – is also about growing our capacity for empathy.

That’s also essential to effective Feldenkrais practice – and being a competent human.

3) Deep Listening is intimately tied to approaching movement as metaphor.”

OK – so what does “movement as metaphor” mean?!

This means practicing movement with a goal that is much more than just “better movement.” It’s the idea of transforming our lives completely, using the body as a vehicle.

My opinion is that all of us were searching for something bigger than movement when we consciously began movement practice, but we may not have realized it.

It makes a world of difference when we acknowledge this larger possibility and consciously act on it.

When we do, we begin to see our body in motion as a reflection of our overall way of being in the world. It follows that whenever we learn an improved use of our body there is potentially a lesson there about creating new freedoms in other areas of our life as well.

If we’re emotionally stuck or facing challenges in our career, family or intimate relationships, approaching movement as metaphor gives us valuable new perspective.  It also gives us tools to begin understanding the deep non-verbal language of our body.

(One of the tools we need to hear the body is Deep Listening – because so often our body’s intelligence is drowned out by the endless chatter of our non-stop-talking mind!)

The key to using better movement to create a better life lies in knowing how to recognize and translate the metaphors of our practice into other tongues. We must learn to zoom out from the physical plane of the body and also acknowledge the roles played by our thinking and our emotions in the quality of our movements.

And when we teach, I think we should talk about it – not just hint about it.

And not just every once in a while.

I think we should be continually directing our student’s attention to the interconnection of those four qualities of movement that Feldenkrais delineated so long ago: sensing, feeling, thinking and acting.

In addition, even if we mostly practice movement alone, we live in the world. We are always in relationship to our surrounding environment and community.

(In this respect, I have learned many valuable things from my good friend Chandler Stevens, the creator of EcoSomatics.)

When we understand our movement practice in all of these dimensions, we have the basis for translating the metaphors.

But we still need one more thing.

To say, “I move, and then I feel better” is a great place to start. But to create deeper understanding, we need to begin to understand why we feel better when we move. And our clients need the same thing.

That’s why I’ve begun to make a conscious effort to teach my students how the Feldenkrais Method works as I teach my classes. Whenever I hear a comment like, “Oh, I just love the Feldenkrais Method – but I have no idea how it works!” . . . I cringe.

If they have no idea how it works, how many blind alleys will they get stuck in unnecessarily that will delay their transformation?

In other words, what are the guiding principles of our movement practice that bring the desired results in our bodies?

We need to know the answer to this question because it is these guiding principles that we will be able to usefully apply to also create change in our mental, emotional and social worlds.

Understanding (and paying high quality attention to) these principles is so much more important in the long run than the specific movements we perform.

Whether we are professional practitioners or just devoted movers, to begin to understand the principles of our practice requires study. And it is the quality of our attention that determines how quickly we will progress in our understanding.

As Feldenkrais teachers, we often ask our students to move only within the range of comfort. But if they keep using their will power to push through internal resistance, why would we continue to assume that they know what we mean?

New language becomes necessary to help some students feel the difference between self-care and strain. For some, the distinction feels too subtle. Simply telling a student like this to “do less” (some practitioners favorite slogan) is not offering much help.

Instead, they need guidance to help develop the skill of paying high quality attention so that one day they will have the kind of sensitivity that allows them to experience the end of their comfortable range of motion as if they were unmistakably running into an invisible wall.

So often this means starting by recognizing that their attention is lost in a sea of noise. They are somewhere else – anywhere but here and now. Somehow, we need to help bring them back.

Deep Listening, which has much in common with meditation practice, can begin to help bring us back to presence. This is a prerequisite for feeling what we are doing, let alone for translating the metaphors of our movement into life transformation.

In today’s increasingly noisy, fragmented and accelerating world, disconnection is epidemic. While each of us has a different transformation story, we all must begin by learning how to reconnect to ourselves amidst constant distraction.

The Feldenkrais Method is a practice that can make dramatic change possible, but the magical ingredient isn’t the movement – it’s the attention.

Helping clients cultivate sensitivity by refining the use of their attention – so they can become more intimately aware of the interaction of their insides with the outside world – is perhaps the most important reason why I teach Deep Listening.

ARE YOU A MOVEMENT TEACHER . . .  who is interested in creating deeper and more meaningful engagement with your students?

If so, you might like to join a new space I’ve created online for us support each other.

And here’s my best attempt to put everything I’ve said here into a nutshell for you:

  • After your training, once you have established basic competence, your main task now is to find your own handwriting. This means looking at your whole life experience to discover your unique offering to the world.
  • Acting on this means giving yourself permission to ask your own questions, make your own experiments, and place your original creations in front of your students with the same emphasis as the core material you teach.
  • Refining your use of attention opens doors in all directions. Practice presence – when you move, when you teach, and everywhere in between. Observe the quality of your students’ attention. Help them stay in the here and now.
  • Don’t just direct your students’ physical movements. Take responsibility for guiding them to an experiential understanding of the principles of your practice. Demonstrate empathy by encouraging their autonomy.
  • Consider the possibility of approaching movement as metaphor, making no separation between your movement practice and everything else in life. If you show up this way, how will you reimagine your role as a teacher?

    I’ll share more thoughts about Deep Listening and approaching movement as metaphor in an upcoming post.

    I’ll also include more of my own transformation story.

    If you’re coming to the Feldenkrais conference next month, I hope you’ll join me on the first two mornings to experience Deep Listening for yourself!