Making “I” Contact at the 2014 Feldenkrais Method Conference

You may have heard that the Feldenkrais Method can help you reduce pain, increase flexibility and improve your ease of movement. That’s all true, but it doesn’t stop there.

Since each Feldenkrais lesson is actually designed to help create new patterns in your brain, long-term practice often leads to surprising changes in other parts of our lives that we don’t immediately think of as having anything do to with movement.

In my own case, I have told different stories about how I found the Feldenkrais Method, but most of them are only partly true. For example, I sometimes mention that, as a musician who had been inactive for a number of years, I was seeking to reconnect with my body to cultivate the kind of rhythmic precision necessary for high-quality performance.

That’s true. But more to the point, I was a lost soul.

I was someone who had tried very hard at a number of different things, but felt that I had little to show for it. I was prone to thinking I simply couldn’t do anything right and I had very little clue where my life was going. I was looking for “something”, but I had no idea what. When I found the Feldenkrais Method I realized that what I was looking for was actually myself.

Fast-forward to earlier this week when, a little overstuffed with exuberance, I wrote the following on my Facebook page:

For the last 5 days, I have been at the 2014 FGNA conference (the national meeting of Feldenkrais Method practitioners in North America). My learning experience has felt like being struck by a loving and compassionate bolt of lightning. In every workshop and event, I had the sense of being handed golden keys and shown how to unlock doors to previously unknown regions that I had never guessed might be available as possibilities for human experience. Likewise, the cumulative impact of countless individual social interactions – in a community where creativity, humility, curiosity, compassion and experimentation are not only accorded the highest possible value, but are, in fact, recognized as the means to honing one’s craft – has given me numerous concrete examples of the unlimited potential in each one of us when we embrace the joyful approach to learning that is the hallmark of childhood.

If you were one of the people that read this, I could certainly forgive you if you wondered: Wasn’t I exaggerating just a little bit?

Perhaps. But perhaps not.

As I explained in my first post to this blog, the Feldenkrais Method has had an enormous impact on me in the last three years since I discovered it. At the conference I suddenly found myself surrounded by a couple hundred folks who have also been deeply affected by this work. Many of them discovered it not three years, but three decades or more ago. The experience of living for a week in this community was anything but ordinary.

Speaking very generally, a Feldenkrais practitioner works on herself over a period of many years to cultivate higher and higher levels of sensitivity to all aspects of her own experience. In verbal or hands-on dialogue, she is able to transmit a measure of that sensitivity to her students who, most likely, have not been working on themselves in this same way.

When there is clear communication, the student’s experience is not unlike that of the shy flat-footed man to whom the ballerina affords a warm smile before whisking him off across the ballroom floor. As his trust of her grows and he continues to look into her friendly eyes instead of down at his feet, the more he feels that he too actually knows how to dance.

I myself had a rare positive experience on the dance floor on the last night of the conference. I felt comfortable enough to express myself freely while whirling about – and still found my feet balanced underneath me!

But there were many other occasions during the week when I found myself fumbling – whether with my feet or my words. I believe that the difference was that in these moments I had turned inwards. I seemed to fail to see the others in my midst as models of my own potential for grace, but rather as mirrors that reflected my current lack of knowledge and experience with the steps of the dance.

Then, towards the end of the week, I made a startling discovery for myself about the dividing line between these two classes of experiences. The difference between the two seemed to have something to do with eye contact – or perhaps I could even call it “I” contact.

* * * * *

Even while enjoying myself immensely, a recurring experience I had in conversations with other conference participants was the distraction of something taking place either in my peripheral vision or the periphery of my thinking. For example, while talking face-to-face in a small group, I might notice from the corner of my eye a “famous” Feldenkrais person walking by, someone whose videos I had watched on YouTube or whose voice I had listened to on audio recordings – but was now right there in the flesh before my very eyes!

Wait a minute, what were we talking about?!

At this moment I had to refocus my eyes on the eyes of my conversation partner in order to rediscover the thread, not always sure how long I’d been “gone” and if my absence had been noticed.

A different kind of distraction seemed to indicate the positive nature of a conversational interaction, yet had the same disorienting effect. That is, I might just find someone’s comments so intriguing that, combined with some other pre-existing experiences or thoughts, my mind would immediately go racing off to see where the implications would lead. It wouldn’t be long before the excited mental narratives (“if that’s true, then it must also be true that . . . “) were drowning out the voice of the person speaking to me in real time. I was somewhere else, not “here”, not “now”, and therefore disconnected to the person I was with.

The most disconcerting thing about this pattern of social distraction and disconnection was that it was taking place among a group of people whose company I desired, who made me feel happy. But, of course, it was an old pattern.

At some point in this conference I realized that I have had a long-standing habit of not sustaining eye contact. I can remember for example, only a year ago, when talking to a very friendly man I know, that rather than holding his gaze, I suddenly lowered myself to sit on a sofa despite the fact that he remained standing. My action came in the midst of a discussion on a serious subject and only magnified the awkward feelings and voices in my head that had preceded it.

* * * * *

In practicing the Feldenkrais Method, we sometimes discover habits that we never even knew we had. We then have the opportunity to change these habits, but only if we are willing. While many of the changes and discoveries happen as we lie on the floor in an Awareness Through Movement (ATM) class or on the table of a practitioner who is giving us a Functional Integration lesson, sometimes doing this work sets us up for startling insights that surprise us at other moments when we least expect them. The changes that accompany these insights are rarely automatic.

In fact, we often choose another option: to ignore what we have learned and get back to the familiarity of business as usual.

One evening at the conference, in the midst of his presentation on Feldenkrais and the Brain, Roger Russell asked audience members to pick a stranger from the crowd, lock eyes and slowly walk towards one another – without smiling. People had different experiences, but most found that if we maintained a strict poker face then there was a distance where one or both of us would hesitate, a distance that roughly corresponded to the place where we could reach out and touch each other. It was a fairly predictable biological response, Russell explained, related to what any animal does as it surveys its environment for potential dangers.

Earlier the same day, in a workshop entitled “Potency through Uncertainty”, David Zemach-Bersin demonstrated that one way that Moshe Feldenkrais had found to capture the attention of the nervous system was by threatening it. In a series of ATM lessons where the student had to make increasingly more precise calculations to maintain his balance on one foot while assuming more and more precarious positions, we found that the fear of falling provoked a level of focus that made it possible to do things we might never have dared to try on our own.

Earlier that week, Jeff Haller taught a series of lessons designed to clarify how our relationship to the ground beneath us determines our ability to be light on our feet. Ideally, our experience of gravity is not that it is dragging us down into the earth, but, rather, we feel that the ground is growing up and through us. When we can experience this kind of support from the surfaces we are on, we are in a better position to comfortably navigate our surroundings.

Returning to Roger Russell’s presentation, the paired strangers were asked to approach each other a second time later in the same evening, but on this occasion, after having been led through an Awareness Through Movement lesson. In other words, we were the same two people, but now each one of us had just slightly re-organized our nervous systems. So, in fact, perhaps we weren’t the same two people at all!

In our second experiment, my partner and I found our selves much closer to each other than on the previous occasion – more like the distance one maintains in intimate conversation. And, having come this close, this was what we did: we talked at length.

At a certain point in the conversation I realized that our eyes were still locked on each other. I can’t remember for sure, but I think this may have been the moment when it occurred to me to experiment with the idea that this could be a normal state of affairs.

And, the more I spoke to different people that evening and the following day, the more I found that holding sustained eye contact was something that nearly every one of them did – naturally, it seemed. With a conscious effort I now did it myself because I was discovering that it seemed to create something new in the conversational dynamic, a sense of greater connectedness between us. I believe it resulted from a new message that my eyes were sending: “I’m here with you right now.”

However, new habits have to be cultivated if they are going to stick. I still found that just as often, I would allow my eyes to drift off to some other point than the eyes of the person attempting to communicate with me. It wasn’t yet a settled question.

Many Feldenkrais practitioners have heard their students complain that the improvements they feel at the end of a lesson “don’t last.” There can be different reasons for this, but the simplest one is that that if the heightened attention to one’s own comfort that is engaged throughout a lesson is immediately abandoned at its completion, it becomes very easy to slip back into the older habits that caused discomfort. A lesson can suggest new habits that may serve us better, but our old injurious habits don’t disappear – we have to deliberately abandon them.

In my case, sustaining eye contact in conversation is not yet a consistent pattern. It’s more of an intriguing idea that I’m now playing with, something I’ve become more conscious about. Now when I confront myself in the mirror of the other human beings in my world, not only do I recognize the moments when “I’m here” or “I’m gone,” but I’m also starting to notice the moments when “I’m going” and the moments when “I’m coming back.” More importantly, I can be more willful in these moments – I no longer feel like a passive recipient of the experience.

Perhaps, like me, you have heard the following quote from Moshe Feldenkrais a couple billion times: “if you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”

Normally, as with anything that seems very familiar, I wouldn’t pay much attention to these words. But at the moment, I find that something in me is different, and this simple phrase describes something I am experiencing. When you become different, sometimes you find that the seemingly ordinary elements of your environment that you have come to ignore are in fact filled with rich and vital information – and if you will stop and observe them, they are ready to teach you something new.

* * * * *

On the last day of the conference, I attended a workshop with Donna Blank entitled “Friendly Hands.” The presentation was dedicated to improving practitioners’ ability to communicate with their students through their hands, as is done in the practice of Functional Integration.

But there was no discussion of techniques, positions, or the ideal use of the skeleton. Nor, in fact, was there much discussion of the hand in particular.

Instead, Donna focused our attention on the fact that when we connect our nervous system through our hands to the nervous system of another human being, our place of meeting opens a channel through which all the information we are carrying at that moment in our system might be transmitted. So if we are angry, the person we touch will experience angry hands. If we are nervous, the person experiences nervous hands. Our hands could also be confused or ambitious or impatient or timid, depending on our internal state.

But in the practice of Functional Integration, the practitioner wants above all to clarify to the student what is going on inside the student. By her own sensitive listening to the student’s nervous system, the practitioner highlights internal dissonances and suggests new more harmonious pathways that the student might not find on their own. To make this possible, the practitioner would do best to have “friendly hands” that the student can trust.

Without being able to trust the tour guide, the student might instead experience the journey into the unknown as an unpleasant experience to be forgotten as quickly as possible. This is not the type of experience that leads to lasting positive change.

During the workshop, Donna led participants through a series of “attunement” exercises that drew on her study of Whole Body Focusing to help us find ourselves completely inside our bodies – completely “here” and in the “now.” We acknowledged how our surrounding environment affected us, from the sounds of laughter coming through the wall from a neighboring room to the color of the wall that formed the backdrop to everything else in our field of vision.

We discussed at length the different kinds of distracting thoughts that may come up as we are working with a student and how we can always take time to pause and reconnect to the essential elements of ourselves that transmit our energy: our relationship to the ground below us, our breath, our physical comfort, our emotions, and the state of our attention.

To conclude the workshop, we did a final exercise to make this connection with another, taking the time to observe all the same qualities in a partner. Rather than simply noticing (as I might normally do) where I thought the student before me might be unnecessarily contracting her muscles or how well her skeleton was aligned, I found myself noticing her style of dress, the visual patterns formed by the folds in her clothing, the rhythm and sound of her breath and the expression on her face. As another participant commented later, it was a different form observation than we often use. It was non-judgmental and non-quantitative.

I did not give my partner a Functional Integration lesson. I simply spent a couple of minutes with my left hand under her left shoulder blade. My intention was nothing more than to replace a friendly hand for the table and become the ground of support for the student in that part of her self. As I made this connection I did so knowing and feeling that both she and I were there together at the same time and place. Before I made contact with her, I had already made contact with myself and with my environment and thus, there were no distractions. Everyone was on the same page.

What happened? It was not the same as any previous experience of connecting my hand to a student’s shoulder blade. As I told Donna afterwards, it didn’t feel like “my hand” touching “her scapula”, but rather two rich landscapes, each filled with infinite points of energy that came together in a rich and dynamic dialogue. I felt ripples, shifts, pulses, explosions, changes in temperatures and tempos, melodies and many other things that I couldn’t possibly put in words.

What’s more, I couldn’t be sure if this information originated in her or in myself. Nor did it particularly seem to matter.

* * * * *

Moshe Feldenkrais liked to remind his students that what they were learning from him had everything to do with survival. The question of whether it would be easier for you to turn to your right or your left ceases to be merely academic if a lion suddenly walks into the room. You need to turn and run for your life and, in this moment, you don’t ask the question at all.

You simply turn to the easier side and run, because this is the only thing of importance and your entire nervous system organizes to do it in the most efficient way possible. Your attention is not divided.

Despite the fact that we don’t usually face death on a moment-to-moment basis, the feeling that we would know what to do if we did can spill over into the rest of our experience. If we are prepared (like a high-level martial artist) for what might happen at any moment, we can be more confident, more relaxed, more ourselves at any given moment.

Most conversations are not life-and-death situations (although every one of us can probably think of pivotal moments in our lives that transpired within the container of a conversation). However, the quality of our every day social interchanges may well have a lot to do with the quality of our life in general.

For example, if we always have the feeling that what we say is being dismissed, or that we can’t safely express ourselves when we are in disagreement, the cumulative impact of these experiences can profoundly affect our psyche and our image of ourselves in the world among others. Like any other habit, we might be blind to those things that we ourselves are doing that may be contributing to what makes the situation uncomfortable.

In a Feldenkrais lesson, new and unusual patterns of action are generally introduced step-wise, so that the student is not overwhelmed by unfamiliarity, and thus has a better opportunity to experience success, a pre-requisite for the nervous system to accept any improvements that are gained on a longer-term basis.

My discovery of the utility of sustaining eye contact in conversation took place in the friendliest of environments, in this conference filled with people for whom “creativity, humility, curiosity, compassion and experimentation are not only accorded the highest possible value, but are, in fact, recognized as the means to honing one’s craft.”

Since the conference concluded, I have had the opportunity to proceed to the next step of this lesson, discovering how the practice of eye contact can improve my communication with the members of my family, friends, fellow students at university, teachers at my daughter’s school or even strangers that I interact with on the street.

Whether or not the conversation is a friendly one, I am finding that if I sustain eye contact, I’m more likely to also be in contact with myself, to be “here” and “now” and less distracted by irrelevant environmental stimuli or my own peripheral thoughts. This is why I’m now thinking of sustaining eye contact as sustaining “I” contact.

* * * * *

Among the many Feldenkrais practitioners at the conference, I met wonderful gentleman (who will likely recognize himself if he reads this) who was patient enough to listen to me talk at length about some of the subjects I have treated here and to share some welcome insights.

For example, I mentioned that I felt overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information I was receiving during the week, which felt at times like more than I could process. He replied by offering a helpful suggestion that had never occurred to me before: try to sort the information into two categories – what is merely interesting, and what is useful to you that you can do something with.

Before we parted, I told him some of what I felt that I’d learned about the importance of the connection between my “I” and my eyes in relation to my fellow human beings. He encouraged me to expand the idea one step further and see if in addition to feeling the connection to your eyes as I speak to you, to see if I could also feel my breath and the connection through my feet to the ground.

In my mind, it made a nice summary of what I’d learned through the course of the week, an idea that I can bring both into my Feldenkrais practice as well as the rest of my life.

If you have made it this far with me and are wondering what it might have to do with you, I’d like to invite you to join me or another Feldenkrais practitioner for an Awareness Through Movement class or a private session of Functional Integration. These are opportunities to come into closer contact with yourself and, by so doing, come into closer contact with your world and the people in it.