the will to learn

Photo by Paolo Nicolello on Unsplash

unpolished thoughts 3/3/2019

Once in my Feldenkrais training, we were practicing an Awareness Through Movement lesson involving reaching one arm to the ceiling while lying on the back. The progression of movements led to an action of rolling onto the side.

At some point in the lesson I became very determined about what I was doing and began twisting my arm as I reached and turning my head. But instead of doing this in a way that could help me roll, I was actually twisting myself into a knot.

My trainer came over and asked me what I was doing. I explained that I was trying to find ways to reach further. She asked me to continue doing what I was doing without changing it and called the class’s attention to me.

She said, “Here is an example of what you get when you add willpower when you don’t know what you’re doing.”

It’s a particular kind of learning that happens when you are in the spotlight, perhaps it’s not the best, but those experiences definitely stick with you.

One idea found in the Feldenkrais Method that requires some nuance of understanding is the notion that willpower is not useful for learning.

What’s important is to realize that the more you make this into a blanket statement, the more likely you will distort the idea that Feldenkrais was going for.

Feldenkrais lived a complicated and colorful life. He experienced war, long journeys on foot, heavy manual labor, and many years of martial arts training. He certainly knew how to employ power and strength of will when necessary.

But what he also explained time and time again was that when we use effort to push through confusion, we are only inviting misery.

We often do this when our habitual way of doing something doesn’t produce the solution to our problem. Rather than try something else, we just do more of the thing that already isn’t working.

For example, maybe you or someone you know finds it difficult to stand up from a chair. If your strategy is to press your hands down into your thighs, think about what this means for your ability to lift your pelvis from the seat.

Does that really make sense?

I don’t argue that this is one way to stand up. Yes, with this method, you can eventually get the pelvis off the chair, but are you organizing for that to happen from the very first moment of the action?

No, of course not. But there is a more efficient way to do it where you would be.

Yet if you continually solve the problem of standing by employing more effort, you will never discover more  efficient coordination. Instead, you will continually teach yourself that standing up from a chair is an act that requires straining (which will increase as you age), and it won’t even occur to you that there is another way.

But there could be another way to look at willpower. What if you employed your will by not giving up until you’ve tried everything? This is very much in the spirit of what Feldenkrais was teaching.

The important thing is to make “trying everything” a skillful act.

What I was doing in my training years ago was not a good example of this. In that moment, I was, in fact, applying some creative thinking, looking for different ways of moving my arm and head to try to discover a new movement pathway.

But I was tying myself in knots rather than making things easier – yet I couldn’t sense that I was headed down the wrong path because I was too busy pushing.

Here was a problem with the need for some trial and error, but also the sensitivity to recognize whether my strategy was improving the situation or not. In this instance, I was sorely lacking in that second quality.

The final solution to some problems will require massive effort.

For example, what if the problem is a heavy object in an inconvenient place?

The trick is not to expend all your energy when you don’t yet know what you’re doing.

How many different ways could that object be moved? Where are all the places you could push from? Or would it be better to pull? Which direction would be the simplest? Is there something you could do to improve your grip? Is there a friend available who could lend a hand?

By the time you and your friend are moving the object, pulling together with optimized grip in the easiest direction, you may well be sweating profusely, but that level of effort wasn’t necessary to figure out this strategy.

In fact, using excess effort at this stage could have easily led you to miss some small but important detail that would make a big difference by the time you were ready to go full throttle.

“Trying everything” can be done at a much lower level of effort. You push a little here and pull a little there to see where you encounter the least resistance. You make little tests that have no intention of accomplishing the final goal in one blow.

You observe, you experiment, you try to reframe the problem.

If you gain enough experience working this way and successfully clearing the obstacles from your path, you can begin to develop a new kind of willpower.

It’s the kind where your past successes give you the confidence to keep “trying everything” – skillfully.

Try everything – without throwing out your back – until you can meet the standard of Feldenkrais’ golden rule:

“If you know what you’re doing, you can do what you want.”

Once you have found this place, it may well make sense to tap into your reserves and really apply some force.


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