Emotional Learning: Developing Emotional Intelligence

By Frank Wildman, Ph.D.
(all photos are from an Oregon workshop conducted by Dr. Wildman in 2009)

Whenever we contact another person we are in contact with their emotional self. It is unavoidable. When we touch someone's flesh, we enter their mind, and we are in contact with the wellsprings of their personality.

As life itself is inseparable from the great geochemical processes of the earth, so are our most intimate feelings inseparable from the most basic biological processes of our cellular life. Our noblest thoughts, our most inspired actions, the uniqueness of our personalities and our perceptions all arise from the organic processes of our cellular life. We cannot escape except by death, and death is a primary fact of life.

There is an old Buddhist tale about a snake that argues between its head and its tail over which end should lead. The tail clings to a tree until the head gives in. The tail then leads the snake into a pit of fire.

There is another version more apt for Western culture. In this tale, the head bites the tail until the tail surrenders control. The head then leads the miserably wounded snake into a pit of fire to end its woes.

The awareness of death exerts a vast influence upon all of human experience and conduct, and hence both the awareness of and fear of death play a major role in the formation and organization of our body-image. Death is a primordial source of anxiety that whirls continuously beneath the thin membranes containing life. We slap a veneer over our awareness of the fragility of life and spend most of our time in a state that the philosopher Martin Heidegger called forgetfulness of being, surrendering to the everyday world, immersed in idle chatter and the diversions of life, mostly contemplating the way things are; not that they are.

One of the major developmental struggles of a child is learning to deal with the terrifying fear of annihilation. This learning of the interdependence of life and death is part of the task every child partakes of in order to organize and control its movements, and to orient itself in the world. How this is done, the style with which a child learns to cope with such a basic and frightening reality, will determine much about how the adult will learn to cope with other stressors, and develop a self-image that is relatively full, functional and authentic, or is experienced as fragile, stunted or undeveloped.

Another primary task of learning is to create an order in perceptual and motor systems. Especially for the child, this immense ordering process is linked with learning to cope not only with the awareness of death but more often with grief, anxiety, isolation, emptiness, over stimulation, and Moshe's notion of omnipotence and insignificance. We don't just learn to increase our sensory-motor awareness or to access the environment better. We simultaneously involve our entire soma in learning to love and care for ourselves and for others, to communicate our desires and needs, to become generous, autonomous, and spontaneous. The way we have learned to breathe and organize ourselves reflects our ability to access humor, courage, purposefulness and many other vital feelings. We continuously give a shape to our personality as we give shape to all the unified processes involved in our body, from the metabolic and cellular to the imagistic and cerebral.

However, if we are so unified, how is it that people can learn to move with grace, ease, and sensitivity, and show a high degree of self-awareness about their bodies but have an almost complete absence of awareness of how to make emotional contact with others or with themselves? How is it that someone can breathe well but cannot breathe with another? How do people learn to compartmentalize themselves and become numb to their emotions?

I remember Moshe talking about a gymnast in Israel who moved with great control, and showed such a pleasing ability to learn that he was a pleasure to work with. The athlete only expressed one difficulty—he was completely impotent. Moshe pondered on how someone could organize themselves so well and yet not be able to do such a basic and simple activity.

In Body and Mature Behavior, Moshe discussed the difficulty of becoming a completely mature human being. He felt the obstacles along the road to maturity were enormous. He focused on this theme recurrently, both in the San Francisco and Amherst training's as well as in his public workshops. One of his brilliant insights was his understanding of how the developing personality was linked to movement. Feldenkrais was not satisfied with knowing that a child had completed “normal” developmental movement patterns. I remember him in my San Francisco training saying what idiotic thinking this was because otherwise why are there so many “normal” adults who act like infants.

The difficulty of easily completing the psycho-physical learning a child must explore in order to mature is that all its movements are used to develop its personality, from basic locomotor patterns and orienting responses, to investigative and expressive actions and play. Movements are not things we do, they are who we are.

Through movement and the responses it receives to its movements, the child carves a personal way of shaping its existence in the world. It is not enough to overcome reflex patterns and increase volitional control, nor is it enough to stand up with greater efficiency and awareness, we must also learn to stand up our way—from being any body to becoming somebody. We move from instinct to identity.

Every great thinker and clinician in the realm of psychotherapy has been concerned with the issue of how and why people retain and exhibit infantile feelings and childish forms of behavior. Moshe peered at this problem through a window at which no one else was giving more than a glance. Wilhelm Reich was first a Freudian, and Alexander Lowen was also heavily steeped in the medical psychiatric model. Even though they focused on the body and the physical use of the psychological self, their principles rested upon a psychological model first, and upon a conceptual system dealing with arcane notions of charging and discharging energy. Moshe's endless fascination with details of movement and their effects on the whole person enabled him to develop an insight and application so extraordinarily different from contemporary psychological models that it often makes experiences with the Feldenkrais Method inexpressible, even to skilled practitioners.

If Freud “discovered” the importance of the unconscious for European cultures, then it was Reich who uncovered the importance of the pulsatory aspects of the organism. Reich's work with the connection of biological motility to the unconscious contributed powerfully to our understanding of the embodiment of the human spirit. But it was Feldenkrais who made full use of the human brain in his model of human functioning. He put the human brain in the organism.

Because of this belief in the importance of the central nervous system among those involved in the Feldenkrais' work, there has been a tendency to discuss people as though they were nervous systems. Moshe himself was guilty of this, as he would often talk about someone lying on the table by referring to “that nervous system.” I remember Dennis Leri saying “I never sat next to a nervous system on a bus.” I have heard some practitioners describe the work as using the body to teach the brain how to run the body differently, etc. At more sophisticated levels I've seen descriptions and references to closed-loop feedback systems, neuromotor repatterning, altering sensory inputs to achieve new motor outputs, information processing, etc., etc. This fits neatly into the "top-down approach" to thinking and action that is so prevalent in our culture. The tendency is to assume that the brain is the boss of the body and issues commands, which the humble muscles merely follow.

However there is another point of view. For most of the last decade the emerging image of the brain has bee more like that of a pulsating sponge sitting inside the skull squeezing out and soaking up hormones and other chemicals at an astonishing rate. And this brain must live in fluids, for it is within these fluids and the movements of these fluids that human intelligence becomes crystallized into thought. Because of the sharply delimited ranges of temperature, amounts of fluid, and degrees of pressure that the brain must operate within for it to survive, one could say that the brain is the servant of the rest of the body and lives at the mercy of metabolism, cellular chemistry, and the laws of fluid dynamics. With this vision, no system, organ, or tissue of the body is supreme. But this notion of the brain does not appeal to a dominant culture that likes to exert control over biological phenomena.

It could be that thought itself evolved as a result of raw emotional bonds deeply rooted within the social community. Charles Darwin suggested that emotion enhances an organism's chances of survival. Recent evidence in anthropology strongly suggests that emotion serves an even broader, more sophisticated function in human life. For one of the functions of emotion is to form emotional connectedness with our society and emotional connectedness with ourselves. It is the ability to make long-term bonds with another that precedes, and is a necessary requirement for, the development of a social order cemented by long-term pair bonding and familial commitment to the raising of a human animal.

A creature so underdeveloped at birth could not survive without years of being nurtured and would not develop without commitment and community. A highly stable, emotionally connected social group is a contribution to the development of the human brain that precludes all others. The integrity of our body-image and the security to explore and re-create depends upon the ability of the society to provide conditions for emotional awareness to develop. (I will explore this in more detail in a future article entitled “The Conditions of Awareness.”) Could it be that emotion is the most dependable guide to intelligent action, not only in crisis situations, but also in fulfilling basic everyday needs? And is it not emotion that is the most limiting factor in the evolution of consciousness? Physically, intellectually, and technically, humans have evolved at a tremendous rate in the past few thousand years. Emotionally, however, we are still immature to the point of being dangerous to ourselves and our planet. Our society has developed a vision of what it means to be a well-functioning human that is so one-dimensional, so occupied with doing more and doing it better and getting what you want, that we have become like the snake biting its tail.

Academics foster the concept of mind and emotion as mere information processing. But processing information is meaningful only to those who desire the brain to be like silicon. As thinking and feeling become increasingly divorced from our biological ground, there is less meaning to the operations of our mental and physical processes and less wisdom.

So what does Functional Integration® have to do with all this? Connected to and in addition to a person's various back problems, head traumas, aches, pains and stiffnesses, there is also a person struggling with issues of how to become a fuller, more mature human being, a struggle not too different from the developmental struggle of a child and still facing some of the same childhood and childish issues.

It is the possibility of recreating the connections between our body and our world that is the greatest gift that Moshe Feldenkrais has offered. That someone's back pain can improve or their ability to move more easily has increased is a by product of the unique learning process--but it is not central to Functional Integration. If through movement, contact, and relationship we formed our self image, it is by the same means that we continuously reform it.

This is a very difficult thing to explain to people, particularly to Physical Therapists. I run programs for hundreds of health professionals in America and Australia and I feel the pressure for familiar packaging of concepts, when they see successful “treatment” of a “patient.”

An elderly woman, whom I'll call Betty, was brought to me for Functional Integration as part of a course I was teaching to Physical Therapists. She seemed timid and slightly depressed, but the therapists were interested in how Functional Integration® could affect her pain problems. She was diagnosed as having myofascial stress disorder and possible rheumatoid arthritis. Several therapists had worked with this woman for several weeks (Betty was hospitalized at the time) and the staff had run out of ideas. Betty was getting worse and could barely move.

I immediately noticed how wooden Betty's arms and shoulders seemed, as if she might not have noticed if I were to pull them off of her body. At the same time her neck and trunk gave the appearance of a stiff ballerina desperately striving to hold herself off the ground. I asked her what she enjoyed doing, and she said “nothing right now.” I asked her to lie down in her most comfortable position. She stiffly settled on her back. Her neck was unable to move easily in any direction and her feet and legs were very contracted. Her breathing was incredibly shallow and slow. As we worked and her body softened I got the distinct impression that she was getting angry at me. Every so often Betty would let out a sigh of resignation rather than of peace. As we worked she seemed to be collapsing on the table rather than resting. Her therapist thought it was wonderful to see her so relaxed and comfortable. But I was getting worried. I was paying attention to a more basic and subtle process than the improvement of her muscular patterns. When I worked with her arms I felt her anger rise. So did her overall discomfort. As I worked with her ribs she softened again but I noticed that she was lying with her hands held in a fistlike fashion. I then worked with her ribs and an arm at the same time. She stopped breathing altogether it seemed, although she also seemed to relax. Then she began to shed tears.

I reminded Betty that she told me she wasn't enjoying anything right now and I asked her how long she had felt that way. She didn't answer at all and when I moved her pelvis ever so gently she tightened her fists, raised her frail arms and slammed them down on her hips. Her face was livid with anger, and she was breathing plenty now. The observing therapists were stunned. I think Betty was also. The therapists had worried expressions on their faces. But I started feeling like this lesson was getting somewhere.

After she recovered I asked her again how long it had been since she hadn't enjoyed anything. She said since her husband died. She had felt depressed for the past five years since his death and when her body started to ache all over she wished she were also dead. I proceeded to keep working gently with her chest and shoulders while she talked. Her arms no longer felt as wooden. She sobbed gently and then composed herself, looking very calm and peaceful. The pinched and severe expression on her face had melted.

Then Betty said, “There is something about what you are doing that makes me understand something very important. I feel something I'm doing that hurts me.” Betty went on to say she never realized until then how much anger she felt about her husband suddenly leaving her, nor how much guilt for feeling angry that he had died. She was so ashamed of the anger that she never confessed it to anyone and suppressed the feeling whenever it arose, internalizing it. That rage was directed at herself with a vengeance, because she felt she was so "perverse" to feel angry at her loving husband for a death he did not want. She realized all this and associated the understanding with the ongoing process she was physically maintaining to create pain.

When she got off the table, she looked settled in herself. Her arms had life. Her face looked warm and engaging. A week later her Physical Therapist told me that Betty's pain had diminished so much that she was being discharged from the hospital and from therapy altogether.

Some somatically-oriented psychotherapists might have encouraged Betty to hit the table and shout in an attempt to provoke an emotional release. Betty's movement of hitting herself on her hips could have been interpreted with concepts of repressed feelings that needed to be discharged—her body attempting to compensate for the distress in her mind. As in our parable of the snake, the tail would be the proper leader with this view of bio-psychic reality. The pit of fire is the difficulty that emotional release-styled therapies have always had–the creation of feeling but not understanding. Provoking feeling often leads to misdirecting the patient from their real difficulty. Abreacting of the repressed emotion often drives traumatic patterns deeper into the organism. One can feel love or rage but have no idea where it is directed and what organizes the feeling.

Or Betty could have been approached with a vision like the second snake in our parable—the brain as the master of the flesh. I could have touched Betty in a more mechanical fashion, and that too would have relieved her of stiffness and pain. In a society in which touching takes place as infrequently as ours, almost anyone will respond if you touch them pleasantly—all the more so if you move them with minimal effort, enable them to experience habitual holding patterns, and offer clearly-sensed options of self-organization that are comfortable to achieve. In other words, if I had approached Betty using Functional Integration as a form of ultra-sophisticated physical therapy, she still would have benefitted greatly. But would she have felt the depth of her feelings, or maybe only understood them?

Had I approached Betty with some preconception that either her meat or her mind were holding the secrets to her difficulty she would have improved but she probably would not have felt the depths to which she had organized herself around the feeling of guilt about her anger at her husband's death. Nor would she have related that understanding to specific somatic patterns that caused her great physical pain. I was not simply interested in releasing her stiff chest and back or letting her experience how her wooden shoulders could belong to her trunk or how the orientation of her hips could be improved if she stopped clenching her tight adductors and feet. Instead, we both allowed a lesson to develop that included all these biomechanical factors as well as her deepest emotional self—especially the parts she was busy organizing herself not to be aware of.

Although I was able to create a lesson that allowed Betty to experience her unacknowledged feelings, there was no intention to “make” Betty feel these things; in fact, that she did this so easily and so demonstrably came as a surprise. It was Betty who was showing me, by her responses, how to proceed. As though by my tracking of her muscular stress patterns she was leading me down to the psychophysiological roots of her pain; to tensions interwoven with the psychic shadow of her past trauma. It was in this shadow that she was able to recognize and express herself as a whole. She then had the possibility of somatically renegotiating certain critical psychophysiological processes and reorganizing them to establish a more vital sense of herself.

This raises a number of questions about the Feldenkrais Method. Or perhaps it's that the Feldenkrais Method raises a number of questions about the nature of the human spirit. In future articles I will try to explore some of these questions. As I said at the beginning of this article, we are always working with the emotional body. So why do some people never experience any emotional change when undergoing Functional Integration or Awareness Through Movement® lessons, whereas others are profoundly affected? How does learning about the movements of our body differ from learning about our emotions? How can we learn to better identify the connections between motion and emotion? We all know that we must develop completely different lessons and qualities of handling for each individual; that is part of the beauty of Functional Integration. How can we extend our work further to be as differentiated and precise in working with differences in emotional tone as we are about other aspects of the self-image?

We are not only a unified psychophysiological process but we are also a psychosocial process. I have found the family role increasingly predictable, based upon the somatic patterns my clients present. Can we exclude the visceral and muscular patterns of someone's body from the dynamics of their family system? How can we include this? What is the relationship between self-awareness and self-transcendence?

Can a new parable of the snakes be created for the future of our work and our world?

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