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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?