By Frank Wildman, PhD
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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.
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?
a new parable of the snakes be created for the future of
our work and our world?