A precious waste of time
Earlier this week, in the morning An AY a day meeting, we did ON THE CHEEK (Lesson 25). It’s in this lesson that Moshe utters the following sentence: “You have to do this as if you wanted to waste your time, but waste your time efficiently.”
Instantly, I was reminded of George Krutz [1952 — 2017], a colleague I became friends with during his training in Evanston, Illinois. George was so taken by this quote that he wrote what I consider a thoughtful and important article for the Feldenkrais Journal. When I share the article with the participants in teacher training programs and other courses, I say, “Rather than tell you about what George said, I think it better to let him speak for himself.’
Thanks to the kind permission of his surviving spouse, Stephanie Spink, I reprint the article below for your reading pleasure. (Other than correcting a few misspelled words and punctuation problems, I’m publishing the article as George wrote it.)
I look forward to your responses.
A Precious Waste of Time
“You have to do this as if you wanted to waste your time,
but waste your time efficiently.”
— Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais
[Alexander Yanai Lesson 25, IFF, 1994, page 149]
Throughout his lessons, Feldenkrais makes comments like this one. He calls the movements “idiotic” and tells his students that the movements have no value. He says that if you couldn’t do something when you walked in, it makes no difference if you can do it when you leave. What did he mean by these seemingly paradoxical statements? Was he being modest? Or was he creating a diversion, using reverse psychology of the crudest sort? It is my sense that this was part of a deliberate attempt to keep the lessons detached from utility, and in doing so preserve their usefulness. It was an attempt to keep them in the realm of science, art, and, most of all, play.
It is accepted by most everyone in our profession that the Feldenkrais Method® is about learning. I think it is also clear that, for Feldenkrais, all learning was not equal. In fact, most of our learning has been based so much on the prospect of reward and punishment that it has seriously distorted our self-image. Learning that served the individual, as far as he was concerned, could only come about by self-education. This is learning that is detached from any particular outcome other than to satisfy our own curiosity. It is how one comes to understand the particulars of a situation rather than just fulfilling the requirements for a payoff or to avoid punishment.
In his book, Behind the Mirror, Konrad Lorenz calls this, exploratory behavior and says that it requires what he calls a “tensionless field” [Lorenz, p 147]. The immediate demands of an organism must be met in order for the organism to explore its surroundings and expand its repertory of behavior. In other words, it must have time on its hands. If you place a rat in an environment and it is well fed and not in danger, it will explore that environment and find ways into every nook and cranny. Moreover, if you introduce a snake into that environment, the rat will take what had previously been “useless” knowledge and use it to find an escape route or hiding place. If you put another rat, one that has not had the opportunity for exploration, into the same situation it will cower in a corner until the danger is removed.
Take a more human example. In my former profession as a woodworker, I was required to make bid proposals for various jobs. This required bringing together lots of information, making a calculation, and turning the results into a presentable proposal. Using a computer spreadsheet for this seemed ideal. In reality, each time I was faced with a deadline I found it easier to do what I already knew how to do: scratch out the calculations on the back of an envelope and handwrite, or peck out a serviceable if inelegant proposal. It wasn’t until I had spent some time just playing around with the spreadsheet program, doing some recreational experimentation, that I made any practical use of it at all.
While learning takes place in any attempt to satisfy our needs this learning is in effect a conditioned response. Lorenz quotes Arnold Gehlen, another ethologist. "It is only the pressure, in a given situation, of a present instinctive urge that forces learning processes to operate, making the animal’s behavior essentially dependent. . . And since its actions are not independent, they are not objective” [Lorenz, p. 147].
This notion of objectivity and the independence of learning was very important for Feldenkrais. We often speak of the functional orientation of the Feldenkrais Method®, but it is important to understand that for Feldenkrais, a functional human being was a person who was able to act on his or her own behalf. In his introduction to Awareness Through Movement®, he says that B. F. Skinner has already shown how to use conditioned learning to produce model citizens and reliable workers, but only by eliminating their self learning [Feldenkrais, p 5].
Feldenkrais’ own experience in science, judo, and yoga would have shown him how ephemeral the “tensionless field” necessary for self-education was. The scientific enterprise went from being the curiosity-driven leisure activity of predominantly upper-class men to a major industry driven primarily by the search for patentable results. Judo was developed by Jigoro Kano as an educational tool. Feldenkrais saw it as having lost much of its potential as it came to be dominated by the competitive and sporting aspects. Yoga in its transport to the west lost many of its developmental and spiritual aspects as a discipline and came to be seen as an exercise system with particular health benefits ascribed to the different postures.
Even the fountainhead of self-directed exploration, children’s play, is being transformed by conditioning from commerce and adult regulation. Lorenz’s “tensionless field” is a disappearing habitat both in terms of space and time. Children’s preschools are chosen on the basis of future admission to grade schools, high schools, and colleges. Sports are pursued on the basis of future scholarships or, worse, to fulfill unfulfilled adults. Streets, alleys, and fields are no longer available for unsupervised exploration. While Feldenkrais recognized that conditioning was unavoidable in childhood, I think even he would be surprised at the lengths to which we have taken it. I recently saw an ad for a cassette player that had speakers that could attach to a pregnant mother’s belly so the unborn could be conditioned to the parents’ voice, or classical music, or multiplication tables.
It is my sense that Feldenkrais deliberately constructed Awareness Through Movement (ATM®) in order to produce the conditions necessary for the unique category of learning that he called self-education. (Konrad Lorenz refers to this as “latent learning” [p 146] because the usefulness or even the content of the knowledge gained is not apparent until it is brought into play by a further, undetermined stimulus.) I think Feldenkrais did this in a number of ways.
The most obvious was by detaching the lessons, at least temporarily, from utility. While some lessons have obvious connections to everyday activities, most do not. The usefulness of standing up from a chair while cradling one leg in your arms is not readily apparent and the benefits of learning how to do so will be spread across a wide range of activities. Feldenkrais also refrained from positing specific benefits to particular movements.
Feldenkrais also stripped away the formalism found in many disciplines, such as the martial arts, yoga, gymnastics, and dance. While all of these disciplines afford the opportunity for exploration and self-education in the refinement of their forms, initial reliance on instruction and imitation can be a stumbling block for self-improvement. In contrast, ATM offers no instructor demonstration, and imitation is not encouraged. This lack of formalism and the sort of learning it fosters makes ATM not only distinctive from these other disciplines, but also potentially supportive of them. Imitation becomes much more potent when coupled with understanding.
Another aspect of the design of ATM as a means of self-education is the intrinsic interest of its subject matter, movement. While it can be argued that interest and curiosity are to some extent always conditioned, movement is ubiquitous and of interest to all humans. As Feldenkrais said, “without movement life is unthinkable” (Feldenkrais, Learn to Learn Booklet, FGNA, 1975). Human movement is the legacy of untold millions of years of evolution. The case can be made that it is also the foundation of human thought and culture. It was Feldenkrais’ understanding of the importance and the intricacies of this legacy that informed the design of his lessons.
One of the strategies he used in this was to take a seemingly simple action and unfold it to display the myriad complexities involved. Think of that Feldenkraisian chestnut of interlacing the fingers. When you ask people to shift the interleaving of their fingers one digit, a common and seemingly trivial action is transformed into something complex and fascinating. Other examples of this might include the “Fundamentals of Movement” lesson in the book, Awareness Through Movement®, or any of the various “clock” lessons.
He also employed what might be considered the opposite strategy. Taking a difficult or impossible action and breaking it down into more accessible constituents. Think of the “headstand” or the “Five Winds Kata.” The achievement of the target movements in these lessons is inconsequential; they are not really the object of the lesson. It is the “latent” learning that is important: how we use our spines, how we might use our spines, making fine distinctions, solving complex problems, how we deal with failure, etc., etc. The target movement is only a source of feedback and a focus of organization. The process is driven by improvement, not attainment.
In, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Czsiksentmihalyi, describes his investigations into the psychology of enjoyment. He set out to find what people who enjoy what they do are doing when they are the happiest. He found that the common characteristics were: “a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant” [p 71]. Moreover, he found that such activities tacked between regions of boredom, anxiety, and frustration.
Each individual ATM is its own “rule-bound action system.” The practitioner provides only part of the rules: the constraints of the lesson. The student is left to discover the rest of the rules: the laws of physics, their own physiology, and the self-imposed limitations that they bring to the lesson. Boredom is met by revealing a new layer of complexity and “perfectibility.” Anxiety and frustration are dealt with by breaking down the action into accessible constituent factors and providing clues to their linkage.
What might this all mean for us as Feldenkrais® Practitioners, particularly as Awareness Through Movement teachers? First, it can give us another perspective from which to view ATMs beyond the biomechanical relationships involved. How did he capture attention and curiosity? What gaps did he leave between the various elements of the lessons to be bridged by an act of creativity on the part of the students?
It can also help us define for ourselves our role as teachers. Cziksentimihaly describes what he calls autotelic activity, an activity done for its own sake [p 67]. Exotelic behavior is an activity that is performed for the outcome of the endeavor. Generally, he found that most activities begin as exotelic behavior and, if the conditions are right, they become autotelic. A person might decide to become a surgeon for the money or prestige, or (less cynically) to help people. At some point, they may become so involved with the process that it becomes an end in and of itself. As Feldenkrais practitioners, most of the people who come to us present problems and are looking for solutions as the payoff. The problem might be their golf swing or it might be back pain. We might be able to help them in either case. But can we make that golf swing or back pain an object of curiosity, both for them and ourselves? Then, whatever the outcome, they will have more interesting, fulfilling, and self–determined lives. Which is, I think, enough.
BEHIND the MIRROR, Konrad Lorenz, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanivich, 1978
FLOW: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, Harper and Row, 1990
Awareness through Movement, Moshe Feldenkrais, HarperCollins,1990
Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais at Alexander Yanai, Volume One, Part 1, International Feldenkrais Federation, 1994
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