When Rabbi Mordechai’s son Rabbi Noah took over after his death, the disciples noticed that he did many little things differently. When asked about this Rabbi Noah said, I do things just as my father did, he did not imitate and I do not imitate.
From Moshe I received many blessings for which I am eternally grateful, two of the most important are: commitment to the process of awareness and valuing my unique ‘handwriting’.
Prior to meeting Moshe, I was devoted to a practice of Zen meditation. My initial insight “on the cushion” revolved around the central importance of being awake in the present moment. In addition, because Zen is above all an embodied practice, I saw how our embodiment could be a great ally in the process of awakening.
Early in my training, ATM’s became a laboratory for exploring embodied presence. Before, during and after the training, I was also investigating present moment awareness (is there any other kind?) in the realm of feelings/emotions through Gestalt Therapy, various awareness practices and other approaches to somatic-based psychology.
My professional identity from 1975 onward has been as a Feldenkrais teacher and trainer. In addition, for about 15 years, I also have conducted retreats and seminars, which integrate meditation and “guided inquiry” (an original system for investigating thinking, feeling and communication patterns) with the teachings of Moshe. About six years ago, while in a time of deep self reflection, I investigated the question, “if I had 5 years left to live what would I do?”. The clear and unmistakable answer was that I would devote myself to teaching the most direct and complete path to inner freedom that I could. This questioning led to the creation of “The Embodied Life” as a mentorship program in which I would guide people in the practices that have been of most importance to me.
For many years I have felt very grateful for the freedom and support that lives within the Feldenkrais community for growing our own styles of teaching. In spite of this, there are necessary limits to a collectively defined methodology. For example, it would not be appropriate to teach sitting meditation or to use practices focusing on thinking/feeling patterns that are not directly connected to FI or ATM. Because of this, I have decided not to start any new FPTP’s and am now offering Embodied Life Mentorship Programs. These programs are organized around six week-long, residential meetings- two per year for three years. Each week is an intensive and often exhilarating exploration of awareness and the art of living.
Three Practices: Meditation, Guided Inquiry, Movement Lessons of Moshe Feldenkrais
All of these practices include the same inner attitude of curiosity, warm-heartedness, objectivity and respectfulness applied in slightly different ways.
The meditation we practice is a direct, bare-bones approach to experiencing our mind/body ‘as-it-is’; this is the basis for being at home in ourselves. Beyond ideology, it directly addresses the questions: can I be at ease within my own self-created mental stories?; can I have a basic friendliness with my own mind? Rather than offering mantras, pictures or other forms of “distraction”, we practice becoming friendly with the present moment.
Guided Inquiry includes a variety of awareness experiments based in the Focusing method of Eugene Gendlin. I have been developing these experiments for more than 30 years. Learning to bring a warm, caring, curious yet objective presence to our feelings/emotions/situations is transformative. Becoming skillful with both inner and outer communication is part of this study.
As you know, the movement lessons of Moshe Feldenkrais are perhaps the most neurologically sophisticated ways of transforming our motor patterns and self-image. In this program we focus in-depth on 5 essential embodied qualities: grounding, centering, breathing, lengthening (lightness) and contacting the world (spatial awareness). The lessons are specifically chosen to invite a softening of the infrastructure of our learned self-limiting identity.
Transformation and Integration
The integration of these modalities is profound and unique. Working with mental/emotional habits, while simultaneously exploring the underlying physical patterns- all from the same perspective- potentiates each approach exponentially. Finally, the power of a committed, compassionate group of people often from various countries doing these practices over a period of time creates an unexpected support for inner transformation.
“I believe we are in a historically brief transition period that heralds the emergence of the truly human man.” (Moshe Feldenkrais, “Awareness Through Movement”, p.48)
“The Embodied Life” is directly oriented toward Moshe’s vision of the integrated human being in whom sensing, moving, feeling, and thinking function as a unified whole. Moshe predicted that this integration would be spontaneous when the movement patterns were no longer compulsive. When I shared with him my observation that while some people seem to generalize their learning from the movement lessons into other areas of their lives that many did not, he said, “it is the greatest disappointment of my life”.
We are living in a time a great transformation and evolution of consciousness. I encourage those attracted to the ideas presented here to consider coming to an Embodied Life retreat.
Wishing us all many blessings and much joy on the path of awakening.
“In those moments when awareness succeeds in being at one with feeling, senses, movement and thought, the carriage will speed along on the right road. Then man can make discoveries, invent, create, innovate and ‘know’. He grasps that his small world and the great world around are but one and that in this unity he is no longer alone.” Moshe Feldenkrais, “Awareness Through Movement”, p.54
Moshe always offered unique points of view. In conversation with him my perspective was always widened, any narrow certainty challenged. He detested shallow, habitual thinking and saw original thinking as a rare human accomplishment.
In this newsletter last month, I described his ideas about the connection between living one’s dreams and health. When talking about dreams, he did not emphasize grand schemes or radical adventures rather it was about our everyday life. He encouraged us to find non-habitual ways to vitalize our life through creative expression or through finding an activity in which we felt delight.
Another favorite definition Moshe would offer when asked about health was “the degree of shock a system could absorb and recover its integrity”. Let’s explore this further.
Integrity is a fascinating word. Look at the primary definitions:
1. the quality of possessing and steadfastly adhering to high moral principles or professional standards
2. the state of being complete or undivided
3. the state of being sound or undamaged
To re-integrate is to become whole again. This new wholeness might look very different from the wholeness that preceded it, yet, as sensed from the inside, it is undeniably authentic. Someone reintegrating after a brain injury might not do all their former activities, yet they might feel more ‘whole’ than ever before. Many times recovering clients have said to me, “I wouldn’t wish this injury on anybody and I would not trade the love and insight that has grown in my life for my former health.”
In a way we can call this human dignity- to be “insulted” or challenged by life and find one’s way back to integrity, to wholeness. Moshe always said the essence of his work was to restore people to their human dignity. Dignity is often defined as “the condition of being worthy of respect, esteem, or honor”.
One of the great gifts of being a Feldenkrais teacher has been the opportunity to work with many people finding their way back home to dignity, reintegrating themselves, amidst “insults” to their nervous systems and to their lives.
Ram Das, the popular spiritual teacher came for sessions after his debilitating stroke. As an eloquent speaker, losing his capacity for articulate speech was a great challenge. Relying on others for many of his basic functions required a new kind of humility, also inviting a new kind of dignity. His comment to me at the end of our second session still reverberates: “ what I appreciate most about you Russell is that you approach me as if I am whole just as I am. Other therapists and most of my friends, treat me like I am damaged”. His statement is not really about me but about the attitude of someone who learned from Moshe Feldenkrais.
As a meditation teacher I often ask students, “what needs to change for you to be whole in this moment?” This is synonymous with asking “what needs to change for you to be yourself right now?” When we are well connected to Self, the answer is always “nothing”. Yet, when we are disconnected from ourselves, when we are lost in our “false identities”, the inner sense is that a lot needs to change. It is important not to confuse this kind of self- connection with enjoyment, “liking” the moment or being happy. Rather, there is a basic sense of authenticity and acceptance- uprightness in the face of our challenges. Rather than whining or arguing with life, we acknowledge our reactions, our disappointments, etc. and find a way to turn ourselves wholeheartedly toward reality. This too is a definition of dignity.
To experience this “nothing needs to change”, to know in an authentic and direct way that we are whole is a great blessing. This sense of wholeness cannot be faked, our inner life, our “wisdom body” as I call it, won’t agree to self-deception. We can engage in wishful thinking or positive affirmations and the ‘place in there’, down in our bellies, deep in our chests might disagree. Integrity, wholeness is governed by ‘that place in there’.
For Moshe, who witnessed pogroms by the Russian army as a youth in the Ukraine, lived in Paris when the Nazi’s invaded and inhabited Palestine/Israel most of his life, the concept “degree of shock a system can experience and recover” was based on devastating life experience. He extended this idea further through his experience of working with many people recovering from debilitating injury. With Moshe as a model, I learned to appreciate how human dignity, in the sense of moral uprightness was connected to recovering one’s wholeness.
This conflation of the definitions of integrity as both a moral quality and as an expression of wholeness seems very significant. When holocaust survivor and psychotherapist Viktor Frankel did his profound research into the qualities that allowed certain people to survive and even thrive having endured the horror of a concentration camp, this dual sense of integrity comes to the fore. How people could create meaning in these circumstances was usually predicated on connecting with something higher or larger than their immediate circumstance. Sometimes this was a relationship with God, at other times it was concern for their fellow prisoners or uncovering something beautiful to care about.
Similarly, Tibetan monks and nuns subjected to long term, horrific torture rarely experience PTSD unlike almost all other people. When asked about this, the Dalai Lama pointed toward practices that encourage the prisoner to include the torturer in their prayers. Recovery of wholeness seems connected to a moral framework, to enlarging the view of one’s situation from self- concern to a larger sense of interconnection.
While this concept of health as the capacity to recover from shock is helpful when we think of extreme situations, it also points us in a valuable direction when considering our everyday life. In many ways we are all “recovering from the insults of life”.
Certainly some circumstances are much more challenging than others: chronic pain, the loss of loved one’s, the “worst of the worst” that we all dread. Yet, we all have situations that challenge our integrity, our wholeness everyday. Think of all the minor stresses that make up our lives- waiting on the phone, long lines, being late, waiting when others are late, traffic, so many minor irritants. How easy it can be to lose our sense of wholeness and dignity.
When we lose contact with our integrity, we can say, our health is compromised. Said another way, returning to integration, experiencing our fundamental unity in visceral, gut-level ways is a path toward our true health. One part of this recovery is expanding our concerns to include a larger web of interconnection. It is opening our hearts beyond the boundaries of our self-obsessed thoughts and letting fresh air into our situations.
What does it mean to recover our integrity in daily life? There are three main factors:
First, it is helpful to have practices that encourage us to maintain a sense of self-connection. To listen to “that place in there” which speaks from our inner life is critical. Authenticity, the sense that one feels real to ones self, is key.
Second, to have a sense of one’s wholeness, it is very helpful to be connected to all levels of human experiencing- physical, mental, emotional and relational. It is difficult to feel whole when lost in a sensation, feeling or thought. Moshe defined integration as a unity of sensation, movement, feeling and thinking. Functioning in one’s entirety as a whole being is the ground for integrity.
Third, expanding one’s sphere of concern beyond the self can enliven and refresh the moment in surprisingly powerful ways.
Moshe pointed toward the degree of shock any system could absorb and return to wholeness as a definition of health. We can now turn that around and say- our ability to return to authentic connection to Self, to integrity and dignity- is the path toward genuine health. This authentic connection to Self also includes our connection to Others- there is no true Self existing outside our relatedness to Other.
May we all find our way back home to this inner sense of integrity and dignity.
Ice melting in the Arctic, climatic changes throughout the planet, many of us are concerned about the environment that our children’s children will inherit from our decisions and actions today.
My larger concern is the “mind field” that we will bequeath to future generations. What do I mean by mind field? When one practices meditation and enters into certain expanded states of consciousness, the reality that our minds are interconnected becomes obvious and clear. Whether called consciousness, the collective unconscious or the Divine, the fact that we live simultaneously as autonomous individuals and in a state of inter-being becomes both verifiable and undeniable.
Even without these “altered states”, when one experiences the kindness of strangers and the spontaneous blessings that are constantly shared throughout the planet, we can also know this sense of interconnection. My recent writings about the Unborn Mind points toward this shared inheritance. To paraphrase Zen Master Bankei, “the greatest gift we receive from our parents is the Unborn Mind”. The Unborn is our access to and membership in the shared, collective consciousness out of which everything we experience arises.
Imagine this moment, each thought and each feeling, every creative impulse, arises from the Unborn, also known as silence. When Zen masters speak of “emptiness” they are pointing toward the infinite potential of the next moment, which arises from this vast field of silence.
Remember the old Zen story of the philosophy professor who visits the master and can’t stop talking. The master pours him a cup of tea and does not stop pouring even as it spills all over the table. The startled professor finally notices and says, “what are you doing, the cup is already full”. The master says “you say you want to learn about living and dying yet your cup is so full there is no room for anything new”.
The challenge is to allow enough empty space for the creative potential of the new moment. On one level we can say there is nothing to be concerned about. New moments are always arising and creativity lives deeply in our lifeblood. We will always have creative potential. Yet, I do worry deeply about the loss of two essential, overlapping capacities- the appreciation of silence and our tolerance for boredom.
To sit in silence, refraining from the usual means of self-entertainment: computers, TV, smart phones, reading etc. is uncomfortable for most of us. To be at home in our own thoughts, feelings and sensations, without creating distractions is rare. I believe this “wasting time” is very important for our health and creative potential. As Hafiz said, “Everything is God speaking, why not be polite and listen”. To listen means to empty your cup, allow enough space for something unexpected to emerge, to become permeable to the moment.
For me, just sitting quietly is the most nourishing gift to and from my inner world. How might this also be a gift to the larger world? First, there seems to be an alteration in the brains of people who sit consistently that seems to influence the field around you. We can say that you radiate certain qualities. People feel more at ease in your presence. There is something calming about you. Second, you are less quick to react in habitual ways. Though you can respond effectively with speed when needed, the unconscious patterns of reactivity seem to have more insulation around them. Your less skillful reactions and comments can be more readily inhibited. This generates more peace in your universe. Third, as you spend time with other people who are practicing silence, you notice a shared depth that allows a more authentic sense of self to emerge. Fourth, as anyone visiting a meditation room can attest, the space itself is influenced by the silent practice. As many say, it is as if the walls themselves are meditating.
We all hate boredom. When my father would come home to an empty apartment he would turn on two TV’s and a radio just to have some “company”. Most of us can relate to this impulse. Filling up the empty spaces protects us from all those feelings we would rather not experience. What is the price for this “filling up”? Does the temporary calming actually sustain a kind of omnipresent, low level anxiety?
Over the last 35 years as a Feldenkrais teacher I have observed a startling change in the children that I see. The level of inner agitation when in a quiet setting seems greatly elevated. I remember kids in the early days coming to my office happy to play with a little stuffed animal, a ball or one of the favorites, the plastic jack-in-the-box. Now, I notice an uneasiness, a dis-ease, that is somewhat ameliorated only when engaged with the flashes, beeps and bells of their favorite electronic toy. As neurological research is showing, our brains can be conditioned to a dependence on the “rewarding” sounds and fast, bright images that accompany all the games that they love to play. The pleasure centers in our brains actually become addicted to these stimuli. As adults we can notice the same thing, that little inner tickle that comes when a new email message arrives and the urge to immediately find out who it is from. Fully formed brains have far greater capacity for regulating these phenomena, our children’s brains are so innocent and vulnerable, sponges for the stimuli they are offered. Certain school environments such as Waldorf Schools take this very seriously and strongly discourage these kinds of stimuli for young children.
Tolerating more moments of “boredom” often can create something unexpected. If one meditates regularly or finds other ways to explore “not doing”, emerging from that open space are experiences that often seem very deep, whole and authentic. By becoming available to unscripted, unfilled moments, we can be surprised by a sometimes blissful, often illuminating present. Said another way, we become permeable to the constant blessings and offerings emanating from the Universe.
Without going into the whole sociological debate about technology (I am writing on a computer, I value my many emails each day and can relish electronic media; I am not suggesting an attempt at retro-living), I want to stand up for the great blessing of silence and boredom. In fact, I will go even further, suggesting that as more people learn to sit in silence, we will influence the mind field for future generations. I suggest that the capacity for being at home in the mystery of Being requires a willingness to take time each day turning off the various forms of entertainment and just Being with one’s living moment. If humanity loses this great capacity, we will simultaneously surrender our creative potential and our capacity for true freedom.
How do we live in the paradox of unconditional gratitude amidst so much destruction and sorrow?
What are "unfathomable blessings"?
Years ago, Ram Das (spiritual teacher Richard Alpert) gave me a great teaching. He came for some sessions after having his massive stroke and we enjoyed connecting on many levels. While at times frustrated or having challenging moments, usually he would return quite quickly to curiosity about the moment. In our first session, when he needed help lying down and I held him in a big bear hug, we shared a belly laugh at the absurdity of the situation. At first he hated the dependency of “needing people to wipe my ass”, but then we again laughed at how wonderful it was to be cared for so intimately.
What does it mean to stop struggling with life? Does it suggest that you like everything that happens? Does it imply passivity? Does unconditional acceptance of life “as it is,” mean that we can’t dedicate ourselves to ending injustice, reducing suffering and healing our planet?
How can we live in these realizations:” You are never separate from True Self (God, Life, Love)” along with “Everything is as it is and as it needs to be until it isn’t” while simultaneously feeling the tragedy of human violence toward the earth, her creatures and each other? How can one live fully into the “peace that surpasses all understanding” and also respond in revulsion to hate-filled crimes, destruction of the planet and selfishness revealed by human beings just like you and me?
If you are lucky enough to have an authentic practice of awakening and perhaps some help from a few spiritual benefactors, you will most likely experience the great freedom that comes from holding your self and your mental constructs lightly. By mental constructs I mean all the thoughts, feelings, reactions etc. that comprise your “story” of life.
As you learn to confidently live in the spaciousness of Being- the Unborn Mind- you do not dwell very long in your conditioned reactions. This does not mean that you do not have these reactions, rather, that soon after you notice your reactivity, your defensiveness and your struggling, you also remember the ever-present Unborn Mind. You choose to return to True Self rather than be lost in your reactivity. You learn how to be with the reactivity in a kind-hearted, curious way. Rather than having it take over the Self or pushing the feeling away or denying it, you learn to value your reactions as an expression of the Unborn, a part of your particular history. It is included as part of your life story, yet not true in any fundamental sense. Everything that IS is part of the reality of your life yet you are always much more than that particular state. You are the space in which the moment comes and the awareness that notices it (recall part 2 in this series of writings)!
So this is the edge- how to acknowledge the conditioned, historical, learned sense of self, how to value everything that has contributed to your development AND to remember the Unborn Mind. This remembering has an air of freshness, the moment feels new. As you grow more familiar with the Unborn you can even learn to maintain a kind of loving companionship with very challenging states like shame, anger or deep hurt. When held this way, the energy of these states will transform.
This is a unique positioning of oneself. One does not fall into the old stories (for very long) as if they are real and one does not fall into the “spiritual bypassing” or “process skipping” that can be so prevalent in spiritual circles. Finding this new way of locating ones self is very challenging until it isn’t. We are so often entranced by our inner dialogue, keeping alive our old stories about who we are, who others are and what life is. Most of these stories were learned before we had enough awareness to really choose what was true. Yet always, before and within the conditioned self is this Unborn Mind.
Authentic meditation practice gives us the certainty that this original ground of being is right here, “closer than your skin”. As I said in an earlier writing, one senses the silence from which sound emerges and to which it returns even as the particular sound is noticed. Knowing that this particular sound is only a temporary occurrence, one can feel that the spaciousness and infinite potentiality of the moment is never far away. Just as this is with sound so it is with thoughts, feelings- any mind state. One is either living in the Unborn or returning to it.
Emptying the cup of reactivity so that genuine responsiveness can emerge is the essence of meditation practice. It is also the essence of a path of awakening. We rest more and more in the open space out of which the moment emerges. We can learn to experience that open space during a mind state just as silence can be sensed within a sound.
I am concerned that this sounds too lofty, too extraordinary to be attainable, yet I am talking about ordinary people just like you and me. We can learn to PAUSE in our reactivity, breathe and connect with the Being that is free, even in that difficult moment. We can learn to have kind-heartedness toward the difficult moment. AND when all we can do is to notice that some reactive, self-protective state has emerged, when we are lost in a troubled state, we can be generous toward the place inside that is struggling. As this capacity grows, we notice our kindness and understanding toward others also growing.
Almost everyday I read the newspaper, it seems important to me to be exposed to all aspects of humanity, including the destructive qualities. Certain horror stories grab my innards and can bring me to tears. Yet, everyday I am also awed by the courage, generosity and loving-kindness of my fellow humans.
Just this week:
- In one story, a young girl loses her arm just two months ago and simultaneously loses her old dream of being a professional athlete yet refuses to let her loss be defining of who she is. Through new dreams and dedicating herself to helping others, she claims that life is rich and full and joy is joy even without that arm!
- A homeless man donates $20.00 each month to care for a child in Africa after hearing that the supporter of the child has died.
- A man released from prison after 25 years for a crime he did not commit forgives the prosecutor and the police and claims to have found deep peace through dealing with his incarceration.
My heart has many preferences, hopes and dreams. I do not live in a quiescent neutrality. I am moved by the people’s suffering and my own challenging moments. Everyday, I pray for my loved ones safety and happiness. Everyday, I pray for our planet and for people who are struggling to be free. I know we will all have challenges yet I also know that, in the Unborn Mind, we can be free, even in very, very challenging conditions. This freedom includes loss, grief and sorrow yet, as the ancient wisdom affirms “love is stronger than death”. Unfathomable blessings means to me that even with all the destructiveness, we can choose to lean toward the basic goodness that is life itself. This bowing to Life is the ground of knowing that the shower of blessings is continuous, always! And joy, love and peace become our home base. The Unborn Mind helps us remember. Unfathomable, Yes…………