Have you ever had someone plant a seed of thought in your head? A seed that somehow landed on a fertile patch of ground, to grow a giant beanstalk that tossed you upwards to the lofty heights of fledgling thought, seductive and distracting thought, fluttering by, demanding a follower thought, thought with some unknown purpose and intent? That’s where I’ve been the last month. Following a thought planted by one of my teachers! Sorry for the delay in the planned monthly posting, I was thinking! I’ve often been accused of being too much in my head, it’s one of the reason’s I’ve been drawn to the Feldenkrais method; it’s my perfect antidote!
I’ll have that teacher’s words inexactly now, time has fogged them a little in my mind, but I’ll have his meaning right (I hope). He was reminding our group, a small band of Feldenkrais practitioners, about the importance of respecting the personal space of our students. What he said made a lot of sense to me, especially after digesting Blakeslee and Blakeslee’s, The Body has A Mind of Its Own, where they clearly explain the specialised part of our brain that is busy with the work of mapping “peri-personal space”: the space that surrounds us and that we experience as forming part of our embodied self. The easiest way to explain this space is to imagine a kind of personal force field that you carry around with you everywhere you go. Any encroachment into this space, especially if it is unexpected, is sensed immediately and can be experienced as a threat. Culture of course plays a big part in this, as you’ll know if you’ve ever been to India and felt the press of people into you from every side, or been in the mosh pit at a death metal concert where proximity is expected and maybe even relished. If you’d like to read more about how the body maps space and maps itself follow this link :http://www.bettermovement.org/blog/2008/proprioception-the-3-d-map-of-the-body?rq=body%20maps
Enormously interesting, but that was not what got me thinking. It was rather something he said about the “state” that a person enters into during a lesson. The “being state”, I think he meant. An altered state of consciousness where, what is usual and habitual is put in suspense, so that new learning can take place. It can be a vulnerable place for people he reminded us, and also a place that is brimful of potential. This got me thinking about “liminality”, a concept I ended up mulling over quite a bit back when I was researching embodied sociology. Theories of liminality owe much to anthropologist Arnold van Gennep’s study of “rites of passage” in traditional cultures, those rites which accompany and facilitate people in transitioning from one state to another, from childhood to adult-hood, for example. In van Gennep’s accounts of these ritualised passages between states, he marks out three clear phases. The first is a separation from society and from the rules it normally applies to its citizens. The second is the liminal or marginal zone, a threshold or chrysalis state which allows for the dissolution of previous identities and social roles. The third is the re-aggregation phase, where the passenger in ritualised transition is incorporated back into society in a transformed state.
Away from home, “in training” as it were, it struck me that much of my experience of the “Feldenkrais method” has commonality with “rites of passage” and especially with the need, every now and then to enter into a liminal zone, to be “betwixt and between worlds” (Turner, 1969), where the commonsense of the everyday can be disrupted and questioned. On the surface of it, it is the commonsense of everyday movement that gets “liminalized” in the Feldenkrais method. Not only do we enter into a space that feels “different”, in part due to the emphasis on slowing down to sense the intricate kinaesthetic details of the moving self (something not usually facilitated by the mundane demands of life), we also involve ourselves with the exploration of movements that stand out to us as different, and that by virtue of this difference become novel stimuli for rethinking (through movement) the ways that we ordinarily comport ourselves and meet our life-worlds. This is why, a workshop with the ostensible aim of creating a learning space for walking with greater ease, efficiency and elegance might have you walking very oddly backwards and forwards with one leg crossed in front of the other, something you wouldn’t do to cross the road when the little traffic-light-man shines green. The jarring of the difference is one of the ways you help your brain to question the usual and find alternatives.
Victor Tuner, another anthropologist, urged scholars in his field to pay attention to “liminal” zones because he was so certain that these were “a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise” (Turner, 1967: 47). He also pointed out that those living in the realm of “liminality” are “divested of their previous habits of thought feeling and action” and encouraged to “think about their society, their cosmos and the powers that generate and sustain them”. “Liminality”, he said, “may be partly described as a stage of reflection” (Turner 1967: 105).
In the Feldenkrais method, the scene is set for this kind of divesting from the suit of habit which we all too often make of our movement. By moving slowly and in a way that disturbs the ordinary we can begin to feel that the snag and pull in the shawl of our shoulders is a habit, one that we can perhaps trace to the manner in which we respond to the stressors we meet in our daily lives AND one we can let go of. In the reflective space, we grow awareness, awareness about how we move and also about how we respond to the specific requirements of novel situations. We make connections we hadn’t thought about before. Sometimes these are of the more mundane variety like: “oh my thigh bone doesn’t like to rotate out in its hip socket because there’s still a residue of that time I broke my ankle on this side”. Sometimes the connections are more profound: “I keep my chest high and hard to defend against feeling my vulnerability”. Whatever the discoveries might be, large and small, they all contribute to clearing the way for an alternative “way of being” in the world, one that is more characterised by informed choice and ease.
Many times over the years I’ve heard it said that the Feldenkras Method is an “art of movement”. When pitched against Russian Formalist Victor Schlovsky’s assertion that “the end and justification of all art is that it defamiliarises things which have become dulled and even invisible to us through habit”, I think that argument is easily won. Like art making, the Feldenkrais method is on the margins of society and may serve to create spaces for the overturning, or at least challenging, of its conventions.
For myself, I consider the Feldenkrais Method as a personal/political tool for counteracting the different forms of embodiment that are over-valued in our society, the so-called “fit” bodies that only “fit” because they sufficiently mirror our capitalist society’s consumption and appearance driven values. That’s perhaps a discussion for another time and place. Instead what might be good to end with, for now, is the underlining of the fact that, although those nostalgics amongst us might lament the modern diminishing of varieties of “rites of passage” and their “liminal zones”, the truth is they are still there, now in a slightly altered form but certainly available to us if we seek them out.
Go to any Awareness Through Movement class, I’m suggesting, and you can create these experiences for yourself. Victor Turner was really insistent that we should think deeply about liminal states because they have an important function, a purpose, in the art of living. I know they’ve had a meaningful purpose in my life, maybe you’ll find they have a purpose in your life too.
Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee (2008), The Body Has a Mind of Its Own: How Body Maps in Your Brain Help You Do (Almost) Everything Better.
Victor Tuner (1969), The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Rituals.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!