I’ve been thinking a lot about stories lately! A few months ago, I was listening in on a conversation amongst a group of fellow Feldenkrais practitioners, happy to be carried along in the conversational flow, when I heard someone ask with genuine interest and surprise: “why the need to keep telling the story?” It’s a question I hear now and then, a question that makes me stop and think. Sometimes, the question even makes me feel uneasy, and a little defensive. It brings to mind something a friend of mine once told me, about being asked by someone they loved, to tell “that story” only once more, and never again. Maybe, you can imagine how this person felt? And, maybe you can also imagine just how ineffective this request ended up being?
We humans are story-telling creatures. We create and craft order and meaning from our experiences by telling stories. Our story-telling abilities are central to the formation of a coherent sense of self (an autobiographical self), and they facilitate us in expressing that self to others. Especially in crisis, in illness or pain of any kind, our ability to form a story, from the materials of our experience, meaningfully sustains us in navigating difficulty and challenge. Stories are the means by which we transform the random and chaotic nature of experience into order, so that, knowing where we have come from, we can orient to where we are, and decide upon our best means of moving forwards. We use stories to learn, we use stories to explain, we use stories to live with!
Yet, as Arthur Frank, a sociologist with a special interest in stories argues, not all stories are good companions to live with. Some stories are gifts, he says, but some are dangers. The dangerous nature of some stories is, I think, what makes some Feldenkrais practitioners (and they are not alone in this as my friend’s story reveals) so wary of “the story” that keeps getting told. Like over -worn shoes, these stories trample into class, soles paper thin, stitching ripped and letting in the elements. They bear the impression of the gnarled and hurting foot they house. They keep the pain in place. When the shoe fits…well, you know the rest of that story!
One of the things a story does, it appears, one of its powers, is to project futures. One theorist of stories, Frank Kermode, explains this effect as being like a clock; you hear the tick, you expect the tock. Another theorist, Harvey Sacks, proffers a story known the world over; the baby cries-the mother picks the baby up. In stories, specific beginnings set a chain of happenings into motion, and then, in the end, well…there’s an ending. The regularity and familiarity in the ending of these prototypical stories is somehow comforting. Our insecurity about futures unknown is appeased. But what are the consequences, a curious Feldenkrais practitioner is justified in asking, when these stories get stuck? What if chronically expecting the “tock” prevents us from imagining other sounds as our future response to the tick? Worse, what if we, as humans, are living within interrupted stories? What if, when the baby cries, no-one comes to pick the baby up? What then?
Many years ago, while lying on a clammy leather couch and having my bones cracked by an ebullient local Osteopath, I was offered the diagnosis of Scoliosis for my ongoing excruciating sciatic pain. I seized upon that diagnosis with relief and took it with me everywhere I went from that moment on. “No”, I would tell my Yoga teacher, “I can’t do that, I have a scoliosis of the spine”. “That”, I would say, pointing at the convoluted limb gesture my friend was moving into, “will hurt”. I took my scoliosis story into my Feldenkrais training too, and I managed (because I am a very stubborn person), to hang onto it most of the way through. There were many Awareness Through Movement lessons during the training, which saw me popping up from the floor half way through, like a jack in the box whose spring had just reached its wound up limit of tension. I would stare at disbelief around the room at others, some of whom were significantly advanced in years, moving in ways I thought would be impossible for my curly spine. “That”, I would tell myself, “will hurt”. “I cannot do that”. Continuously, over and over like a wild believer with a mantra or a set of rosary beads, I whispered to my spine “you cannot, you cannot, you cannot”. Naturally enough, my spine couldn’t help but hear. It responded by becoming even more stiffly set into its renegade curves, and by tightening all of its rib struts to a stiff Elizabethan corset. The more I whispered to my spine, “I cannot”, the stiffer and more immovable I became.
Now, as my family and partner would likely tell you with glee, I’m not very good at being wrong! Yet, one of the loveliest things I learned during my Feldenkrais training, is that being proved wrong can feel wonderful. In fact, it can be an enormous relief! “The only thing you need to do”, one of my trainers told me, both dauntingly and encouragingly, “is learn to sense yourself”. At the time, I think I might have slunk away from that conversation muttering something under my breath, but… that teacher was right, and I, thankfully, was wrong! My diagnosis of scoliosis did not need to be a story that braced me inside fixed limits. In time, the more I improved my ability to sense myself, the more detail I collected about my own unique configuration of limits and potentials, the less hold my scoliosis story had over me. In learning to sense myself better, I found that I could rest easy at the border of my limits, and instead of whispering, “I cannot, I cannot”, I could whisper to my spine and ribs, “what can you do???”. The more I did this, the more my spine and ribs softened. It’s an ongoing process in which I keep discovering ways of moving beyond what had once been a set in stone stopping place, fixed rigidly by my scoliosis story.
My scoliosis story is only one of the stories I brought into my training. I have a multitude of others, as we likely all do. Some stories, as Frank’s allusion to gifts and dangers implies, support our growth, others are not so useful in that process, although it could be true that we need them for other reasons such as self-protection and even survival. Part of what I did as a sociologist was to think about the different ways that people shape their self-stories as well as the narrative resources, and especially the canonical stories they draw upon to do this. We use stories that are handed down to us from powerful institutions like Medicine, for example, in order to craft and shape our own stories. A prototypical medical story might be: you feel unwell, take this pill, you’ll feel better again…but what, I wanted to know, if the Medical story was not a fit for your experience? What if your experience didn’t have a neat ending, or such a smooth progression towards its ending? For this reason, my sociological work was concerned with the crafting of stories that were not formed by the normal linear conventions with an ending that could be tied up with a big red bow. I wanted the sociological story I was writing (a story that’s a little too long for this blog post), to allow for complexity, nuance, multiple perspectives, and even some spirals into confusion.
Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais famously said: I’m not after flexible bodies; I’m after flexible minds. I also believe that the Feldenkrais method can help us to form more flexible stories, stories that are complex and nuanced, stories that are rich in vivid and sensual detail, stories that can “be with” and "wait with" the confusion and not startle and run, stories that are more concerned with an ever improving process rather than an ending that brings everything to a full stop. Learning to sense myself through the Feldenkrais method has genuinely helped me to change many more of my self-stories than just my scoliosis story. The good news is, there is a very simple place for all of us to begin making our stories more flexible. Just like many of the stories in need of change that you will come across in the world, the place to intercede is the beginning!. If you’re curious you could reach for something near to you right now and for a movement or three, study how you would ordinarily do that. This is the current beginning of your story of reaching. Then try a different beginning! If you noticed you held your breath, perhaps you could let breath be easy. Without interrupting this easy breath, reach! Or if you hitched your shoulder up towards your ear, perhaps you can first sense your chest there, ready to be a willing support for your shoulder. Maybe, just maybe, your shoulder could actually rest while your arm reaches. Or, in the very beginning, could you think of using more of yourself to reach than just the hand and arm- could you include your pelvis? Could you include your feet?…does this change the “ending” of your reaching story? Does it improve the quality of the entire process?
Over the last years, I’ve enjoyed watching footage of Dr. Feldenkrais meeting with people for the first time before he began to work with them. There were moments in this watching, when I cringed for the apparent lack of interest he showed in some of the “diagnosis stories”. But I’ve come to think, that in his actions, Dr. Feldenkrais was encouraging people to reflect on how, in Jerome Bruner’s words:
Any story one may tell about anything is better understood by considering other possible ways in which it may be told (Bruner, 1994:)
I firmly believe that Dr. Feldenkrais offered us other ways of telling our stories by teaching that we do not have to remain as we are, that we are capable of change, that we are capable of changing our pain stories, our potential stories, and more. I had a story for the longest time that change needed to be painful. Countless times, this story held me back. The Feldenkrais method has helped me make major revisions to this story. Now the same story reads more as follows: I am capable of change, and change feels good. Maybe, especially if you have a story around ageing and pain, chronic pain, or around your own personal movement limitations and limits, the Feldenkrais Method could help you change your story too! Maybe, in the words of poet Brendan Kennelly, you just need to "begin again" and The Feldenkrais method could be one of your places of new beginning:
Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.
(from "Begin", by Brendan Kenelly)
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!