Reaching A Deeper Consensus of Reality
Friday, October 9, 2015
by: Gabrielle Pullen, GCFP

Section: Art of Living

“By reaching the lower and fundamental motor layers of self we facilitate a deeper reorganization of the personality.” –Moshe Feldenkrais, Body and Mature Behavior
I was taking a class online when one day I logged into the website to find an ominous message from the professor. “I have to inform you that my husband’s brother, his wife, and their two children were lost.” The fact that class was cancelled for that week was much less impacting than the intelligence that four people were missing: “lost” being a euphemism that expresses the only way the mind can take in evidence of the tenuous nature of life itself, at least with the initial shock of recognition. This capacity for awareness that our lives are finite is one of the distinguishing characteristics of human consciousness that must be confronted by each and every one of us at some point in time. Usually, it does not happen at a time of our own choosing. How we cope can either be dominated by holding on – with a death grip – or it can signify an opportunity for softening into a deeper recognition of the mysterious nature of being alive. We can either willfully defy this unwanted reality, exerting great effort to maintain some illusion of control, or we can awaken to the futility of trying to use force to shape personal reality.
The Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education offers a way to move through this frightening passage, to expand the self-image to include it, rather than contracting against it. Awareness Through Movement® (ATM®) lessons, in particular, offer a space for observing, allowing, and, ultimately, learning to live into a felt reality that is beyond mental comprehension, for what organism can conceive of death as anything more than hypothetical?
With any significant grief, there is a strong inner drive to resist. The first response might be, “This can’t be happening.” The mind, and potentially the ego, whose role is to protect the psyche, seems to go to any lengths to refute what “should not be happening.” When consecutive losses are piled up, one on top of the other, over the course of a lifetime, loss may move from something a person can reconcile themselves with, into such overwhelm that it pushes them into a somatic state of trauma. This is characterized by a sense of being stuck, unable to move out of shock or disbelief. A “somatic state” is more than mentally confining, it includes global muscular restriction, or ‘armoring.’
In Denmark, in 1968, a group of relaxation educators led by Liz Marcher established the existence of specific patterns of somatic response which they termed ‘muscular defense,’ and ‘resignation.’ Muscular defense is a hypertonic response, which translates as a felt sense of extreme tension, an inability to relax the jaw, for example. Resignation, by contrast, is a hypotonic response, which might be felt as weakness in the knees, for example, when thinking about a loss or traumatic event. Recently, there has been dramatic growth in ways to address trauma using somatic approaches, which access the observable relationship between felt experience and perception demonstrating the reciprocal nature of mind and body. New understandings about trauma have come about, in part, from social pressure to respond to the needs of combat veterans, resulting in greater clarity about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It used to have other names: shell shock, in WWI, combat fatigue in WWII, or stress response syndrome during Vietnam. Characterized by symptoms of excessive tension, or, conversely, by a sense of overall weakness, it’s much more common than previously realized, affecting the families of veterans, the children of alcoholics, women in abusive situations, as well as those who have had more loss in one lifetime than the average. Yet, all of us must cope with death and mortality at some point, and these same principles apply.
Evidence of the existence of this response is pervasive throughout history. In literature, for example, author Charles Dickens, upon witnessing a train wreck which took the lives of ten people, was so affected that he reported feeling, “curiously weak, as if suffering from a long illness.” He was less prolific as a writer after this incident (evidence of being stuck, unable to move, metaphorically) and died, years later, on the anniversary of the event. Trauma blocks the ability to function even as it blocks creativity. If it continues for years, to friends and family, this may appear as selfish, or even as narcissistic, however, if you have a sense that something is blocking you from being effective in your life, it’s possible that residual trauma may be the cause.
An understanding of how armoring shunts mind and body into to a state of defensiveness is important for many reasons: it will allow you to stop condemning yourself for any inability to move forward in life. It will allow you to respond with self-compassion to social pressure to ‘just let it go,’ ‘move on,’ or ‘stop living in the past.’ As evidenced by the dynamic of safety and comfort provided in an Awareness Through Movement class, learning occurs with ease and without pressure. Stress impedes perception of new options, new ways of responding, and the ability to expand into a sense of safety. When the nervous system has been living in a state of red alert for any period of time, finding ways to return to a sense of emotional safety is imperative. A mind living in a body with such a high level of defensive tension cannot help but see the present moment as potentially threatening.
The brilliance of the work of Moshe Feldenkrais is his understanding of this need to create an environment that brings about a new set of conditions: conditions conducive to a sense of safety, to an awareness of unnecessary effort, and to a means for making distinctions between what is real, in this moment, and what is not. Death is life-threatening, but not in this moment.
From Theory to Practice
Theory is all very well, but how does it work? If you are well versed in Awareness Through Movement lessons, from taking classes or working with recordings, you may be able to apply these understandings to guide your awareness as you submit yourself to the process. If the Method is new to you, a tighter frame may be necessary. You may require classes specifically geared towards guiding your attention to the relationship between the lesson and the effects of grief upon your experience. Some guidelines for what to attend to follow.
Awareness Through Movement lessons are a gentle process, whereby you can become conscious of the cost of this intense desire for things to be other than they are. The difference between just taking an ATM class and using it as a means of moving through grief and trauma is created by your inwardly stated intention. This allows you to perceive your physical and mental responses from a different point of view. In noticing the tension you feel, for example, you can begin to appreciate how dutifully your body responds to your thoughts. Without any attempt to fix or force, when you observe where you are bracing, tightening, and holding as the body closes itself off to avoid feeling, acceptance dawns that no defensive posture can change what has happened. The tendency to hold the breath, to contract in the area of the ribs, especially prevalent with armoring, will not change what has already happened. When you observe the breath, knowing it is diminished by the desire to undo reality, you can absorb the information at a deeper level and relinquish the delusion that control is possible. Thus, the intellectual understanding that avoidance cannot change reality, becomes visceral. You feel it in your very bones.
This releases you from the very high price of the illusion of control: over time, it adds up to physical pain, symptoms of old injuries return as if amplified, the deadening of the self is a sure path to eventual chronic pain, as bracing, in defense of an indefensible position, become habit.
If you bring the intention of willingness to abide with what is to the mat, the simple act of lying down on the floor to do an Awareness Through Movement lesson is a physical gesture that expresses a new opening for abiding with what is, for living in the present moment from a new point of view. Bringing awareness to the sense of sorrow as it lodges between the tiny, expressive muscles of the eyes, connecting the tightness of the jaw to the human need to control experiences that confront us with our own mortality, gradually helps release the rigidity throughout the chest that attempts to defend the heart from emotional pain. It becomes obvious that bracing simply doesn’t work, all that is accomplished is that it brings another layer of pain.
There is a difference between suffering and pain, referred to in Buddhist teachings as, ‘The Second Arrow.’ The first arrow is the initial loss. The second arrow is contained in thoughts about that loss, the sense of injustice, the raging at fate, the refusal to allow the knowledge in to protect the self from feeling its full impact.
The most basic form of love is attention. Avoidance takes massive amounts of energy. By using ATM lessons with the explicit intention of working with grief to allow it to flow through you, rather than using force, machismo or ‘being strong’, several things become possible, which facilitate a movement towards wholeness. By bringing physical tension into awareness, pain in the body diminishes. By attending in a focused way to variations of the same movement, you begin to notice how doing the same thing, while thinking about different ways to do it, can pave the way for new, constructive habits for approaching adversity. You give yourself the opportunity to distinguish between what is helpful and what is not, by learning to keep your focus on distinguishing what works from what does not. And most importantly, your emotions will be given permission to move again. To emote is to move emotion. The very word ‘emotion’ can be deconstructed as a need to allow deeply felt sensations to move, for that is the only way they can morph into new ways of feeling. By befriending the simple sensations you notice while moving your body, you can learn to allow the physical sensations of emotion to move through you, so that you do not crystalize your sense of who you are into a self image of being one who suffers.

Gabrielle Pullen, Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitionercm, and MFA in Creative Writing, is currently working on a project that demystifies how writing is an embodied act, dependent upon perceptions arising from emotions, and bodily sensations, to provide both power to the writing, and meaning to personal experience. Her work with veterans and abused women, along with personal experience, has motivated this emphasis on the capacity of learned awareness to facilitate movement of out of emotional trauma into a state of resilience. She recently relocated to Bothell, WA.
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Comments (6)
Peggi Honig
10/21/2015 10:01:23 PM
Beautifully written and clarifies much already known and experienced. Certainly will be of great support and help to those in the throws of trauma to know they are not alone and that there are options and ways to move forward. Thank you for this lovely clarification.

Meena Narula
10/16/2015 3:04:05 PM
I enjoyed reading this article . thank you

10/10/2015 6:34:09 PM
Wonderful article! When my brother suddenly passed away, sometimes the only thing that kept me sane was getting on the floor and doing an Awareness Through Movement lesson. This article expressed things beautifully.

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