Finding Stillness in your Meditation Practice
Feldenkrais® practitioners often ask their students to move toward comfort. In many guided meditations, those who sit are instructed not to resist discomfort. So, are these teachings incompatible, or is there a way that they can be put into productive dialogue with each other?
These are the kind of questions that have occupied Matt Zepelin for many years. Matt has practiced Buddhist meditation on a regular basis since 2003 and began to practice the Feldenkrais Method® in 2008 while living at a Zen monastery. A neck injury while snowboarding six years earlier had led to chronic pain which severely impacted his ability to find comfort and stability in sitting. Through his Feldenkrais training, which he completed in 2014, Matt discovered a new image of his body and how to listen for and interpret its signals, bringing a renewal to his meditation practice. Since graduating, and in part through the promptings of his students, Matt has begun exploring how to teach the Feldenkrais Method and mindfulness as related disciplines.
At this summer's conference of the Feldenkrais Guild® of North America, Matt will offer an experiential workshop that explores “The Feldenkrais Method and Mindfulness in Dialogue.” Participants will experience this dialogue through Awareness Through Movement® (ATM®) lessons, guided meditations, experiments in mindful movement, and discussion. The workshop is open to the general public and promises to be a wonderful introduction to the Feldenkrais Method for any newcomer who already practices mindfulness in other forms.
My conversation with Matt was truly inspiring – I'm looking forward to continuing it in Asheville!
You see the existence of a “dialogue” between the Feldenkrais Method and other mindfulness practices, such as Zen Meditation. How has this dialogue played out in your own personal experiences?
When I first began practicing the Feldenkrais Method, I was suffering from chronic pain. Sitting in meditation at the monastery where I lived (anywhere from ninety minutes a day to up to ten hours a day during some retreats) meant sitting with that pain, and it reached a point that was not sustainable. I had taken the instruction to “not move” in meditation very seriously. I began to have injuries and to worry about long-term damage from my meditation practice.
Through the process of exploring my own movement habits and sensations with the Feldenkrais Method, I began to better understand my injury and how to work with it successfully on my own. This was a truly empowering experience, given that I had already worked with doctors, physical therapists, a chiropractor, and massage practitioners - but only found temporary relief. The Feldenkrais Method gave me a great gift: I learned how to inhabit my body with more awareness, move with greater skill, and read signals of stress or oncoming pain in order to make smarter decisions. This made it possible for me to renew and deepen my practice of meditation.
The creativity that the Feldenkrais Method brings to embodiment can be very helpful to people trying out an Asian practice. Neuroscience author Norman Doidge makes this point in chapter six of The Brain's Way of Healing, telling the story of David Webber, a blind man who tried Buddhist meditative techniques, the Bates Method, and the Feldenkrais Method. He credited all three with helping him, but thought that the Feldenkrais Method had been the key to opening up the other practices.
We are in the middle of a complex historical process. Today, Buddhism has firmly taken root in the United States, not only among Asian immigrants and their families, but also with millions of US-born converts. Exploring something new that was not part of the traditions that you grew up with can be very illuminating, but it's important not to get fixed ideas about the other side of a cultural divide. I used to have a lot of ‘heavy' ideas about meditation. The Feldenkrais Method helped me find a more sustainable and alive approach to my Zen practice.
Because these two practices have been powerfully complementary in my own life, I think that this can be the case for others as well. My understanding of movement awareness is deeply informed by Buddhism. I look at movement as a case study in interdependence—between body and mind, between sensing and responding, between self and environment.
Likewise, my experience of meditation has been strongly influenced by the sense of skeletal uprightness, open joints, and accurate self-image I cultivate in my Feldenkrais practice.
What will happen during your workshop? What are you hoping that the participants will gain from the experience?
The workshop will be mostly experiential. There will be some discussion and Q & A, but most of the time will be taken up with three or four experiential explorations. Through these avenues, we will look at the interdependence of stillness and movement. We will use ATM lessons to explore movements that help clarify options for meditation postures. We will also explore self-observation through the means of a body scan, and engage in guided meditation – moments where we will have the appearance of stillness from the outside. One of my Zen teachers once said that real stillness is something that people have to arrive at – you can't force it. In this workshop, we will look for activities that make such an arrival more likely.
It's important to me to note that I consider the Feldenkrais Method and mindfulness overlapping but certainly not identical practices. There's much to learn from the differences between them, as well as the similarities. I hope participants will join together in dialogue, such that we can explore ways to develop the vocabularies of these two practices in relation to each other, thereby enriching the language available to students and practitioners of both somatics and mindfulness. I hope that the participants will be able to take this exploration home with them, and that we can continue it together in the Feldenkrais community!
“Mindfulness” has become a fairly commonplace word in mainstream culture in recent years, but this was not always the case. Do you think that, like yoga, meditation, acupuncture and other practices outside of the traditional Western model, the Feldenkrais Method can reach a “tipping point”, as suggested by the theme of this year's conference?
When I see the number of talented, sensitive and intelligent people who are teaching the Feldenkrais Method, I think: how could there not be a tipping point?!
But I think the way we've talked about the Method has been difficult for many people to access. The mindfulness movement has done a lot of work to find language to make concepts more comfortable for people. If we can do the same thing, and do it with integrity, then we can probably find a “tipping point” too.
I'm also interested in the discussion of somatics more broadly. Is it the Feldenkrais Method that needs a tipping point, or is it the Feldenkrais Method and any modality that is encouraging embodied awareness? I'm a big fan of the idea of cooperation and collaboration in the somatics community.
As a Buddhist, I also find the idea of a “tipping point” tricky, because there is a commodification of “mindfulness” taking place right now. We have to be careful not to turn “mindfulness” into a simple linear process. To me, mindfulness means directing our attention to the present moment in a way that involves the body and is non-instrumentalized – meaning that it doesn't involve trying to achieve a goal.
I had a student come to a mindful movement class once and tell me that his main interest was the application of mindfulness for fighter jet test pilots, and that troubled me. The word “mindfulness” is taking on more and more meanings in the culture, and I want to know what I mean by it when I use it with students, not just hope that it will be useful as a buzzword.
In my practice, the Feldenkrais Method and mindfulness have come together very organically. In some sense, I think I needed my students' permission to do this. It's a beautiful thing when your students sense something in you and want to help you bring it out - you discover the possibility of teaching with your whole self. To a certain extent, it is up to the culture to decide if the Feldenkrais Method can have a “tipping point” or not – but to the extent it is up to us, I think that it will come through each of us learning to teach with our whole selves, by really openly sharing what our experience has been, and what it is.
Find out more about Matt's workshop.
Seth Dellinger is a certifiied Awareness Through Movement® teacher, a 4th-year student in the Feldenkrais Training Program of Baltimore with David Zemach-Bersin, central organizer of the DC Feldenkrais Festival, and writes a regular blog at www.MoveLikeAChild.wordpress.com.