Photo by Adrien Converse on Unsplash
As I mark my half-way point in my Feldenkrais formal training, I am interested in the assumptions we can hold about learning. I have worked most of my adult life in education and remember playing school as a girl in small wooden desk on our family farm. That early play, mimicking the adult world, cast learning as taking tests and producing answers. When my sister marked my test sheet correct, that meant I was a good student! But good for what?
I am preparing now for a different kind of test, a demonstration of aikido techniques to transition into 2nd kyu. (That means I get 2 stripes on my brown belt – 2 more tests to go for the coveted black belt). In my school, we have an encyclopedic number of technique variations to learn as brown belts – sort of like a finishing school to prepare for deeper study. The approaches to learning I used sitting in my school desk don’t work as well here. I am drilling through movement almost daily to load the fundamentals of the techniques into my body/mind and refining my understanding of why they work. How can I be a good student here? Good for what?
I am hip deep in learning two traditions that many might say are on a decline – Feldenkrais and Aikido. Both are in a similar place generationally. The founder/creator of the school has passed away; the people who studied directly with the founder are elders and the generations of people coming behind them to practice is thinning out. It is reasonable to ask, “what are these traditions good for?”
In reflecting on my progress to become a Feldenkrais practitioner and a more seasoned aikidoka, I have a perspective on learning that seems to apply to both learning contexts. I will call it “drip lessons”.
Drip lesson #1 Courage to Fail (over and over).
On the surface, in aikido I am learning dynamic biomechanics, lessons of force management, and a perspective of how to organize and coordinate my movement to achieve a result. What result? I train to remain calm and potent as I respond to an attack in a way that diminishes the intensity of the attack towards a balance point where peaceful options become available again between myself and my attacker. Sounds pretty cool – people I know who are into mindfulness and consciousness raising activities usually like descriptions of aikido and its philosophy. And if that outcome is like a shining temple on the top of the mountain, people look up and admire it.
But the lessons had while trudging on the path are the hidden lessons. I call them “drip lessons” because as drop by drop of experience happens, the lessons can shape you, just as water eventually shapes a stone.
In aikido practice, I mostly fail. Not because I am a bad student but because I am practicing a way of being in movement that I do not know fully yet. My Feldenkrais practice has been a sweet boost to my failures as I can distinguish in finer and finer ways how my body is aligned, how I use my perception so I can ask myself for more complex coordination and organization patterns. In class recently, I worked for over 30 minutes with another person, who has a black belt, on a technique that required a new-to-me kind of coordination and organization. Without it, the technique just didn’t work. I found this new state 3 times in 30 minutes. Can the word do without my learning of this technique? Of course. But the drip lesson of failure gives me gifts of gold.
- Learning to rely on my curiosity and ingenuity as a learner to identify and remove what prevents me from progressing.
- Learning to name where I am stuck and what I need help with to take on the challenge.
- Managing my frustration to stay in and learn in the face of a challenge I can’t solve right away.
- Acquiring patience and persistence.
- Letting go of my ego’s need to be right, to perform well each time.
This drip lesson is kind of vital for my life as a solo entrepreneur as I explore marketing strategies, business technologies and ways to grow my business. In this venture I have struggled and failed, over and over again, improving as I go because of the lessons of each failure. I can apply this drip lesson to my Feldenkrais practice and pretty much any challenge in life worth doing.
Drip lesson #2 Facing fear
As a woman, dealing with force, falling, using strength for power, much of this territory is new. I didn’t wrestle or fight as a child, not physically, so when I face dealing with force, I am often uncertain and fearful. Both of getting hurt and of hurting others. While I particularly like the way aikido deals with force, the lesson about how to deal with force is only part of the picture. The drip lesson of finding myself triggered into fear and finding my way back to calm is a life skill that is starting to infuse who I am. While I can see that I might have a slightly higher threshold now to feel fear (still don’t like snakes too much!), I have a greater capacity to move through and beyond my fear.
Drip lesson #3 Expanding sense of what is possible
I turned 50 a couple of years ago and I am struck by something I have noticed about acquaintances and friends. The people around my age are in the process of “smalifying” or expanding. (Thanks to Paul Linden for the word). I watch peers age in front of me, their lives getting smaller as they stay with what is comfortable, safe and convenient. I watch other peers expand, even in their 70s, as they stay open, invested in what is possible.
The practice of aikido is an expansive practice – literally opening up my body, my mind and my heart. I am working with new members of our club on a novel way to learn how to roll. Rather than putting beginners into the position of trying out front and back rolls right away, we are breaking down components following a Feldenkrais lesson on rolling, so beginners can learn to trust themselves in movement and trust their contact with the floor.
It’s a classic collision of habits and practice – when I learned to roll, I was afraid of going over so contracted and stiffened myself to prevent myself from getting hurt. This bracing habit is exactly what hurt me as I thumped my way through the roll, banging my shoulder multiple times in just the way I didn’t want to do. What is needed instead is the ability to expand through our shape, so that we become as round and connected to the ground as we can. I pick on this activity because it is one where I can see for the beginners an expanding sense of what is possible. Again, the ability to roll or not roll may not be urgently important. But the drip process of starting something that is not possible and learning how it is possible is kind of what learning is all about. Learning something that you do not already know how to do.
So to answer my own question, “Good for what?” I need to make a distinction. Both aikido and Feldenkrais are practices that carry extra cargo. There is the content of what you can learn and there is the capacity you can develop, drip by drip, experience by experience. I know long ago I gave up being a small expert for being an expansive explorer. Why is that important?
I recently saw Martyn Joseph in concert – Martyn is a hard-working, Welsh folk singer in the tradition of calling out, passionately for change and singing the songs of the people who don’t get heard in the halls of power. So taking a cue for Martyn, here is my passionate outburst for today. https://www.martynjoseph.net/
In the uncertainty of today’s current pandemic, economic downturns, environmental distress, a small expert just doesn’t stand a chance. Things are changing too quickly. The experts, the authorities we look to for answers don’t know. We need people who can stand their ground in the face of complexity, crisis and the threat of chaos and stay calm. Curious. Expansive. People who can thrive with failure. We need the kinds of practice lineages that cultivate this kind of person. Today more than ever.
On a personal note, stay safe! I support decisions people feel they need to make to preserve their health. I am through my 14-day waiting period after my recent trip to Seattle for Feldenkrais training and have not shown any symptoms. My seasonal sinus irritation that happens every winter is fully present.
I am offering the option to join my classes online – it is possible using a smart phone or a computer so recently gave a class to a person on the west coast, a person in another country and made a recording so a local person could catch up – she was self-isolating to protect herself with a non-virus related respiratory issue. As we live in a social isolating way, I want to urge you to continue to find ways to remain connected with others and to stay connected to yourself and your environment. From a grounded, connected place you will have more resources to manage the risk and to find your way back to calm when fear gets the upper hand.
My current and upcoming classes – if you find yourself self-isolated or mandated to be at home, consider joining in a class online – I can help you get connected to the session and yourself.