I live where it feels like, at this time of year, pretty far north. This week I have watched leaves start to turn colors, weather forecasts start to hint at near frost temperatures, I daily contemplate the likelihood that my squashes will grow big enough to be harvested before a hard frost. Do I need to cover them tonight, prolonging my hope for a harvest?
Summer, typically, has been a time for integration for me. A time to step away from the pace of doing I commit to the rest of the year. A time to sit in utter stillness in my kayak in the middle of a lake with pelicans and gulls as my only companions. A time to look into a fire in the cooling evening, letting everything be. A time to pause, watch the sky under the guise of reading on the back deck. A time to allow. To let come.
I had a different kind of integration experience this summer, a positive disruptive one. As part of my May training with the Feldenkrais Training Academy, I had a one-on-one Functional Integration lesson with Jeff Haller, our educational director. Functional Integration is a hands-on lesson, where the practitioner creates learning through touch. The situation I presented him – I am feeling coordinated, well organized with good alignment – experiencing pleasurable movement….on my left side only. My right side was fighting like hell to not be that. My right knee, hip, shoulder ached regularly. My right foot too. In my aikido training, I regularly have a kind of Jekyll and Hyde experience – an aikido-like feeling on the left and an awkward, shoving strength experience on the right. Jeff asked me to do a basic move from aikido (shio-nage for my aikido audience) to highlight for me how I was organizing myself differently on each side. Then he asked me to lie on the table and explored through touch my body’s organization. Ten minutes into the lesson I felt in some palpable way more like a whole person. The how of this part of the lesson is still to be learned; the what of this part of the lesson is with me still. Soon he easily had my right leg swinging as if I were a skeleton, with no history of sciatica, no muscular knots in my hip and buttock, no learned patterns to cope with pain, stiffness and numbness. By the end of the hour, I felt connected, balanced, and structurally whole – we repeated the aikido move from the beginning of the lesson and Jeff told me, “When you are organized like this, there will never be any openings”. Structural strength and ease. Super cool.
What interests me even more than the lesson, is the process of integration that followed. I left the training session in May with a new relationship with my right hip, with at least two viable options for how to move it while I walk, how to stand, how to shift my weight – my habitual way of moving and the more efficient way Jeff taught me that allowed for lighter weight transfer, for quicker walking with less effort, for greater stamina – walking uphill became almost easy, like I had a new power source within me to just glide up the hill. But I was returned in a way to being like a toddler – either pattern could show up. In the process of integration, I found that I was becoming stiff and sore almost every time I moved from sitting to standing. I played with options, how to apply what I had learned so far to change my experience. (Because I am going to make this better!) Some days I felt 20 years older each time I stood up. A senior toddler – stiff, wobbly, a little confused about how to move from here. And frustrated – – why was this happening to me? How was this better? This integration process felt much more like disintegration.
I tried several things with limited success – morning exercises to stretch and open up the mobility in my hips – good for an hour or two. I changed how I sat, focusing on lengthening my legs, letting go of tension I held while sitting – this worked better but it didn’t change the pattern from happening. I found some ways to move that didn’t hurt; other parts continued to protest. I felt the pressure from an internalized, societal idea – this is just what happens when you are over 50.
What I hadn’t tried is a core part of applying awareness to my movement – slowing down to really sense what was happening in the movement from sitting to standing, in the shifting of weight into my feet. I slowly came to study this moment in my movement.
This August, my integration process was supported by another one-on-one lesson, this time with Chrish Kresge. After presenting my current state, she observed me and asked, “What are you over-using?” I didn’t know the answer until she asked. “My knees.” She led me through a lesson that I was familiar with about the movement from sitting to standing and brought together the ways I was not quite yet integrated. And it did come together, I came together. Wonderful.
What can I glean from this integration process to take into my life more broadly? A key harvest is the role of attention in being with my movement. I am fully conditioned to use my attention to determine my state of being – how does this feel? It hurts. If it hurts, how do I make this movement better? This kind of attention may be an expression of self-care, self-love, but expressed through a corrective kind of care. There is a subtle kind of limit I place on myself here by pursuing attention anchored to the agenda: how do I make my movement better? It’s the attachment I put on my curiosity – curiosity to know what is happening to “fix” myself compared to a free, unencumbered curiosity to know. This attachment changes my attention, changes my relationship with myself. A small difference but the impact on how I treat myself is powerful.
Let’s compare the two.
Closed form of curiosity: Why do my knees hurt? What do I need to do differently to make it better? I could work on strengthening my thigh muscles, on opening the flexibility of my ankle joints. I could wear knee braces to keep my knees moving in good alignment.
Open form: What is happening when I stand such that my knees hurt? What do I notice? I could notice the placement of my feet, the direction my knees move coming to standing. I could notice where my head is in relationship to my feet and knees, what arc it makes. I could notice where my eyes move, where the weight of my head is placed and the work needed to keep it upright. I could keep going in this form of curiosity, in exploring possibilities. I could also keep going in the closed form of curiosity but I can see an end to what seems worth exploring. If my knee hurts – will I look further than the next set of joints for the cause? What about how I am using my spine, how I organize the weight of my torso over my knees?
A closed curiosity, an attention attached to a “fixer-upper” agenda is just more limited. I am formed by decades of corrective care – from myself and others. The pause to allow for open attention is to notice what I notice. To allow for repetitions of unproductive patterns. To learn. This is the habit of attention that is more important than exactly how I make my movement. How can I relinquish the driver’s seat on the quality of my movement? Because the body likes and embraces what works better. I am my body. My attention determines the nature of our relationship together.
Real learning, doing something that is actually new and different than what I have done, is situated in this kind of love – this attention in the form of open curiosity to my state from a stance of acceptance, an embrace rather than a bracing against what is present. What kind of love is this, that attends to how I am?