Sunday, September 13, 2009

This Is Water

I just bought a copy of This Is Water by David Foster Wallace for a friend's daughter who is off to college. It's a commencement address he gave which has been published in book form. He opens with a little parable about two fish who are greeted by an older fish one day.
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and say, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"
The point is that the most obvious, common things about ourselves and our lives can go completely unnoticed. This is just "a banal platitude," says Foster Wallace. "But the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life-or-death importance."1

His essay is about thinking, and how we have a choice about what we think. Here's an example, an audio clip from the original speech. He's talking about awareness, awareness of our habitual ways of thinking, ways that are so habitual that we don't even recognize their existence.

Feldenkrais lessons begin with movement but lead through movement to this same kind of awareness. Movement is just the opening, the most obvious and visible aspect of our interaction with the world. As we go about our daily lives, we hold an image of who we are, which is like water to fish--so common to every moment of our existence that we are not aware of it. Working with this image, it is possible to achieve profound, fundamental changes. Ignoring it can be a matter of life or death. Death in a metaphorical sense--moving through the world without intention, as a sleepwalker, an automaton--or in a literal sense--failing to react effectively to the snake in the grass, the car coming out of nowhere.

Parts of the self-image develop from our individual experience, our vocations and histories. Other elements are common to us all. We all move around a central axis. We all grow upward, and our arms and legs grow outward from the center.

Experiencing something so fundamental to our species helps to clear out all the stories we've told about ourselves: my spine hurts torso is too long...I can't play tennis. The primary image is devoid of these individual details. It's very refreshing to access something so basic.

Take some time to experience this for yourself! I taught and recorded this Primary Image lesson this morning. You'll need about an hour, and you begin lying on your back on a firm but comfortable surface like a thick rug or a mat. Enjoy.

[1 This Is Water, David Foster Wallace, Little, Brown and Company 2009]

Thursday, September 3, 2009


As different as we all are, we have a lot in common. We were all born, we have a standard basic shape--spine, two arms, two legs--which allows certain movements easily. We grow, we eat, and we learn.

Learning is what makes each of us so individual. Every bird in a species sings basically the same song, and does so almost from birth, but we can learn any language on earth fluently if we start as an infant. Learning can also get in our way, especially if it is compulsive--striving to achieve something leads to habits of tension in both movement and thought. These can get in the way of clear action. When different habits pile up through years of experience, carrying out a simple action can get very complicated. Often even our original intentions get cloudy.

Awareness brings clarity. This seems obvious and simple but it can work in many subtle ways. Take for instance the following quote from a transcript of one of Feldenkrais' lessons:

Pay attention if you can distinguish each vertebra when you think of the spine, or not. Then you will see that there are vertebrae that have muscles that are efforting and disturbing the movement. It is impossible to pay attention to these vertebrae. They are sealed off, opaque. The moment that you distinguish them, all of a sudden, something organizes there that allows the movement to be softer, clearer, both in space and in relation to the body. 1

Sealed off and opaque, until we shine a light on them just by shifting our attention. We're not actually doing anything, not managing the movements of all those muscles. (In fact, trying to manage or control them would make them more opaque). Awareness helps them work in the way they are meant to, and all we have to do is sit back and let it happen.

As this light spreads, and more of our self-image is clarified, we begin to move more easily. Since movement, thought, feeling, and sensation are intimately linked through the complexity of the nervous system, thought will also be clearer. Those hidden original intentions may spring into view again--suddenly we're clear about what we want to do. Feldenkrais refers to this in his article "On Health," in which he says that "the healthy person is the one who can live his unavowed dreams fully."2

If we're clear about what our intention is and can bring awareness to our whole selves, then (just like the small muscles around the vertebrae) our actions will organize themselves around those intentions. It becomes easy and simple to carry them out. All we have to do is sit back and watch it happen.

1 “Pushing the Hip Backward,” Moshe Feldenkrais, Lesson #335 in Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais at Alexander Yanai, Vol. 8, Part A, p. 2291, International Feldenkrais Federation 2000.

2 “On Health,” Dromenon, Vol. 2, No. 2, August/September 1979.