Monday, June 13, 2005

A Tool for Our Times

When things are too strange, they move from the realm of interesting to the realm of disturbing. Imagine being dropped off in the misdst of a people whose language you didn't speak, whose very appearance was totally foreign to all you are familliar with. In a situation like this, not only the nervous system, but the psyche often shuts down. When we feel threatened emotionally, the mind becomes less open to new ideas. When emotionally threatened, the body responds by producing hormones that fire up all systems to be ready for any possible emergency. Posted by Hello

One of the main functions of the nervous system is to provide a consistant internal environment. That means there has to be a normal range of temperature, heart rate and hydration. In any percieved emergency, be it real or imagined, many basic functions such as digestion and relaxation are relegated to the sidelines temporarily. If the excitation is too great, the ability to be open to anything new or different is diminished. Vision is focused on discerning possible threat. Perception begins to organize itself around survival, and thus, avenues for discourse are nipped in the bud.

One of the main functions of the psyche is very much the same: to provide an internal environment that can be recognized as familiar, safe and normal. Normal being a term relative to whatever is your usual range of circumstance. For the Native Americans who first greeted the pilgrims, nudity, arrowheads and a very literal way thinking governed their very direct way of communicating. For the pilgrims, however, nudity was offensive to their moral values. Arrowheads seemed unduly primitive. And communicating in a literal way that did not use the cultural conventions they were used to seemed downright rude. What they found in the New World was so alien in so many ways as to be threatening to their sense of self. When this happens, the psyche shuts down to foreign ideas and the ego kicks in to justify, rationalize and generally maintain the status quo so that an identity crisis does not undermine survival.

As a species, we have a need to construct a familiar world. As human beings, living in wildy divergent cultures, we have a different need. As overpopulation brings us in ever closer proximity to each other, we have a need to find a new way to relate to each other so that we can all live on the same planet without destroying it.

In his book, The Master Moves, Moshe Feldenkrais describes meeting a Yemenite man with a beautiful, intelligent, benevolent face' on a train in Israel. He held a book. Moshe saw that it was upside down, but the man was clearly engaged in reading it. Intrigued, Moshe asked him, "Can you read?" The man said, "Yes, can't you see that I am reading?" When Moshe pointed out that the book was upside down, the man replied, "We Yemenites lived in the desert. We had no more than one Bible in the town...and all the children had to learn to read and write. So our teacher had a book and the children would sit around...Each one would see the book from a different angle...For us there is no upside down, no side at all...You European people...go to universities, and can read a book only in one way...For us, that is completely unthinkable."

It may be that our way is not the only way. When you are feeling safe and comfortable, it's easy to hear this statement, but when you are threatened, it becomes less audible. Another principle that Feldenkrais made use of in his Method is the concept that change must be in bite size pieces that are small enough to be digested, but not so big that they are threatening to the psyche or the nervous system. If you try to drastically change your diet all at once, for example, chances are you will eventually go on a binge in the opposite direction shortly thereafter, because we tend to regurgitate the unfamiliar if the dose is too large or too forcefully administered. Consider the backlash of the Russian revolution. Consider any revolution for that matter. Like a pendulum, the response over time swings from one extreme to the other, until eventually some kind of equilibrium in the middle is reached, often not for decades.

Enter the concept of rhythm. In AWARENESS THROUGH MOVEMENT (ATM) the lessons are constructed around gradual change that incorporates rhythmic movement done with isolated successive variations. The lessons are very systematic. Like the ticking of a clock, rhythm seems to be soothing to the nervous system. Women who knit say that the rhythmic movement of the needles calms the mind. The surest way to soothe a crying baby is to rock back and forth. In ATM the first new movements are awkward. The lack of rhythm is visible to anyone's eye. Yet, as coordination and learning begin to dawn slowly, the movement gradually becomes more rhythmic, more consistent, as if rhythm were somehow related to being something one could rely on. And perhaps it is. As the song goes, "All God's Children Got Rhythm." Is there a way to use rhythm to calm ourselves so that we can hear each other without the defensiveness that characterizes disension? The more people learn to be master of their own responses, the more they are able to choose how to respond rather than react in irrational ways. ATM is a tool for learning to respond rather than react. It is a tool for our times.

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