Wholeness vs Segmental Thinking:
On the Path to Becoming a Feldenkrais Practitioner

western thought Jan 17, 2020

From a talk given in response to a question during the second year of the New York VIII Feldenkrais Professional Training Program

Transcribed and Edited by Morgan McKenzie Kauffman

It is your ability to turn towards your own sensation that brings another to sense themselves. It is your ability to feel and know yourself in your wholeness, that enables the other person to feel their wholeness and to act in a more integrated way.  

A common idea in Western thought production is that knowledge derives from the cutting of things into fragments or pieces. Of course, cutting things into parts can lead to a certain kind of useful knowing, but it’s a different way of thinking than the one I find most useful to us as Feldenkrais Practitioners. It is tempting to think that by “segmentalizing” the self into this muscle or that muscle and focusing on individual parts, we will understand what needs to be fixed or what is relevant to know about a person in order to help them. But in fact, “segmentalizing” tells us little about organized organic life, how it develops, how it grows, or how it is situated in the world. It has nothing to do with understanding evolution or understanding function, and it has nothing to do with how the brain learns. Nothing. In his seminal book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson said -I am paraphrasing- that there is no such thing as a shoulder blade except as a bone cut from all its relationships, lying on a table in an anatomy classroom, incapable of doing anything. In other words, the fundamental idea of a shoulder blade is at its root a disembodied, fragmented concept. Your shoulder blades don’t live separately from your whole self. There’s no intelligence in a shoulder blade, and it is incapable of learning. There is not one part of you that lives separately or distinctly from the entirety of yourself. 

I propose that it is an understanding of the whole self, and my living as a whole self, and my seeing others as whole selves that makes me an effective Practitioner. Yes, I studied some anatomy and neurobiology in university and graduate school, but this type of acquired and specific knowledge comes into play infrequently in my Functional Integration lessons. Dr. Feldenkrais understood anatomy very well but rarely referred to the action of this muscle or that muscle. This is the fundamental problem with Feldenkrais’ legacy as I see it, and for the future of the Feldenkrais Method: can we teach a way of thinking that runs counter to the common, traditional, academic way of seeing and acquiring knowledge? I worry that one day, there might be a Feldenkrais training program somewhere in the world that is linguistically oriented towards bio-mechanical and anatomical explanations of both Functional Integration and Awareness Through Movement. How can we teach people to think in terms of “wholeisms,” to see and act congruently with the idea that the body is an integrated whole at every moment, while at the same time describing and articulating the body as a series of parts? We learn what we do. If we fragmentize and segmentalize, we learn to fragmentize and segmentalize. From my point of view, I hope you will cultivate a way of thinking that is requisite to doing high-level Functional Integration, a non-reductionist, non-segmental way. I understand that this is challenging, especially as in Functional Integration, we need to see the person as an integral whole moving in space and time. But I assure you, it is doable. 

At the same time, I encourage you to study anatomy and hope it gives you a sense of wonderment about the human body and a glimpse of the astounding complexity of a whole person. With this understanding, I hope that you can avoid thinking of the body in a segmented, localized way. As some of the most outstanding practitioners I have known did not study anatomy or kinesiology, I have observed that there is no direct correlation between understanding anatomy -or neurology or physics for that matter- and knowing how to potentiate the kind of profound human change that is possible with the Feldenkrais Method

What is it that enables one person to foster the kind of growth in another person that brings them from an inability to function to functioning, from being unable to stand on their own two feet to being self-sufficient? I believe that your ability to help others is derived from your internal relationship to yourself and your ability to join with the whole of another human being. It is your ability to turn towards your own sensation that brings another to sense themselves. It is your ability to feel and know yourself in your wholeness, that enables the other to feel their wholeness and to act in a more integrated way. 

Our project is to understand that sensing yourself in movement is the most effective path to self-knowledge. This is the path of a deep relationship to yourself within Awareness Through Movement. In pursuit of this kind of self-knowledge, you will invariably be met with feelings of inadequacy as you cannot feel competent before you’ve learned what is needed to be learned. You cannot even know you’ve learned something until after you’ve learned it. You cannot feel competent without growth and practice. So, it will be very helpful in this process if you can be comfortable in your not knowing, in your confusion, in your curiosity, in your wondering, and in your questioning. It is unrealistic to think you can feel competent in the moment of learning. And as teachers, I hope you will find ways to avoid helping your students to skip over their difficult feelings of not knowing. It can be extremely tempting, but you won’t help them by filling the space with authoritative but ultimately distracting and irrelevant pieces of objective, external, or ‘segmented’ information.  

I believe that disembodied knowledge turns a student away from the desired subjective self-inquiry and towards an objectification of themselves. To see yourself from the outside as a bunch of segmented parts is different than engaging with yourself from the inside, where you engage with your immediate and direct internal sensory, kinesthetic experience. Externalizing our attention may be comforting because it is familiar and safe, but it is inherently misleading. I believe that internally oriented attention in ATM fosters growth, heals, is a path toward wholeness, and potentiates change in both ourselves and others.


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