More thoughts on Autonomy

My previous post on Empowering Autonomy has generated interesting and worthwhile comments, pointing out areas where my meaning and sometimes my thinking were less clear than they could have been, or where I could usefully expand on something. These comments seem to bear out my earlier observation that we each understand the world through our personal perceptual lens, shaped by our own interests and past experiences, and to support the truism that the meaning of a communication is in the mind of the receiver.

The commenters focused on different aspects of what I had said, sometimes inferring meaning different from what I had intended. They raised additional questions about the ideas themselves, and expressed varying levels of agreement and disagreement with me. In this post I’ll attempt to respond to those comments, hopefully clarifying my position as well as acknowledging some of the areas of disagreement that I see.

Social Conditioning

Adam Cole interprets my vignette about six year olds in elementary school being trained to suppress self-awareness as a criticism of elementary school teachers. It was not meant as that at all, but rather as one fairly clear-cut example of the larger process of social conditioning that deadens and restricts our autonomy as human beings.

I agree with Adam that many teachers do the best that they can in the circumstances in which they find themselves. They are also victims of the cultural conditioning they are helping to perpetuate in their charges. That conditioning seems to be a pathology of contemporary civilization, and the source of many of the problems and limitations that we as Feldenkrais practitioners seek to ameliorate in our clients.

In The Continuum Concept, Jean Liedloff analyzes this pathology in greater depth, comparing contemporary society with a culture with a different orientation much more congruent with our basic biological nature. That culture is in a contemporary hunter-gatherer society. It’s hard to see how we might move back to that in our urban industrial society, but it nonetheless provides a useful lens through which to examine ourselves.

Source and Authority

Moti Nativ questions my discussion of source and authority, He objects to my assertion that some trainings to rely too much on Moshe as the authority for what they teach. He suggests instead that Moshe has no authority in current trainings 25 years after his death, and that authority in those trainings is in the hands of the Educational Directors, Trainers, and others who run them.

I believe that both our statements are true, but that we each use somewhat different meanings of the term authority. I’m not using “authority” to mean “the ability to direct or give orders,” but rather “as the basis for accepting something as valid or true” in the sense that science provides authority for scientific knowledge and religious texts provide authority for religious beliefs.

The distinction I make between source and authority draws on parallels with my experience as a mathematician. Mathematics has its giants, as do all fields of human endeavor — men like Euler, Bernoulli, and Newton, whose contributions were as fundamental and revolutionary as Moshe’s. Mathematicians revere and honor these giants for those contributions, as we in the Feldenkrais community revere and honor Moshe for his. But mathematicians see them as the source of their contributions, but not the authority for the validity of those contributions. That rests on the inherent truth of those discoveries, independently validated. No mathematician would accept something as true just because one of the giants said it.

The same should be true for us as Feldenkrais practitioners. Ideas that Moshe taught are important because they are true, not because he taught them. Citing him as the source of those ideas honors him, but using him as an authority — asserting that something is true because Moshe said it — does not. My point in my previous post was that I believe this occurs in our community to an extent that makes me uncomfortable, and that it interferes with the development of autonomy in practitioners. I recognize that not everyone agrees with this assessment, but I also know there are others who share this concern.

There are additional parallels, and differences, between mathematics and Feldenkrais that are worth exploring, involving issues around the role of autonomy and articulating and validating the knowledge used by each. These are beyond the scope of this posting, but I do plan to explore them further in the future.

Moti was addressing a different aspect of authority — the authority to decide what is taught in a training, and how. He coupled that is the issue of responsibility — more particularly, with the responsibility of the trainers to the students. Those are also important issues, but I see them as somewhat different from what I was addressing.


George Krutz suggests that what I think of as Moshe being presented as authority in trainings may be more of a case of borrowed authority on the part of some trainers. He also observes that time limitations do not allow trainings to do justice to Moshe’s thinking and practice. I agree with both points.

The bulk of George’s comment, though, is an exploration of the idea of submission in acts of learning and teacher-student relationships. He describes this as a universal characteristic of learning relationships, but seems to focus primarily on intense apprenticeships such as might be found in traditional martial arts or spiritual apprenticeships. George cites Eugen Herrigal’s Zen in the Art of Archery as one example, while the boyhood apprenticeship of the character Kwai Chang Caine in the 1970s Kung Fu TV series occurs to me as another.

George’s point about the value of some deep form of submission in these apprenticeships is an important one, but the generalization of the idea to all learning relationships feels to me like a bit of a stretch. Learning does require openness to the material being explored, but in some circumstances it may be better served by a critical questioning that few would characterize as “submissive,”

While I recognize the potential value of submissive apprenticeship, my personal path has not included this form of learning. My most intensive and perhaps deepest learning experience was a 30 year exploration into the nature of physical interaction with a single primary partner, that grew out of and extended my Aikido experience. We would take turns putting each other in stressful and painful situations, then finding ways of dissolving the stress and becoming free by refocusing our experience of the situation into something different. With no teacher to guide us, to show us a “right” way to do this, we found that there was no single “right” way. In challenging situations, many different solutions are possible. What you experience depends on how you bring the situation into focus as much as it does on the situation itself. A simple example of this form of practice is described in the following video, which I discuss in my post on Composing Different Experiences. . .

This form of practice played a central role in the development of my worldview and way of knowing, which play a significant role the positions I take now with respect to understanding the Feldenkrais Method.

Motives and intentions

Russ Hall seems less interested in the content of my post than in my motivations and intentions in writing it. He says he also sees autonomy as an important aspect of Moshe’s teaching which is well articulated in his writings. He then asks why I did not reference those writings in what I wrote, but focused instead on my perception of a widespread lack of appreciation of them.

Frankly, it just hadn’t occurred to me to quote Moshe as I wrote, but I didn’t think about why until Russ asked. There are two reasons, I think. First, my intent was to articulate the role that autonomy plays in my understanding of the Method, and in the wider practice of the Method by others. It was not to document Moshe’s views on the subject, nor to convince anyone that my perception was “correct.” I accept that differing opinions on subjects like this exist and have no need to convince anyone that I’m right and they’re wrong. I make my ideas available for those who find them useful, and am content to leave it at that.

Beyond that, as I reflected on this question, I realized that my understanding of Moshe’s ideas rests primarily on my experience of his live personal teaching. His writings, for me at least, are important but definitely secondary sources. They can be tricky to understand and must sometimes be interpreted, not just taken literally. And as the Chinese sage Chuang Tzu puts it, we should not confuse “the footprints with the man who made them.”

Russ objects that some of my observations about the ways the Method is currently taught are “a bit vague” and lacking in particulars. He is correct in that. I do cite one example in my response to Moti which follows this one, but as I said earlier, I’m not interested in documenting or arguing the merits of specific cases. I’m reporting my opinions, based on discussions with other practitioners about how they were trained and other observations.

Russ ends his post with the observation that:

I get the sense that you have some specific perceptions of your own; and disagreements not just with ’some trainings’ or with his language in some ATMs but with Moshe’s Method itself. As you know, I am not convinced that ‘there is no method’. I would be interested in knowing how instructive and central [or not] you find his remarks on pages 33-39 in Awareness Through Movement.

As Russ observes, I do have specific perceptions of my own, and disagreements with some of the ways in which the Method is currently taught and practiced. I have no disagreements with “Moshe’s Method itself,” though I interpret it in my own terms –that’s what I’m writing about. I’m quite comfortable with the existence of multiple perspectives on the Method. I have no desire to argue with anyone who sees it differently than I do, and no need to convince anyone that I am right. But I’ve found that many people find my insights useful, so I do intend to continue writing about them.

I’m now in southern Utah, hundreds of miles from my bookshelves, Russ, so I can’t check the passages in Awareness Through Movement that you cite. I will look at them when I get home.

Is there a Method, or not?

Russ states with some implied emphasis that “I am not convinced that ‘there is no method’.” Moti raises a related question about “people that say that there is no method and no principles” in a comment he posted today. Before responding, I want to include some additional context.

I and all the commenters so far are also subscribers to an internet mailing list called Feldyforum that serves as forum for discussions among practitioners, where issues like these are frequently discussed. One point of view sometimes expressed there is that Moshe was not teaching a “Method” to create change so much as a way of being, and of connecting with clients and students, that supports change and allows it to happen. Others object strenuously to this point of view, arguing that “of course Moshe had a Method. He was methodical in everything he did,” and that it is the responsibility of the practitioner community to practice and perpetuate that Method.

We need to distinguish between two different aspects to this argument. The first has to do with the meaning of the term “method.” My dictionary lists several meanings, the primary one being “a particular form of procedure for accomplishing or approaching something, esp. a systematic or established one.” The anti-method argument, as I would support it, at least, is that the term “method” implies a set of fixed procedures and protocols, a recognizable series of steps that a practitioner will go through to address a client’s problem. It sees what Moshe did, and taught, as something else — something involving sensitivity, intuition, and being and acting in the present rather than by applying previously learned techniques and procedures.

Some of those who object to that line of reasoning do so on the ground that that definition is too narrow and that the term “method” is applicable to what Moshe did and taught. I think there are also some who would accept that narrow definition of “method” and still argue that it applies — that what Moshe practiced and taught could be reduced to a set of techniques, procedures, and principles that can be taught, applied, and perpetuated as “the Feldenkrais Method.” I sympathize with the argument that what Moshe taught was not a “method” in the narrow sense, but I find the term acceptable even if not preferable given how long it’s been in use. If we were looking for a term now, I think saying that we all work in the “Feldenkrais Tradition” might be more accurate.

There’s a lot more to be said about this, but it really goes well beyond the issue of autonomy. It’s one of the things on my list to explore in a future post.

Moti brings up the idea, from the martial arts, of preserving the tradition and passing it on to the the next generation, and asks how that ties into the ways that trainings rely on Moshe as authority for what they teach. As I see this, what matters in passing on the tradition is the passing on of the skills involved, and of respect for the elders who developed those skills. The validity of the skills being taught, however, rests on the effectiveness of those skills in the current generation of teachers and students. In the martial arts, this effectiveness is relatively easy to measure — a techniques works or it doesn’t. If the players can enact it autonomously and effectively, then it works, and there’s no need, or reason, to appeal to the genius of its originator in teaching the technique.

In teaching Feldenkrais, though, the same kind of clear validation isn’t readily available, and here’s where appeal to Moshe as authority for what is being taught can come into play. One example concerns the idea of working initially with the good side. This was something that Moshe recommended, and it is often an effective way to start a lesson. When it is effective, though, that’s because it works in that particular situation, not because Moshe says to always do it. I have talked with practitioners who were taught to always start on the good side, because Moshe did it that way. Under the authority of “this is how Moshe did it,” they were taught to blindly follow a rule without any judgement about whether or not that rule is applicable to this situation. They were taught, in effect, to submerge their own autonomy as a competent practitioner to an external authority structure which was attributed to Moshe.

I don’t think this was what Moshe really wanted to teach. I don’t know how prevalent this is. I haven’t made detailed studies, and I haven’t been involved in the basic training process in quite a few years. But I do know, from what I see and hear about how practitioners are trained, that it does happen, and it happens often enough that I think it should be a concern to all of us. Again, I know others will disagree, and that’s life.

Series NavigationEmpowering Autonomy

9 thoughts on “More thoughts on Autonomy”

  1. Ralph your comments on the evolution in the field of mathematics are apt.
    However, they do not translate to the Feldenkrais Method. They do translate to a broader field within which we might say that the Feldenkrais Method itself is just an example of one way of thinking, of one way of going about things, of one method. Some people say that this larger field is somatics, others say it is something else. It doesn’t really matter.
    This is where your analogy fails. A teacher of the Feldenkrais Method and programs of education that seek to produce teachers of the Feldenkrais Method are operating within a field that is more boundaried. In other words, the Feldenkrais Method is distinct enough to be differentiated from many of the other practices in the larger field.
    One can agree that there are many ways to create the conditions for people to learn in such ways that it furthers the process of maturation. But many of these are explicitly not part of the Feldenkrais Method. Verbally based therapy – just for example – that seeks to guide people towards autonomy may work well. But the Feldenkrais Method, by definition, seeks to promote maturation primarily by other means. The study of philosophy, of psychology, the practice of orienteering, engaging in the activity of being a Boy Scout on the way to Eagle, practicing meditation, training to be a commando and a host of other general fields and of specific methods within those general fields may all have great effect on maturation or development of autonomy. None –as fine as they may be – are the Feldenkrais Method.
    It may even be in cases in which boundaries are not sharply defined that distinctions become more important to observe and to understand.
    A general comment on maturation. Imagine someone brought up in a family of plumbers. Let’s say it is one that has a family business that carries the family name … say, “Feldenkrais Plumbing.” When one has been raised up in that family but chooses instead to be an electrician, the mature individual does not try to bend the term “plumbing” in order to gain the advantage of the family’s history and reputation. The autonomous/mature/individuated person says, “I am an electrician, not a plumber.”
    Let’s push that just a little more. Let’s say the family business does not use the family name but is known as “Ace Subcontractors” but still has built its reputation on being a plumbing sub-contractor. A member of the family who, again, wants to be an electrician would be amiss to claim the right to name their very different business “Ace Subcontractors” in order to have the connection while claiming the separation.
    The mature person would move on and work to establish themselves under a new name. To do otherwise indicates that process of maturation has gone awry, that autonomy has not occurred well, that the person in question has not separated with maturity from their roots. Instead he or she remains an adolescent [i]bound by[/i] rather than [i]free from[/i] their heritage. They would seem to me to be mired in an adolescent struggle to rename the world to their own advantage, to wanting to take advantage without the accountability.

  2. First, I never met the man, Moshe Feldenkrais. As he was a student of Gurdjieff’s he must have experienced the Enneagram and given his personality type, autonomy is one of the essential and underlying dynamics of his, and as it happens, my type. Ralph, no doubt you have homed in on this personal drive of Feldenkrais the man. I imagine autonomy could also be an over- arching theme of post-WWII Jews (and others) interested in establishing, defending and maintaining a homeland.
    In my Feldenkrais practice, fostering autonomy of my clients is one aspect of what I look for, and what I do. I am also aware of significantly wide variations in innate capabilities and understanding those limits is one of the things I personally aim to do. Working within and exploring those limits, perceptual, kinesthetic, sensory etc., means I find my way to defining for/with the client what they are. If I’m lucky I get to witness how these change over time.

    For me those innate abilites are not autonomy-limiting at all. As they are defined and explored, my experience is is that the limits become very freeing. Much like constraints in our Method, they organize functional movements towards self-acceptance and hence, foster healthy relationships.

    Authority, responsibility, accountability, maturation, independence, freedom, autonomy are all evocative words, maybe provocative words, that try to name a fundamental human desire and drive – to know oneself.

  3. Thanks for your helpful response, Ralph. When I wrote ‘vague’, I meant ‘abstract’. It is very useful to have some concrete examples. It’s useful to know that you find Moshe’s teaching authoritative as source of Method, that the problem is others citing him as authority for what they teach while either not quoting or only selectively quoting, so that students are misled. And there’s the issue of making a student wrong by fiat instead of providing experiences to support learning to find one’s own way.

    I agree that it is a problem to have certified practitioners “who were taught to always start on the good side”, that this is a complete perversion of Moshe’s teaching. Well, you didn’t assert the second clause in that sentence, so that’s my opinion. You wrote that “it happens often enough that I think it should be a concern to all of us”. Well, that’s pretty strong in its own way, isn’t it.

    You also wrote: “I’m quite comfortable with the existence of multiple perspectives on the Method. I have no desire to argue with anyone who sees it differently than I do, and no need to convince anyone that I am right. But I’ve found that many people find my insights useful, so I do intend to continue writing about them.”

    So. An expression of ‘concern’ is a choice not to ‘argue’ and evinces an absence of ‘need’ to be right or to make anyone wrong. Perhaps the sharpness of contrast between one view of the Method and another is, in fact, more readily perceived by some when put so softly.

    Then again, a concise [and as comprehensive as possible] list of concrete concerns such as the above example might be very helpfully addressed by collecting relevant written and spoken remarks of Moshe for each. The point would not be for one ‘side’ to ‘win’ but for everyone to gain familiarity with the depth of perspective, the multiplicity of ‘angles’ provided by Moshe.

    I understand how counterproductive it could be to attach these concerns publicly to individual trainers or others. And I feel that invoking a cloud of unspecified concerns poorly serves both the Method and the clear presentation of your own understanding of it.

    I understand how counterproductive it can be to have quotations of Moshe used as clubs and barbs in arguments. And I feel that leaving his relevant written and spoken words out of the discussion is as big an emptiness as to fail to include one’s own understandings.

    Inevitably, I think, any decent collection of what Moshe said about anything will tend to lead someone to the necessity of thinking out their own understandings. At the same time, it will tend to improve the quality of those understandings, so that very few ‘always do this’ statements will be acceptable. One occurs to me, from a video of him doing FI. He says something like “It [always?] begins with a certain quality of touch.”

    Russ Hall

  4. Hi, Ralph,

    Thanks for your comment response, but you really didn’t address what I said at all. I was describing a relationship of teacher to students that was different than you envisioned. I’m not suggesting that elementary school teachers are just doing their best with a bad situation. I’m saying that the situation is more complex than you either realize or are describing for your readers. To reduce the complexities of the situation to “pathology of contemporary civilization” is inaccurate and prevents you from really dealing with what I’m saying.
    I hope you’ll take another look.

    Your friend, Adam

  5. In response to Paul Rubin’s comment.

    I don’t think you understood what I was saying about mathematics, Paul. I wasn’t talking about the evolution of mathematics so much as I was using it as an example to clarify the distinction I was making between the source of a piece of knowledge and the authority for the validity of that knowledge. At some point I’ll try to articulate that whole theme in greater depth, but for now, let’s just leave it.

    I agree with you that the boundary question — what counts as Feldenkrais and what doesn’t — can present some thorny issues. I don’t think we agree, though, on which issues are the thorniest. You seem most concerned about people using the name when they are doing something you don’t see as Feldenkrais. You seem to be asking for a narrow definition of the Method which can be used to exclude those who don’t fit, and a mechanism to keep them out.

    I see the opposite boundary issue as more important. How can we come to a broad enough understanding of the Method to encompass the diverse forms of knowing and practice which can be said, in some sense, to legitimately flow from Moshe’s teaching? I see that playing field as quite large, encompassing a wide diversity of understanding and practice, but still somehow all connected through a common heritage. These aren’t easy questions, but Moshe wasn’t a simple thinker. I don’t think his intellectual and practical heritage can be reduced to an unambiguous “method,” at least not in the narrow dictionary sense of that term. I’ve begun to explore these questions in the earlier posts in this series, but my views are still unfolding.

    In this particular blog entry, though, I wasn’t really looking at the boundary issues.  My focus was more on autonomy, which I think this may relate to what you’re referring to as maturation. You ask what a “mature” individual would do in a series of hypothetical situations involving expanding the family business beyond its historical roots, as you put it. You seem to conclude that the “mature” decision, in every case, would involve breaking his connections with the family and striking off on his own — in other words, that the “mature” decision is the one you would have him make in the situation as you choose to frame it. 

    You haven’t said, though, how you understand maturity in this context. My understanding of the term, at least as Moshe used it, is that it had to do with the nature of the decision-making process — not the particular decision eventually chosen. From that perspective, a mature decision would be one that was based on aware consideration of the factors involved, as the decisionmaker understands them at the time. This could lead to your preferred decision or a different one, but in assessing maturity the nature of the process counts more than the end result. Do you agree, or do you mean something different by the term maturity?


  6. This responds to Adam Cole’s June 10 comment.

    My reference to “pathology of contemporary civilization” was not directed at elementary education, per se, but at the broader largely unconscious social conditioning we all undergo that teaches us to deaden our awareness of ourselves and our surroundings, and to act in accordance with strictures imposed by a variety of external authority structures. The larger impact of this conditioning is a bigger issue than I want to get into right now, but I do see it as a major source of many of the dysfunctions we encounter as Feldenkrais Teachers.

    I realize that the group dynamic between teacher and students is far more complex that it is represented in my little vignette, and that much more is going on than simply the conditioning I described. That conditioning is present, though, and is a component of the larger pattern of conditioning to which we are all subject. That’s the point I was attempting to make.


  7. Now that I’m back in Los Angeles and again have access to Awareness Through Movement, I want to respond to Russ Hall’s query in a comment to my previous posting about how instructive and central [or not] I find Moshe’s remarks on pages 33-39 of that book. For those who don’t have access to the book, in the passage in question Moshe discusses the centrality of movement to all human experience, and uses that conclusion as a rationale for his focus on the use of movement as the lever for the correction and improvement of human functioning.

    He begins by defining movement as including “all temporal and spatial changes in the state and configurations of the body and its parts . . .” Using that definition, he argues that movement is a necessary and central component of the other components of human functioning — sensation, feeling, and thinking — and that without movement, they would not be possible. He concludes that:

    Finally, and most important of all, there is one more reason why we should chose the action-system as the point of attack for the improvement of man. All behavior, as we noted before, is a complex of mobilized muscles, sensing, feeling, and thought. Each of these components of action could, in theory, be used instead, but the part played by the muscles is so large in the alternatives that if it were omitted from the patterns in the motor cortex, the rest of the components of the pattern would disintegrate.

    To answer Russ’s question, I find the passage a highly instructive summary of Moshe’s thinking on the subject, and central to his teaching and his Method. I might quibble with a few of the details, but basically I believe what he says there. I’m not sure quite why Russ asked me about this passage, but I find it a wonderful example of both the richness and depth of Moshe’s thought and the potential difficulties in absorbing and understanding all its nuances.

    As the term is normally used, “movement” refers to a perceptible change in position or configuration. That’s how we use the term in ATM lessons — “move your arm, lift your leg,” etc. We distinguish “real” movement from “imaginary” movement, where the student thinks about moving but doesn’t actually move. That’s what most people think of as movement, most of the time. Let’s call that movement1, for concreteness. (As a mathematician I’d normally use subscripts for this kind of distinction, but the WordPress editor doesn’t seem to offer that option.)

    The meaning of “movement” that Moshe employs in that passage is different. It includes any change in the state of the body, no matter how subtle and miniscule. Let’s call that kind of movement movement2. The distinction between real and imaginary movement doesn’t exist in movement2. Even imagining movement creates changes, albeit subtle and miniscule changes. Those changes constitute movement2, as Moshe is using the term.

    Moshe didn’t always distinguish between movement1 and movement2 in his teaching. He talked at times about movement2 and used his understanding of it in FI, but most of what he did in ATM was movement1, and that is what was most obvious to observers in his FI. It was easy for students who weren’t accustomed to thinking in these nuances to pass over them, and see his teaching primarily in terms of movement1, This is another way of looking at the distinction I was trying to make in the previous posting, between the Method as a movement discipline and the deeper and more subtle levels that Moshe had in mind.


  8. Ralph!

    When you introduce yourself to the readers on this blog you write “I was trained in the Feldenkrais Method by Moshe Feldenkrais, the originator of the Method, and have been in practice since 1983.” I am still very puzzled by such a self distortion by a fellow teacher who spends so much time discussing the method in terms as we read in this blog. I would expect you to be correct and informative and explain to the common readers who might not know the historical facts of the teachings of Dr Feldenkrais and the training named Amherst in particular. You were only partly trained by Dr Feldenkrais, Ralph, isn’t that so? Your statement is from the point of view of professional authorization false. In fact Dr Feldenkrais trained Amherst for two years and fell ill and never taught the important teaching of FI. Over the years I have spoken and exchanged letters with many teachers and trainers alike about this fact and it is even published in IFF documents as an ad hoc teaching after his illness. It seems a remarkable slip of mind, or is it something else? Many of us discussing with you, here or at Feldyforum are not trained by him either but you are one of the more extreme in on one hand stating that you received the best of his knowledge and on the other hand denying its existing as a teaching built upon certain principals and defined as a method. I think it would be very proper for you to correct the information under the title “Ralph Strauch” and make the public find you as trustworthy in Feldenkrais as a degree from Harvard of Yale would be.

    I am by no means generalizing about any competence & qualifications held today by the teachers from Amherst after their long scholarship. I can see that over the world there are different authorizations and seals to practice the feldenkrais method as a profession. I have written extensively about it in my article “humility of learning”. If I draw conclusions from the facts I have discussed in this paper you are, by this presentation of yourself, showing the very opposite of humility and that is arrogance. Why not simply declare where you come from so we can understand your paths and where you are going? Then we are apt not only to evaluate you as a potential reliable pathfinder but also have evidence to realize when or why you are heading astray and getting lost.

  9. I’m quite comfortable with the biographical information about me on this site, Eva. I believe it describes my background accurately. The time I spent with Moshe allowed me to absorb a good understanding of the man and his Method. I’m not asking anyone to accept what I say as an authoritative description of his work, and that should be pretty clear from what I’ve written.


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