Exploring the cascade

This entry is part 6 of 11 in the series Refocusing.

If you are visiting this blog for the first time, it will probably be more accessible if you start at the beginning of the Refocusing series.

What you experience as a single action is often a cascade — a rapid sequence of choices and actions that you perceptually collapse into that single action. Let’s explore that cascade to see how its components fit together, and what consequences they can have for the result of your action. Not noticing the cascade as it happens can lead you to do things quite different from what you think you are doing, without realizing it. We’ll examine the simple action of bending your elbow to lift your arm, and see what can happen when an external impediment gets in the way. This discussion will make more sense if you actually do it as you follow along, rather than just reading about it.

lifting your arm
lifting your arm

Hold your right arm at your side, with your elbow bent at roughly at a right angle. Raise your arm a few inches, then lower it again. Repeat that action several times and notice what that feels like. It should be easy and smooth.

(Placing your mouse over these images will animate them.)

Next, place your left hand slightly above your right arm to interrupt its movement. Lift your arm again, and sense the forces involved when it gets stopped by your left hand.

blocking arm
blocking arm

You probably focus your attention on the contact between your left hand and your right arm. You feel an upward pressure in your right arm, pressing against and being balanced by a downward pressure in your left hand. This is what you would expect, given that your right arm is trying to lift while the left hand is holding it down.

While continuing to press upward with your right arm, remove your left hand and see what happens. With the impediment removed, your right arm will probably fly upwards. This, also, is what you would expect.

unblocking the arm
unblocking the arm

But it didn’t happen for the reason you think it did. It didn’t happen simply because you removed your left hand. It happened because, as you removed your left hand, you changed what you were doing with your right arm and shoulder.

To see this, hold your right arm in place with your left hand, and again feel the forces involved. This time, though, instead of focusing on the point of contact, focus on what you are doing in your right arm and shoulder.

creating rigidity
creating rigidity

Sense the effort that you’re pumping into those areas. Keep that effort constant, as you again remove your left hand. If you successfully keep your effort constant, your right arm won’t fly up this time. Instead, it will stay pretty much where it was, as you continue to pump effort into holding it in place. You weren’t really trying to lift your right arm like you thought you were, after all. What you were really doing was holding your right arm in place to keep it from being pushed down by your left hand.

Analyzing the cascade

Let’s analyze this interaction in more detail, and see how it happens over time. At each point of time, the action you are taking with your right arm is interacting with what your left arm is doing, to produce your experience of that interaction. As part of our analysis, we will need to distinguish between your intended action and the action you actually take.

When you raise your right arm with no interference from your left, the situation is a simple one. You intend to raise your right arm, you do so, and that’s what happens. Your intended and your actual actions are the same. End of story.

When your left hand impedes your right arm, however, the situation becomes more complicated. In response to the contact your actual action shifts to one of stabilizing your right arm. The muscles in your right arm and shoulder tense and co-contract to hold your arm rigidly in place, against the pressure from your left hand. But your intention continues to be focused on raising your arm, so you don’t notice that switch. When you take your left hand away, your right arm gets the signal that the impediment no longer exists. You respond to that signal by unconsciously shifting your actual action back again to raising your right arm, so your arm flies up.

While your left hand is impeding your right arm, your intended and actual actions are different and you don’t know what you are actually doing. So long as you remain focused on your intention to raise your right arm and on the impediment presented by your left, you remain unconscious of this mismatch. Shifting focus to what you are actually doing in your right arm and shoulder allows you to inhibit the second shift in your action — from stabilizing the right arm back to moving it. This allows you to discover how you were getting in your own way in the first place, and gives you a chance to change that.

Knowing what you are doing

One of Moshe Feldenkrais’s favorite dictums was that:

If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t do what you want.

What he meant by that, I think, was that without good awareness of your bodymind and how it functions, your actions will be much less well-organized and efficient than they could be, and you will function well below your potential. He devoted his life to helping people to understand this, and to learn to function in better, more well-organized ways. He saw the world as a physicist and engineer, so his focus was on how human beings function from a conventionally mechanistic, ordinary-reality perspective, where the limits we encounter in our physical interactions are largely mechanical impediments, and our potential capabilities are ultimately determined by the physical characteristics of the world around us.

The Refocusing perspective takes his dictum to a deeper level, suggesting that at least some of our limits depend less on physics than on the rules with which we come together with others to co-create our mutual interactions. That makes it possible, at least sometimes, to transcend apparent limits by shifting the rules that we bring to the table. Doing this is what leads to the non-ordinary experiences that Refocusing seems to make possible.

Let’s see how this applies to the simple interaction that we’ve just been exploring. The real impediment to moving your right arm was not the physical presence of your left hand, but the fact that you responded to that contact by stiffening and locking your right arm and shoulder in place. What happens if you consciously inhibit that locking and stiffening? Go back again to the experience of using your left hand to block the movement of your right arm. Get yourself stuck, and attend carefully to that experience. Notice that you feel a significant pressure at the point of contact, and when you try a little harder to your arm, that pressure increases. Notice also that your right elbow, upper arm, and shoulder are locked rigidly in place, and don’t change much when you try to move your arm.

moving freely
moving freely

Shift your attention away from the point of contact, and back into your right upper arm and shoulder. Without trying to push your left hand out of the way, just move your upper arm and shoulder, or flex your elbow to increase the bend in it. You should find your right hand moving freely in space, despite the fact that the pressure from your left hand remains just as strong as it was when the right arm couldn’t move.

Play with the role of your attention in this. Switching your attention back to the point of contact between your left hand and right arm will make it easier to get stuck again. Focusing your attention away from that contact and into moving your shoulder or your elbow, though, will make it easier  to move freely.

This exemplifies, perhaps, the obverse of the dictum quote above, that

If you do know what you are doing, you can do what you want.

Moshe liked this version, as well.

Two general principles that seem clear from this experience and others like it:

  1. A common response to encountering an impediment in the midst of taking an action is to unconsciously shift from your intended action to locking against and resisting the impediment, then blaming the impediment for the fact that your intended action isn’t working.
  2. If you inhibit this shift and continue to manifest your originally intended action, it will continue to work.

We’ve seen these principles at work in other experiences and videos presented so far in this series, and we will see them repeated in various guises as we continue.

The particular experience we’ve explored here, of moving your arm freely when someone is holding it, is actually where Bob and I started. Bob had met a highly skilled Hawaiian Aikido master who could do that, and we wanted to understand how it was possible. We would take turns, one of us trying to move his arm while the other held it. In the beginning, most of our attempts failed but a few succeeded. I might hold Bob’s arm for 20 minutes, while he unsuccessfully tried to move it, and then, all of a sudden, he could do it. He could move freely, and there was nothing I could do to stop him. Then, an instant later, we’d be back in ordinary reality, where I could easily restrict his movements. But our occasional successes kept us engaged, and over time, success came more easily and more often. With time we moved beyond our original martial arts interest, and into a deeper mode of exploring how the world worked, and what our roles were in creating our experience.

Refocusing has opened me to potentials that I’m still far from able to fully embody. The habits and pressures of conventional living are too strong, and it’s too easy most of the time to slip back into ordinary reality. Know those possibilities are there, though, gives me direction and focus, and makes that exploration a major drive in my life.

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As always, I would appreciate thoughtful comments and reactions to the ideas and experiences I’m exploring here, but will continue to delete spam comments unrelated to these posts. Please leave a comment and let me know if this exploration into “getting stuck” worked for you. If it didn’t, let me know what didn’t work, and I’ll attempt to guide you through it more clearly

Series NavigationWhat’s REALLY happening here?The Actor and the Character

6 thoughts on “Exploring the cascade”

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  2. Hi Ralph,
    I found myself focusing on the shoulder in the 1st instance, arm not flying up once the hand was removed. And yet, it’s not easy to refocus — to practice resisting myself, changing attention & moving through resistance. I’ll bet I’d learn some things about myself just making that change of focus. But my arms hurt already (dunno what to do about that yet), from overuse. So I don’t really want to play w/ this. Also, somehow playing w/ my attention like this is a bit disturbing to my ego or something, not sure what that’s about.
    Thanks for your explorations.

  3. As I woke this morning (after going to bed thinking about the idea of anxiety and curiosity), I noticed myself. I did it in a particular way and it was easy to just notice. At some point I thought I do not sense myself as being curious which made me wonder what it takes to become curious. I kept noticing. I did not want to change anything intentionally, just notice. At some point, spontaneously, my attention expanded to more of my legs and heels and then a short time later, again spontaneously, me head and upper body came more into my experience. The fascinating thing was that it just happened. I didn’t consciously shift my attention. As time went on, more thoughts and questions came to mind around this idea of moving between states of anxiety to curiosity. What actually happens to allow such a shift without intentionally redirecting my own experience.
    Last weekend after much activity over a gathering on the 4th, I watched myself intentionally bring action into my day. For hours during the day I “waited” for a clear intention and choice in how I used myself. Some of that experience lingers and it makes me wonder how we even create an intention.
    The concept of how we change our intention with your directions for the arm experiment adds another level of perception in this inquiry. I am curious about how I will be with myself at the next time I notice I am in a state of anxiety. Thanks for your work.

  4. Don’t work so hard, Amy. The important thing in this kind of exploration is discovering that what you are doing is different from, and counterproductive to, what you think you’re doing. Once you’re in that mode, and can recognize the “lock up” when you do it, you can make those discoveries with very little physical effort. I described it in the blog as a more effortful exploration because I’ve found it workshops that it makes a more impressive experience that way — akin to trying hard to get up with someone holding you down and then realizing all your effort is going into the wrong thing. What we’re looking at here is a deeper layer of Moshe’s admonition that “if you don’t know what you’re doing you can’t do what you want.” (The earlier video on Making Yourself Solid gives some more examples of this.)
    Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you’re enjoying the explorations.

  5. That’s a great description of watching your experience emerge, Lindy. Here’s one interpretation of what was happening, not necessarily definitive but just a possibility that feels consistent with similar experiences that I’ve had. Elsewhere I’ve described awareness, in terms of Shakespeare’s metaphor that “all the world’s a stage,” as how you light the stage, and attention as where on the stage you look. We normally narrow our awareness to a small cone around what we’re attending to, leaving much of the rest of the stage in the dark. As you let your awareness broaden — lighting the stage more diffusely — it becomes easier to notice smaller activity taking place anywhere on the stage, that would be invisible under lesser lighting. That sounds to me like what you describe.
    Thanks for the comments. I’m glad you’re finding the ideas interesting.

  6. Lindy,
    After I posted my response to your comment, above, I realized that I had focused on your observation about noticing things in different parts of your body and had not responded to your curiosity about the relationship between curiosity and anxiety. Here are some thoughts on that.

    The deciding factor, perhaps, is how you perceive the phenomenon in question. Perceiving it as a threat will generate anxiety, while a more neutral non-threatening perception allows more open curiosity and exploration. The threatening perception encourages a narrow focus on the threat, which makes it difficult to see anything else, while the more open curiosity allows a broader field which makes it possible to notice things going on in other parts of your body.

    Learning to perceive nominally threatening situations — being choked out, having my arm twisted or locked in place, having someone sit on me, etc. — as nonthreatening enough to examine them with curiosity was a central theme of my work with Bob, and the better we got at it, the deeper it took us. I’ll put up some video at some point of one of us kneeling on the other’s ulnar nerve. When perceived as a threat, that produces intense pain, but when perceived neutrally (which takes some practice) it’s not bad at all, and easy to eject the person kneeling.

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