Thursday, February 17, 2005

Practicing the Process: An Artist’s Perspective on Awareness through Movement

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Photo by Nancy Wozny

By Nancy Galeota-Wozny

I came to Awareness Through Movement as an artist and I stayed as an artist although one of my earliest encounters with ATM brought one of the worst disasters of my artistic career. I was 23 and suffering from a list of chronic injuries. I began studying The Alexander Technique and had begun lessons on a weekly basis. Alexander proved a gentle initiation into my somatic life. Sometime during my Alexander tenure I happened on an ATM class especially for dancers. My first impression of the class was that it was a boring, tedious process, full of unnatural and not particularly interesting or challenging movements. Yet when I stood up I felt an ease of movement I had never experienced.

It was in my Alexander teacher’s office that I noticed Feldenkrais’s Awareness through Movement book on the bookshelf. I asked to borrow it. Thus far I had one ATM class under my belt. At the time I was preparing for a premiere performance for New Music America in recognition for the opening of the Old Post Office building that houses the National Endowment for the Arts. It was to date the most important commission of my artistic career. The actual dance was a highly complex collection of rhythmic circular movements that relied on the precision and accuracy of the dancers. Mistakes caused the entire structure of the piece to erode.

On the morning of the performance I was on my way out the door to dance class when I noticed the ATM book sitting on my coffee table. I thought to myself “if one lesson felt so good why not try another lesson using the book?” I hit the floor and proceeded to change my history as both a mover and artist. I did the first lesson in the book and when it felt so good I thought I would try the next lesson in the book. The subsequent lesson felt so good I couldn’t resist the next lesson, and so on. Three hours later I had completed every lesson in the book without a break or standing or walking between each lesson. I had no way of knowing how important it was to have time to process or digest each lesson.

When I finally stood up it was as if someone had erased me. I felt nothing. There was no effort in moving any part of myself, no feeling whatsoever. It was as if I had disappeared. I quickly hit the floor thinking this feeling would pass and I would be able to feel my old self again. It didn’t. I had totally reorganized myself, but had no idea what “reorganizing oneself” entails. Anxiety set in quickly. Standing and moving were the scariest. Actually dancing felt as if I had been given a new set of body clothes to try on. The strange part was that when I moved I was actually experiencing effortless movement. Yet I had developed no context for understanding such an experience. I just felt “missing.” That night backstage fellow dancers inquired why I wasn’t warming up or doing the usual preambles to performing. I felt safest just attaching myself to a wall. At least I could feel the cool concrete substance of the wall. I could trust that sensation. I went on to deliver the worst performance of my life, confusing the other dancers, missing entrances and exits, and in the end getting a terrible review in Dance Magazine, a national publication. I simply hadn’t rehearsed with my “disappeared” self.

One could look at this experience as an artistic failure. Failure, however, often disguises learning at its deepest. This failure held something of a hidden sweet spot. My interior was so shaken by the profundity of the work that at the very core of myself I knew there was no turning back. Carl Jung says once we know something we can’t go back to not knowing. Riveted by the potency of this work I began to experience a simultaneous unraveling of both my movement and my creative process. Baptism by failure ignited my engine for change, now spanning an 18-year commitment to practicing ATM in service to my life as an artist.

As a regular ATM student for the next few years I found my injuries fading like ghosts from the past and I shifted my focus from recovery to growth. Moving better seemed larger than just “better moving.” My physical problems disappeared within the first months of ATM and I have rarely thought about them since. Of course I valued being off medications, expensive doctor visits, and constant discomfort, but it was not the relief of a set of symptoms that so attracted me to the work. That was just the outer layer of my onion: it was the interior layers that were to reveal a kinship with my artistic process. My dances at this point changed radically and could best be described as kinesthetic questions. As I was unlearning how to move I was beginning an education that I know see as critical to my development. From the day I made myself disappear I unknowingly began a process of allowing ATM to penetrate the core of my image-making consciousness.

The Components of ATM as Compared to the Creative Process

In ATM we literally practice the skills most called into play in the creative process. Inspiration is the easy part, while the act of refining an idea can be simply hard work. ATM has lightened the effort, softened the struggle, and restored the value of play. Art Therapist, Shaun McNiff, states, “The creative process is an ecology that depends upon the full spectrum of our resources." What follows is an examination of the precise ways ATM cultivates our creative resources.

a. The Quality of Inquiry and Non-Judgmental Thinking

In ATM we consciously practice a gentle form of inquiry and investigation. An ATM is structured as a series of questions where one gets closer to a given movement idea or concept that lies underneath the inquiry. Each instruction is like a proposal; each movement is a question in response. In an ATM we evoke a non-judgmental form of inquiry. For example, consider the movement of lifting the arm to the ceiling from a side lying position. After the practitioner as given the direction of the movement, he then begins a sequence of inquiries as to “how” we are doing this movement. He may draw your attention to the movement of the shoulder blade, the clavicle, the rotation of your head, and so on. Our attention dances around all that we are doing so that we may lift the arm to the ceiling. The inquiry is framed as a form of information gathering rather than assessing right or wrong. A whole world exists in this one movement of lifting the arm to the ceiling. Surrendering judgement keeps this world open for our learning. The neutral language of the practitioner combined with the exploratory quality of movement of the student keeps curiosity alive in the lesson.

The quality of investigation in ATM is also worthy of attention. In ATM we practice not trying and non-attachment to our destination. Morgan D. James, an expert in creativity and business innovation, lists the importance of non-judgmental thinking as one of the four commandments of creativity (The Thinker’s Toolkit, 1995). Nonjudgmental thinking allows me the freedom to tolerate my work in its most raw and unrealized state. We practice becoming comfortable with the less differentiated versions of the movement we are moving towards in ATM. Depending on the structure of a lesson, it is not unusual to experience some difficulty in performing the initial movements in a lesson. Our limitations are transformed into learning opportunities. We gain tolerance of the raw stages of learning and expression. Writer Anne Lammot claims we will never be a writer unless we can tolerate a terrible first draft (Bird by Bird, 1994). Few works of art start in the form in which they end. First approximations beget second and third approximations until we refine our work.

Judgment can put the brakes on a process designed to flow in directions that often surprise us. In ATM we cultivate a comfort with non-knowing, with beginner’s mind, and a willingness to suspend criticism. Our commitment is to the process, not the product. Our attention to “the way” leads us to our destination. Achievement takes a back seat in ATM. Often I am surprised at the improvement I feel during an ATM when I return to the initial movement I used as a reference point. It is as if the movement was moving toward me all along. The deeper I go in my own investigations, trusting the process all the way, the closer the image moves toward me. At times, I am not sure how a particular movement instruction is going to lead to a fuller use of myself. I need to approach each component of the lesson with trust that it is going somewhere and I need not be analytical about exactly where. Often the artistic process unravels a series of seemingly unconnected questions that lead the artist to a closer vision of a particular work. The artist’s job is to formulate the questions that best move the image toward realization. Arousing our play instinct, we weave threads that will eventually lead to a magnificent whole if we suspend judgment along the way. Carl Jung writes, “The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from the inner necessity” (Collected Works, 1972). The spirit of playful inquiry fuels creativity.

b. Structure vs. Non-Structure

The very structure of ATM--alternating between movement and rest--creates a parallel of action and reflection that renews both my vision and myself as the compass. We refresh our senses in the rest periods in ATM. I find myself utilizing the rhythm of making and resting in my own work. During the creative process I will make a myriad of decisions concerning the form of a particular work. I can literally move images around in my studio for hours before arriving at a satisfying image. When I get lost, and everything starts looking the same, I go to the floor and begin a scan. ATM lessons begin and end with a process called the scan. The scan is a kind of inventory of sensations that frames the lesson experience. We do this lying down where we can sense our weight against the floor. The scan demands a rigorous use of our attention as we train our abilities to sense distinctions. Feldenkrais's claims, "If we know what we are doing, we can do what we want" (Awareness Through Movement, 1972). By the end of the scan, we have an idea of what we are doing. The scan develops our aesthetic compass as my physical self becomes the compass that I bring to my work. My decisions are embodied and emerge from an aesthetic that moves beyond merely understanding the elements of composition. Adhering to ATM’s precise instructions cultivates a sense for detail and nuance that completes the compass.
The highly defined structure of an ATM lesson helps us tolerate the wide-open world of creativity. There is alchemy present when we partner directed processes like ATM with non-directed movement processes like improvisation and authentic movement. We become less concerned with filling up emptiness and more concerned with finding what’s there. Consider the usual set of fears we meet when coming face to face with our creative force. There is the unwritten page, the big white canvas, and the open empty space. Emptiness waits for our genius and meets our fear. What is it about a sequence of movements that dismantles our fears? Let’s return to the idea of moving something out of the way. Remember that ATM movements act in a subtractive fashion. If ATM interrupts the tyranny of our habits, perhaps it is also affecting the tyranny of our fears. Fears and inhibitions are also being reconfigured. Whether it a dance, a poem or a painting, we reveal something about ourselves. We are gaining a somatic confidence whereby we want to be seen. We feel safe to create. The safety we feel is linked to structure and the non-judgmental environment.

c. Sensing the Difference that Makes the Difference

ATM calls upon the Fechner Weber principle of noticing differences under reduced stimuli. The atmosphere of an ATM class aims at keeping external stimuli to a minimum. Movements are performed slowly often with our eyes closed in a quiet room. Feldenkrais Trainer Dennis Leri writes, "The Feldenkrais Method raises the question, when contemplating the Fechner Weber principle, just how is it that we can lower the background stimulation to enable us to detect just noticeable differences at lower thresholds. While learning with reduced effort is its own reward, somehow the different strata of our experience are reconfigured via a Feldenkrais lesson. In reconfiguring previous configurations we are face to face, so to speak, with the most intimate dynamical machinations of habit” (Mental Furniture, 1997). ATM cultivates a respect for precision that can be the difference between a labored or very elegant movement. We learn to sense subtle differences. Musician Stephan Nachmanovitch could have been describing ATM when he wrote about the creative state as “an alert, poised equilibrium, attentive, ready to shift in any direction with the movement of the moment” (Free Play, 1990). In ATM we somatically train ourselves as a kind of an antenna that is sensitive to multiple sources of information and inspiration. ATM has had a profound effect on my ability to generate movement. My post ATM Dancing became enacting potentials that await my presence to render into form. The whole world of generating movement had turned upside down and inside out. ATM served as a portal, lifting a veil, allowing me to converse intimately with space. As artists our job is to breathe in the world. We delineate our experience in ATM that bringing a more refined perception to the act of noticing. We cannot do that without disciplined attention to our attention.

d. Valuing Failure as a Learning Strategy

In ATM, we cultivate adaptability as we fine-tune our mechanism for change, and consequently failure. So-called “wrong movements” actually lead the way to more efficient movement choices. As an artist, I feel more resilient with my choices and with potential criticism for those choices. Failure is a significant part of the process. I robustly own my mistakes and wrong turns and see them as valuable as they inform and lead me to a deeper clarity of intention. Attaching too tightly to an idea can create an obstacle for a variation of that very idea to come through. We develop resiliency through this gentle process. What is resiliency but the ability to withstand physical and emotional insults? Dennis Leri, in his Mental Furniture Article #9 on Engineering, cites the role of failure in the human developmental process. All that falling, stumbling, babbling and fumbling leads the way to mature behavior. Adaptability leads us to a potent form of strength that values failure as a component to deep learning.

Along with failure comes risk-taking. Often ATM lessons are specifically designed to triturate risk. Large movements are broken up into smaller movements. We navigate the fall through a sequential system by taking risks where the fall is manageable. Feldenkrais’s ATM series on the head-stand is a perfect example. Students in training programs spend 4-6 weeks on a series of lessons that ultimately leads to standing on one’s head. Although not everyone makes it to this final point at the same rate, there exists a profound satisfaction in enduring the difficulties of this feat with great ease. The ATM series on the Judo Roll is yet another example. I hadn’t done a forward roll since 3rd grade when I encountered this ATM series. By the end of this series I was completing consecutive roles fearlessly. ATM ups the intelligence of our risks. Failure, falling and risk-taking cover the landscape of the ATM terrain. Surviving as an artist includes a particular fitness in risk-taking. With each new idea an artist takes a risk.

e. Novelty into New Organizations

Novel movement patterns are typical in ATM. For example, in the classic ATM lesson, Balancing the Flexors and Extensors, we find a movement pattern mid-way through the lesson where the eyes go to the right, the arms to the left, while the legs follow the eyes. Feldenkrais elegantly modulates the degree of novelty as the lesson progresses. Through non-habitual movement patterns we literally coax our nervous system into a fresh organization. These novel organizations give way to new modes of thinking, acting, and creating. It is here that movement, images, ideas, words and sound, unveil themselves with less effort. We arouse the non-habitual muse as unusual connections, juxtapositions, and novel couplings lead us to new learning in an ATM lesson. Originality is fed most by entering the places we ignore. Visual artist Doris Staffel confirms this in her interview with Practitioner Anna Smuckler. Staffel writes on her experience with the method and her art, “when you conceptualize beforehand, you are only dealing with what you have known or done in the past. If you allow the process to take you grazing, you get into territory you didn’t think was possible” (Feldenkrais Journal NO.5, 1990) Immersion in novelty readies us for improvisation in any art form. Robert Mapplethorpe writes on novelty, “My work is about seeing—-seeing things like they haven’t been seen before” (Free Play, 1990). In ATM we become willing participants in the land of the unusual and gain comfort with not seen before combinations. Counter-intuitive roads and discontinuous paths often yield previously unconsidered possibilities. In ATM we gain comfort in going “off-road,” realizing our sidetrack may be as important as any linear progression. Musician Don Campbell claims creativity has a profound wastefulness, as mental meandering is an essential process. Familiarity with the unfamiliar gives us access to the richest soup of ideas. Painter Edgar Degas writes, “Only when he no longer know what he is doing does the painter do good things.” Novelty in ATM is a learning strategy. We literally create new situations with each lesson. Novelty invites our whole self to participate in movement. At the core of novelty we find complexity.

f. Variation, Complexity and Deconstruction

Often in ATM, in order to understand the wholeness of a movement, we take it apart, examining each element in relationship to the whole. Feldenkrais used this strategy in many ATM lessons. The act of separating out the components of an image is also significant in the creative process. There are times I need to take the image apart before I can see it whole. Deconstruction finds a place in construction. Changing one component in an art piece can create an entirely different piece. The wealth of possibilities of a single image or movement opens up in the deconstruction process.

Feldenkrais claimed we have learned something if we can perform the action at least three different ways. Variation, diversity, and flexible thinking are highly valued in the ATM process. One common ATM strategy is to keep the movement relatively the same and shift the postural orientation. We may move between lying prone, supine, sitting or side lying during the course of the lesson. A particular orientation may open up a possibility that wasn't available to us before. Creativity expert, Morgan D. Jones, advises us to rephrase the question as many ways as possible for effective problem solving (The Thinker’s Toolkit,1995). Scientist Linus Pauling comments on his own ability saying, “I think the one thing I do is to bring ideas from one field of knowledge into another field of knowledge” (Creativity, 1996). The practice of shifting orientation has also penetrated my practice as I move between dancing and making two-dimensional images. Shaun McNiff, in his book Trusting the Process, encourages experimenting with disciplines other than our own. Our drawings inform our dancing and so on. Shifting art disciplines is not unlike shifting orientations in an ATM. Diversity and variation are often necessary components to the artistic process as well. As artists, we sometimes do not know what we are doing unless we can do it as many ways as possible. The subtleties between one variation and another can be the difference that makes the difference in any given work. The practice of variation gives us a more likely road to realizing our intended vision.

Embedded in ATM’s focus on variation is an appreciation and understanding of complexity. Complexity can find its way to the core of even the simplest composition. Familiarity with the interactions between various elements in one’s work gives one confidence in playing with many interactive systems. If we look at the operation of any given image, there may be relationships between scale, density, color, materials, etc., that all work towards bringing that image forth. I realize that compositional elements exist nested within one another. Changing one changes the whole. Practitioner and Graphic Designer Sharon Starika writes, “I can see how one small adjustment can and will affect the whole layout, just like one movement will affect the whole skeleton system (Feldenkrais Journal No.5 1990). ATM breeds a certain fluency in playing with the layers of complexity embedded in any given movement.

g. The Use of Constraints

In ATM we gently interrupt our habits through the use of movement constraints. When we can’t do what we usually do, we do something else. That "something else" is most often more efficient. We learn through finding the “other way” what the constraint reveals. For example, in the ATM lesson Coordinating the Flexors and Extensors, we find the opportunity to rotate without involving the hip sockets. Feldenkrais accomplishes this by simply having us cross one leg over the other as we drop our knees. The rotation movement needs to come from a new place in our back. The constraint acts as an invitation to new movement. In a regular practice of ATM, we become comfortable with various roadblocks along the way and see them not as obstacles but as passages to something new and yet undiscovered. You will often find yourself doing familiar movements in unfamiliar postures and vice versa. Bypassing our familiar habits through the introduction of novel patterns of movement, we arrive at more balanced use of ourselves. Constraints lead us to a fuller freedom of expression. Creativity also thrives on constraints and structure. Constraints have been a part of the artistic process throughout the generations. Shakespeare wrote for certain time durations. Musical and poetic forms dictate constraints. Actor Eric Booth writes, “To artists, limitations are not liabilities, they are opportunities to find fresh, invention solutions, to clarify key questions, to prioritize and go deeper” (The Everyday Work of Art, 1997). Creativity consultant, Roger von Oech, claims limits can be a powerful motivator as constraints light the way to our innermost resourcefulness. The limits we impose on ourselves or are imposed upon us from the world often open the doorway to our most expressive state.

h. The Role of the Imagination

It is not uncommon in an ATM to call upon the imagination to do some of the work. It’s important to remember that there is no demonstration of a movement in ATM. This fact alone calls on the imagination in a powerful capacity. Imagination is used in several capacities in practicing ATM. If a lesson begins on one side, we may do the second side only in our imagination. At the end of the lesson we will notice improvement in both sides. "Rolling a Ball Down the Spine" is a classic ATM lesson that calls upon the image of the ball to actually elicit the movement. In this lesson we make an imaginary ball roll down our spine. We enter the world of “as if” in this lesson. We let go of moving our spine in ways that we know and let the imaginary ball summon the movement within us. My student characterized images in ATM as a “way to latch on the movement.” He claims, “I take the image in and the movement appears.” His language speaks to an embodied image experience. Images are used freely by Feldenkrais to clarify intention, and denote direction and quality. Sometimes in ATM we imagine a movement before we actually do the movement. This mental rehearsal prepares us to move with deeper grace and efficiency. In agreement with Feldenkrais, Pablo Picasso writes, "Everything you can imagine is real" (Creativity, 1996). We activate the imagination in ATM like a muscle though the variety of ways we engage the imagination. We practice making ideas up where it is easy to do so. We don’t ask you to imagine just any movement, but a specific movement. For example consider Feldenkrais’s mostly widely known lesson, The Pelvic Clock. As we imagine ourselves moving our pelvis around the numbers of the clock, it’s the very specificity of the image that clarifies our movement. When we are called on to use our imagination in a more unstructured way, we have already warmed it up and it’s ready to fire. Borrowing a phrase from the renowned scientist, John Lienhard, “the engines of our ingenuity” are fired up and ready to create. Art Therapist Pat Allen writes, “imagination is the deepest voice of the soul and can be heard clearly only through cultivation and careful attention” (Allen, 1995). Trainer Frank Wildman speaks to this point on ATM, “artists like to use this work not for what it does to the physical body, but because it unlocks the imagination” (The Intelligent Body, 1996). Philosopher and Art Education Activist Maxine Green claims that a return to wide-awakeness, of awareness, is key to the recovery of the imagination. ATM, as gentle a process as it is, demands a rigorous use of our imagination. Edward Hopper writes on imagination, “ No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination”(Artist to Artist, 1998).

i. Beauty

ATM both creates the possibility of, and deepens appreciation of, beauty. Before Feldenkrais work was in my life, I participated in a very narrow vision of what constitutes beauty. Years of traditional dance training left me with antiquated notions of beauty. I was sensitive to heavy-handed beauty and not the delicacy of form that can go beyond cultural standards of appreciation. Beauty seems to be reinvented on a daily basis in ATM class. I have watched even the most unlikely movers dazzle me with a newfound finesse that comes as close to beauty as I have ever seen. There is an aesthetic present in watching an individual move with appropriate effort to the environment that is universal. ATM develops our sense of efficiency and economy. It might sound as if I’m talking about running a smooth business and not making art, yet I found efficiency and economy central to my effectiveness as an artist. I am in search of the equation where the piece is as simple as it can be but no simpler. We concretely practice this in seeking the least amount of effort in any given movement. Acting with a sense of appropriate effort and sensing the "enough- ness" of any artwork are skills valuable to the creative process. Beauty is linked to knowing when you are finished. As witness to my students’ processes, I cultivate a diverse and delineated sense of beauty that confines itself to no one set of standards. This expanded concept of beauty opens my compositional field of possibilities.

What is about art that draws us in, requests that we use ourselves in a full and engaging manner? D. H. Lawrence writes, “Art is a form of supremely delicate Awareness” (Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, 1979). At its core, ATM brings us home to a state of organic creativity. The challenges ATM proposes evoke our most creative solutions. Because there is no demonstration, there is an enactment process occurring. We bring the lesson to life through our movement and in the process bring ourselves to life as well. At the biological level we are inherently creative. We might even argue that the very mechanism by which ATM operates demonstrates the creativity of the human nervous system. If we embrace this thinking, then the domain of art no longer belongs to a select few. The transition from ATM into art seems seamless and logical and gives form to dynamic taking place in ATM. Using ATM to support my creative process has given me an opportunity to experience the harvest of ATM in a concrete way. There are many approaches to supporting the creative process. ATM has been the one most meaningful process to my own development. Immersion in ATM humanizes and demystifies the artistic process. This is not so much a formula for success, but for fulfillment.
As Feldenkrais Practitioners, we act more as facilitators than teachers in a traditional sense. We engineer environments in which learning can take place. I identify with this role as an artist. I am not so much the creator, but the midwife, the one who brings forth the image or movement. My job is to be in service to the image. ATM trains me exactly for that task. It is through movement that an image comes forth. Art arrives with its own logic, its unique system of operation. The partnership between ATM and creative process challenges the myth that creating art should be a struggle. Dr. Feldenkrais created his method to encompass improvement of all human activity. The spirit of his work dwells in a return to wholeness that includes creative expression.

In ATM we are not after repairing ourselves as we our recreating ourselves. We lie quietly on our backs, nursing our interior worlds. The wealth of our interior takes form in our dances, drawings, music, and words. By pairing practices of awareness and creativity we tune the muscle of our attention, quiet the critic, and summon our innermost muse. Feldenkrais Practitioners speak of “getting out of our own way.” As artists we need to “get out of the way” as well. Only then will the image reveal itself fully. . In order to get to my most authentic work I had to first disappear to become a more neutral receptor. Looking back on the fateful day I made myself disappear, I now see that I had to go away in order to bring anything of meaning back. My career survived this early failure, and I continue to work as a dancer and visual artist. Now I willingly disappear hoping to find something of beauty on the return trip.