In the Feldenkrais Method, paradox is a generative tool for learning, the proverbial door that opens when another shuts.
Perhaps inspired by his Hasidic childhood, with its culture of questioning rather than answering, Feldenkrais saw paradox as a way to give the nervous system the opportunity to improvise new habits by noticing and questioning old ones. In practice, his movements often accentuate a student's own way of holding the body—it is a way to make the patterns more apparent, and therefore more open to change. Working one-on-one in an Functional Integration lesson, a practitioner will shape her hands to the contours of the client’s body in order to support—and even exaggerate—what is already being enacted.
“Paradoxically, when a person is pushed sufficiently in his or her own extreme, it begins to feel right for the person to spontaneously correct his or her posture,”
Rather than opposing a person’s tendencies through stretching and manipulation, these techniques accommodate them, bypassing the resistance that might arise from direct contradiction. Intrinsic abilities of the person’s own nervous system can come out of hiding, gently coaxed through micro-movements into new manifestations. A more articulated subjectivity begins to emerge. In the pause of paradox, individuality finds space to offer, rather than to obstruct.
Mistaking paralysis for paradox
“I do not treat people, I do not cure people, and I do not teach people. I tell them stories because I believe that learning is the most important thing for a human being.” -Moshe Feldenkrais, The Elusive Obvious, 1981
Artists are drawn to paradox, to the complexity preserved inside stories. The nervous system is, too. Often, however, we can mistake struggle for paradox. Both can include an involuntary stop or slowness, a confusion of what comes next. Like paradox, struggle can keep us engaged and energized. We find novel ways of doing things when faced with either. However, struggle can also exploit tendencies towards vigilance and anxiety, which can grow dominant in our thought and action. The idea of the struggling artist in American culture is ubiquitous and often internalized by artists lacking options. In my own group of peers, I often saw people speaking in stark terms of survival.
Unlike struggle, which is rooted in choiceless-ness, paradox brings us into sustainable, open states that provoke new insight, interrupting existing patterns to allow the possibility of new actions.
In the Feldenkrais Method, paradoxical or indirect techniques are meant to destabilize, as Reese writes, creating a “highly exploratory phase” where a person can find spontaneous solutions to new information. These open yet contained explorations were what I sought in my own creative practice, where I loved to linger.
Accepting what paradox offers
Gradually letting many techniques and realizations coalesce, I started to develop what is now called Sense Writing, an approach to creative writing that combines movement and writing sequences to help people refine the innate intelligence of their own nervous systems and uncover richer processes of artistic discovery.
There are probably dozens of paradoxes that can activate these suspended states of exploration, and of course, with experiential approaches, it is best to try things out rather than just reading about them. Following is my attempt to parse some of the paradoxes that enable us to enter a state of flow or “the zone,” as athletes sometimes refer to a similar phenomenon. At the end, I have provided two short Sense Writing sequences for you to try on your own.
1. Delayed interpretation yields sudden insight
Sense Writing is an approach to creative writing that is not only, or even mostly, about writing. Most classes and one-on-one sessions begin with body mapping, a technique of lying on the floor in order to allow anti-gravitational muscles to relax and structural habits triggered by coping with gravity to recede.
Without the ambition to express anything (yet), participants bring their attention to an internal, wordless landscape, noticing how it shifts and changes, re-organizing itself moment to moment. We linger in our senses without trying to put those senses into language. Engaging with our subjective selves, before the force of narrative sweeps in, allows us to avoid what Feldenkrais calls “premature interpretations.” Writer’s block (and really any creative block) can be viewed as a series of “premature interpretations” that keep us stumbling forward into blind alleys of resistance rather than basking in “the sudden insight” of enriched experience and options.
2. Blocks create more space not less
Some of those who come to Sense Writing workshops are new writers hesitant to even begin, while others are experienced writers who feel stuck in a particular project. Instead of taking a pickax to this hardened terrain and forcing it to give way, in Sense Writing we till the soil elsewhere. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, in a real or imagined landscape, if a student is stuck in a story or project, we work on a section that surrounds this hardened terrain, a section that is softer and more yielding.
In Feldenkrais, there are many strategies that allow us to guide the nervous system to work around and then afterwards, soften hardened terrain. Ruthy Alon writes in Mindful Spontaneity (1996):
“When movement is difficult, you are entitled to the assistance of various compromises, such as partial movement, all kinds of supporting pads, rhythm change, activation from another direction, assistance from another part of your body.”
All of these have their corollaries in Sense Writing. If, for example, a writer finds herself stuck, she might write into scenes that take place just minutes before or after the “problematic” scene and go deeply into these moments, though they were never part of “the story.” Or she might explore the scene itself more directly by reversing the chronology, or telling it from another character’s perspective. Whether these new passages stay in the story or not, they often lead to unanticipated breakthroughs. Alternating positions refine the writer’s ability to make new choices, and the problematic section or scene often stops being “problematic.”
I have found this indirect approach especially beneficial in the case of people who have experienced trauma. Some students come to the workshops eager to write into a part of their lives that they have never been able to express. Past experiences remain as shards of sensation not yet integrated viscerally or contextualized in narrative. As artists, we are encouraged to explore and find meaning in places that are difficult—to “dig”—and we can get stuck. Either the unexplored depths eventually stop yielding or they yield too much, subsuming “the artist’s voice,” narrowing or limiting range and expressive choice.
In Sense Writing, through an ebb and flow of movement and writing sequences, participants first immerse into surrounding stories that are easier to tell, even ones that initially seem “insignificant.” Exploring the links among movement, thought, emotions, senses, and language, they discover how these can form and re-form into fresh combinations, and new unforced ways of telling stories emerge. New, untold stories are actually discovered. With the connective tissue between viscera and narrative strengthened, participants can then choose to spiral back into the more “resistant” story, finding that it not only unfolds more easily, but has itself shifted and changed as part of the whole.
3. Constraints lead to freedom
In all forms of art, constraints can open up new possibilities. In a writing constraint, for example, you might write a scene starting every sentence with “I remember.” (This could be from your point of view or a fictional character’s perspective.) The constraint of the sentence starter “I remember” allows you to “aim low” and not worry about syntactically positioning yourself for each new sentence. Other parts of the self can be brought to the surface. Then when you switch into free write, writing in any way you want into the scene, each moment will be more textured as you re-orient yourself, word by word, in the story. Similarly, a Feldenkrais ATM might constrain the use of the neck in order to turn the head. Inhibiting the use of the neck, parts of the spine, ribcage, pelvis or feet come out of the woodwork and support the movement. This quiet dialogue among the lesser-used parts expands our internal kinesthetic space as a whole, and after, when walking, new sensation and possibility can often be felt in places that were not specifically moved in the sequence.
Sessions involving “writing constraints” are followed by a period of free writing, where participants are asked to write into that same scene without the constraints. Afterward, they are invited to reflect on the difference between how it felt to write with the constraint and during the free write. Did one flow more? Was there one that was more awkward? For some people, writing with the constraint will be easier, for others the free write will feel better, but for each person these differences will change throughout the process, effectively changing their writing as well.
These reflections on the writing and movement components of Sense Writing are key. Like Feldenkrais lessons, these sequences make up a kind of empirical tracking system and reflecting on our experience keeps us engaged in the dynamics of a process that is always changing and often full of surprising connections. In neuroplasticity, this kind of empiricism actually becomes a tool in the repair of function. Reading Norman Doidge’s The Brain’s Way of Healing (2015), I was struck by this crucial aspect in the case studies: recovery was often connected with a patient’s ability to be aware of what was going on as it was going on and to be able to express this understanding afterwards: to self-report accurately. This ability to pay attention to finer and finer details allows the patient to recognize small improvements and to re-build trust in her own nervous system. The reflective aspects of Sense Writing increase curiosity and trust in the creative process as it evolves, keeping the writer engaged in her own work.
Students begin to figure out that the constraints they encounter are there to make them feel more comfortable while they seek their own points of comfort inside the practice. This discovery of inherent abilities within a self-directed practice full of questioning is for me the very practice of being an artist.
“I like to work on a song until those slogans, as wonderful as they are and as wholesome as the ideas they promote are, dissolve into deeper convictions of the heart.” -Leonard Cohen, The Guardian, 2012
A brief Sense Writing sequence:
This is a 10-minute introduction to the first principle of Sense Writing— Constraints and Freedom. Sequences are usually recorded or led aloud by a teacher, so it is best to use a timer so you don’t have to watch the clock.
1) Constraint writing (3 minutes)
Write into your morning using the sentence starter “I Remember.”
Start every sentence with “I remember.”
Keep your hand moving. If you feel you are getting stuck, just repeat “I remember I remember I remember nothing…”
2) Aim low with simple sentences. Free write (6 minutes)
Write into this same morning in any way you want.
Don’t look back at any of the constraint writing.
Try to keep your hand moving.
Take a moment and write about the differences between the constraint writing and the free write. Without looking at the content of what you wrote, how did each feel differently to do? Which one was easier? Which one more frustrating?
Madelyn Kent is a playwright and director, and former instructor of playwriting, screenwriting, and theater at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 2008, she left New York to study The Feldenkrais Method with Ruty Bar in Tel Aviv. She is the Developer of Sense Writing, a neuro-sensory approach to writing and the creative process and has taught the method to nearly 1,000 participants in 8 countries.Madelyn Kent is a playwright and director, and former instructor of playwriting, screenwriting, and theater at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 2008, she left New York to study The Feldenkrais Method with Ruty Bar in Tel Aviv. She is the Developer of Sense Writing, a neuro-sensory approach to writing and the creative process and has taught the method to nearly 1,000 participants in 8 countries.