Post-Experience Thoughts: Sarah Harwood on Doing Nothing

I first met Sarah when I started to go for Feldenkrais sessions in August 2015. I was there primarily because of persistent back pain, and was curious about this method, having tried a number of other treatments.

…Personal problems aside, it quickly became clear to me when I began my lessons (as they are often referred to with this practice) how many intersecting points there are between this somatic method and many of the notions that are forefront in my current performance art research. The enactment of the micro-event, the importance of what transpires in the invisible, the emergence of a tangible, liminal experience… these three components could just as equally describe (one form of) performance research as they could Feldenkrais.

At some point early on during this trajectory, I was also gearing up (or down, as it were!) toward the Doing Nothing project. Of course, arriving at the particular juncture in my work where I had – stripping away pretty much all artifice and creating increasingly imperceptible “actions” – I saw how this new direction I was taking (or really, a deepening of a direction that my work was basically moving in) was also being mirrored in my newly acquired intellectual & embodied knowledge of Feldenkrais. I felt as though I was experiencing Doing Nothing on a whole other plane.

Which is what inspired me to invite Sarah to give a presentation in the form of a lesson. I wanted to hear her speak to these ideas, but we both agreed: talking about music is like dancing about architecture. In other words, the proof is in the pudding and the best way to really discover Feldenkrais is to just…experience it!

And to help frame the experience through the lens of Doing Nothing, to see if we could create these parallels in real time through the actual lesson, here is what I proposed to Sarah:

“I am interested in how the micro-event can/does connect to states of cognitive/physical awareness & transformation; how in an apparent stillness (or very very subtle movement) taking place in our body/mind, so much is actually going on! … And so I am wondering: What is happening in the body when seemingly not a whole lot is (visibly) taking place? Where is this transformation occurring? How is the body integrating these changes?

I am wishing to explore how it is that when we engage in this very subtle listening and engage in these micro movements, we are also making space for a deeper listening to occur. So it continues along and creates a kind of cycle: once we start to listen more deeply, which potentially leaves/makes more room for heightened awareness, we are then prone to increasingly notice these subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) shifts in our bodies – increasingly recognizing the fact that lots is happening. We then make (even more) room, leave room, create room (space/time in our bodies & minds) through these subtle processes for even more shifts to exist, to emerge, to take up this space (in our consciousness, in our bodies)… the micro, and seemingly invisible, event manifests in visible (and visibly felt) ways.

All the while… it might look (and even at first feel) as though we aren’t really doing anything… ie: a kind of doing nothing… and yet, so much is actually happening.”

Sarah responded:

“The idea of making space resonates with me very deeply in a literal and figurative way. That’s how I feel when I take care to feel in a “feldy” way. There’s a tangible yet mysterious sense of expansiveness and potential that opens up especially if we’ve been able to not make any extra effort with the movement. We get the most profound results when we emphasize listening to ourselves authentically over trying to reach a goal. If we try too hard in a Feldenkrais session, we can end up frustrated, sore, and defeated. If we can engage with what is actually happening in the moment with care and respect, suddenly that space we are talking about presents itself.”

…Post-lesson, we had a discussion which came back to these ideas as a starting point into all the myriad parallels & resonances. We were reminded by Sarah, for example, how rest is implicit – and absolutely crucial – in the practice, how when we do learn something new, it is strongly recommended to be still, and let the body integrate this new information. Very similar line of thought to that which neuroscientists studying the brain in states of inactivity have also determined (Andrew Smart, Autopilot).

But then, the unexpected and marvelous revelation of this lesson surfaced via a remark from one of the participants. Because I come to this practice nonetheless with a subjective perspective, a set of ideas that I have been mulling over for several months, and so also possibly a set of assumptions, this observation stirred me. While on the one hand it is desirable to feel a beautiful sense of abandon, of peaceful calm and relaxation, not everyone does encounter these particular sensations. However relaxation isn’t necessarily the goal. While rest is implicit and the incredibly subtle movements can seem like our body is barely doing anything, the actual aim, as Sarah commented, is “to use our bodies in the most effective way possible.” This means with the least amount of effort possible. Little effort because the body is learning bit by little bit how to be increasingly efficient. The mind then follows and as clarity sets in, so does a greater sense of self-awareness, and alertness. At first that can feel like you’re “cheating” (what’s going on, shouldn’t I feel like I “did something?”) but that is part of the startling result, coming back to what Sarah said earlier: “If we try to hard, we end up sore and defeated…” Effortless effort, as founder Moshe Feldenkrais called it, is the goal. And how fascinating that this phenomenon is, as it happens, also the main tenet of Wu wei*, an important concept in Taoism that literally means non-action or non-doing… ” (which I’m just reading about now – as I write this – on Wikipedia). Yet another layer of linking concepts…

…Clearly, I’ll be saying more on that front soon!! But I’ll leave it here for now.

*With thanks to Robert Luzar for placing this last notion onto my radar, mere moments before the class. Talk about impeccable timing.

Author: Victoria Stanton

Montreal-based performance artist, writer, and educator Victoria Stanton explores live action, human interaction, video, film, photography, and drawing.

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