What is learning? What is improvement? What is Feldenkrais?

by Edward Yu

“Most people spend their whole lives using their strengths to cover up and hide their weaknesses. But if you surrender to your weakness therein lies your pathway to genius.”
-Moshe Feldenkrais

“To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.”
-Yiddish expression

The Feldenkrais Method could be considered the art of learning how to learn or, put another way, the art of learning how to improve. The Feldenkrais Method is in this manner a radical departure from conventional approaches to learning and improving because where The Feldenkrais Method emphasizes exploration, thereby encouraging people to learn how to learn and learn how to improve, conventional approaches focus on mimicking and performing, which commonly results in trying to learn and trying to improve.

Cultural misconceptions

Our dominant culture posits that trying harder, whether in academics, athletics, dance, artistic endeavors, work, spirituality, emotional growth, parenting, relationships — indeed any subject you choose — leads to improvement. Consequently, it is easy to assume that improvement is commensurate to the amount of effort you exert. In other words, the harder you try, the more you stand to gain — “ No pain, no gain,” as my track coach was all too fond of saying. According to this model, people who try harder improve more and are therefore more likely to succeed. Conversely, those who do not try as hard do not improve as much and are therefore less likely to succeed.

Of course, improvement alone doesn’t guarantee success. There is the added factor of talent, which supposedly plays a central role in the matter. We typically view talent as a head start or entitlement of sorts which endows the “talented” with special abilities. In contrast, we see a lack of talent as a handicap which forces the “untalented” to work harder just to keep up. Unlike effort, which is a choice, talent is “ God-given,” genetically endowed or otherwise immutable: we are born with some measure or lack of talent, and there is nothing we can do about it.Thus, the simple equation for success is as follows: Success = Talent + Effort. The assumption here is that highly successful people: 1) are more talented, 2) try harder or, 3) are more talented and try harder. Of course, this also means those of us who are not as successful are either not as talented, not trying hard enough, or lacking both talent and willpower.

Learning versus talent

“He was just ordinary, and I doubt whether any scout would have thought much of him in his first year.”
-Joe Martin, Muhammad Ali’s first boxing coach

How is it possible that I could share the classroom with a future Rhodes Scholar or run on the same track team as the eventual state champion, yet still perform so far below their standards — even while working just as hard? Their relative success must be due to superior talent — unless we acknowledge all the learning and improvement that has taken place outside of the classroom and off the track.

To begin with, the theory of talent assumes that those with superior ability were born with it and those who are less talented must exert more effort to acquire a similar stature. Unheeded in this assumption is the fact that without hours upon hours of learning, the superior ability would not exist. This is to say, much of what we deem superior ability via talent is actually superior ability via learning.

That we overemphasize the role of talent and willpower may have to do with the fact that so much learning and improving occurs outside of conventional settings such as the classroom or practice field (in the case of organized sports), even though these are the arenas where most of our learning and improving are supposed to occur. By focusing almost exclusively on talent and willpower, conventional approaches tend therefore to ignore what could be the most crucial factor in improvement.

Largely unacknowledged is the fact that every single human undergoes an enormous amount learning before reaching the age of five. And while it is true that even young children exhibit differences in abilities that we often associate with talent, it is also true that such abilities could not emerge without the gradual refinement of sensorimotor skills — otherwise known as learning — that occurs during early childhood. This is of course not to say that learning and improving end on your fifth birthday. There are enormous possibilities for learning throughout our entire lives — all the way, in fact, until we die — and it is the great ones who capitalize most fervently on these possibilities.

Even child prodigies like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart aren’t simply born playing piano concertos. While they appear, within particular domains, to be more advanced than their peers, their abilities do not emerge out of thin air as genetic determinists would have us believe, or operant conditioning as behaviorists would lead us to think, but rather a complex interplay of genetics and the environment in which the individual plays a crucially active part. Prodigious ability, therefore, has as much to do with self-directed exploration — in a word, learning — as it does with either genetics or environmental conditions. And this means that anyone, including a prodigy, who wants to extend her learning to a master level, must spend several years beyond early childhood crafting her skill. Mozart himself did not complete his first masterwork until the age of 21 — that is, after having spent over 15 years behind the piano and over 10,000 hours meticulously exploring music. So while he did exhibit precociousness in the field of music, he would never have come close to achieving what he achieved without having spent countless hours exploring and learning — even well after his fifth birthday.Likewise, Michael Jordan who was viewed as the NBA’s most dominant player for several years, put himself through a rigorous self-learning program just to make his high school varsity basketball team (he was cut the first year he tried out). Despite this, little press is given to the extensive and painstaking explorations he undertook in his teens — explorations without which he would never have come to dominate the world of professional basketball.

Thus, in two renowned masters, Mozart and Jordan, we see a world of learning that has occurred in at least two stages: 1) early childhood and 2) some time later in life. Neither stage, however, has been given much attention.

Propensity and circumstance (otherwise known as luck)

Each of us is wholly unique, and our genetic inheritance lends powerfully to the adult we grow up to be. Yet as mentioned above, genetics is merely a foundation from which any organism develops. Along with DNA, innumerable circumstances contribute to the shaping or our person and thus, the honing of our so-called talents. And aside from circumstances under our direct influence, there are ones over which we have little or no say, such as who our parents are, where we attend primary school (if we attend school at all), or whether or not we have access to a piano or basketball during our formative years. Without a supportive environment a person’s talents may never have the chance to emerge, much less flourish. Thus, even if we are supposedly predisposed from birth to conduct the Vienna Symphony Orchestra or lead a basketball team to its first national championship, external circumstances may prevent either from occurring. If Mozart, for example, were born into serfdom, it is unlikely that he would have played a single instrument, much less rocketed up the short list of “world’s greatest musicians.” This is for the obvious reason that serfdom does not generally afford opportunities for learning music. Similarly, if Jordan were born to upper middle-class physicians, he would more likely have ended up working for the AMA than setting records in the NBA.

Of course, highlighting external conditions does not exclude the fact that from birth, all of us exhibit propensities toward certain areas of development. Innate talent, in this regard, exists. Yet it cannot be extricated from learning, which at each and every moment of life — from birth, all the way to death — continues to shape the way we move, sense, think and emote. Thus, no matter what so-called talents we exhibit we can continue to learn and thereby experience profound and often surprising changes throughout our lifetime. This means that while it remains nigh impossible to alter either our DNA or the social class into which we were born, we nonetheless have the option of learning at each and every moment in life. Learning, or lack thereof, consequently plays a never-ending role in the growth, decline, or stagnation of our abilities and our person as a whole.Trying harder leads to…

“If trying hard didn’t work. Trying harder is doing more of what didn’t work.”
-Charles Eisenstein

Even if we ignore the influence of so-called talent and circumstance we might conclude that over-achievers like Mozart and Jordan try harder than most people and this is why they are able to reach such great heights. Yet learning/improvement and trying to learn/improve are not equivalent. Ironically, trying harder often sabotages learning and improvement because it often means doing more of the same, or in other words, practicing old habits — whether physical, mental or emotional. From a neurological standpoint, trying harder can mean traversing already well-established neural pathways rather than creating new ones. In simple terms, trying harder is often doing more of what you are already doing. And while it may lead to some gain, your improvement will be minimal compared to what is possible. Trying harder then can be equivalent to trading the certainty of minimal improvement for the possibility of maximal improvement. It is in a sense, bypassing possible discoveries and thereby mortgaging your potential in order to experience instant (and often meager) gains. It is like stepping ever harder on the gas pedal while never leaving first gear: beyond a certain speed, adding more gas will do little but yield more strain on the engine.What is learning?

“When the mind is confronted with more information than it can absorb, it looks for meaningful and usually confirmatory patterns. As a consequence, we tend to minimize evidence that is incongruous with our expectations, causing the dominant worldview to bring about its own reaffirmation.”
-Frank Sulloway, Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives

“Many people make the mistake of confusing information with knowledge. They are not the same thing. Knowledge involves the interpretation of information. Knowledge involves listening.”
-Henning Mankell, “The Art of Listening,” New York Times, Sunday, December 11, 2011

From a conventional standpoint, learning is something we do in school and something that we can measure through standardized testing. It is something we exhibit by knowing the correct answer to the question, as exemplified by what happens on TV quiz shows. It is, in short, an accumulation of facts, otherwise touted as knowledge.

Yet what is the nature of this knowledge? Is it absolute and binary, as normally presented in classrooms, on television, or by the State Department? If so, how could the world have been flat yesterday and round today? Will it take on another shape tomorrow?If we abide by convention, the more we supposedly know, the less room we have for uncertainty, wonder and doubt. And this can lead to unforeseen problems. When Galileo proposed a helio-centric world, for example, the all-knowing (and therefore, “learned”) Vatican knew, with no amount of wavering, that he should be put under house arrest. Likewise, when the New York Times, Fox News, or US President declares into existence “ , weapons of mass destruction,” politicians “know” without hesitation that the correct response is to carpet bomb another Third World country.

Uncertainty

“The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty…we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure — that it is possible to live and not know.”
-Richard Feynman

From the Feldenkrais Method standpoint, learning relies on wonder, curiosity and uncertainty. Each member in this triumvirate serves as a visa into unchartered territory, thereby allowing us to assume new and unpredictable positions — whether physical, emotional or intellectual. Learning from this perspecti means leaving behind certainty so that we can become more aware of ourselves, and consequently, the world around us.

Of course, this is not to say that you should never try harder, but rather that doing so as we are taught — that is, exclusively and therefore without attending to sense-ability — strictly limits improvement. And this brings me to the crux of the matter: if the greatest improvement occurs through increasing sense-ability, then it behooves us to make increasing sense-ability rather than increasing effort our main focus.Learning can be involved in any activity

“The aim is a body that is organized to move with minimum effort and maximum efficiency, not through muscular strength but increased consciousness of how it works…What I am after is more flexible minds, not just more flexible bodies.”
-Moshe Feldenkrais

“Improve at what?” you might ask. Anything. When you bring awareness to process, you instantaneously create new neural pathways outside the realm of habit. Over time, you will likely improve in ways that you never imagined possible and in places that you might never have considered (and by the way, imagination tends to be largely constrained by shared cultural values — but I’ll save this discussion for another article). It doesn’t matter who you are or where your so-called talents reside.

It should be noted that success is culturally defined and may have little if anything to do with human welfare. Jared Diamond has taken pains to demonstrate how the fall of any civilized (or preliterate agrarian) societies has a great deal to do with cultural standards that should be outlived, but which instead outlive the human inhabitants. Regarding Easter Island, Ancient Egypt, and Greece, for example, one could make the case that an unyielding and myopic vision of success led to their eventual collapse. Despite such historical examples, cultural standards haven’t changed much other than to accelerate the destructiveness by which we live. We may have traded the massive stone heads on a remote Pacific Island for the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, Medici for Goldman Sachs, and the Pyramid of Giza for the Luxor Hotel, but the premise of bigger and “better” at any cost — human or environmental — remains unchanged.

Note that even if we agree on what it means to succeed, the stick by which we measure success will always fall short of the goal. Thus, standardized tests most accurately measure someone’s ability to take standardized tests (if not their ability to pay someone to take it in their place), but not necessarily their intelligence, creativity or imagination. Likewise, Gross Domestic Product — a popular measure for national success — most accurately measures Gross Domestic Product. And this brings up a few questions: 1) whether standardized tests accurately measure what they are supposed to measure; 2) if not, what is being left out of the measurement; 3) if things like intelligence and national success are indeed measurable.

Access is crucial to any kind of learning. Bill Gates, for example, had the opportunity to work extensively with computers in his youth during the late 60s to early 70s — a time before personal computers existed, and when it was uncommon for even university professors to have regular exposure. Similarly, Albert Einstein received rare and important exposure to the inner workings of electricity when in his teens, he had access to the electric generators at his father’s workplace.

To use an extreme example, one would be hard-pressed to find prodigious behavior among the children in a Romanian orphanage during Nicolae Ceausescu’s reign.

Circumstance, also known as fate, destiny or sheer luck, cannot be overlooked when it comes to our notion of success. The most obvious factors affecting an individual’s chances for success involve class, race, nationality and gender. A mere fifty years ago, for example, it would’ve been unthinkable for a poor, or even upper middle class black person to climb into the ranks of the top 1 percent in terms of total assets. These days, it is at least possible, though unlikely — and strikingly less so for someone who is altogether black, poor and a woman. Similarly, anyone not born to wealthy parents — what we today refer to as the “top 1 percent” — will have much less of a chance of becoming a member of Congress, or corporate CEO than someone who is.

Jordan’s surprise, for example, was to show that someone who was initially overlooked by high school coaches could end up dominating the entire world of basketball. Similarly, John Harrison, a simple clockmaker in 18th Century Europe, outshined the greatest scientists of his time by inventing the first device to accurately measure longitude for sailors on the high seas. Harrison’s achievement, which involved painstaking exploration spread over several decades, is a testament not only to human curiosity and desire but the vast world of learning that exists outside of conventional settings.

And searching for the original purpose — that is, the purpose behind the purpose — can lead to provocative questions. Does anyone remember, for example, why it is better to lower cholesterol, raise obedient children, or build billion-dollar football stadiums?

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