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Choice and Freedom

By Gabrielle Pullen, GCFP

An Interview with Elinor Silverstein

Vivacious, and unfailingly upbeat, even in the face of her work with some of the most neurologically challenged, Elinor Silverstein talks candidly about how her experience growing up in two households where Feldenkrais® thinking prevailed formed a major influence to her entire approach to living…Both of her parents studied with Moshe in the 1950’s, and at one point her mother was raised by his parents. She finished the Amherst Training in 1983 and has had an on-going practice ever since.

ES: I’m very inspired to work with people who have been seriously injured, and those who have neurological injuries. But, to me, Feldenkrais is more a way of thinking, a philosophy, even more than a method.

SA: Would you say it’s a way of living?

ES: A way of living, yes, and it’s the way I raised both of my sons, and my husband!

SA: Can you give me an example of how you raised your sons in that way?

ES: Yes. We spoke about the definition of choice, as Moshe saw it. Starting at the age of thirteen I talked to each of my sons about choice at the start of their Bar Mitzvah, the ceremony that marks their coming of age as young men in the eyes of Judaism. Moshe used to say if you only have two options, you are forced to do this, or to do that. But once you add in another option, now you have choice because you don’t have to compulsively go back and forth, and back and forth again, between only one and the other.

SA: I’ve heard that before but I don’t think I ever got the significance of it. Having three options rather than just two lifts you out of the realm of dualism, of right and wrong. That third choice takes you into the realm of nuance, it generates shades of grey along a much richer continuum of embodied experience.

ES: Yes, and we also talked about what maturity means; the definition of maturity is to have choice, and the ability to respond to something in our environment rather than to react. To react comes from the back of the brain. A response comes because we thought about it from a more full use of our brain, even more from the front. Therein lies maturity and the ability to choose our actions.

SA: You mean that part of the brain that differentiates humans from other mammals with smaller brains? Having a frontal cortex allows for premeditated thought rather than action that occurs purely out of an instinct for self-preservation, a process which originates from the lower brain stem, a more ancient part of the brain from the point of view of evolution.

ES: Exactly, so I would always say to my boys, ‘Is your action coming from the back of your brain or the front of your brain?’ Not that I’m saying one is better than the other, I’m just saying that you have choice.

SA: Technology in the realm of brain scans has made huge strides in recent years and many studies bear out what you are saying. Brain scans of felons in high security prisons, for example, demonstrate that the place where the most neurons should fire when making decisions regarding right and wrong is in the frontal cortex, and that there’s not much activity going on there for people with a history of violent crime. They are operating from an inability to think cognitively, to use that frontal lobe where an awareness of how our behavior affects others seems to reside.

ES: And that can come from having their own traumatic childhood, or from brain injury, if the child has been beaten or has come from a very difficult environment. What happens is that the road to the frontal cortex is not clearly developed like that of a child who has been raised in a more calm environment. One needs a four-wheel drive to go along the road less traveled.

SA: There’s a somatic consequence. For children who have witnessed violence, there’s an automatic physiological fight or flight response characterized by adrenaline that over-rides the ability of the frontal cortex to participate and causes them to involuntarily freeze all systems not directly involved in survival, including movement.

ES: And breathing. Think about that, about what it’s like to go into a fear response, how it makes you gasp for breath, and what that does to the way we hold ourselves and how it might stop us from even being able to relate to the possibility of having mobility and accessibility of our whole body.

SA: So, if this happens over and over again over time, the child develops a habit of holding in their aliveness, of trying to be invisible to avoid being a target, of making themselves small. The child will also develop a dysfunctional relationship with breathing in general, and with movement, since you can’t breathe without it. And because it’s at the level of habit, it has a long-term effect that is often left untreated because somatic consequences are much more broad than any one therapeutic approach.

ES: That’s absolutely right. And in addition to that there’s this issue of cell permeability that, so far, I hardly hear anyone talking about. Shallow breathing means oxygen and nutrients can’t get in and cell waste cannot get out. What happens if a person has undergone shock and has developed this way of holding their ribcage, and they are constantly holding their breath?  

Moshe would say, ‘There is no one way of breathing, I can’t believe anyone would write a book on how to breathe as if there were only one way of doing it! If you get pulled over by the police, you’re going to have a different way of breathing than if someone beautiful is walking by, or when walking in a field of flowers…’ Moshe believed that breathing happens naturally when we move in an unencumbered way.

SA: How does this relate to the issue of how we create a sense of safety from within ourselves? Moshe grew up in the Ukraine during the time of the Pogroms, which were basically random violent mob attacks against Jews and their businesses or property. Surely this affected his relationship with the issue of safety?

ES: Absolutely. When you look at Jews who lived through those times, their individual and collective experiences were deeply embedded in their psyches. Moshe was always interested in how you create safety within yourself wherever you are. You can’t necessarily stop the universe from the horror that may come, but you can control how you deal with it, how you are moving through it, how you are using your awareness to know something’s off base. To collect yourself during fear, and more so, to respond.

Moshe would observe people and wonder how people survived trauma. And he was not just about survival, he was about living to the fullest. How is it that people live through all that? Including the people he met while in Palestine, participating in the formation of Israel; how do people with such difficult backgrounds find the maturity to have all those negative experiences without becoming negative themselves, but to decide that they’re going to learn from it and find a way to raise their children and be happy? Their maturity was born of choice. It’s crucial.

SA: How did Moshe relate to the issue of safety? Did you talk to him about these things?

ES: Yes, which is why his first book was about the art of one-to-one unarmed combat. When he first came to Palestine, Jews were not allowed to arm themselves, hence his teaching of martial arts with the use of yourself and whatever you might have around you. It was, in part, his answer to the question, ‘How can you learn to gain control of yourself so that no matter what is going on around you, they can’t get the better of YOU?’ He was always teaching to be aware of one’s surroundings.

SA: How do you mean?

ES: Wherever you are, you should always be aware and know what’s going on around you. If
you’re not, you might not live to see another day. Again the idea of choice: he would always accentuate that when you enter a building, you need to casually notice at least three ways out in case of emergency.

When our country was attacked and our twin towers were on fire, I remember being aghast at the thought of how many people who worked in those buildings might not know of any other way down but the elevators that they relied on every day. Moshe would say that choice means at least three options. To him it was simple martial arts and survival. To us, it might not be in our  thinking. We simply go up the elevator.

SA: What do you think is the relationship between how we create a sense of safety and our individual identity? For example, a strong, athletic young man is going to relate to the world differently when he first lives on his own than a fairly inactive young woman who has a history of asthma.

ES: You know, we are what we think. We are what we believe. Moshe wrote about this in his books. The ability to be a potent human being comes down to how you are thinking about yourself, how you enable yourself to act within your environment. In his writings he talks about the state of anxiety versus self confidence. It’s so important. It’s huge. And we find so much of our confidence in our body and psyche in Awareness Through Movement®.

We find it in the lessons because they help us to be able to move in all five cardinal directions (forward, backward, side to side, both diagonals, and up and down). When you get that in your physical experience, it affects your soma, your whole sense of self.

Look, I always put it this way, when you see a silhouette of someone walking far away, most people can tell their relative age. The walk of a young person is distinct from that of an elderly person. Can you imagine what it’s like to walk if your already rounding forward so that you’re weight is in front of you? Then you become afraid to go backward, or to move sideways. Can you imagine the anxiety that propels?

Moshe said, ‘Every living being deserves to move freely. Even if someone has to come in and move them.’

SA: You work with people in ICU. How is their sense of safety affected by your work with them?

ES: I love it! You see, I don’t only work with someone in ICU in the bed. I might also bring in the family and the nurses and teach them how to sense, touch and move their own self and the person in the bed. Then, the whole energy between everyone in that room shifts, because the nursing staff is thinking differently, the family members are thinking differently. It empowers them to do things differently. It empowers them to think in new ways and act accordingly.

SA: To have choice.

ES: Yes! To have choice. Choice. It’s a beautiful thing!

Watch Elinor at work:
http://www.youtube.com/user/ElinorSilverstein

 

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