by Shannon Lynne Sullivan, GCFP
Happiness and Well-Being are practically synonymous in my culture of middle-class Americana. In fact, the definition of well-being according to Merriam-Webster is “the state of being happy, healthy, or prosperous.” Thus, by definition, happiness is a subset of well-being—one of three potential avenues. (Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary has a slightly, yet profoundly, different definition: “The state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.” ) I believe it can be useful, functional, and freeing to challenge this definition.
It is often possible to be well in the absence of, and even amidst states contradictory to, those listed above—such as sadness or illness. It is often possible to be well in the presence of unpleasant experiences including physical pain, uncomfortable emotions, and the many moments in life in which either social or internal circumstances remove all but the technicality of choice. I believe that the pursuit of well-being in the midst of, sometimes even despite, external and internal realities can be a worthy commitment. I also believe that the Feldenkrais Method® can be of great service to such an endeavor.
The Feldenkrais Method is intended to evoke a process of intrinsic learning. This means the learner is unfettered by, and unfettering themselves from, external impositions of correct/incorrect and should/should not. It means that the practitioner plays an environmental, curatorial role instead of being centered as an authoritarian expert. And this process of intrinsic referencing, of trusting and being guided by our own experience while being open to and discerning of respectful environmental influence is, in my opinion, what constitutes being well. Being well requires the coupling of a non-conditional recognition of reality with a non-conflictual presence to ourselves. Said more simply—To be well is to be with the truth of what is and not fight the truth of who you are—or at least to try.
Intrinsic learning means the learner has the opportunity to develop and unfold from the inside-out—through curiosity, sensation, and inherent motivation. The practitioner simply makes lessons more accessible. Since intrinsic learning is an integral part of the Feldenkrais® approach, the method can inherently provide over-arching, meta-learnings required for the pursuit of being well. Two such lessons that I reference, directly, with every single student are:
1. Developing the ability to be aware of what is without asking it to be different, or at least be aware of where you aren’t/can’t.
2. Learning to move within the boundaries discovered through that awareness, or at least be aware when you are not.
Intellectually these lessons are quite simple—understanding can come quickly. It’s the learning, relearning, and practicing of them that actually bears fruit. Let’s look a little deeper into each one.
#1. Non-conditional Awareness.
When I first started exploring the Feldenkrais Method (as a client, not a practitioner), I would lie down on the floor or the table and immediately go about arranging myself as symmetrically as possible, since symmetry is an idolized standard of my culture. Next, I would rehearse (because it was always a variation on the same themes) my distress over the places where symmetry could not be achieved. My right shoulder was always tighter than my left—there must be something wrong with it. My spine always felt curved and twisted—it should be straight. My left foot always turned out more than my right—one of them must indicate a problem.
But with time I came to realize that the observation was the practice. That through the practice of observation, I could free myself from all those inherited cultural habits telling me how I “should” see. That my skill of observation could be of service to myself instead of a means to (falsely) evaluate my worth as a human being. I began to develop a neutral witness who could observe the truth of myself and my body in a given moment and hold it, at best, without judgment–but at least without the angst of needing it to be immediately and forever fixed.
With more practice, the gift of this skill began to infuse my life with neutral awareness. Sometimes now I can gift that non-conditional presence to my body, sometimes to my whole being, sometimes to the world around me. And sometimes I can only gift it to the part of me that feels compelled to fix, fix, fix. Regardless, the practice points me away from the fight, from the fight with myself, from the fight with reality. And in the absence of those fights, there is the freedom to be well, or at least to be more well than I was when I was fighting.
#2. Honoring Boundaries.
Prior to my discovery of the Feldenkrais Method, I was deeply enmeshed in the allure of the extreme, in the intensity of push, push, pushing my limits in the service of growth. That is how I ended up in a warehouse gym, electronic bass beat blaring, as I undertook an action I had no business attempting—flipping a giant tractor tire. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it. I could. And I did. Once. Twice. Thri… and then my back was out and I couldn’t get off the floor.
The Feldenkrais Method provided a much gentler study in identifying physical boundaries. At first, I learned after-the-fact when I had overdone a lesson—most commonly by the onset of a headache. As I continued the work, I gave myself more and more options to do less and less during lessons. In time the headaches stopped, as did discomfort during lessons because I finally honored the discomfort as my body’s way of saying No. I learned to listen.
I’m not saying that the Feldenkrais Method is a magic, infallible pain prescription, though I have seen and experienced good and sometimes astounding results of this nature. I am someone who deals with chronic pain, and sometimes there is no absence of discomfort. Sometimes moving further down the scale of discomfort is all I can achieve. But by observing my pain with neutral awareness, and then honoring the restrictions it places on me in any given moment, I am at least at peace with the reality of myself—even when I wish things were different.
So should your innate curiosity be piqued by the ideas above, know they offer one option among many for being well with yourself amidst the infinite color of life—should you discover that it serves you. This is why I have, with respectful intent, added the word often before the word possible in my opening to these suggestions. I am defining being well as a skill that you can practice and develop—provided you have the opportunity and inclination, the privilege and desire—to explore. If that, for any reason, isn’t you right now, then by recognizing such you are already engaging these skill on your own terms—and you have my deepest respect.
Shannon Lynne Sullivan is a GCFP in Chicago, IL. She also trains dogs, writes, and fights the good fight of building a Win-Win World for all. Find her at shannonlynnesullivan.com.