Awareness

Contemplating Death and Death Phobia

I recently discovered the work of Stephen Jenkinson. Jenkinson authored a book called Die Wise and was the subject of the documentary Griefwalker. He spent years working in palliative care, even directing a program at a large hospital in Toronto, Canada. 

Smitten with the words he wove together, effectively enticing me to consider my own death in order to more fully contemplate and appreciate my own life, I read this to my class on Friday. 

A culture addicted to security, comfort and ‘be all you want to be’ makes no time in its public or private life for sorrow or uncertainty or the end of things. To a culture like our own, grief is mostly medicated or resolved, and our hearts elbow our lives out of the way in their headlong search for safe landings and getting their needs met. But what would our culture look like and how would our children think of us fifty years from now, if we began to honour and teach grief as a skill, as vital to our personal and cultural and spiritual life as the skill of loving. 
— Stephen Jenkinson

I finished the introduction to Die Wise and immediately searched on YouTube for video of him, eager for knowing his voice and the cadence to more easily read the book. When words haven't been combined in unique ways, it can feel like reading a different language. 

In my search I found the Griefwalker documentary, an hour-long sonnet to the way we can enrich our thinking about our end. 

Everything Jenkinson says throws the pain management and 'stay comfortable' mantra of palliative care and hospice into question. And, frustratingly for many, in a similar way to the Feldenkrais Method, Jenkinson gives no recipe for what we do when we are suffering or a loved one is suffering or we are simply considering our end. 

He challenges the patient-centered approach of giving all the decisions to the person who is dying, questioning the wisdom of assuming the newly diagnosed person has suddenly acquired all the skills necessary to plan an enriched ending to life. I heard him suggest death should be at the center of any conversation about endings. We should plan for it, prepare for it, like we would a banquet or a sixtieth birthday or a wedding. 

If you're as intrigued as I was and am, you can find many more talks on YouTube. This one has many nuggets worth considering that the documentary couldn't cover. 

You can begin your self-studies with this material and use your keen eye for attention by observing your posture as you read these words or watch the video. Your posture likely holds a portion of the story. Let it speak. 

Listen to Your Five Lines (Reflections on an Election)

Last Friday, November 11, 2016, three days after the presidential election results were announced, I knew I couldn’t just jump into teaching my class as usual. I asked my students to get comfortable, I wanted to comment on the role of our Feldenkrais® methodology in our day-to-day lives. They settled and listened, and here’s a recap of what I said.

I don’t want to talk about what happened, or should have happened, or could have happened. I want to talk about what we can do now. I want to talk about how we can continue working with our integrity, finding our stability, and acting from a place of our resilience. I know this sounds impossible, but we’ve been practicing, some of you for months, some of you for years. You know how to shift your attention, you know how to hone in on one aspect of the movement and to shift when you feel stuck to investigate that place in your movement. 

What we can do today is no different than that. What we have available to us is our finely tuned attention and our ability to shift so we take in more and more of the picture even as we stand firmly in our skeleton, inside our skin, to meet whatever is in front of us, whatever image we see, or article we read, or wherever our imagination takes us. We are experts in awareness and we can use that to enhance our own lives and the lives of those around us. 

I’ve long thought of the Feldenkrais work as the perfect tool for balancing the nervous system, the struggle between action and restoration, the dance between go-go-go and pausing for reflection. A most vital aspect of us, our parasympathetic nervous system controls our respiration, our heart rate, our blood pressure, and our digestion. This balancing act is a primary and often overlooked benefit of the Feldenkrais Method. If it is all we gain from honing our Feldenkrais muscles, we are lucky. 

But there’s another incredibly useful aspect of the Feldenkrais work. The ability to improve our posture and therefore our health. Our focus on the skeleton. Our attention to the details of how we stand on our feet, how we settle into the pelvis, and how we give the work of moving the body to the legs so the arms and hands and head can do the business of holding, carrying, and hugging. We build awareness and hone discriminations of finer and finer distinctions. 

Moshe Feldenkrais taught many lessons specific to what he called The Five Lines. The five lines refer to one line representing each leg, one line for each arm, and one line for the spine that connects them. Add a circle on top representing the head and most of us recognize the basic line drawing of a human, as drawn by any child anywhere in the world. Feldenkrais is known to have said (I paraphrase) that when you can keep your sense of the five lines of your body, when you know precisely where you are in space, you can stand in the face of anything and keep your sense of self, i.e. integrity. 

For myself, I use this idea over and over. Not simply as an image, but with a keen felt sense of where I am in space. When I’m in the middle of a heated discussion, I track my five lines. When I’m struggling to keep focused, when I’m feeling rushed, and when I’m brokenhearted, I keep track of my five lines. 

I ended my comments with my students by telling them I’d share a list of resources I’m using these days to keep focused, calm, and ready. Ready for whatever may come. Here’s that list, feel free to share. 

Articles about Leonard Cohen (who’s death followed the 2016 election). I also listen to his music when I’m blue. It’s a perfect accompaniment to not feeling like I’m forcing myself to feel better. 

Podcasts that address the potential of the future or illuminate the past. There are so many others. 

Return to the Elders. Visit with your older neighbors. Listen to our elder statesmen and stateswomen. 

Renew your library card. Read more. Consider that one of the most subversive things you can do in 2016 is teach a child to read.

Support the office holders doing work you appreciate. Whether it’s your city council member, your mayor, your school board member, let them know you value their service.  

Walk. Run. Bike. Contemplate the nature around you as you do. 

There are so many things we can do. Staying inside our five lines doesn’t mean retreating into the hinterlands and coming out when things go the way you want them to go. It also doesn’t mean you have to go on the front lines of protest or be exposed to violence.

Whatever path you take, whether it’s supporting more women getting into office, teaching a child to read, or picking up garbage on your walk to get groceries, you can contemplate your five lines. You can track where you are in space. You can track your progress toward connection to others. You’ll know when to stand still and not reach out. When to lend a hand. When to take a nap. And when to get out of the way. 

My students thanked me. They breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn't ignored the situation. We weren't there to talk about politics, but they were grateful for the reminders of how to navigate a life with awareness, continuing to resist old patterns of worry, anxiety, or over-doing. 

I urge you, listen to your lines. If you don’t know how, learn.