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What is “The Elusive Obvious” by Ilana Nevill

 

The Elusive Obvious  :  Feldenkrais and Gurdjieff
by Ilana Nevill

The following text is an English adaptation of an article I was asked to contribute to the winter 2020-21 issue of the German FELDENKRAIS ZEIT,   This Journal for Somatic Learning was to be entirely devoted to the question of what Moshe Feldenkrais might have meant with the paradoxical title of his last book  The Elusive Obvious. After finding three articles dealing with that very subject on my website [www.feldenkraisnow.org],  the editors  had contacted me with the request to suggest something interesting.  My investigations of the ‘probable’  connection between Moshe Feldenkrais’s and G.I. Gurdjieff’s intentions, thinking, and teaching were accepted as fitting well into what they had in mind. So here is an appropriately adapted and slightly extended English version of the  original text.


        Encounter with The Elusive Obvious in a Bavarian Bookshop        

 

Take the wisdom of the East and the science of the West
and then search …
(an aphorism by G.I. Gurdjieff)

 

          We can now see that unless we learn to think about the things we know
          in alternative ways, unless we widen and deepen our freedom of choice                              
          and use it humanely, the real abolition of slavery will end in disaster .
 (Moshe Feldenkrais, THE ELUSIVE OBVIOUS, p. 155)

In 1985 while visiting a bookshop in Bavaria, my attention was attracted by a paperback with the title Bewusstheit durch Bewegung (Awareness through Movement). The author was unknown to me, but just looking briefly at a few pages was akin to a revelation: “Yes, that’s just what I’ve always been looking for”.  Even when I was still at school I’d tried to find an answer to the question of “How can I, as part of the species declared to be the ‘crown of creation’, make a little contribution towards preventing any future recurrence of the kind of inhuman barbarities that my parents’ generation had “not known about” (either deliberately or in unawareness) or even participated in with a clear conscience ?”

Back in England, where I was then living with my husband and son, I searched in vain for a Feldenkrais training. Nobody I asked had ever heard that strange name. Getting hold of Awareness Through Movement in English already felt like a step in the right direction.  I recorded the twelve exemplary ATM lessons in English and proceeded to try them out.  That confirmed what I’d already felt when reading a few passages in the German publication.  However it was only much later – through reading Moshe Feldenkrais’s The Elusive Obvious, his last book to be published, that I learned to reflect more precisely on what I kept discovering while exploring Feldenkrais’s enormously stimulating sequences of movement. They opened up a way towards gradually understanding that all truly experiential, organic, and self-chosen intellectual learning is a pursuit of some kind of ‘elusive obvious’ : of something ‘unknown’ yet maybe somehow vaguely ‘remembered’ deep inside oneself. There is no alternative but to work things out for oneself. But, as both Feldenkrais- and Gurdjieff WORK (which I got involved in ten years before I found my way to Feldenkrais) showed me, this can ultimately only be done in conjunction with others. For me this became truly effective in open-ended dialogue. For instance in  largely non-verbal psycho-somatic dialogue as in Functional Integration, or in a Dialogue Group with no fixed agenda whatsoever. The main issue in such a setting is practice of an attitude hardly ever found in usual discussion. This entails really listening to one another, but, more important, also to listen to one’s own inner reactions without immediately engaging in argument with a person whose statements happen to be unacceptably unfamiliar, don’t agree with, or are even diametrically opposed to one’s own views and beliefs.

Once I had started reading Awareness through Movement I could hardly put down this book. Here was a highly detailed theoretical and practical presentation of a method of organic and somatic learning (with mind and body treated as an indivisible unity) that promised to show me the way forward in what I had just started to try out in my yoga teaching.   At that time I was looking for ways and means of gently getting my pupils to abandon an irresistible urge (partly conditioned and partly self-generated) to forcefully achieve the yoga postures I was demonstrating – as I had learned in a form of training which was usual at that time. 

I had never encountered anything comparable with Feldenkrais’s highly subtle approach to a vital unfolding of abilities with which everyone is naturally endowed – not in my Cologne studies of educational theory, nor, in England later, in the Alexander Technique, nor in Charlotte Selvers’ s Sensory Awareness, an approach based on Elsa Gindler’s work, and not even in various Tai Chi courses. (Except for one  taught by an itinerant Tai Chi teacher, who, as I discovered later,  had some experience of the Feldenkrais Method which made all the difference. While he was instructing the class in “The Form”, he skilfully guided people’s attention to how they experienced what they were doing with their bodies.)

I had studied all those approaches for a while in the hope of transmitting what I had learned to my yoga students, helping them towards more refined perception, more gently tolerant self-awareness, and greater patience with themselves.

But that was before I leafed through the German version of Awareness through Movement in the Bavarian bookshop.  I had a couple of strange ‘deja vu’ experiences there:  Some sentences and paragraphs reminded me of what I had read in books by or about Gurdjieff (known by his followers as simply G), or begun to reflect about in the company of other students of his complex teachings.  Time and again I had the feeling there must be something in common between the objectives, thinking, and practice of these two great men.  The fact that both (each in their own way) were far in advance of their century was obvious.  As time passed my assumptions were increasingly confirmed, starting with the first segment of the London Feldenkrais training (1986-90), which I’d heard about ‘by chance’ in a TV series on complementary and alternative medicine.  Even today I’m still puzzled about how I managed to find the money for participating in this expensive training.

At that moment I’d already ten years of experience of the challenging new demands and sometimes astonishing discoveries and recognitions granted me by The Work as G’s scientific-spiritual way of teaching self-awareness is called (see APPENDIX)   Such intensive training in unprejudiced self-observation and above all in sometimes uncomfortable moments of not very flattering  self-discovery turned out to be a precious preparation for hitherto unfamiliar and basically very much ‘gentler’ ‘Feldenkrais learning’.  During the training I especially profited from the fact that for me almost everything I had previously read in “Awareness Through Movement” seemed absolutely comprehensible while some fellow students had difficulties reading the book.    

In addition from the very first sessions taught by Myriam Pfeffer in ATM lessons on the floor I sometimes felt a tingling awakening – ranging between strange and exciting – of all my bodily and mental functioning.  As an adult I had first re-encountered this wonderful ‘coming to my senses’ (experienced in my dimly remembered childhood) in practicing the ‘Gurdjieff Movements’, which demanded enormous discipline.  So right at the start of the Feldenkrais training I had the still rather vague idea that it would be possible and meaningful to link the approaches of Gurdjieff and Feldenkrais for their mutual enrichment and expansion.  However I didn’t dare say anything about that to Myriam.  Yet one day she, my first Feldenkrais teacher, almost imperceptibly responded to my cautious question: “Did Moshe” (who before World War II lived in Paris at the same time as the both famous and controversial ‘Guru’) “meet Gurdjieff or any of his Russian disciples ?” Instead of answering Myriam just smiled mischievously and walked away with a hardly perceptible flutter of her hand.

I was luckier with Mia Segal, Moshe’s only assistant for many years.   In 1990 when I managed to participate (parallel to London) in the final year of one of her professional trainings in Holland, Mia told me that Feldenkrais had once brought her a book that she absolutely had to read since it was worth more than her entire library.  This was In Search of the Miraculous by P.D. Ouspensky, one of the most important of Gurdjieff’s followers.  Moshe accompanied this pronouncement with a theatrically dismissive wave of his hands, directed towards her bookshelves, which Mia imitated with great panache.  Thirty years later she retold this story with similar enthusiasm in an interview during the 2020 Shift Network Somatic Movement Summit – if I remember rightly on the first day of this internet conference.  That was perhaps the first clear-cut message to the international Feldenkrais community that we should no longer ignore the major importance of Gurdjieff’s way of teaching with its emphasis on the harmonious development of all of human beings’ inner and outer faculties and functions.  

When I worked for the first time as an assistant in a training at Myriam’s Accord Mobile Centre in Paris, it was still difficult to join a Gurdjieff group, especially in France where Ouspensky’s book was originally published with the author’s preferred title Fragments d’un enseignement inconnu (Fragments of an Unknown Teaching).  Even towards the end of the 1990s I occasionally heard that people involved with Gurdjieff – and sometimes also with Feldenkrais (!) - were viewed as members of a sect.  In England though - already in the 1970s - it was much easier to become a member of a Gurdjieff group. But even then only if invited to participate in group meetings on the recommendation of an ‘insider’. Peter Brook, the famous theatre director, started attending a study group in 1951, the year In Search of the Miraculous was published, causing a sensation amongst London’s artists and intellectuals. Just to give an impression of its impact, this is what Brook wrote to a friend about his ‘seismic discovery’ of that magnum opus :
The newest and overwhelming passion in life is neither a play, film, female …   it is once again our old friend the UNIVERSE. Because while you have been reading ... I was reading the best deepest profoundest most amazing book  I’ve ever read in my life...

My husband and I had the rare chance of belonging to two very different groups: a Nicoll and a Bennett group.  In the first, which we joined in 1975, you submitted written questions before the regular meetings and these were then answered and discussed.  This group was run by a formidable old lady who had taught the Movements  before the Second World War to followers of the much esteemed London psychologist Maurice Nicoll (1884-1953). After studying with C.G.Jung in the early 1920s Nicoll spent twelve months at Gurdjieff’s Institute for Harmonious Human Development in Fontainebleau near Paris.  After that, on the instructions of P.D. Ouspensky who had been his teacher in London, Maurice Nicoll devoted himself exclusively to making Gurdjieff’s teachings known.  For my husband and myself Nicoll’s five volumes of Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky (published  1956) were of inestimable value.

Before I accepted an invitation to attend Ruthy Alon’s 70th birthday celebrations  in Jerusalem I asked Moshe Feldenkrais’s nephew Michel if I might take a look at his famous uncle’s library in Tel Aviv. I can scarcely describe the joy I felt on actually finding among mainly scientific publications the hoped-for proof that Feldenkrais must have devoted intensive attention to G’s teachings. I was particularly surprised to discover Nicoll’s five volumes of Psychological Commentaries alongside Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, Gurdjieff’s Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, and a number of important books devoted to the WORK on shelves in what seemed to be a kind of store room. 

Three Versions of the Parable of the Carriage, Horse, and Driver

Thirty years before this ultimate confirmation I knew that I was on the right track when in one of Nichol’s Commentaries I hit upon the well-known parable of the Carriage, Horses, and Driver, celebrated in Eastern wisdom teachings.  To my great surprise I encountered this parable again in Bavaria when glancing through the German translation of Awareness Through Movement but in an  unfamiliar version emphasising the physical-psychological aspects of Moshe Feldenkrais’s Method. In his version of what Feldenkrais calls a Tibetan parable, the carriage stands for the human skeleton, the horses for our muscles, and the passengers for our desires. 

Text, whiteboard  Description automatically generatedI already knew the earliest version of this parable from studying the Upanishads, the most ancient documentation of Hindu spirituality, while preparing for qualification as a yoga teacher.  There the parable serves as an ideal model on the way towards wisdom and full human maturity (see the illustration of the highest level of consciousness accessible to human beings, which I used in talking about the Upanishads during the examination concluding the Yoga course). 

In Gurdjieff’s version this parable serves a more modest, less elevated purpose than in the Upanishads.  G’s objective in retelling this parable for modern man is clear and very specific. He is concerned with waking up his sleepwalking contemporaries, slumbering through life. His suggestion to those already vaguely conscious of being all too often absent in their own life was that they might start asking themselves occasionally whether they were not contributing to the suffering and misfortune they keep complaining about.

The parable of the coachman and his dilapidated vehicle played an important part in the WORK Weekends of the Bennett group we joined in 1978 while continuing to participate in Nicoll gatherings.  Studying took a much more concrete form than discussions with Nicoll’s now aged former assistant Mrs Curry.  For instance there was the famous STOP Exercise also sometimes mentioned and occasionally used by  Feldenkrais.  As soon as someone shouted STOP  everyone else had to freeze like a statue whatever they happened to be doing.  In the sometimes seemingly endless moments of almost impossible avoidance of any movement there was sufficient opportunity for taking somatic and psychological snapshots of oneself.  During that process we became convincingly aware that our thoughts and feelings were frequently far removed from the here and now.  In addition it often became apparent that only sporadically or not at all had we fulfilled the task of, say, observing the contact between our left foot or heel with the ground.  As time passed J.G. Bennett’s (1897-1974) widow Elizabeth helped us learn what is really involved in work on oneself.  (When Moshe Feldenkrais was living in London (1947-51) he got to know and appreciate Bennett, a fellow scientist who was at home in many cultures and languages, as a particularly interesting partner in dialogue who was just as concerned as himself about humanity’s uncertain future.)

While working in Elizabeth’s large garden we learned how not to automatically condemn or justify whatever seemed unlikeable or unpleasant about ourselves, or to put the blame on external circumstances.  In other words how to avoid unconsciously “identifying” with  negative emotions, prejudices, childish wanting to be right, and other manifestations of a clear-cut lack of human maturity.

From time to time Elizabeth’s group participated in one of the nine-month international courses directed, after Bennett’s death, by two of his former students.  John Wilkinson, the older of them, was an adolescent when he lived at Coombe Springs (just outside London) where Bennett’s Institute for the Comparative Study of History, Philosophy, and the Sciences was based. John told me that he often waited for the appearance of Moshe Feldenkrais, whom he much admired as a celebrated Black Belt and judo teacher.  Sometimes when Feldenkrais did not immediately start teaching a class or go straight to spend time talking with  Bennett, he sat at the piano and produced, according to John,  the most wonderful combinations of sounds even if these seldom added up to real melodies. Unfortunately the contact I attempted to establish between John Wilkinson and Mark Reese (in 2000 during Ruthy Alon’s birthday celebrations in Jerusalem) did not work out. As a consequence, perhaps truly important information about what led Feldenkrais to Coombe Springs and his role there seems to have  been lost for ever. 

Since the end of the 1970s we have been friends with Anthony Blake, the younger of the two course directors of Bennett-inspired Gurdjieff Work. During our sometimes frustrating but always inspiring struggles trying to attain mutual understanding about what the Feldenkrais Method and Gurdjieff’s teaching might have in common, Anthony let me have two lectures on “Mind and Body” by Feldenkrais (published by Bennett’s Coombe Springs Press in 1963). These were given at the Copenhagen Congress of Functional Movement and Relaxation.  Years later I summarised Moshe Feldenkrais’s most important statements elucidating his conception of the term awareness  as one of my contributions to a research project  whose results were published  as Awareness Report. This was produced by a group of colleagues working together under the auspices of the unfortunately shortlived International Trainer and Assistant Trainer Academy (ITATA ).     

Anthony visited us in the Pyrenees every year after we moved there in 2006. Once he even attended a “Feldenkrais Laboratory”, an annual workshop giving participants an opportunity to cooperate in exploring new ideas about enhancing and refining awareness through using the medium of air as a powerful means of communicating with one’s own or a partner’s nervous system. On this occasion Anthony succeeded in inspiring people with his characteristic enthusiasm, both while talking about Gurdjieff’s and Bennett’s contribution to raising the level of human consciousness and also giving us an experience of the Gurdjieff  Movements whose impact on ourselves we were then free to compare with the effect of movement exploration as conceived by Moshe Feldenkrais.  This was for me a highpoint in our years of on-off dialoguing about Feldenkrais and Gurdjieff and an incentive to keep pursuing a quest for clarity.

What seems more crucial than purely historical indications of the still          inadequately researched relationship between the originator of “our” method and G is their shared objective of putting to the test completely new ways towards achieving authentic humanity.  At any rate that concern can be deduced from the words with which Feldenkrais concludes his version of the Parable and the first part of “Awareness Through Movement”.  These words are uncharacteristically poetic and testify to profound inwardness:

In those moments when awareness succeeds in being at one with feeling, senses, movement, and thought, the carriage will speed along on the right road.  Then man can make discoveries, invent, create, innovate, and ‘know’.  He grasps that his small world and the great world around are but one and that in this unity he is no longer alone.

In contrast I would like to quote Gurdjieff’s considerably more down to earth version of the Coach, Horses, and Driver parable.  However, right now, in the midst of moving house, I have no access to my books so I have to rely on my memory in presenting what I remember most clearly from Maurice Nicoll’s account.  He  uses the parable as an analogy depicting contemporary human beings who may have a potential for attaining full consciousness but cannot become aware of themselves and their true life-tasks so long as they are content  with the trivial distractions our modern civilisation has to offer. 

The scruffy coachman (our ‘intellectual centre’) spends most of his time in a bar, neglecting his vehicle which is much in need of repair (the ‘movement centre’ responsible for instinctive action and largely reflex, habitual movement).  The horses  too  (our ‘emotional centre’) urgently need regular care and sufficient nourishment.  Sometimes the sleepy and usually drunk coachman climbs onto his seat to take any  passenger who happens to come along (one of our innumerable and scarcely known ‘Is’) somewhere or other.  When the horses feel the whip they takes fright and galop off wildly, more often than not in the wrong direction.  At that moment the coachman is forced to admit to himself that he can neither restrain nor direct his horse.  He doesn’t have sufficiently reliable strong  reins to do so.  

Only when the coachman manages to pull himself together, produces proper reins, repairs the coach, and starts providing his horses regularly with food and water will the vehicle’s owner appear, get into the coach, and give his driver instructions about where to go.

 

In conclusion here are a few suggestions for readers who would like to find out more about Gurdjieff and his teachings.

Among his books Meetings with Remarkable Men is G’s most accessible work.  It’s based on the 20 or so years spent as a young man wandering through Central Asia and the Middle East in search of hidden remnants of some mysterious wisdom-teaching.  It’s worth looking at Peter Brook’s film of this exciting narrative, especially for the conclusion where members of Jeanne de Salzmann’s groups present authentic Movements.  The technical perfection of what is shown as such on YouTube is impressive but all too often lacks an inner dimension.  However even in modern performances the rhythms and strangely mesmerising melodies of music composed by Gurdjieff himself provide a taste of potentiality for inner experiencing evoked by ancient traditions of temple dance.

Many Feldenkrais teachers today know that in 1970 Peter Brook invited Moshe Feldenkrais to his Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris to give ATM lessons to  his international troupe of actors.  Unfortunately the sound quality of the eight lessons recorded in French is not particularly good.

Highly recommendable is Dennis Leri’s Mental Furniture, a collection of 12 texts devoted to “an archaeology of influences on Moshe Feldenkrais”.  Leri, an outstanding American trainer whose early death was a great loss to the Feldenkrais world, attended the first training in the USA (San Francisco Training (1975-78) and was particularly close to Moshe.  The 7th chapter in Mental Furniture shows how some of Gurdjieff’s most interesting ideas can facilitate deeper understanding of our work.  Right at the beginning of this text Leri mentions an unfortunately never published interview where the journalist who is interviewing Feldenkrais remarks: “It seems as if your ideas and methods have much in common with the work of Milton Erikson”.  Feldenkrais conceded that there were similarities between his and the famous psychologist’s ways of working with people, and then added  “but the man I feel closest to is Gurdjieff”.

            

             Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending
                                                (D.H. Lawrence)

I no longer remember whether it was Mark Reese or Denis Leri who once said: “Teaching is easy; Understanding is difficult”.  In order to arrive at understanding of how Feldenkrais- and Gurdjieff might complement one another and enrich those who try to find out for themselves, I took to heart Moshe Feldenkrais’s often repeated advice: Just follow your own nose. This is what we do quite naturally - provided we are allowed to -  as babies, toddlers, and maybe even until school teaches us otherwise.

Since I just happened to come across this I would like to quote from an e-mail a former Feldenkrais student and good friend sent me in 2008 after  rereading Feldenkrais’s extraordinary study  THE CASE OF NORA :
It is making me think in the way I used to when I went to school. And really it highlights why I hated school. It‘s because there was hardly a teacher who allowed me to think. All they did was try to impress information on me. Stamping information on me…. When you question everything and try to relate all abstract notions to concrete experience it’s really rewarding. We are sooooo hypnotised, essentially bullied by the school system, that I would guess most people just give up their ability to really think. The school system tends to reward the non-thinkers, the least resisting acceptors of information.
As G says : people will believe any old tale. And it’s just laziness to not think for one’s self. This is the essential parallel between G and Feldenkrais.

 As far as I remember, from the very beginning I was only satisfied when I got comprehensible answers to my many questions. Answers which were at least approximately in tune with what I was learning through and from experience. 

Lived experience got overwhelmingly incomprehensible at the moment when I suddenly became a refugee or displaced person at the age of five, and from that time onwards thinking was an “existential necessity” for me.

So it’s not surprising that I was particularly happy to discover Moshe Feldenkrais’s dictum that only in one realm within his method is effort  both permitted and indeed necessary, namely that of thinking. It’s  o b v i o u s   that he didn’t mean the usual clever reasoning or associating of received ideas and opinions etc. And if he had read the last line of D.H. Lawrence’s poem Thought, Moshe Feldenkrais would probably have wholeheartedly agreed.

To conclude, here’s the complete poem. It could be read as a road map towards  understanding what Feldenkrais intended to convey by combining two apparently irreconcilable concepts into the paradox of the title he chose for  his last book THE ELUSIVE OBVIOUS.

 

THOUGHT

Thought, I love thought.
But not the juggling and twisting of already existent ideas,
I despise that self-important game.
Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness,
Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of the
conscience,
Thought is gazing on the face of life, and reading what can
be read,
Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to a
conclusion.
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness wholly attending.

 

 

Diagram  Description automatically generated

                                          The Circle of Being

 

Two levels of MIND (Manas) – two levels of Being -  two kinds of Reality

Two Selves :

True SELF (Brahman at the centre of the Circle of Being, the goal of all striving for Self-Knowledge, Understanding, and Freedom from inner Slavery                              

False Self (Slave to Ignorance, Illusion, Vanity, Self-Satisfaction, Desire, Fear, and Violence)

 

APPENDIX

If you are interested in finding out more, the most readable introduction to      G.I. Gurdjieff (1866-1949) and his work was published by Shambhala in 2019 :

GURDJIEFF   RECONSIDERED  –   The Life, the Teachings, the Legacy       by Roger Lipsey
(German title: GURDJIEFF  IN  NEUEM  LICHT  - Sein Leben, sein Werk, sein Vermächtnis)

The core of G’s thinking was already formulated in an early talk at St. Peterburg. Lipsey quotes at length from Ouspensky’s IN SEARCH OF THE MIRACULOUS, where the following passages from G’s thought-provoking teaching on consciousness originally appeared.

Here just a few selected passages:

Our starting point is that man does not know himself, that he is not…,       
that he is not what he should be...
There are two lines along which man’s development proceeds, the line           
of knowledge and the line of being.   In right evolution the line of  
knowledge and the line of being develop simultaneously, parallel to,             
and helping one another.

               The German version of this quotation by Franz Wurm, one of Moshe Feldenkrais’s closest friends who translated  The Elusive Obvious giving it the title Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen [Discovering the Obvious],   is  longer than the original sentence. Though far from being a faithful translation, it could be accepted as a helpful interpretation of what Feldenkrais might have meant with this statement : 
If we want to expand our freedom of choice and use it more humanely, then we must learn to     
     think in alternative ways about familiar things we have long experienced and known about.    
     Then, perhaps for the first time, everyone (each for himself), will be able to banish the fears and
     the dangers that we  have time and again conjured up ever since human beings came into
     existence.

See Feldenkrais and David Bohm’s Dialogue Model, ARCHIVE, In-depth Articles,
www.feldenkraisnow.org

Michael Kustow, PETER BROOK – A Biography (published 2005), p. 69

   To be found in his  Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson (published in 1949, the year of Gurdjieff’s death),  Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, and , as already mentioned, in Nicoll’s Psychological Commentaries

  For an account on how Feldenkrais thanks to Heinrich Jacoby, came to apply his own method to possibilities he had completely neglected in himself (music making and drawing) see  Mark Reese’s Feldenkrais Biography Chapter 8 London 1947 -1951, Alexander, Gurdjieff, Jacoby , pp 448-472 )

AWARENESS THROUGH MOVEMENT, Penguin Books, p.54

Jeanne de Salzmann (1889-1990) was G.I.Gurdjieff’s closest pupil. After G’s death she led the Gurdjieff Work worldwide until her own death at the age of 101.

D.H. Lawrence – Selected and Introduced by Keith Sagar, Penguin Books, p.228