What is “The Elusive Obvious” by Ilana Nevill
Part I. Thinking Differently about What We Think We Know
At the conclusion of his book “The Elusive Obvious” Moshe Feldenkrais briefly mentions the catastrophe that will occur if we don’t learn in time how to deal with the problems that are now obvious on all levels everywhere. Many of these problems are the outcome of lack of vision and of reflection on the significance of the end of enslavement following general automation, pushing ahead fast while the population explosion continues.
It was thanks to Angela, a German painter in search of inspirational quotations for an exhibition on FREEDOM, that I came across a sentence which pleased her. That was in the final chapter of “The Elusive Obvious” entitled In a Nutshell. Angela wanted the text in the English, German, and French versions.
The original English runs:
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.
The French translation states:
People now see that if we don’t learn to envisage an entire panoply of solutions, if we fail to orient our possibilities of choice towards more humane perspectives, and if we do not deepen and widen our freedom of choice, abolition of our slavery will end up as a catastrophe.(1)
In what follows I hope to explain why “envisage an entire panoply of solutions” doesn’t convey what Feldenkrais wanted to say.
The German version (2) is an interpretation rather than a translation so even longer than the French:
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.
It’s true that this German “translation” diverges from the original. However, this clarification of what the text intends to say takes into account reflections in preceding chapters inclusive of the complex historical and intellectual background underlying development of the Feldenkrais Method. After all the approach to authentically learning how to learn, which Feldenkrais continued to fine-tune throughout his life, was intended to provide an intelligent and concrete answer to the questions other contemporary scientists, philosophers, and artists asked with equal urgency. The founder of our Method was associated with a remarkable group of people (several of whom became his friends) determined to confront the challenge posed by the devastation brought about by the Second World War, by the Nazi extermination camps, by the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and later by the arms race accompanying the Cold War and the Vietnam conflict. These people hoped with similarly cautious optimism “that we are living in a historically brief transition period that heralds the emergence of the truly human man”.(3)
The bibliography at the end of “The Elusive Obvious” is headed by “Mind and Nature – a Necessary Unity”, published in 1979. This is one of the most important books by Gregory Bateson (1904-1980), a biologist, linguist, psychologist, anthropologist, and philosophical researcher who was one of those rare scientists who feel at ease with the theoretical demands and methodologies of different disciplines. Bateson was to play a crucial part in the first systematic meetings between professionals previously closed to dialogue with representatives of other specialisations.
Thanks to an initiative by Gregory Bateson and neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch, a gathering was organised in 1942 by the Macy Foundation, a philanthropic association dedicated to improvement of medical care. That was followed between 1946 and 1953 by the ten famous “Macy Conferences”. A great variety of disciplines were represented: from biology, physiology, neurology, psychology, and philosophy to mathematics, electronics, modern physics, and data processing. The initial intention was to create the foundations of a science of the human mind.
The participants had little in common except everyday language and the first meetings were turbulent. McCulloch described the discussions as being sometimes “intolerable … I have never lived through anything like that … never heard adult human beings, of such academic stature, use such language to attack each other. I have seen member after member depart in tears”.(4)
As people gradually started to enter into dialogue instead of wanting to convince others or at least defend their own points of view and preconceived opinions, the atmosphere at these meetings was transformed. Today they are viewed as the cradle of a new science, cybernetics, grouping a wide range of sciences and technologies from data processing to artificial intelligence which have transformed our world.
Cybernetics, the science of self-regulatory systems
“Cybernetics is the science of regulatory and control systems in man and machine” - according to Norbert Wiener, who is viewed as its originator. The term thus applies to both mechanical and organic systems organised in such a way that a “detector” (an element or sense organ) constantly interacts with an “effector” (a motor or muscle), following instructions determined by the changing conditions detected. The functioning of these systems is thus based on “circular causality” in the form of feedback loops. The simplest example is a heating system controlled by a thermostat, and one of the most complex is the human being with his physiological and nervous systems and his consciousness – mysterious phenomena which no-one has as yet managed to explain.
Gordon Pask, fondly called the cybernetician’s cybernetician, opened up wider perspectives. What he had to say about the new science applies equally well to the Feldenkrais Method:
“It seems that cybernetics is many things to many different people, but this is because of the richness of its conceptual base. And this is, I believe, very good; otherwise, cybernetics would become a somewhat boring exercise. However, all of those perspectives arise from one central theme, and that is that of circularity. Cybernetics is the science of defensible metaphors”.(5)
Anthropologist Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson’s first wife and later one of Moshe Feldenkrais’s friends in the United States, was particularly interested in the impact of the diverse theories developing under the auspices of cybernetics. She upheld this “meta-science” as being “a form of cross-disciplinary thought which made it possible for members of many disciplines to communicate with each other easily in a language all could understand.”
Following the Macy Conferences two broad camps began to form as had already happened in 20th century physics which had opened up new ways of understanding the universe. There are now those who insist on doing “objective” research with its reductionist approach, dissecting the phenomena under scrutiny into smaller and smaller components. Others, adhering to a more holistic view, base their research on the premiss that the whole and its parts are intricately related and interact in complex ways. For them no living system can be understood and responsibly engaged with unless it is seen in that way. They also realize that the observer is bound to have an impact on what he observes. While ‘cybernetic circularity’ presents no problem to them, this concept is rejected by so-called hard scientists who cannot handle the paradoxes involved. Today the rift between “hard” and “soft” approaches tends to go right through certain professions – maybe most strikingly through present-day medicine.
In a presentation at the congress on The Dialectics of Liberation in London in 1967,(6) Gregory Bateson spoke at some length about the rift dividing Western health care.
“Obvious” versus “Elusive Obvious”
This conference opened with thoughts relating to THE OBVIOUS by psychiatrist and writer R.D Laing (1927-1989), mainly known for calling into question conventional views tending to ignore the context in which symptoms labeled psychotic, schizophrenic, etc. develop. Laing had long come to the conclusion that most mental illness is a social construct and needs to be understood as the outcome of a more or less disastrous failure of coping mechanisms in an alienating environment. In his view persons stigmatized as mad who end up in psychiatric ‘care’ may have been trying, often from earliest childhood, to defend their birthright of growing up to become authentic human beings, despite the often crippling life conditions imposed on them by others.
In his conference presentation Laing makes clear that seriously faulty assessments of individuals or social actions considered to threaten the status quo arise on all levels of society whenever the context is left out of account. What is hardly ever seen is the fact that this society is made up of a multitude of contexts and sub-systems, of meta-contexts and meta-meta-contexts. The apparent irrationality of an individual diagnosed as psychotic may become more intelligible when seen in context, starting with the family unit, itself embedded within a complex system of encompassing networks at an intermediate level (health system, school and university, factory and office, political parties, religions, peer groups, and racial subcultures etc) which in turn have to be seen within the context of yet larger organizations and institutions within the nation state – all of them demanding obedience from the levels below.
Laing begins his talk with the words:
The obvious can be dangerous. The deluded man finds his delusions so obvious that he can hardly credit the good faith of those who do not share them.
In Laing’s estimation “the obvious”, in other words conventional commonsense, consensus reality, won’t ever be changed from below, because individuals who try simply don’t dispose of sufficient power. Nor will the system ever be transformed from above where vested interest is the determining factor of most thought and action. Only at the intermediate level of society, for instance in a hospital, a school, a factory or university, can change be initiated and successfully implemented, once people are sufficiently motivated to unite and start thinking intelligently about the task at hand. The ultimate impact of such transformative action on related contexts will depend on whether the age-old smokescreen of ignorance, mystification, and downright lies can eventually be shown as what it is, thereby becoming transparent and allowing what Moshe Feldenkrais termed the “elusive obvious” to be finally revealed :
We can put no trust in princes, popes, politicians, scholars or scientists, our worst enemy or our best friend. With the greatest precautions, we may put trust in a source that is much deeper than our ego – if we can trust ourselves to have found it, or rather, to have been found by it. It is obvious that it is hidden, but what it is and where it is, is not obvious.
Conscious Purpose versus Nature
From his much broader multidimensional vantage-point as a biologist-ecologist- anthropologist-psychologist-cyberneticist Gregory Bateson complements and expands Laing’s more narrowly social-political comments. In his contribution “Conscious Purpose versus Nature” the relationship between “the obvious” and the “elusive obvious” is discussed in the context of the inalienable unity of mind and nature: “We do not live in the sort of universe in which simple lineal control is possible [because] Life is not like that.”
Bateson begins with a brief historical account of the momentous change that took place in Western civilization half way through the 18th century: The ladder of explanation, until then going downward from a supreme mind (the God of Christianity) to all the natural phenomena man wished to understand and use to his advantage, was suddenly turned upside down. While mind had been the explanation of the biological world until that time, the study of evolution now promised to provide an explanation of what might underlie mind.
This possibility was tentatively explored by Lamarck (1744-1829), in Bateson’s estimation probably the greatest biologist in history. Lamarck devised a crude comparative psychology in his “Philosophie Zoologique” (1809), a work that contained a number of very modern ideas which were ignored by most 19th century evolutionists. These idea included such statements as “mental process must always have physical representation” and “the complexity of the nervous system is related to the complexity of mind.”
Only after World War II was serious attention devoted to the nature of mind and human consciousness with the provisional conclusion: “Wherever in the Universe we encounter that sort of complexity, we are dealing with mental phenomena”. Bateson adds: “It’s as materialistic as that.”
Darwin and his contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace (who studied natural selection in the Indonesian rainforest) began thinking about the order of complexity to be observed in nature by referring to the simple self-correcting cybernetic model of the steam engine which, as Darwin wrote, “checks and corrects irregularities almost before they become evident.”
In the rainforest Wallace already saw clearly that self-correcting systems are basically conservative : natural selection within an established ecosystem acts primarily through a system of feedback loops keeping the species belonging to it unvarying, and thus maintaining a state of equilibrium where each can thrive and survive without pushing others into extinction.
Gregory Bateson distinguishes three such enormously complex self-correcting systems or “arrangements of conservative feedback loops” :
- Natural ecosystems which allow some leeway for transformation and adaptive change.
- The society into which the individual is born is kept as stable and functioning as possible by its own set of conservative feedback loops. For instance learning in family and school gets people to adapt to and conserve the values, myths, and opinions constituting ‘the obvious’ according to prevailing commonsense consensus reality.
- The human individual whose physiology and neurology keep body temperature, blood chemistry, size and shape during embryology and growth etc. steady, while psychology takes care of his/her mental balance within the social context on which s/he depends.
For Bateson, an English oak forest, or a rainforest, provide the best illustration of what happens when a complex self-corrective system (in this case the combination of competition and dependency assuring continuous equilibrium, and thereby the survival of all its components and inhabitants) gets destabilized or breaks down completely. When such a delicate balance is interfered with, “exponential curves (population explosion) begin to appear and the system as a balanced system is likely to fall to pieces.”
The same is true for all levels of the human world – from the groupings and subcultures within societies to geo-political blocks on a worldwide scale.
You have to assume that all important social change is in some degree a slipping of the system at some point along an exponential curve. The slipping may not go far, or it may go to disaster.
In other contexts Gregory Bateson refers to apparently uncontrollable “run-away” processes like the global arms’ race and world-wide drug addiction as examples of ‘systemic slipping’, resulting in ominous exponential curves.
Bateson’s answer as to why these and other similarly catastrophic developments seem to be unstoppable can only be sketched here in a much simplified form:
As cybernetic, self-correcting systems we human beings cannot easily assimilate internal disturbances. Our organism is kept stable by controls represented in what Bateson calls “total mind which is perhaps a reflection of the total body”. The various ways of largely unconscious compartmentalization within the totality of the mind-body system (kinetic life, food life, sex life etc.) are crucial for survival. The linkage between conscious perception and the total mind is characterized by selectivity, a kind of systematic sampling of what is important at a particular time. Our conscious ‘I’, in touch with an already unconsciously edited version of a small percentage of what we could be aware of, is guided by the purposes we are pursuing at that moment.
Referring to the state of medicine, or rather what is called “medical science”, Bateson then tackles the question: What happens to the picture of a cybernetic system when that picture is selectively drawn to answer only questions of purpose?
Solutions : a bag of tricks
If you allow purpose to organize that which comes under your conscious inspection, what you will get is a bag of tricks – some of them very valuable tricks.
That is exactly what has been happening in medicine. After extraordinary initial successes such as discovering vaccination against polio, developing antibiotics etc., effort and research money were increasingly devoted to focusing on ‘problems’ and the search for ‘solutions’. As a result remarkably little is known about the body as a cybernetically organized self-correcting and self-healing system. Medicine “ends up, therefore, as a total science whose structure is essentially that of a bag of tricks”, complemented by an ever larger array of modern technology which Bateson sees as particularly worrying. What modern medical science lacks is fundamental wisdom defined as “knowledge of the larger interactive system – that system which, if disturbed, is likely to generate exponential curves of change.”
In its sampling of events and processes occurring in the body and in the total mind, human consciousness operates in the same way as modern medicine.
Consciousness is organized in terms of purpose, a short-cut device to enable you to get quickly at what you want, not to act with maximum wisdom in order to live, but to follow the shortest logical or causal path to get what you next want – dinner, a Beethoven sonata, sex… Above all it may be money and power…
Purposive consciousness pulls out from the total mind sequences which do not have the loop-structure which is characteristic of the overall system.
Lack of wisdom is always punished if the systemic forces (‘God’ if you like) sustaining the component cells or organisms within any biological system (the individual, culture, and all the aspects of national-international ecosystems) are not respected. A somewhat altered version of the Biblical myth of Adam and Eve serves Bateson as a model for what happens when we commit the error of thinking purely purposively about how to reach the famous apple of knowledge: “Make a plan, A – B – C, and you get D.” When Adam and Eve started to specialize in doing things the planned way, they were cast out of Eden, Adam had to earn bread by the sweat of his brow, and Eve heard the ominous prediction “In pain shalt thou bring forth”. Bateson remarks that the biblical version of the story does not explain the extraordinary perversion of values whereby a woman’s capacity for love comes to be seen as a curse inflicted by the deity. Having acted according to what he thought was common sense, Adam now finds himself in a mess and, not feeling part of the system in which the mess exists, he either blames the rest of the system or himself, most likely both, combining two sorts of nonsense: the notion ‘I have sinned’ and the notion ‘God is vengeful’. Such reactions and projections, involving blaming the Other, and much more seldom oneself, tend to prevail wherever systemic pathologies in the form of social, political, or ecological emergencies arise, crying for quick solutions.
The terrible thing about such situations is that inevitably they shorten the time-span of all planning. Emergency is present or just around the corner; and long-term wisdom must therefore be sacrificed to expediency, even though there is a dim awareness that expediency will never give long-term solutions.
Most problems confronting modern governments are systemic and will not be tackled successfully until this fact is realized. This demands above all that scientific arrogance, which began to increase enormously with the Industrial Revolution, makes room for greater humility in scientific philosophy.
Gregory Bateson comes to the conclusion that the ultimate remedy for the ills of conscious purpose may lie in the individual. He argues as follows: even though our control is limited and we are by no means the captains of our souls, as individual human beings we can to some degree learn such abstract characteristics as arrogance or humility. Our dreams, according to Freud “the royal road to the unconscious”, are but one way of getting in touch with total mind.
I think we should lump together dreams, and the creativity of art, the perception of art, and poetry etc., and include the best of religion. These are all activities in which the whole individual is involved. We might say that in creativity man must experience himself – his total self – as a cybernetic model.
When those words were uttered, Gregory Bateson had probably not yet met Moshe Feldenkrais, who was to work with him when Bateson was succumbing to cancer. Feldenkrais was not at that time known by some as the first ‘somatic cyberneticist’ whose learning method, “Awareness Through Movement”, was capable of “returning people to themselves” so as to rediscover their wholeness (as his first assistant Mia Segal often says). The learning contexts and experiences the Method provides are actually intended to get people to sense and assess for themselves “the difference that makes the difference”, Gregory Bateson’s definition of “information”. Such concrete information is necessary to allow a person’s nervous system to initiate processes of self-correction. Feldenkrais learners thus discover something utterly extraordinary: that what had seemed quite obviously ‘impossible’ can actually become feasible, then possible, gradually easy, aesthetically pleasing, and ultimately hugely enjoyable and satisfactory. Although they might continue to think that they are finally finding solutions to their particular problems, they are actually beginning to grasp the “elusive obvious”.
How, and in what form, such gradually more tangible, often surprising and personally highly significant, evidence reveals itself and begins to transform people’s lives depends on their readiness to “follow one’s own nose” as Moshe Feldenkrais used to say: Being truly present and attentive, both to oneself and what goes on inside, and at the same time to the environment in which one moves and acts and has one’s being.
Angela Weyersberg, “painter of liberty”, exemplifies what Gregory Bateson says about the experience of wholeness. Angela also embodies the extraordinary impact the Feldenkrais Method can exert on an artist and on her work. She only became aware of this during an exhibition when people remarked that the cedar trees she had been drawing looked as if they had limbs, arms and legs. Angela hadn’t previously noticed this herself; she commented:
“I understood straight away and saw it then. This was completely new ! I hadn’t intentionally made those limbs myself. I had studied the tree very much, immersing myself more and more in this tree, becoming more and more part of the tree. My own body was very important. It felt as if I knew where the tree was in my body…. I have to try and put this into words now… Maybe that is like having to find a place in my body for what I see and then translate it again; it has to be transformed !” (7)
Part II “The Feldenkrais Method as Somatic Cybernetics” will endeavour to explore what this means for the dialogue between teacher/practitioner and learner, throwing light on how such lived experience can enrich our practice. Encounters with persons suffering from multiple sclerosis as an auto-immune condition will exemplify such dialogue.
1 Thanks to Blandine Wong, Angela Weyersberg, the German painter received the following version: «On voit aujourd’hui qu’à moins d’apprendre à penser différemment les sujets que nous connaissons, à moins d’élargir et d’approfondir notre liberté de choix et de l’utiliser avec plus d’humanité, la véritable abolition de l’esclavage commence par une catastrophe ». Translated into English : “It is clear today that unless we learn to think differently about the things we know, unless we widen and deepen our freedom of choice, and apply it with greater humanity, the true abolition of slavery will begin with a catastrophe”.
2 Wenn wir unsere Freiheit der Wahl erweitern und menschengerecht anwenden möchten, müssen wir über Dinge, die wir längst kennen und wissen, und die uns vertraut sind, auf alternative Weise denken lernen. Dann werden wir, vielleicht zum ersten Mal, ein jeder für sich, voll verantwortlich sein und die Ängste bannen können und die Gefahren, die wir, seit es uns gibt, immer wieder heraufbeschwören. Die Entdeckung des Selbstverständlichen, p.221
3 Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement, Penguin Books 1980, p. 48 (First published by Harper & Row 1972)
4 Bryan Appleyard, The Brain is Wider than the Sky, 2013, p. 127
5 Both Mead and Pask were quoted by cyberneticist Heinz von Foerster during a lecture on ethics at an international conference on family therapy, Paris 1990
6 A compilation of some of the principle addresses delivered on this occasion was published a year later in the Penguin paperback THE DIALECTICS OF LIBERATION
7 The entire conversation with Angela is included here in the appendix. (See also the article 'An Artist')
Entering My Own Body was an Enormous Experience! - A Conversation with the Artist Angela Weyersberg. Recorded and transcribed by Ilana Nevill
During an exhibition people remarked that the cedar trees in her drawings and paintings looked as if they had limbs, arms and legs. Angela hadn’t previously noticed this herself; she commented:
I understood straight away and saw it then. This was completely new ! I hadn’t intentionally made those limbs myself. I had studied the tree very much, immersing myself more and more in this tree, becoming more and more part of the tree. My own body was very important. It felt as if I knew where the tree was in my body. I have to try and put this into words now… Maybe that is like having to find a place in my body for what I see and then translate it again; it has to be transformed!
It's the same with colours. It's very interesting, I know the colours in my paintings are not seen, they are felt . I understood that quite clearly when I wanted to remember the colour of leaves, these marvelous autumn colours in the garden like beautiful carpets on the ground. I thought "How can I remember this vibrant yellow? How can I ever paint anything like this?" It took me a little while - two days - and then I thought: "Now I know where this yellow is in my body!" I remember the place in my body when I want to paint this yellow and I find it again. But I must have done this for a very long time because I always knew that my colours are not what I see. They have to be experienced and lived with for a very long time and then I can make the picture and it is usually right. My body tells me, it's either in my shoulders or in my chest or can be in my belly...in various places. This has to do with a passion of feelings which come from that direction.
When Angela joined an Awareness Through Movement class she frequently experienced the most vivid colours while exploring a movement.
In one class I became completely euphoric and I didn't understand what was going on, but thought this was part of the exercise and everybody had the same experiences. But then I found that the others had had totally different experiences.
When I do the lessons now, I don't think of all that. During the lesson I am highly pitched…and often have the most fantastic colour-experiences - and also experiences of space. But I haven't translated that into art. I don't like to do that. It's lovely, it's nice, it belongs to me, but it's also a bit frightening because the space in which these colours move is so enormous. It's like the stars, when you really get into the sky at night and look at the stars, ah, the vastness becomes so enormous. I feel: "Oh where am I? I want to be on the ground and in a little place where I belong."
I can get into this sky, this firmament, and loose myself; the same as in mountain landscapes when I am too high...
Drawing these trees I realized something very interesting about nature in general: why it is so wonderful to be anywhere in the open air and how quickly it is wonderful. You don't have to be there for long because we can relate everything there to our body. When I am drawing I am very much linked to the tree and think: "What is it that makes this tree as I see it?" And in comes my body suddenly. It is only my body that can attempt the tree, because I cannot see and understand the tree. I can't be the tree, but I can be my body and then relate to what I see out of my own limits... It's not sensation; it's a wonderfulness of being more in tune and needing much less in life!
With these Feldenkrais lessons I come to a point where I am very happy just as I am and don't need a lot of sensations, don't have all these desires. I am very happily and wonderfully in tune with myself. Wonder is important because it is always new and it can be there any time when I am with my body. That is the gift of these lessons. You have to be in the moment. This is something which artists probably do: they look for the moment, they find the moment is precious. And you need to make space for this; so life becomes different; you are not striving for activity - you can't because you loose the moment then.
Feldenkrais had a big effect on me. It was very comfortable and it linked up with my work, certainly, but then I also became interested in it for another reason. It had to do with entering something else...This time it was my body, which isn't really some thing.
In my art I usually enter things; I enter a tree, I enter a face, I enter a flower very much, and then I become all this. I become the tree, I become this root... Entering my own body, however, is an enormous experience. I think I had quite a hostile relationship to my body. I used to enter my body through other things, through the flowers, through the trees, and through what I did in painting; this was my way to myself.
I know that I did not learn to like my body. I never liked my body when I was young. I didn't understand... My body was not a nice body when I was young.
I could not like it, and I know that probably comes from my relationship with my mother. She did not cuddle me and love me. This is not to say anything bad about her; it was just this culture I lived in where the body was not important; the body was left out. But I had to find the body - we all have to live in a body, want to live in a body - I think that's why I started painting, getting involved with life itself. I did it with my body, of course, but I didn't know that I was trying to inhabit my body properly. I used my body for becoming what I liked, and what I found was the wonder in life. But I only received my body now.
I think when you get older you need to be in your body; this is the most important thing: to arrive at yourself, to arrive in your body - and then you go further. Your body is your house which is given to you; you have to accept and like it as it is. You have to get out of it too because ultimately you are somewhere else...
A couple of years ago I wrote something down for you about a night when I was walking out in the country. It was the first time when I felt something completely new: "I am connected! I am in the universe and I am part of all this.” I had got lost when I was walking in the woods very close to our house, just on another hill. But I could not see anything and I thought "How do I get home now?...I need all my senses because I remember temperatures in different areas, and remember sounds, and I have to find all these and when I find them I find my way home." ...and I did. It was about my outside skin and my listening and remembering how my body felt in these places when it was light and I knew where I was.
This was the Feldenkrais experience in relationship to the outside world. I wrote this down for you three years ago, but I never gave it to you, and recently found it again.