The Power Of Imagination: How William overcame his fear of falling

A case-study by Ilana Nevill (originally published in Zuerst bin ich im Kopf gegangen, a collection of Feldenkrais stories, Loeper Literaturverlag, 2007)

item9“What I’d really like is to try writing a play” – was 12 year-old William’s amazingly self-assured answer to my question about his plans for the future, concluding an interview about our nine and a half years of learning together. When we said goodbye William presented me with a card saying he would “really, really” miss me and thanking me for “many years of friendship and help”. Then Will (as he now calls himself) gave me a big hug and announced he would soon come and visit me in the French Pyrenees to which I moved house two days later.

williampetit3Initially this special friendship only developed very slowly. Right at the start the bright little three year-old regarded me as an incalculable stranger who would sooner or later certainly do him harm. For several weeks as soon as my hands came close to his body he would say: “I want to go home now”. It wasn’t surprising that this small boy was afraid of me. Soon after birth he had been operated on to prevent excessive accumulation of fluid in the ventricles of the brain (hydrocephalis). His spasticity was repeatedly assessed by specialists and treated in accordance with traditional forms of therapy, usually involving coercion and pain. However one day his mother, Emma, decided that she would no longer submit to the daily torture of repeatedly having to pull her son’s left arm away from its usual position of being pressed against the chest. She then brought William to my practice on the advice of a neighbour whose child suffered from cerebral palsy.

The breakthrough to trust and co-operation was sudden and unexpected even though William had been prepared in many cautious first steps while we played together. That had always involved respecting a degree of distance, which was gradually and carefully reduced. Once William was galloping on his pretend horse (an oval gymnastics ball) while I gently held him from behind so that he didn’t fall off. In mid-gallop the little boy suddenly turned round, looked at me with mock-reproach, and said: “Ilana, you are actually touching me”. The ice was broken between us and at that moment we became friends. Soon afterwards he allowed his mother to go shopping during his Feldenkrais lessons.

williampetit1Clearly, it was largely thanks to his family’s enlightened attitude and unfailing support that William had a particularly good chance of discovering his potential and developing a viable self-image. Many other children whose parents are given the apparently authoritative diagnosis that their newly-born will most probably never be able to walk let alone speak do not receive the same opportunities for learning. Later William’s father once told me that without his wife’s absolute conviction that the doctors were wrong his son might have been sent immediately after birth to a home for severely-handicapped babies. Instead William stayed at home and was given all the love and support needed at the start of a not exactly easy but nevertheless increasingly rich existence.

Very quickly the symptoms which caused the child difficulties – spasticity of the left leg (and more noticeably still of the left arm), imperfect vision, problems in spatial perception and associated insecurities in orientation and movement – turned out to be less severe than initially feared. However William suffered considerably from the fact that he couldn’t do everything just as well as other children – particularly after he went to school and had problems with reading, writing, and arithmetic. Yet his unspoken programme remained unchanged for the moment: he wanted to be just like other children and able to do everything he wanted.

Confronted by William’s mounting frustration and obvious possibilities of helping him, my “Feldenkrais hands” were often eager to get to work. I would have loved to immediately assist him gain greater skill and thus more satisfaction with himself and his world. But with his colossal suspicion of all adults acting as therapists I had to force myself to be patient and to hold back. William thereby became my teacher, providing me with ongoing lessons in overcoming any false ambition - such as winning his trust as quickly as possible. So for quite a while I had to give up any hope of rapid and systematic implementation of all my ideas about providing this little boy with the experiences he needed for successfully achieving what he wanted. For instance, improvement of subtle movement in his left hand had to remain a dream until he was himself interested in that. Instead of pursuing such concrete objectives, I initially had to allow William to guide me. Then it became relatively quickly apparent that we were in implicit agreement about the direction we were setting ourselves by way of playful somatic learning.

williampetit2At the age of around three and a half William at last officially allowed me to touch him, and of course it sometimes happened that my fingers came into contact with the thin plastic tube directly under his skin, allowing excessive fluid to flow from the skull alongside the right-side of his throat into the stomach. I gradually managed to neutralise the shock linked with such contact. It was the same with fears of inadvertently squeezing this crucial tube. At the back of my mind lurked the question of what would happen if this tube, “implanted” directly after birth, no longer kept up with the growth of the child’s body. A latent fear that William might harm himself during his daring-do games also troubled me sometimes, particularly as this young boy ventured on anything. So long as his flourishing power of imagination took him into exciting adventures he himself was free of fear and ready for the most dare-devil of actions. In following and safeguarding William’s often compensatory flights of fancy I was inwardly considerably helped by Moshe Feldenkrais’s dictum: “The only principle in this Method is that there is no principle”.

Time and again William’s highly idealised self-image (somewhat dented on the playground and later the school yard) was noticeably stabilised in our fantasy-inspired adventures, and also increasingly corrected and thus made more realistic. As he began to show more interest in bodily skills, he could be guided to become more conscious of the concrete demands involved in a particular situation. Above all he learnt – despite being aware of the possibility of not succeeding – to rely on his proprioceptive-kinaesthetic sense, thereby assessing somewhat more realistically what he really could achieve and what not.

To begin with though imagination predominated and I obediently accompanied this little hero in the most impossible of missions and aided him in the most incredible of rescues. While we killed giants, saved children from burning houses, or conquered “evil planets”, I of course made use of every conceivable opportunity for turning these imaginary battles into actual triumphs in Feldenkrais terms. Time and again that entailed attempting to incorporate relatively easy learning situations into our playing, furthering flexible attentiveness and bodily agility. For several weeks in succession we had our Feldenkrais playtime in a cosy attic room. As William climbed up and down, holding onto the ladder we had to use to get there, his left arm started to become more free and extend all by itself. A wobbly round basket became a boat which only could be kept from capsizing if he balanced himself with his arms extended sideways; a long plank served several purposes - as a more or less steep slope, a slide, or a ladder; and a broomstick was used by the little fireman as a pole down which he slid at top speed to reach his vehicle when there was an emergency.

This youngster never lacked motivation and ideas for games. I saw my task as mainly involving making even the craziest of impulses into a starting-point for genuine organic learning, which of course only succeeded sometimes and partially. William had just become seven when he hit on the idea of staging a particularly daring Houdini-style trick. He was standing on his chariot, one hand holding the reins and the other whipping his horse onwards in a wild chase across the steppes, while I was moving forwards and backwards (sometimes faster or more slowly) four big rollers supporting a board on which William sought to maintain balance. Suddenly it occurred to him that he should attempt an act of self-liberation in this precarious situation. For that I had to tie his wrists together (of course using a piece of elastic so that the young hero had a chance of really freeing himself) and then remain on the alert since perhaps he had taken on too much. But as so often William once again demonstrated that he hadn’t overestimated his capacities. I had to marvel at the way he skilfully balanced on the constantly moving board – this time completely without using his arms. He twisted and turned just like the celebrated Houdini until he had freed himself from the elastic shackles.

William’s dream-like assurance was all the more astonishing since in his early years he had been so unsure about space, gravity, and movement, resulting time and again in traumatic experiences. At the start of our Feldenkrais adventures his concerned mother told me her little son often sat crying at the top of the stairs at home, unable to move because he was afraid of once again falling and hurting himself. At other times he squatted in a corner with his face to the wall, crying with frustration, hitting his left arm, and shouting “I hate you, I hate you”.

Once his hands were free the little boy unexpectedly jumped into the air and - to my relief – landed on the back of his horse (one of my oval balls, all of which were decorated at that time with eyes, a mouth, nostrils, ears, and manes). Now galloping on his horse, he triumphantly declared: “I really surprised myself”, adding after a little reflection “I thought I couldn’t do it, but I knew I wouldn’t fall off.

After that experience of success William was ready to “rest” – in other words to allow me to cautiously guide his body into still unfamiliar possibilities of arching the back. That gave him a new idea. Next time he would attempt the same trick of freeing himself but this time with hands tied behind his back.

A few weeks later William decided to start our session with another chariot chase: “It’s really fun because I’m so good at balancing”. That wasn’t empty boasting or wishful thinking. The little boy’s self-perception and skill had really got dramatically better over the course of time. He thereby confirmed that “Our self-image is never static. It changes from action to action” (Moshe Feldenkrais, Awareness Through Movement, 1968) – so long as we remain responsive to the demands of genuine learning. What William learnt in all this playing was something very important, which many people never acquire throughout their life: So long as he directed undivided attention – as during this precarious balancing act and liberation - to the complex multi-sensory stimuli his nervous system had to cope with, the idea of failure had no power over him.

William’s trust in me (as a “friend” as he often emphasised; he never saw me as a “teacher”) was accompanied by mounting self-confidence – with the result that our “play sessions” could gradually become an extremely subtle “wordless communication” between our two nervous systems, or, in other words, the “dance” Moshe Feldenkrais often invoked when he spoke about the essence of Functional Integration. In such a dance both partners move with the same gentleness and ease, and it is no longer possible to recognise who is leading whom. Ever-greater unspoken agreement between us about the direction and nature of our playful research, and splendid moments of discovery when cautiously exploring new ways of implementing some specific objective, also resulted in William starting to enjoy our increasingly silent kinaesthetic dialogue more and more. Occasions allowing him to listen tranquilly and attentively within himself ever more frequently revealed an authentic feeling of new degrees of freedom, and thus also an increasingly reliable inner knowledge of what was actually “do-able” in a specific situation. For instance, soon William no longer had any difficulty in stretching his left arm forwards or above his head – or even backwards – so as to get something out of his back pocket. All that was reflected in a growing range of movement and a more positive and reality-oriented self-image.

Time and again there were opportunities for demonstrating his mounting self-assurance, for instance when he was presented to medical students as an interesting case, or when (with his wonderful Granny’s help) he climbed over a barrier so as present a bunch of flowers to the English Queen. Prince Philip then complimented William on his perfectly executed bow, which long filled him with pride.

P0000675Another special highpoint for William was his first appearance in front of a film camera, followed by an opportunity to see himself on screen. During development of a video film about use of inflatable balloons in Feldenkrais work I had hit on the idea of replacing long explanations of “Air as a means of communication with the nervous system” by entrusting William with demonstrating what the secret is, i.e. that the air-pressure must be just right with the balloon neither too hard nor too soft. His little body really did demonstrate with convincing clarity what happens when a Feldenkrais student’s nervous system receives proprioceptive-kinaesthetic feedback from the movements of a softly-yielding support. William didn’t need to put on an artificial show. As he sat like a rider on a ball that was either too hard or too soft, he fell involuntarily backwards into my arms. He was only securely seated (with a reliable and clear relationship with gravity) if the balloon was correctly inflated. As soon as his little behind sank minimally into its surface, William immediately started to move as if he were trotting on a real horse, calling out: “That’s good”. Then during a number of other experiments with balloons my little assistant suddenly turned to the camera, wiping imaginary sweat from his brow, and declared: “Wow, showbiz is hard work”.

As fate would have it, this development process which had begun so promisingly was put under stress just when I was happy that we had at long last created the basis for “real” FI lessons. I thought that we could now jointly set about a venture which was of particular importance for William: developing more strength and skill in his left hand. But just after his seventh birthday our Feldenkrais sessions became increasingly infrequent because William’s parents had to struggle with serious problems (mounting alienation between them, sparked off by the father’s cancer leading to increasingly self-destructive behaviour; and a third pregnancy for the completely overburdened mother, who only managed to hold the family together thanks to the grandmother’s total support).

Despite all her good intentions, after the birth of her third son Emma only occasionally found time to bring William to me for a Feldenkrais session. Maintaining a degree of continuity was also made more difficult by my occasional absences from Bath, teaching elsewhere. William reacted with migraines and dizziness to mounting uncertainty and emotional upheavals in school and at home, and fell over on the school playground with disturbing frequency (as the headmaster wrote to his parents). I soon discovered that such falls were sometimes caused by rough fellow pupils when William once turned up with plasters on his knees and cheeks and complained about bullies’ cowardly tricks. Only after he transferred to a private special school did he regain a degree of balance (both literally and metaphorically). An important part was also played here by his beloved Granny treating him to a weekly riding lesson. These lessons supplied important motivation towards purposeful somatic learning in our now less frequent Feldenkrais encounters. Such learning primarily involved recognition and gradual overcoming of differences between the left and right halves of his body, and also increasingly conscious reduction of muscle tonus in the left leg, arm, and hand – above all by experiencing unsuspected possibilities of movement in the spine and pelvis. Our programme also included attempts at implementing differentiated finger movements.

Once I accompanied William to his riding lesson. On horseback he really seemed “his true self”. Absolutely fearlessly, with excellent posture and a gently undulating backbone, he directed the horse though the stable-yard, using both hands. The young rider and his horse formed a unity such as is not seen all that frequently. I was reminded of what he had once confided to me: “I’d most like to be a centaur, half human being, half horse … or a faun”.When he joined a theatre club for children William’s imagination as a scarcely eight year-old was taken in a direction which decisively enriched his life whilst at the same time making it even more hectic. Feldenkrais learning with me was put aside for a while but at the same time proved its value in “real life” – in this instance on stage. With a tail and an umbrella nonchalantly swinging from his left arm, William was highly successful as “Mr Faun”, forced to serve a wicked witch until he was freed. For that he had to learn a lot of text by heart, which was easy enough for a youngster with an above-average talent for verbal communication.

When those performances were over, William again appeared more regularly in my practice: “I want to come. Feldenkrais is great … the best thing I can imagine after a stressful day at school”. Our sessions – he added – had always been the most interesting events in his life – “… a lot better than nursery school”. Somewhat bashfully, he one day entrusted me with a very special secret: “I shouldn’t really tell you this, but every birthday, when I blow out the candles on the cake, I wish that I were three years old again”. And the reason: “At that time I was alone with Mummy at home … and that was also the time when I met you”. Sometimes he remembered a game he had played with me as a very small boy and absolutely wanted to experience again – such as spearing rings with his lance during a “riding tournament” which had mainly served co-ordination of hand and eyes. “That was more fun than playing with toys”.

The fact that William’s mother was fully occupied with her new baby meant that what had been at least sporadic communication with Emma finally broke down altogether. My little friend and client sometimes seemed rather sad and neglected; he was now brought to me occasionally by his father but mostly by his grandmother who was happy to have a little time for reading or simply taking a rest during William’s Feldenkrais lesson.

One day I learnt that the ten year-old’s left arm and all the fingers of the left hand were to be put into a splint. I felt powerless and frustrated since I couldn’t prevent what from a Feldenkrais standpoint was a dubious intervention. It was explained to me that a specialist had persuaded Emma that William’s “brain would only get used to the possibility of the left arm being straight” if both arm and hand were put for 12 months into a splint made of special “feather-light” stretch-bandage. The result was of course predictable. “Will” was occasionally insufferable – particularly during the hot summer months when freedom of movement was restricted and accompanied by often unbearable itching. Ultimately Emma was rather disappointed: “His left arm and hand are now nice and straight, but he hardly uses them any longer. Before he used to be quite skilful” – she once complained during a phone call.

Some time passed before William once again began to be interested in the functioning of his left hand and appropriate “exercises”. He was often much too tired after school for anything like that or something else was more important for him, such as relieving back pain (especially after a fall when riding) or spasticity in his left leg intensified by stress at school or in everyday life. However one day he was once again completely motivated. “I want to learn to tie my shoe-laces myself. It’s really embarrassing to ask an adult to help me”. He came out with that at the start of one of our last Feldenkrais lessons. We immediately set about constructing a Montessori-inspired device and putting it to the test. William’s grandmother took this construction home and I could only hope that someone would occasionally find time to help William practice.

As the months passed Luke, William’s sweet young brother, turned out to be a little devil. His sharp teeth often left conspicuous marks on William’s arms and even on his face. As Luke grew up these “attacks” gradually diminished and finally stopped altogether. However despite this precarious moratorium there were still clashes between the brothers. In his last but one Feldenkrais lesson, in May 2006, William arrived in tears and uncommunicative in a way I had never previously experienced. That delightful little monster, Luke, had hit his head so hard with a wooden sword that he still felt the pain. This time I was truly thankful that Emma decided on the spot to turn up with the victim of this surprise attack. William settled on the air table2 without even looking at me. As I began using cautious physical contact and movement to bring the upset child back to himself, he fell into a deep sleep. Soon a little smile appeared on his face. “Perhaps” – I thought – “he is dreaming of his favourite horse”. And then I experienced something very strange: the phenomenon that C.G. Jung calls “synchronicity”. I suddenly heard the sound of horse’s hooves outside in the courtyard. William opened his eyes, sat up, and asked: “Was that a horse ? I’ve just dreamt of a horse”. And then there was the sound of hooves again. Looking out of the window I could scarcely believe my eyes; I’d never seen anything like it in the 23 years I’d lived here. Outside a young man was riding an unsaddled farm-horse out of the courtyard - in the middle of the elegant city of Bath ! An ecstatic William was just in time to see the rider’s back and the horse’s rump vanishing around the corner. He was absolutely sure that his dream had conjured up a real horse beneath our window – and once again he was completely himself. The headache had vanished too. As so often for William the world of imagination and concrete reality had merged for a moment. (1)

Jan2007027In another large-scale theatre production in summer 2006 William was pretty much the main character, and his performance so convincing that a shiver ran down my spine. In a stage version of William Golding’s celebrated novel “Lord of the Flies”, he played “Piggy” (more than averagely mature but short-sighted and unattractive in appearance) who is stranded on a Pacific island together with other English schoolboys. Golding presents the attempt to live together as “well brought up” and civilised human beings as a failure. In the absence of adult authority the boys become savages frighteningly quickly. The island’s trees are increasingly destroyed as fires rage uncontrollably, ultimately attracting a rescue ship. Before that happens a somewhat dreamy boy called Simon is mistaken for a wild boar and hunted to death. Then the virtually blind Piggy, who early on had been deprived of his glasses for use in starting fires, is thrown off a cliff and dies. With him disappears the only boy who had tried to prevent a decline into total barbarism.

William “simply knew” that he could learn by heart the long text for this demanding part – he said in the interview mentioned at the start of this text. He also added, very realistically: “When I was eight or nine I had been Mr Faun, and for an eight year-old that text was about as huge as Piggy’s now for a twelve year-old”. When asked what he most liked about this experience of theatre, he answered: “I most enjoyed jumping off the back of the stage when the other boys threw me off the cliff at the end. That was a big jump but someone was waiting for me on the mat down below”. Then William worked out for me how many times he’d jumped into this darkness: thirty times and each time with pleasure and delight. For a boy who originally didn’t have the confidence to walk downstairs for fear of falling that was an exceptional achievement.

William most disliked the fact that the other boys often really pushed him around instead of just pretending. “I no longer had my glasses and couldn’t see anything. I sometimes slithered around on the stage because the floor was made slippery by the baby-oil we had to smear over ourselves – and the stage also sloped towards the front”. Then he spoke at length about the art of the actor who should never completely identify with his role. “One boy, no in fact two, went completely crazy. They really became the characters they played on stage, which is really not good”. He himself was once again Will after the performance – but not completely as I learnt soon afterwards. William told me how he and the boy who was the other victim, Simon, often sat backstage and wondered what would happen if there were a sequel with the thuggish gang spending years on the island instead of being almost miraculously saved. The two decided that Simon and Piggy would then haunt the island as ghosts, ensuring that their murderers killed one another in turn until only their leader remained and, in a state of madness, finally kills himself. It was not clear whether William was thinking of the stage characters or of the boys playing them.

In answer to my question “Can you imagine a future as an actor” I received the following answer: “Oh I’m not so sure about that. I think I’d rather stage a play or perhaps write one since I’d like to find out how it feels to go without applause and praise … I’ve already written a few poems”. Perhaps William really wasn’t aiming too high when he nonchalantly added: “Yes, in fact what I’d really like is to try writing a play”.

Jan2007028After all my experiences with William I am convinced that it was largely due to his handicap forcing him from the very start into the role of an outsider (and also thanks to early learning the Feldenkrais way) that this intelligent youngster could start even as a very small child to cope, actively and creatively, with problems that confront everyone. Moshe Feldenkrais sometimes talked about that task, which he believed only very few people fully master. He stressed that we don’t become capable of really “constructive” behaviour if we don’t succeed in somehow bringing into balance the illusionary sense of “omnipotence” normally experienced daily at the start of our life (Mother and food will come if we express our wishes and needs sufficiently loudly) and the unavoidable later experience of “insignificance” and “inadequacy”. Over the course of time those who work consciously on themselves become capable of dealing intelligently with this basic conflict. On the other hand less mature people never learn how to do so.



(1) Perhaps William was not on the wrong track here as might be conventionally thought. In the eyes of those who have accepted a new worldview based on decades of quantum physics, such an experience is nothing special. For example Professor Hans-Peter Dürr, a pupil of Heisenberg’s and former director of the Max Planck Institute in Munich, writes in his book “Auch die Wissenschaft spricht nur in Gleichnissen” (“Science too only speaks in metaphors”, Herder Spektrum 2004) about “reality as potentiality”, as a “ ‘field of expectation’ – strictly speaking with everything in the world involved in its coming into existence. That is not an energy-field but rather a boundless information-field extended over the entire world (measuring an intensity of relatedness and not limited to three-dimensional space). This is linked with the probability of emergence of future events involving matter and energy” (p. 31). Again according to Dürr, the present designates “the moment when potentiality coalesces as facticity, and possibility as actuality” (p. 33).