The First Law
If we look in a certain way, we see that everything in our universe is about one of two things: either movement—which is energy, change, information—or stillness—which has to do with awareness, capacity, or space. I like to think the work I do is mostly about restoring movement.
Without exception, every initial interview I’ve ever had with a client has been devoted to metaphorically walking around with them, the two of us looking at what’s not moving. But it isn’t stillness we’re seeing, it’s this very different thing, called ‘stuck’.
The 17th century mathematician Isaac Newton’s First Law was that a body in motion stays in motion unless some force acts on it. Now, apart from the apple that’s said to have landed on him, Newton wasn’t focusing on living things. But his first law actually fits the living quite well. Life is, after all, about movement. So we could say, as a very good first approximation, that if something in life isn’t moving, there’s a force being applied to stop it.
And we can take it as given that whatever the force is stopping the movement in our lives, we’re the ones applying it. Which makes my job kind of simple, even if it isn’t very easy. All I need to do is understand the process through which my clients are applying this stopping force and, after helping them see it, work with them to integrate a process that supports movement.
A few years ago, a friend and I gave a talk in which we intended to explore what’s actually trying to emerge from all the chaos and suffering in the world around us. But what we ended up talking about that night was how compelling it is for us to turn away from whatever it is we don’t want to feel.
For example, we may not always say what we really want, even to ourselves, because we don’t want to feel what it’s like if we don’t get it. Or we fear losing relationships we sense might not be able to tolerate who we really are. Or who we might become. And all of us fight with our partners—generally because something they do makes us feel like we did as children. And if we don’t read that story on climate change, it’s likely because we don’t want to feel overwhelmed, helpless and afraid.
As it turns out, we all turn away for a couple of reasons: either as a way to avoid the pain and discomfort that comes with change, or to protect ourselves from the effects of a past injury.
Turning away from what we’re unwilling—or unable—to feel is the force we apply which stops the movement of our living. This impulse is so strong, and it happens so quickly, that we generally aren’t even aware we’ve done it.
There’s also a big difference between, let’s say, that thrill of fear which happens as we’re about to do something risky for the first time and the feeling that comes up when we’re panicked. With this kind of fear, our concern is about whether we can actually do this new thing. That’s about growth, about being called by life to something bigger. But with panic, we actually lose access to what we’re already capable of doing. And that has more to do with a trauma we’re still trying to escape.
The difference between what growth and trauma feel like is important because the problems of growth can often be worked through with the mind and an understanding of what’s going on. But trauma operates at the level of survival and requires attention to our emotions and our bodies.
Regardless of whether our reaction is to the painful pressure of growth or the limitations of a past trauma, when that reaction is below our “see” level, it seems like it happens to us rather than being something we do. And it compounds the illusion that there’s nothing, evidently, we can do.
But as Moshe Feldenkrais has said, when we know what we’re doing, we can do what we want.