To Begin Again

happy-new-year-1063797_1280The year is new, still shiny, no dents in it, fresh off the showroom floor, with that New Year smell. I was chatting with a friend yesterday around the idea of resolutions and planning the year, figuring out how each of us would move forward on projects and intentions. My friend briefly shared the situation of one of his clients who had recently experienced a series of setbacks in her business. She was going to have to start over, he said. But, having created a successful business before, she knew the process and could rebuild using the same steps.

I know the feeling and the experience of starting over. When one endures losses and leaves an old way of life behind, the prospect of “starting over” is daunting. As I reflected more, it came to me that I sense a subtle difference between two ideas that seem the same on the surface. My visceral response is qualitatively different when I think, “Start over,” compared to when I think, “Begin again.” Do those feel different to you?

When I think, “Start over,” I think of poor Sisyphus pushing the gigantic boulder up the hill – only to slide back to the very bottom again and again. Indeed, “Backsliding” has some judgment loaded into it. Stop! Everything you just did was wrong. Irredemable. Trash it. You’ll have to start over. I hear the voice of my old piano teacher, or some other authority figure who knew the standard and determined that I had not met it.

But “Begin again” feels better somehow. Whatever I did before, even if it didn’t work, contains nuggets of information and learning that I can build upon, fine-tune, and improve. “Begin again” doesn’t stipulate WHAT I am to begin – it could be something entirely different, just begin. “Start over” makes it likely that I will make the same mistakes, because I am doing the same thing, again. Begin something, anything. Don’t stop beginning. When I begin again, I do it at my own pace and in my own way, not compelled by some outer influence.

The Feldenkrais Method has within it the notion of being a beginner every time one comes to practice. In the Method, one is a beginner every day, because there is always something new to learn, always a new circumstance to adapt to, always a different constraint or “wrinkle” in the system that wasn’t there before. Even the expert or master teacher is a beginner, having become expert at beginning. We work according to an iterative process: begin a movement. Begin it again, and add to it. Begin again, and vary it in some way. Through the process of many beginnings, improvements emerge and grow. In the Feldenkrais Method, there’s no need to reach the pinnacle of achievement or the height of one’s potential on the first attempt. We’re in it for the duration. Successive approximations, baby steps, will get us there.

One comes to understand the Zen idea of “the beginner’s mind.” In one way, a beginner is a novice, an innocent, someone with humility because they have no expertise or prior knowledge in the domain they are studying. This freedom from preconceptions enables one to see things with fresh eyes. The beginner comes with an “empty cup,” an open mind, ready to learn. My understanding of the beginner’s mind has evolved to include another aspiration: a beginner is one who begins, who makes beginnings like a potter makes pots, or a watchmaker makes watches. A beginner is someone who is willing to move out of physical, emotional, or ideological stasis and begin on some path, even if it’s not perfect. You can always adjust course as you go. How does one think before beginning? The mind of one who begins things is creative and courageous. In the face of seeming failure, of discouragement, or confusion, one can always make a new beginning.

What would you like to begin?



Blackeyed Peas

It’s a ritual in my family, handed down from my Arkansas mama in our suburban-Chicago kitchen when I was growing up, and handed down to her through generations of southern cooks. I’ve passed along the cultural and culinary imperative to my children as well. We eat blackeyed peas on New Year’s Day.

I accept this tradition without question. When I was growing up, we did not enjoy the multiculturalism or diversity that we take for granted today. Eating blackeyed peas up north was kind of weird back then. We are also blackeyed pea purists. No “Hoppin’ John” for us, no cooking them with jalapenos or anything else funny. A little bacon, or maybe ham (omitted during my vegetarian period). Some onion. Salt and pepper. Water to cover, boil, simmer, let them cook down. I’ve added a few simple innovations through the years. Chicken stock, or beer, or both, for part of the liquid. A couple of tablespoons of cumin tossed in. If I’m using bacon, I cut it into small pieces and brown it in the pan before I start. I drain off most of the bacon fat, give the pan a shot of olive oil, and then saute the onions until soft. I add the cumin, salt and pepper, and just a little stock to get all the good stuff off the bottom of the pan. Then, in go the peas, covered with liquid. They don’t take long to cook. You can eat in about an hour, but they can keep cooking all day if you have a lot of people through.

We also serve the peas drained. No soupyness. They shall be served with pickle relish. Also pretty good with some fresh chopped onion. Ham and cornbread round out the menu. WHY do we do this? It’s the insurance policy for good luck in the coming year.

Even though it’s against everything I was brought up to believe, I do understand why cooks would be tempted to go all fancy with a blackeyed pea recipe. People devoutly defend their preferences as a matter of faith, which it is. Additions of rice, cream, peppers, exotic spices — well, it’s not my style. What nobody really comes out and tells you is, blackeyed peas have no flavor. None. None of their own, anyway. If you’re expecting a flavorful dish, you’ll be disappointed. The fancier the recipe, the more obvious the fact becomes. Better to just go pretty plain.

So I got to thinking that blackeyed peas are the perfect food to start out a new year. I remember my mother emptying the bag of peas into her hand to rinse them as the water ran into the colander. She went through, pea by pea, because there might be some little rocks in there, and you don’t want that. I do the same thing. The flavorlessness of the peas reminds me that they, and the year ahead, can be bland and boring, or they can be a feast. I think of my maternal grandmother, visiting us for New Year’s when I was about seven, piling on the pickle relish like there was no tomorrow. She went for it, and so should we all. You have to add what you like to make it tasty, nourishing, fulfilling. The blackeyed pea, like the year ahead, is the tiny tabula rasa, the blank slate, waiting for your contribution. As Moshe Feldenkrais said, “Trust yourself to work out what is right for you.”

Have you some peas, now. And a Happy New Year!

You Won’t See These in 2009

What do Bill Blass, Polaroids, and Chocolate-Cherry Dr. Pepper have in common? All will be moving on in 2009. (Click here for the complete list.) Having run their course, become obsolete, or just wanting to try something different, they will move aside to make room for The New, whatever that is.

Even people who are not particularly introspective will take the opportunity at New Year to take a personal inventory. We make our resolutions like sorting through a crowded closet: most people occasionally see the need to clear things out, and we use certain universal criteria. What don’t I wear anymore? What has gone out of style? What needs to be pitched? What do I love?

People are at their most ambitious around New Year’s Resolutions. We are pulled toward the grand statement and the bold gesture. We love the drama of the complete overhaul, especially if it comes with great sacrifice. Because of our love of overdoing, most New Year’s resolutions are not sustainable. Any new behavior, whether we’re starting something or stopping something, has a learning curve. Behaviors are learned, and get better with practice. It’s no surprise, then, (since I’m a Feldenkrais teacher) that I favor incremental action, baby steps, and successive approximations as a way of sustaining our good intentions of the new year. If you learn as you go, and make small adjustments along the way, you’ll vastly increase the likelihood of success. We can return to the image of cleaning out a closet.

“What don’t I wear anymore?” Has anything become obsolete? This question doesn’t just apply to articles of clothing. It can apply to your total self-image, and thus to your actions. What groups do you belong to, but never attend? (Include online groups as well as in-person.) What about all the email newsletters, blogs you read (including this one)? What about your relationships, clients, activities, beliefs? Anything just “taking up space,” bandwidth, energy? Anything no longer useful, or fun, or joy bringing? Pass them along, throw them away, make a decision.

“What has gone out of style?” What has just run its course? That was then, this is now. Is there anything you keep doing, “Just Because?” All forms of over-indulgence can go here. It’s fashionable to think of eating, spending, or things in the “Vices” category at New Year’s. How about overworking, over exercising, spending too much time online? Realistically, it’s not like we can stop anything completely. We must eat, we must spend, we must work, we must exercise. Our resolution can be to be more mindful about the quantities and make actual choices rather than staying on auto-pilot. Who do you want to be this year?

“What needs to be pitched?” Anything broken, and not fixable? Threadbare and worn? Recycle and reuse what you can, but let go of the rest. In movement, we can discover patterns that emerged long ago, after a physical or emotional injury, that helped us to deal with the pain. The guarding here, the holding there. The slump or slouch, the ramrod-straight back. Shallow breathing, muscles tensed. The pattern remains, although the danger has passed. It takes special awareness to shift away from these unconscious patterns of action.

“What do I love?” What can’t you do without? What’s really worth the investment of your time and attention? What would you like to make even better than it is now? What would you like to explore, discover, enjoy?

At the end of the process, you will have less “stuff,” but more happiness, satisfaction, pleasure.

Moshe Feldenkrais was one who observed that the difference between the person who has mastered a particular discipline, and the person who is incompetent. Oddly, the difference is not in the level of skill, or dedication, or focus. Incompetents are often highly skilled, committed, and single-minded in their quest for achievement. The difference is, the incompetent person is always doing more than is necessary, usually unaware of this fact, and thereby gets in his own way. The master’s efforts are efficient, streamlined, almost minimalist in comparison. Nothing is wasted, everything is conscious. It seems so counter-intuitive to us that we can achieve our goals by learning to do less. I like to think of each Feldenkrais lesson as being a little laboratory experiment, where I can learn how to reduce the effort, the noise, the stuff. Is it any surprise that everything works better, looks better, feels better, when the way is clear?

Perhaps you’ll develop your own personal list of “Things You Won’t See in 2009.” What you WILL see in 2009 is the continuing presence of the Feldenkrais Center of Houston, and the Feldenkrais Method worldwide. We look forward to assisting you in your learning in the coming year!