Following the Road Less Traveled
By Paul Linden, Ph.D.

I sometimes think there are two kinds of people: those who pursue self-knowledge and those who focus their lives in other directions. I would guess that the road less traveled is the path of self-awareness.

A few years ago, in a body work training I was conducting, we had reached the stage where my students were working with the public under my supervision. Two women were receiving lessons, and at the end of the lessons, we all gathered together to discuss how the lessons had gone. Both the women started off their comments the same way: “In the lesson, I found out that everything I thought I knew about walking was wrong.” One continued by saying, “That was so exciting!” But the other said: “That was so depressing.” This vignette illustrates the difference between the two kinds of people. To a person seeking knowledge, being shown they are in error is a wonderful gift. It enables them to become better. But to a person whose primary drive is not self-understanding, being shown an error may be burdensome or threatening.

Another vignette would be interesting. About thirty years ago, when I was a new Aikido teacher, the leader of a therapy group asked me to do a presentation on self-defense. At one point, as I was talking about psychological preparation, I made the comment that if you lose a fight you did something wrong. The people listening became enraged. Luckily, the leader of the group understood what I meant and what the participants had heard, instead. She explained to me that they had heard me blaming the victim instead of blaming the attacker. Once she clued me in, I was able to explain that there are two reasons why I might be hit: one is that an attacker throws a punch at me, and the other is that I fail to block the punch. If the world were fair, I would not have to expend any energy to keep myself safe. It would be the attacker who should change so that he or she wouldn't punch me. However, the only things under my control are my actions. If I failed to block this time, by focusing on what I did wrong, I can learn from that and do better next time. Instead of blaming the victim, I was actually trying to convey an attitude which would promote ongoing learning and growth, but that was so foreign to the group members that they attacked me. Of course, it wasn't their fault that they interpreted my remarks as they did: our cultural mindset doesn't encourage a sense of response-ability.

Once I was doing body awareness lessons with a young man who was referred to me by his psychologist for anger management. The young man would, for example, get obsessed with examining some object, and if he asked a question about the object and didn't receive a satisfactory answer immediately, he would get become enraged. My strategy from day one was to help him notice that anger (and other feelings) took place in his body and could be controlled through making changes in his breathing and posture. He had great difficulty taking in this insight, and part of that was a result of the structure of the English language. He kept making statements such as, “My mother made me so angry when she wouldn't give me time to look at the bird.” Notice that his statement amounted to saying: “It, outside of me, MADE me do anger in my body.” It took a long time for him to understand that anger was a voluntary behavior which came from internal decisions he made. It would have been less of a struggle if the ordinary English expression were something like, “I did anger when my mother wouldn't give me time to look at the bird.” My impression is that most people lean toward the philosophical position that they really aren't responsible for their feelings and actions, which amounts to saying that the self cannot be studied and improved.

A key to studying the self is learning to direct attention or awareness. An interesting exercise in self-awareness and self-study involves paying attention to the shape of your field of awareness.  I like to think of awareness as being similar to light radiating from a light bulb. Awareness originates in you and shines outward onto your world. As you read this article, notice the shape of your awareness field. I would guess that you have a narrow beam of attention shining on the page in front of you. Does the page draw your attention toward it, or do you have a choice about the shape of your attentional field? Could you, for example, shine attention on the page and on the rest of your surroundings at the same time? That would make your awareness into a broad field instead of a narrow beam. What does that feel like? Would you need more practice to do it well? Does it affect your comprehension of what you are reading?

Once you can feel the shape of your attention, you can play with noticing the shapes you adopt for various activities in your life. What about driving or cooking or mowing the lawn? Does changing the shape of your attentional field have an effect on how well you do an activity? Is there a different optimal shape for different activities, or is there one shape which is generally the best for any and all activities?

Making this kind of exercise part of your daily life will certainly take you beyond the road most traveled.  

PAUL LINDEN, Ph.D., is a body/movement awareness educator, a martial artist, and author. He is co-director of the Columbus Center for Movement Studies (www.being-in-movement.com), at which he teaches Aikido, Being In Movement® mindbody training, and the Feldenkrais Method® of somatic education. Paul is the author of “Comfort at Your Computer” “Teaching Children Embodied Peacemaking” and “Winning is Healing-Body Awareness and Empowerment for Abuse Survivors.” His work focuses on the application in daily activities of an integrated mindbody state of awareness, power, love and freedom.