The Ultimate Object: Overcoming Self-Created Obstacles Through Mime
By Jane Evenson
Birth is the original experience of disorientation. The world presents itself as a three-dimensional obstacle course that we must learn to navigate. In the first year of life the child embarks on a hero's journey to attain the vertical dimension and walk upright. But as consciousness develops, physical obstacles presented in exterior space become pebbles in the road compared to imagined obstacles created in interior space. These self-created obstacles are a greater impediment to physical navigation than we might realize, as participants in Samuel Avital's BodySpeak™ workshops soon discover.
Call it gravitational tango - a dance of self and others in three-dimensional space. It's the theme of a wonderful film in which a blind man drives a Ferrari and teaches a young woman to dance but nearly crashes against deeper self-created obstacles: "When you get tangled up in life, tango on."
Avital's work refines at the deepest levels the ability to navigate life through all its perplexing entanglements - physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. It is the very definition of "interactivity:" a process whereby knowledge is embedded in bone, muscle, and sinew through action in a group-learning environment. Participation in a BodySpeak™ workshop is an object lesson, quite literally, in the powers of kinesthetic learning and active imagination.
Developing "Stick Consciousness"
Take that simplest of objects: a stick. Because of its representational capabilities, Avital calls it "The Ultimate Object." Students come to the workshop equipped with a three-quarter-inch dowel about the length of a broomstick. It can become a magic wand, a sword, a scepter, spyglass, digging tool, fishing pole, broom, barbell, flag pole, walking staff, measuring rod, musical instrument, or most meaningfully in the workshop environment, a threshold. Avital uses a simple exercise to illustrate a principle.
"Take the stick in your two hands," he says. Then he illustrates the maneuver: "Hands shoulder width apart. Now lean down. The stick should be at the height of your ankles. Now step over the stick without letting go of it with your two hands. Simple."
Not so simple. No one can do it. Even after several attempts. The biomechanical tendency is to lift the stick while taking the step. The stick converts instantly from threshold to obstacle. "How to solve this problem?" Avital asks.
A few people start to get the knack of it, but with effort. They strain and groan, catching their feet, stepping on the sticks, dropping the sticks. Suddenly there is a cacophony of dropping sticks as frustration mounts. Then Avital explains the secret. Most people grip the stick too hard, hanging on for dear life. "Let's start over," he suggests. "We need to develop stick consciousness."
Try the workshop exercise yourself. A broomstick (without the broom head) will do, but a smooth dowel works best.
The first step is to learn to relax your grip. Cradle the stick in your hands - holding it loosely, hands shoulder width apart, palms open and up, fingers and thumb curved slightly inward towards each other to create a cylindrical space. Revolve the stick toward you with a quick, shaking motion - rolling it over and over in the hollow of your hands. This loosens the grip and stimulates the hands, increasing relaxation and alertness at the same time. Simple.
The next step is to learn to measure your effort and the strength of your grip. Hold the stick vertically, grasping it lightly with your fingertips, resting it on the floor in front of the body midline, right hand close to the middle of the stick about six inches below the left, elbows relaxed and close to the body, eyes looking straight ahead toward the "horizon," not focused on the stick. With a staccato thrust of your right hand, propel the stick straight up through the hollow of your left hand and catch it with both hands close together near the end of the stick - without looking at the stick or letting it fly out of control. Release the stick to slide down through your hands again and catch it just before it strikes the floor.
Not so simple. But after a few trials a miracle happens. Through a subtle interplay of attention and relaxation, the body learns to measure distance, sets the grip at just the right strength and releases the stick with the proper measure of élan, a key word in the lexicon of Le Centre du Silence.
In Avital's definition, élan is the spirit of the movement, its energy signature and life force. It is like a spring or a trampoline bounce that recoils to gather force for the thrust. Low energy? Low spirits? Frustration? Fear? "Ah," says Avital. "That's part of the élan, the trampoline (trampoline) that you use to bounce back in order to propel yourself to greater heights."
Another key word in the Avital lexicon is the Kabbalistic term, Kavannah. As Aryeh Kaplan says, Kavannah means many things: concentration, attention, devotion, intention, and more -"the sum being more than the parts." (Chaplain, 1982, p. 118) Avital defines it as "the flame of attention" - the ability to be aware of the target, as in the Zen art of archery, without inhibiting the arrow's flight. Breathing helps, and a certain élan.
Now that you have acquired "stick consciousness" in the vertical dimension, you are ready to master the horizontal. Hold the stick waist high in front of the body - elbows close to your waist, right hand palm up at the middle of the stick, cradling it loosely, index and middle finger of the left hand lightly touching the left end of the stick on the tip. Again, look toward the horizon, not at the stick. With the élan you developed for the vertical thrust of the stick, now use the two fingers of your left hand to propel the stick sideways through the cylinder formed by the right hand. Again, catch the stick near the end, but this time just with the right hand. Be careful. Avoid pointing the stick toward fragile objects. It might be best to do this exercise outdoors. Repeat the process several times until you master the right-hand thrust-and-catch. Then reverse and try it several times to the left.
The next step combines horizontal and vertical. Return to step one and resume rolling the stick. Now toss the stick up with both hands, letting go and reversing your hands, and catch the stick overhand at arm's length above your head. The ideal is to accomplish this maneuver without looking at the stick or above your head, focusing your gaze on the horizon throughout the move. At this point, though, Avital will say, "Be merciful with yourself." It is okay to look at the stick the first few times to avoid hitting yourself on the head.
After several visually aided successes, when you accomplish the catch without looking, the effect can be exhilarating. The uplift of the movement opens the chest and makes the heart beat faster. You have avoided danger. You fantasize momentarily about trying out for Cirque du Soleil. Avital contributes to the moment by signaling "Up" as an acrobat would. You send the stick aloft again. Success is sweet. Now try the same maneuver, but catch the stick with one hand at a time, alternating left and right. You begin to feel like a warrior brandishing a spear.
Steps Five, Six, Seven…
In the workshop, the stick session lasts over an hour, with many variations of the exercises. Sticks are tossed back and forth among participants at various angles and elevations. Avital heightens the element of "danger" by sweeping the stick back and forth low across the floor, triggering whoops and a percussion of jumping feet. Again, there is a warrior-like release. The workshop has a shamanic feel. Children learn this way, spontaneously through mimicry. Adults have forgotten how.
Now it is time to return to the threshold exercise and try it again. You are ready to practice a skill that in the art of mime is called "fixation" - the ability to fix one area of the body at a point in space and move the rest of the body around that point. It is of course easiest to use your foot as the pivot, because you can fix it in contact with the floor. But it is also possible to hold your head as a fixed point and move around that, or your shoulder, elbow, knee, virtually any part of the body.
In this case, you will "fix" the position of your hands. Remember: it was the tendency to lift the stick while stepping up that caused problems in the first place. Begin by holding the stick at the height of the ankles. Grasp it lightly with the fingertips. Focus on maintaining your hands at the level of an imaginary two-dimensional plane and pivot your body up and over that fixed level. Angle your hips slightly, if necessary. Breathe. Relax. Step over.
Now try the same maneuver at the level of the knees and then at the upper thighs. This requires good abdominal muscles and somewhat greater agility, but the same measure of Kavannah.
If you followed the steps of these exercises and were not able to accomplish the maneuvers, do not lose heart. Verbal description is no substitute for the workshop and is only intended to provide the flavor of the experience. Avital gives a hilarious mime performance called "The Yoga Student" to illustrate the rigors of attempting to learn yoga Asanas from a book: entangling and disentangling his limbs and repeatedly consulting the master text in an attempt to perfect the postures.
The Internal Map
On the path to developing "stick consciousness," workshop participants cross a number of thresholds. These are "ah-ha" moments where specific skills are embodied. The muscles begin to remember. An internal map develops. "It's like reaching for a pillow in the dark," says an ancient Chinese text, "throughout the body are hands and eyes." (Claris, 1977, p. 571, author's rendering of a slightly longer passage from the text translation) We feel our way, developing peripheral vision and the ability to scan and focus simultaneously as hunters and gatherers do: estimating distances precisely, anticipating obstacles, alert to the next move.
In The Hand, an intriguing study of the impact on human intelligence of the evolution of the hand, Neurologist, Frank R. Wilson quotes juggler Serge Perkily, who developed "an eye for tennis" and found his niche in life when he began juggling tennis rackets.
Most tennis players look at the ball until it hits the racket, and I never did that. I could see exactly where the ball was going without fixing the ball. You have to do the same thing in juggling. You have to fix a point somewhere, where you actually see a bit of everything, (emphasis added) and that comes only with practice. You always know if it's a bad throw or a good throw when you do it, and you know if you're going to catch it or not. (Wilson, 1998, p. 101)
The ability to "fix a point somewhere, where you actually see a bit of everything"- to scan and focus simultaneously - is a valuable skill. Tony Hiss calls this ability "to feel relaxed and alert at the same time" simultaneous perception. (Hiss, 1990, p. 5 ff.) It enables a hunter, or an actor, to "hit the mark." It is the juggler's Kavannah. It helps a participant in Avital's workshop to step over the stick threshold with less effort. In the larger sense, it contributes to "perspective" - the capacity to take in the larger picture and consider other points of view while focusing on the issue at hand. Enlarged perspective contributes ultimately to wisdom.
The ability to "know" if the toss of a stick is good is a kinesthetic skill. In simplest terms, kinesthesia is the sense of bodily presence and orientation in space we gain from the action of gravity on the vestibular system of the inner ear working in conjunction with proprioceptors in the muscles and joints and with support from visual, auditory, and tactile cues.
Howard Gardner, whose theory of multiple intelligences has been highly influential, includes "bodily-kinesthetic intelligence" on a list of seven "intelligences" - along with verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, visual-spatial, interpersonal (self awareness) and intrapersonal (social skill). (Gardner, 1995) Recently, he has added an eighth and ninth intelligence to the list: "naturalist intelligence," the ability of an individual to relate to nature, and "existential intelligence," the ability to think in terms of larger issues that might be termed religious or spiritual.
While it is true that individuals may be more or less adept in certain areas and in essence "specialize," Gardner acknowledges that types of intelligence are not discretely isolatable in practice. His chief contribution, a humane one, has been to elevate the value of abilities that have not held the privileged position accorded in Western culture to verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence.
Yet some confusion can result from these distinctions, because multiple "intelligences" must work in conjunction to make possible even such familiar skills as hand/eye coordination. In fact, kinesthetic intelligence underpins all the other forms of intelligence Gardner distinguishes. The senses are so closely integrated in phenomena such as hand-eye coordination, we might as well refer to a "tacto-visual" kinesthetic sense. An excellent introduction to fundamental kinesthetic impacts on learning is provided by neurophysiologist and educator Carla Hannaford in Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head. (Hannaford,1995) By employing simple "Brain Gym" exercises originally developed by Paul Dennison, Hannaford achieved remarkable results working with children labeled emotionally or learning impaired.
In truth, bodily intelligence enhances all the ways we learn, including supposedly "head-centered" modes such as the verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical. Verbal or musical skill depends upon a sense of rhythm, balance, and placement: "Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of style," said Jonathan Swift. Logical and mathematical ability also requires a sense of balance and proportion; mathematicians frequently describe the "elegance" of a proof. Spatial-orientational skills are kinesthetically based. Personal and social skills are anchored in the rhythms of the body: mental "balance" describes a state of health; people "in sync" communicate effortlessly.
The kinesthetic sense also plays a role in the development of subtler faculties: intuition, for example. In Genius, a biography of physicist Richard Feynman, James Gleick describes "physical intuition" as key to how some of the great minds work:
Feynman said to Dyson, and Dyson agreed, that Einstein's great work had sprung from physical intuition and that when Einstein stopped creating it was because "he stopped thinking in concrete physical images and became a manipulator of equations." Intuition was not just visual, but auditory and kinesthetic.
When intensely focused, Feynman himself would roll about on the floor, murmur rhythmically, or drum his fingers. Gleick goes on to describe how "the process of scientific visualization is a process of putting oneself in nature: in an imagined beam of light, in a relativistic electron." He quotes science historian Gerald Holton: "there is a mutual mapping of the mind…and the laws of nature." (Gleick, 1993, p. 244)
Chess players are also adept at internal mapping, which is why chess has long been used to teach rules of strategy to generals and business leaders. In a 1999 interview, Howard Gardner himself describes "a kind of meta-capacity," an ability "to step back and see the big picture and not be overwhelmed by the details of the moment." To accomplish this, he says, "some kind of space" opens up "in which you're able to conceive contingencies and events and, as in a chess game, project several steps ahead of where you are now." He wonders if this "meta-capacity" is a separate kind of intelligence, but notes that "it certainly is a rare kind of capacity," one he admits "we don't understand very well." (Kurtzman, 1999, p. 97) The more familiar term for what Gardner struggles to describe, is not "meta-capacity" but "wisdom" - or at least a set of skills implicated in wisdom.
Gardner wonders about an intelligence beyond "expertise" that the musical conductor must have, which combines the "courage and finesse and charisma to get in front of a bunch of crusty old musicians and get them to behave and to perform at their peak." (Kurtzman, 1999, p. 97) If a name is required for this capacity, it might as well be "conductor intelligence": an understanding of how things fit together and of what works - "conduct" in an expanded sense - combined with the ability to lead. Though not as lofty as "wisdom," this is clearly a skill that master teachers must possess, or enlightened executives.
What is really being described, though, is a high-order application of kinesthetic intelligence. A symphonic orchestration of body-mind competence: that embraces self-knowledge, knowledge of others and what motivates them, communication skill, powers of concentration and internal mapping, strategic sense and the capacity to make projections, and not least, a sense of rhythm or timing - knowing when, where, and how to do what for whom. It is also a kind of internal barometer; the reason why, when a decision is right, we say: "I just feel it in my bones."
The Great Puzzle
Let us look for a moment at another of the ways Samuel Avital teaches "bone-deep intelligence." He calls the exercise "The Great Puzzle." Workshop participants work in pairs. The object of the exercise is to get your partner to go from vertical to horizontal or vice versa by a series of maneuvers that you instigate with a gentle tapping motion Avital calls "The Snail Technique."
Think how a snail negotiates its way carefully across a surface: projecting its antennae to explore obstacles, then recoiling with a slight arch and gathering itself up for the next glide. The snail has its own élan. This is how you will signal your partner to move a part of the body - the shoulder or knee or elbow, for example - by tapping it gently as if with a snail's antennae and then arching the hand gracefully away. Your partner responds with a reciprocal movement, recoiling the shoulder gracefully away from you. The wisdom of the method is that it keeps the tapping from getting too rough. You apply an understanding of body dynamics and project a series of moves that will enable your partner to descend or ascend move-by-move without toppling over or getting impossibly contorted. The body becomes a puzzle you must solve.
The key to solving the puzzle is to consult your own "internal map" and feel what is possible while taking into account the limits of what your partner can do. The Great Puzzle becomes not only an exercise in strategy but empathy. It is also one of the many ways Avital teaches navigation of the internal map, a vivid illustration of how to overcome self-created obstacles, this time in partnership.
The workshop poses many such puzzles. To accomplish "The Eye-Knot," partners face each other and visualize a cord connecting their eyes. The object is to "tie" a knot in this cord without losing eye contact and breaking the cord. Mutual concentration becomes so intense that the participants do not notice Avital approaching with his imaginary scissors. Subversively, he "cuts" the cord and the startled puzzlers fall to the ground! The trick to performing The Eye-Knot successfully is to avoid too much analysis and let the body think.
Facing the Mask
Each orientation puzzle Avital poses is an exercise in kinesthetic strategy and another of many thresholds crossed in preparation for the culminating moment of the workshop: the mask session. In this final exercise - moving in more than one respect - the many elements taught in the workshop coalesce. A verbatim transcript of an actual mask session (portions of which are excerpted here) is provided in this Manual in the poetic essay, "Facing the Mask." Avital explains why the mask is used:
When a person covers his face with a mask, he thinks his real face is hidden. He feels safe behind the facade, and he acts as though he were not seen. Faces customarily dominate expression. We are accustomed to watching faces; consequently, we rarely notice what emotions the rest of the body is expressing. There are muscles in the face that we tense even when we think we are relaxed. When the gesticulations of the face are concealed by some sort of covering, a mask, suddenly we take notice of the body. Then something startling is revealed. By covering the face, we discover the real face, the real self….
In the mask session, a capacity for "deep orientation" is revealed: the skill required to navigate subtle inner dimensions using the internal map. An inner guide emerges. Avital calls this guide "the presence."
The work with masks opens beautiful doors to us to be in touch with ourselves and to become aware of the presence, that formless guidance that springs up from the center of our being. This form of work opens new vistas of self exploration to the student.
With a partner, workshop participants prepare white masks of their own faces, called "neutral masks," using plaster gauze. Mask creation is a kind of meditative exercise in itself as you gently apply strips of gauze to your partner's face. "Take care," says Avital. "You hold your partner's life in your hands." The masks are allowed to dry and then carefully sanded, covered with coats of gesso and sanded again. By the final day of the workshop, the masks are smooth and ready.
At the beginning of the session, you are asked to sit on the floor to study your mask:
Observe the texture and other details. It's part of your skin that you have peeled. It's a replica of your physical face. Think no thoughts other than about the mask. Look at the shape of the features. Do not judge, just look. Look at the eyes. They appear as two holes that reach infinity. Become familiar with your face that you hold in your hands.
Then you put on the mask:
Take five million years to do this. No brusque movements. Every movement should be very conscious. With the mask on, keep the eyes closed. Breathe very calmly. Begin to feel your own facial structure under the mask. It is covered, as if by clothes.
You begin your journey:
Visualize yourself sitting in water up to your neck. It is the ocean. What you see is the horizon of the waters. Nourish the waters, the horizon, and ask who is behind the mask. It has no name. Is it your face?…Find the neutral one, the no-name one, the circle, the empty one within. That center of the circle is there living behind every being…
Now you begin to move:
Stand up using very slow motion. Who is behind the mask moving the body? It is a new physical being that you discover, but who is discovering it? Who is moving the body from the inside? The goal is to stand. Do not plan any movement. Let the one behind the mask move you.
Discover the inner guide:
Once you stand, get in touch with that presence…If we are aware of it, everything becomes fresh, as if for the first time. Let the presence walk, using the vehicle of the body. Any movement we do now is in the service of walking, with appreciation and reverence. The presence goes for a promenade. It is not limited in any way. Turn. When the head meets the limitation of the body, the presence continues. The presence will teach you to turn.
You play at shifting states and shapes and "see how the presence relates":
Be cold! Let coldness contract the body, as the presence stays remote, observing the expression of the body…. Now change; be hot! Immediately the body expands and droops, but the presence stays distant.
The body takes on archetypes. Be a warrior! The archetype of the warrior is one who knows his power and knows how to use it positively. Be a coward! Receive the universal coward in you.
Time drops away but for perhaps an hour you explore different environmental states, walking through water and sand and wind, conducting silent "dialogues" with other workshop participants. And then:
Come back to the original spot where you began. The presence sits like a king or queen. It knows how to sit. The one who is sitting has a right to be there. Turn the head to brush the horizon. Just the head. C'est une noblesse de presence. Close the windows and sit still in the waters. Very slowly, eyes closed, take off the mask and hold it facing you.
A realization dawns: the body itself is a threshold. We cross it every night in sleep and eventually in death. We can learn to navigate those dimensions, which the Tibetans call bardo, the "between," including the bardo of this world. Rumi, the great Sufi poet, describes "Body Intelligence" (Barks, 1995, p. 151) in navigational terms:
You and your intelligence
Are like the beauty and precision
of an astrolabe.
Together, you calculate how near
Existence is to the sun!
The genius of Avital's method is that it enables adults to recapture the faculty of active imagination that was so agile in childhood, and then use this power to slay old dragons of self-limitation and fear. Why are thresholds often so difficult to cross? Because imagined monsters lurk there, like trolls under a bridge, ready to turn the threshold into an obstacle. The workshop provides a rich environment in which to exercise the muscle of imagination and then walk upright again by means of it.
The root of imagination is image and we are inclined to think of images as visually static, like snapshots or icons. Guided visualization as accomplished in the mask session is a fully coordinated kinesthetic experience. Participants do not lie passively on the floor, they move as actors about the room. The session has the esthetic feel of Japanese Noh Theater. Imagination becomes an animating principle, not just a manipulation of mental objects. The distance between thought and action is compressed. Psychic space and physical space merge and one learns to navigate the terrain.
In The Art of Memory, Francis Bates describes the "inner gymnastics" of ancient bards and rhetoric whose prodigious memories could retain thousands of lines of a poem or speech by assigning "places" to the lines in a carefully constructed "palace of memory." To retrieve the lines, the mental gymnast would return on an imaginative "tour" to the places where the lines were stored. (Bates, 1974, p. 16) With the exception of a few contemporary memory experts, we have lost this capability.
We have also lost the ability, still possessed by some Micronesian sailors, to navigate long distances at sea without benefit of charts and instruments even when no landmarks are in view. Anthropologist Edwin Hutches, in Cognition in the Wild, describes how such feats are accomplished. Micronesian navigators, instead of thinking of themselves as passing by objects on their way to a destination, conceive geography as streaming past the canoe. They have the astonishing ability to navigate by calculating great distances traveled past unseen reference points:
Off to the side of the course being steered is the reference island…. Since the navigator has not actually seen the reference island at any point during the voyage, his ability to indicate where it lies represents an inference that could not be made in the Western system without recourse to tools. (Hutches, 1995, p. 72)
Hutches explains that because Micronesian culture is non-literate, seafarers must memorize a large body of navigational information using "elaborate mnemonic devices." Even more interestingly, the Micronesian memory system makes "frequent reference to islands that do not exist." (Hutches 1995, p. 73) The Micronesian navigates by an internal map. In essence, he is his own lodestar.
In this system there are no universal units of direction, position, distance, or rate, no analog-to-digital conversions, and no digital computations. Instead, there are many special purpose units and an elegant way of "seeing" the world in which internal structure is superimposed on external structure to compose a computational image device. By constructing this image, the Micronesian navigator performs navigational computations in his "mind's eye." (Hutches, 1995, p. 93)
Although we live in a world of digital devices and digital computations, we easily lose our way. Like the Micronesian navigator seafaring with an inner astrolabe, we must learn again to use body intelligence to calculate "how near existence is to the sun."
The faculty of kinesthetic navigation or "deep orientation," as it plays a role in active imagination, goes far beyond the "inner gymnastics" Bates describes or Dennison's "Brain Gym" exercises. The feats of the Micronesian sailor do suggest, however, that we have far greater navigational skills than we might suspect.
One thing is clear: full-blown powers of active imagination manifested early in the drama of homo sapiens. In Satyric and Heroic Mimes, Kathryn Wily compares how contemporary mimes resemble primordial shamans: both shaman and mime undergo rigorous corporeal training to develop a "repertoire of magical gestures"; both are known for trickster behavior; both use masks and pantomime to take on alternative identities and conjure objects and worlds out of thin air. (Wily, 1994, p. 103)
Because mimicry is a natural human propensity - in fact many species practice mimesis as a survival strategy - it is impossible to say when the first "professional" performing mime appeared, but it is clear that shamans were among the earliest practitioners of the art:
The shaman is a solo performer who undertakes the paradigmatic voyage of the mythical hero for the purpose of divination, exorcism, and curing. The events of the shaman's sacred voyage are frequently narrated gesturally in which corporeal images serve as metaphorical equivalents to the spoken or sung narration. Like modern day pantomimes who employ illusion, the shaman must make the invisible presences palpable for the audience by slight-of-hand and manipulation of the laws of time and space. (Wily, 1994, p. 7)
In contrast to passive notions of fantasy or daydreaming, this ability to conjure worlds in imagination, actively navigate those dimensions, and carry the knowledge across the threshold into the sunlit world, is a powerful forces demonstrated in Avital's mask session. Perhaps we fear that power. Perhaps that is why we resent the mime's frequent reminders that we live in an invisible three-dimensional box of our own making - and that we can step out of this self-created obstacle. But perhaps that is the ultimate object.
A version of the "The Ultimate Object: Overcoming Self-Created Obstacles through Mime" has been published in the Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies, Vol. 5, No. 2, April, 2001, pp. 99-109. Published by Harcourt International.
This article was also included as the "Afterward" in Samuel Avital's new book, The BodySpeak™ Manual.
Jane Evenson has degrees in philosophy and literature. She works as a business consultant to support her explorations of kinesthetic intelligence and has known Samuel Avital and admired his work for close to nine years.
JBMT web site at: http://www.harcourt-international.com/journals/jbmt/
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