Am I vulnerable if I identify with the Earth? Thoughts while running…

15th Jun · Dawn Hawkins

Am I vulnerable if I identify with the Earth? Comes from our Becoming Earthly 2022 session led by anthropologist and Feldenkrais teacher Paolo Maccagno.

Am I vulnerable if I identify with the Earth?

Thoughts while running…

Paolo Maccagno

Modernizers, from wherever they live, have cut all ties between the world they live in and the one they live from: they have escaped gravity.

Latour B. Seven Objections Against Landing on Earth, page 4

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Escaping gravity

Sketch from Walking the ground - Feldenkrais workshop 2016

There is a force that comes from the ground. It is directed upward. This is what Feldenkrais called ground force. After many years of teaching Feldenkrais, I observed that this force can be a discovery because it is not easily perceived or felt.

It has been a revelation for me too. When for the first time I made experience of this force I fell into tears. It happened by case after many Feldenkrais lessons. Suddenly I was standing and doing very simple movements of transferring my weight from one foot to the other. Unexpectedly I had a clear sense of lightness and easiness. My feet and legs moved without effort and my breath was completely free. Everything seemed to fall down and at the same time to be safely supported. A force moved uninterrupted from my feet up to the head. It was a strong insight almost an enlightment. Like when one falls in love.

The ground force is a response from the Earth to the force directed downwards of my weight. Realizing that the Earth responds is not just an interesting idea but an emotional experience and an opening up to a different way of sensing the world. This is probably why I had tears in my eyes. The kind of insights that I had were like “The Earth responds… I’m not alone…moving doesn’t just depend on myself”. My intention to perform a movement had to become an attention to the movement in which I was not the only agent. The world was not a neutral externality waiting to receive my actions but animate and active, able to give me support and respond with ground forces. On a psychological level this saved me from being wholly responsible for my own posture. For a moment I stopped feeling guilty because I became aware of how my (postural) way of being was relational and interdependent with the environment. I realised I was not alone in the sense of being bounded and separate but part of a world in becoming. There was a chance for forgiveness.

I’m preparing for going running with a few friends

John (Cage) confesses from the beginning: “I am here and there is nothing to say. If among you are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment.”

Latour said that we escaped gravity. Let me now explore what he said and why it is so difficult to perceive the ground forces with the help of a few friends. What follows are fragments of imaginary conversations with these friends that emerged in my mind while running. These thoughts are probably disconnected. What seems to be clear while you are running, it may be not clear when you read it afterwards. When running you have for a moment both feet in the air. You are jumping from one point to another. In running intuition is at work. The kind of knowledge coming from movement is like air. It might lead nowhere.

I’m getting used to start running without knowing where to go.

John continues: “Here we are now, a little bit after the beginning of the fourth large part of this talk. More and more we have the feeling that I am getting nowhere. Slowly, as the talk goes on, slowly, we have the feeling we are getting nowhere.”

The first thought coming up is actually related to running itself. Since I started many years ago, I noticed to perceive myself in a different way. I couldn’t talk as an “I” divided from the world while running. At this point Nora (Bateson) tells me that there is something about language. She explains that the singularity suggested by grammar with the pronoun “I” is a big western error and a great violence (Nora 2016: 25). She suggests being creative about language and generate a healthy confusion challenging assumptions that take for granted that the “I” is independent. In so doing we could stop feeding the illusion of a singular identity. Talking from an “I” perspective risks dividing us from the Earth and making it harder to listen to its response.

Here I am now after the first kms. I need to find a pace for this run.

John provokes: “It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.”

Tim (Ingold) talks about another kind of division. One that comes from evolution and more recently from our cultural history. He says that “the human biped figures as a constitutionally divided creature. The dividing line, roughly level with the waist, separates the upper and lower parts of the body” (Tim 2004: 318). The division between feet and hands occurred along our evolution, is now reinforced by other divisions created by contemporary ways of dwelling like walking with boots and paving the streets. This line is therefore an impediment to feel a force coming from the Earth. It also establishes the foundations for the separation of thought from action and of mind from body with the implicit valorization of uprightness and verticality. This thought makes me think to what I continually see in my Feldenkrais practice. People in different ways express a tendency of holding on and being suspended. This can be observed in the way they keep their belly in, tighten their shoulders, have their chin protruded forward, step violently on heels, suffer from hyperlordosis at lumbars and cervicals, hold their breath in various ways while moving. Rather than letting their weight to fall down, they hold it up. They work against gravity or as Latour said, they have escaped gravity. It is like they don’t trust the support offered by the Earth and try to escape from it. It is then impossible to perceive its response. Tim reminds me that this tendency has a fundamental existential implication for human life creating a sense of groundlessness. In this way, he says, “nature becomes a surface to be transformed and the Earth the place where man lives on. This separation seems to prevent in principle every possibilities of touch”. Tim suggests the question: “What the effect would be of overturning prevailing assumptions and of adopting a fundamental orientation towards the ground? What new terrain would be opened up?” (Tim 2004: 330)

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Holding against gravity

Sketch from Walking the ground - Feldenkrais workshop 2016

Energies start to flow through my body and my run is now fluid.

John gently suggests a path: “If we are irritated, it is not a pleasure. Nothing is not a pleasure if one is irritated, but suddenly, it is a pleasure, and then more and more it is not irritating (and then more and more and slowly).”

David (Abram) talks very similarly to Tim and underlines that we should understand that we live in the Earth and not on the Earth. He has another point of view about why we tend to separate ourselves. This to him is because when you really expose yourself, the “Earth is not a nice place” (David at minute 22’30),and there is “fear in the realization of being a body and being mortal”. He says “I’m vulnerable if I identify with my animal presence” (David at minute 27’.)

Therefore the separation is more than just a sensation that we may feel in our bodies but it is a gesture that as humans, we perform in many ways and that ultimately brings us to be separated from the world in which we live in, to the point of not recognizing ourselves as animals. David used the words Becoming Animal as the title for one of his books which I feel resounding with our project Becoming Earthly. I’m interested in the word “becoming”. Do we have to “become” animal or “become” earthly? Are we not already animals or earthly? This word can reveal to us once more of an implicit separation between us humans, the Earth and the rest of the animal kingdom. Following David’s inspiration, I would then ask: Am I vulnerable if I identify with the Earth?

Rhythm is now hypnotic

John reassures us: “Originally we were nowhere; and now, again, we are having the pleasure of being slowly nowhere. If anybody is sleepy, let him got to sleep.”

The orientation towards the ground suggested by Tim is very much desirable from David’s point of view although it is clearly difficult. He in fact tells me that “down there, deep under the ground is bad” (David from minute 34’30.)

His idea that down is bad gives me one more way of understanding why it is so difficult to perceive the ground forces and the response from the Earth. He clarifies that there are assumptions in our cultures deeply embedded in our everyday practices and language (Matter is sinful. Hell and devil are down. Matter is inert, determinate, mechanic) that make us move away from the ground (escape gravity) and this codifies into our bodies and postures. David points out that actually “if we continue in this idea the Earth is going to suffer” and shares a different perspective. Rather than talking about gravity in technical terms as the mutual attractions between bodies, he likes to think of “gravity as eros” and asks “what if we start thinking to gravity as eros?” (David from minute 6’45 above.)

This idea is already present in the language when we say “falling in love” and we express this mutual attraction of bodies as a gravitational force. With other words, David is suggesting what Tim called the orientation towards the ground and he invites us to fall in love with the Earth.

I’m heading towards the end of the run.

John jokes: “Satie said: When I was young, people told me: You'll see when your fifty years old. Now I'm fifty. I've seen nothing.”

I’m now a little over fifty but I can still say that I have seen nothing. Nothing is an attractive notion for me. It has always been so. I have recently proposed to work on John Cage and his Lecture on Nothing to my Feldenkrais groups. Practicing Feldenkrais is to me very close to doing nothing. Learning to do nothing is, in my view, deeply important in this time of urgency. How much courage does it take to lie down on the floor to do nothing when the rest of the world is telling you to get ready to work and do something? How can we all resist being reframed by that dominant logic (of doing something)?

I feel this notion very fertile also for the Becoming Earthly project and like thinking that the learning space provided by the series of seminars are actually a fundamental context of safety where artists can play (and do nothing) protected from the urgency (also environmental urgencies) of bringing responses and being productive. This, in my view, would help challenging, rethinking and understanding notions of responsibility and care beyond taken for granted assumptions. So I share here one last anecdote which I relate to the idea of nothing that Feldenkrais used to tell his students:

“At the end of a class that I (Feldenkrais) was teaching, a woman got up, and you can see that she was in such a profoundly altered state. She said to the class, “I have never experienced such profound peace”. The next statement out of her mouth was, “And I don’t know what to do.”

This anecdote stayed in my mind for a long time and still makes me curious. I am fascinated by that sense of exposure to the unknown that that person might have experienced. For Feldenkrais a good posture is close to peace (see “making peace with gravity”, a path of unlearning and surrendering that I explored here When one comes to that state, doesn’t know what to do, is vulnerable and yet ready to do nothing. From that place it might be possible to start healing the separation about which my friends have spoken about in different ways. The question “am I vulnerable if I identify with the Earth?” may assume a different connotation. We might discover a new posture. One able to deeply accept our vulnerable and beautiful earthly existence and enjoy the wild pleasure of it.

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Peace with gravity

Sketch from Walking the ground - Feldenkrais workshop 2016

Now time for a good shower!

John repeats endlessly: “Here we are now at the middle of the fourth large part of this talk. More and more I have the feeling that we are getting nowhere. Slowly, as the talk goes on, we are getting nowhere and that is a pleasure.”

Thanks to my friends and to Becoming Earthly:

- David Abram – environmental philosopher,

- Nora Bateson – writer and educator. Quotes from “Identity with an I”, in Small Arcs of Larger Circles (2016).

- John Cage – artist and musician, in blue all quotes from Lecture on Nothing. See video from min 2’50

- Moshè Feldenkrais – inventor of the Feldenkrais method

- Tim Ingold – anthropologist. Quotes from “Culture on the Ground” (2004).