Excerpt from The Potent Self


The Potent Self is one of Dr. Feldenkrais’s books that I read every six months for years. It reveals its secrets slowly, requiring a period of percolating and digesting.

by Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais


The present is only a fleeting moment, an instant that passes at once into the past. It then escapes our influence so utterly that it is beyond the reach of the wildest imagination. Most people behave as if their future is completely and irrevocably forfeited by what they have done in the past. This conviction is so deep that they continue to live in the past while in the present and thus confirm their expectation, namely that the past is binding, and they cannot but repeat themselves over again and again.

The present is the time in which we live, and what we do with our present selves is the most important thing. For the past is carried into the future through our present selves; what we do now is the most important factor for tomorrow. If we do nothing to change our emotional pattern of behavior, tomorrow will resemble yesterday in most details except the date. The past is history, the future only a guess—this present makes them both what they are.

Do not try to forget the past; it is impossible to forget the past without forgetting oneself at the same time. You may imagine that you have forgotten one or another unwanted detail, but it is stamped in some part of your body. Yet that past experience, awful as it may have been, can be used now to make your present a vital basis for a fuller, more absorbingly interesting future. When you have learned to accept the past and you have made peace with it, then it will leave you in peace. My contention is that the maturing process should never come to a standstill in any plane of human activity if life is to be a healthy process. Maturity itself is a process, and not a final state; it is the process whereby past personal experience is broken up into its constituent parts and new patterns are formed out of them to fit the present circumstances of the environment and the present state of the body.

Love Thyself as Thy Neighbor

The admirable saying “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is the core of all religions. It has served humanity well and is still a goal to be treasured by all humanists. Yet there is also room for the symmetrical saying. The best intentions when enacted compulsively yield opposite results. Compulsively religious people have done enough harm in particular cases in the past, and are still doing so, to outweigh the blessings of religious ethics. Our education is permeated with the idea of loving one’s neighbor as oneself, but far too often this idea is instilled with such rigor and absolutism as to stamp out all spontaneity. Many people become “good” not by learning to live in good neighborhood with others, but by being unable to do anything that requires standing up for themselves. They cannot refuse anything asked from them, simply because they are afraid of other people. Thus their goodness is compulsive, and they then immediately experience resentment of their own behavior. It consists entirely of actions that they force themselves to do (or not to do as the case may be), simply because they are unable to deny or contradict any person, no matter how right and justifiable the contradiction may be.

Compulsive kindness or goodness of this sort is the symptom and the result of inhibited aggression. The person identifies himself with other people so utterly that he feels sure those other people would feel the same anxiety in being contradicted or refused, the same loss of face, the same loneliness and alienation as he himself experiences in these circumstances. The neighbors naturally find such love unacceptable, and the compulsively good person has very few, if any, true friends. He involves himself in situations that make his life a continuous string of resentments. The compulsive goodness harms one member of the society—namely the compulsively kind person himself to a degree that society regards as criminal when such harm is done to another person. The compulsively good person treats himself as no human being would treat a dog. When he directs himself to do or not do something, he uses the sadistic rigor and harshness that he is unable to use toward others for fear of the consequences of losing control of himself. He often fears himself more than the direct retaliation of others. The remarkable thing about this behavior is that it is generally a question of minor, everyday, trifling matters that are enacted automatically without any forethought. In more serious actions, the person normally prepares himself and makes enormous efforts to overcome his inability and gets a disproportionate pleasure when he lives up to his expectations. Sometimes such a success is carried over for a few days into the rest of his activity and the person is euphoric until the next mistake, which brings with it a deep state of depression. Even the closest of friends cannot account for these changes, as nothing outward has occurred that would warrant such euphoria or depression.

This perhaps too vivid description is designed to illustrate the tendencies of many sensitive and well-behaved people, whose qualities of humility, shyness, and regard for the feelings of others (admirable qualities in themselves, when not compulsively adhered to) exclude the people themselves from those who are to be treated kindly and respectfully. Such people would benefit greatly if they could realize that “Love thy neighbor as thyself” should not always mean that they themselves are worse than any neighbor and may be treated accordingly.

The reason for this “lecture” is that in learning new ways of directing oneself, it is essential to bring about optimal conditions for success. There is a way of ordering people about that makes it easy for them to comply. If people realize the necessity for a certain act, however unpleasant, and are invited to it objectively, calmly, they do what is demanded from them with little opposition. If people are bullied into doing even what otherwise is a pleasant thing to do, they get their backs up and refuse to oblige.

Similarly, when directing oneself rudely—blaming oneself for being lazy, weak, clumsy—one finds oneself stubbornly refusing to oblige. Orders to oneself should be given without willfulness, without tension, without bullying oneself, and only for objectively valid reasons. Only children must do things just to obey orders no matter how unreasonable; this is called, by some, learning discipline. But grown-up people must not treat themselves as if they were children. One ought to learn to be as polite with oneself as with anybody else, and to feel just as awkward disturbing oneself with irrelevant problems when doing anything of consequence.

One ought to learn that nagging oneself is as bad as nagging one’s neighbor—he would not stand for it—nobody, even oneself, responds graciously or willingly to nagging. The more one trains one’s willpower for its own sake, and not to do necessary and useful things, the more one becomes compulsive, rigid in mind and manner and stiff in body.

The greatest leaders of men, such as Buddha, Confucius, Moses, and Christ, altered the behavior of millions, making them do very difficult things—not by bullying them, but by ordering them in the same human way they ordered themselves. They are admired, even by disbelievers like myself, not for their willpower but for their poised reflective manner. Kind and objective, they had a clear understanding of what was necessary for the men of their time, and they treated themselves likewise.

One has to set about learning to learn as is befitting for the most important business in human life; that is, with serenity but without solemnity, with patient objectivity and without compulsive seriousness. Clenching the fists, tensing the eyebrows, tightening the jaw are expressions of impotent effort. It is possible to succeed in spite of these faults only at the expense of truly healthy joy of living. Learning must be undertaken and is really profitable when the whole frame is held in a state where smiling can turn into laughter without interference, naturally, spontaneously.

The cumulative effect of compulsive teaching has brought about the notion that as long as one can do a thing without sensation of effort, it is not good enough. From early childhood, we are taught to strain ourselves. Parents and teachers seem to receive sadistic satisfaction from compelling children to make an effort. If the child can do what is demanded of him with no apparent forcing of himself they will put him in a more advanced class or add something to his duty just to make sure that the poor thing learns “what life really means.” That is, trying to do what one need not do in itself, but simply in order to be better than the rest, and one is not supposed to be satisfied unless one really feels the strain of pushing to the limits.

This habit becomes so ingrained in us that when we do something and it comes off as it should, just like that, we do generally feel it was just a fluke—it should not be that easy—as if the world were not meant to be easy. And we then even repeat the same thing, to make sure this time we strain ourselves in the usual way, so that we feel we really have accomplished something and not “just” done it. This sort of habit is very difficult to eliminate, as the cultural environment is there to sustain it. It is even glorified as a sign of great willpower. But willpower is necessary only where ability to do is lacking. Learning, as I see it, is not the training of willpower but the acquisition of the skill to inhibit parasitic action and the ability to direct clear motivations as a result of self-knowledge.

It is perhaps not unconnected with this that all creative people do things in their own way. Painters, mathematicians, composers, and everybody else who has ever done anything worthwhile, always had to learn to paint, think, and’ compose—but not in the way they were taught. They had to learn and work until they knew themselves sufficiently to bring themselves to the state of spontaneity in which their deepest inner self could be brought up and out. Such people are not free of compulsion—much to the contrary. The difference is that what they produce out of the state of compulsion has some value because of the true spontaneous nature of the production.

It is hoped that the following pages will be of assistance to those who want to learn to learn.