I met with Dennis Leri at his home in San Rafael at the end of March, in 2015. We talked about the role of recording in the Feldenkrais Method, some of the concepts that Dennis used to think through what Feldenkrais work is about, a look back on the various phases of Dennis' career, the shapes of the Feldenkrais community as Dennis saw them, Feldenkrais in terms of art, the East-Meets-West dimension of the work, and Feldenkrais as a community of inquiry.
To record this interview, I met Dennis in San Rafael where he lived with his wife Maria in a small, cozy place, with a garden level studio where Dennis worked. We spoke upstairs in the front-room for a half an hour, then we went out to lunch. We continued the interview when we returned.
I found Dennis remarkably open and engaging, both in this conversation and in general.
I didn’t have a plan for releasing the recording we made, but when he died at the end of 2016, I felt it would be appropriate to share it with people in the Feldenkrais community.
Now I share it here to make it available in a more ongoing way.
Dennis was one of the very important teachers in my life. I’m happy to share this conversation I had with him.
WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT RECORDING in the FELDENKRAIS METHOD?
WHAT IS FELDENKRAIS ABOUT?
EC: Since we are recording an interview, I want to start with a question about recording. Why has so much of the Feldenkrais Method been recorded? It’s been recorded since Moshe’s group lessons at Alexander Yanai and then through his trainings in America through all of the trainings that have been recorded since he died. Why is recording so prevalent?
DL: At one point I was working for Gaby Yaron in Alpbach, in the Alps. It’s way up in the mountains and they walk around daily in Liederhosen which we think of as costumes, but actually that’s the way they are. Gaby had no recording, no amplification, nothing like that. When you said stuff, you said stuff. But the training was Swiss, German and Austrian people and they were very disciplined in their studying. Gaby recommended that they form little study groups. In the evenings, because there was nothing else to do in that town, they would write their notes. Then once they got their notes they would compile them as a group, so they ended up getting pretty much of a facsimile of the training, but they’d worked it all through.
Not recording is kind of liberating. You don’t have to worry about it. I think in the beginning [of our Training programs] recording was a concession to students needing to do make ups, or people wanting to repeat things. For example, there are 2 or 3 people in my current training for whom English isn’t their first language. There’s a Japanese woman, so it really helps her to be able to listen to it again at nights, so that’s great.
EC: When you listen to the first week of Amherst, you hear Feldenkrais telling people, “Don’t take notes.” And then the next day he’s like, “So what do you remember of yesterday?” He’s really trying to get them to both forget about remembering while it’s happening and then go through the process of putting it together. And then he says, “Plus, we are making a recording, so…”
DL: One of the lessons I got from him in Israel, I went over there, it was around lunch time. He had some lunch that somebody had made for him and so he shared it with me. He asked me if I knew Orage’s work. Orage was a Gurdieffian. So there was a chapter in one of his books called “On Dying Daily” and it was a practice where, at night while you were going to bed, you’d say “2-4-6-8-10 -- 10-8-6-4-2,” subvocally, and then you would review the day in images. And so the thing was to edit out the critic. In the pythagorean tradition it’s the same thing. Acolytes would do the same thing night and morning, review their days.
What happens after a while is, when you know that you’re going to be asked about the day, you start to live it differently. The practice starts to take over how you experience a day without having the critic, or that inner dialogue, or metalogue or whatever you got going on.
Feldenkrais recorded all of his lessons because he would review them himself and then he would edit what he didn’t like. So the Alexander Yanai lessons are ones that have passed a certain level of muster for him. He could say, “Okay this is a lesson. Fine.”
EC: I heard that he would record a lesson, and if he was satisfied with it then later that day or the next day he would just replay the tape for another group of students. Would he get down on the floor and do his own lesson or would he...?
DL: He would watch people. He’d watch them, and then he’d see what was difficult. The steps, were they too big? Too small? Why is that difficult? Then he would modify it. And he’d record right over it. So we don’t have his first drafts, so to speak.
But he [recorded] very little of the functional integration, and what’s tragic is that watching him in Israel, he was so succinct in his work. Lessons were scheduled on the half hour, they were 20-25 minutes long. They were very short, but he saw an individual 4 or 5 or 6 times a week. But he didn’t record any of that.
So now we have the Amherst recordings of Functional Integration and they are, generally speaking, poorly done. He works too much and too hard and it’s just a faint comparison to what he was doing day in and day out in Israel. In Israel it was just so amazing to watch. Still, the Amherst recordings are the best we have and people can learn from them, but it’s a tough thing.
EC: I wonder as things go forward if other people will create video records of Functional Integration that give different senses of it, so that going forward, Moshe’s lessons at Amherst won’t be thought of as the only canonical way to give a lesson.
DL: I don’t know what people think of the lessons at Amherst. In Israel, I’d see lesson after lesson that were so completely different in terms of spacing and timing and the amount of force that he used. Whether he talked or didn’t talk, smoked cigarettes... You know, sometimes he’d do something and then walk away. Sometimes he’d put an Awareness Through Movement recording on the tape player and play it, and he’d watch the person and smoke a cigarette and then he’d stop the tape, kind of poke a person somewhere and say something and turn the tape back on again. It was great.
When I studied the Eshkol Notation in Israel, one of the things the Eshkol students pointed out was that you’d think you have a good record if you have film or video of, let’s say Yemenite Dancing or something like that. But if you know the Eshkol notation and you can think 3 dimensionally, and you know you’re going to record it mentally, then it makes a huge difference.
I was at a seder, it was the most amazing seder and there was a respected Tai Chi teacher there. The seder was all Eshkol notation people, and the Tai Chi teacher said the Eshkol notation people, conservatively, learned Tai Chi 15-20 times faster than the ordinary person. But she said the Eshkol students came into the room not thinking about learning Tai Chi, but how to notate it. So they were constantly thinking.
EC: In her book “Movement Notation”, Eshkol writes - “When a certain event raises our interest to the point where it becomes desirable to remember it, describe it, and above all to think and calculate or to compose within it - in short, to express it - then a fitting substitute is required for the actual event: this substitute is a symbol.”
She says that When you get to a point with a certain idea where you want to be able to think inside that idea, that’s when it becomes necessary to have a symbol of it because you want to be able to go forward with it, backwards, slow it down, speed it up. And that makes me think when we say self image, we’re talking about a symbol that we have.. the symbol we work with when we try to put together new kinds of action. Does that make sense as a way to think about what the Feldenkrais method is about?
WHAT IS FELDENKRAIS ABOUT? General Feldenkrais Ideas - Self-Image, Fechner-Weber, Akrasia, Intertemporal Bargaining
DL: I wrote an article about Fechner-Weber, and the whole idea is if you hold two weights in your hand, in order to decide which is heavier, you mentally have to make a mid point. So you fabricate a mid point and then relative to this imaginary mid point, one seems heavier or lighter. Heavier isn’t in the left hand. Heavier isn’t in the right hand. Heavier is in the relationship, so where do you put the middle? It turns out, in every kind of judgment there is this other component. There’s some mid place within an imagined continuum.
When you watch Awareness Through Movement, you might see a person with an idealized continuum that they keep fighting against because they think they should be further, or in their mind they can go further. Their ideal continuum isn’t the continuum they are living. The ideal continuum is what they want to live or what they think they have lived. The work is getting people to make a relationship between their ideal continuum and their lived continuum, and to do that you use terms like effort or range or qualities or things like that.
Feldenkrais said publicly and then many times in Israel, that the feeling of ease or being graceful or using less effort or feeling less pain... He said these are really important consequences of the work, but they are also the most trivial. But that’s how you sell it, that’s what you put on your brochure, that’s what you tell people. But it’s something else that is really more profound. And you think, Well what could it be?
Well there are a million different answers to that. But one thing you hear people say is, “If only I had done this.” Or, “I knew better. I should have done that.” So if people are working on the floor doing Awareness Through Movement, they say afterwards, “I knew I did too much. I could feel myself starting to do too much, but I kept doing it.” Or, “I knew I could’ve done more but... I didn’t.” So the question is, If you knew, then how did you work against what you knew? Did you really know?
As I started looking into it, I found that this goes back to Socrates and the whole notion of what knowledge is and what understanding is. Socrates said, Look, if you know, you can’t go against what you know. It’s not logically consistent. You can’t say that. You can’t make that statement. Cause you didn’t know.
EC: Or else you would’ve acted differently.
DL: And so Plato... Early Plato agrees, the later Plato goes, well… And then Aristotle comes along and says, “Socrates was right, but... We all know people who work against themselves. People have these failings.” And so you can track this notion, this breakdown of will through ancient Greek philosophy. It was called Akrasia, which means bad mixture.
When we have to account for contradiction, we spatialize ourselves. There’s this part of myself, there’s like my moving center, my heart center, my head center. Or chakras. Or there’s the temporal. “I knew this, but then I knew that…” Or, “when I get to this point, then I’ll know this better.” So there are all these ways in which we break up and account for inconsistency.
There’s a writer now called George Ainsley who calls it inter-temporal bargaining. It’s like when you get to a shop, you say “Okay, that chocolate eclair looks pretty good, but I shouldn’t eat it. But you know I’m gonna go on a really long hike today so I’ll probably burn up some calories…” So you start to dialogue. You have to deal with yourself. And so he says a short term choice rises really large and overshadows what your long term goals are in terms of diet or abs.
Another example is, if you’re walking down the street and you’re next to a building that’s really high and you look up and you see that the empire state building looks lower than the building you’re next to. Perceptually from that perspective, you say “this is a higher building.” But in fact, intellectually you know it’s not. You know you shouldn’t have the chocolate eclair, but you eat it anyway because it’s right there.
So how do you resolve it? And how do you change a habit or how do you break an addiction? Ainsley stratifies it and shows that from compulsions to addictions down to little tics, you see people giving in, and it’s all part of this bargaining with ourselves, either unconsciously or consciously. And yet what allows people to succeed? How can you get somewhere?
When you have a long term... not really a goal, but say a dream, unavowed or avowed dream... If you have a long term sense of trajectory, then you can place everything on that course. Even if you fall off it, you’ve fallen off going in that direction, where otherwise you’re just beating yourself up or you’re beating someone else up for putting the cookies in front of you.
You find that that problem gets repackaged in lots of different ways that divide the self into parts. There is the greek sense, the east indian sense. Freud. All these different ways of parceling it out and trying to organize the field.
You know, in Feldenkrais and in many different things, in any kind of art you’re involved in, you’re trying to figure out, What’s the material? What are you dealing with? Conceptual objects? Real objects? What are you dealing with and how does it push back? And if you’re going to make any progress or any real inroads into any kind of art, you have to deal with material that pushes back. You have to feel uncomfortable on some level or maybe it’s overwhelmingly seductive on some level, right? And something has to be overcome.
This artist friend of mine, he said he fights against his hand all the time. He is such a gifted draughtsman, he has to fight against doing really beautiful, incredible things to find things that resist that.
Take a Feldenkrais training program. I was looking at an online thread where people were talking about Feldenkrais certification, and I said, “You know students come to trainings having stronger ideas than the teachers, like, ‘Oh that’s not Feldenkrais, what you’re doing.’” When I taught the Five Lines for the first time, people were like, “This can’t be Feldenkrais. It goes against everything we’ve been told in classes.” “No, it’s Feldenkrais.”
When you’re dealing with the lessons, or you’re dealing with some situation, things start to really happen and get great when the teacher’s good ideas and the students’ good ideas just crash and burn in the moment. Then you have to stop and think, “Wait a minute here. If you’re having a novel moment and I’m really truthful, I’ve never been present to that either.” What can you do then? How do you act at that moment? That’s when the training happens. That’s when things really resonate on all different levels through the room, because you realize something. That’s what you do in ATM or FI or any kind of art. It’s that moment.
EC: When you said earlier that it’s gotta be overcome, that might seem to go against a lot of the brochure language for Feldenkrais about how it’s always comfortable, easy movements.
DL: I think the idea of making everything comfortable makes most people really uncomfortable. That bends back on itself. Learning has to have.. has to be problematic. Well it doesn’t have to be, but the consequences of learning are problematic, for many people.
I worked with this woman one time and she was in total paralyzing pain, such pain that she didn’t even want me to work with her, so I just sat across the room and I did kind of an ATM Eriksonian kind of thing with her and she walked out. Then she phoned me up the next day, and she was really angry. And I said, “Well I hadn’t worked with a person like you before but I’m sorry.” But it wasn’t that she was in worse pain, it was that she wasn’t in any pain. And her friends said, “Well you must have been faking it all these years.” And so she was mad at me. I had no idea that would be the consequence. I didn’t know what else to do.
EC: The thing I’m realizing is that the encounter with somebody else, somebody that pushes back, is the most fundamental thing about this work. And so I find that for all the preparation that I do for my lessons and for class, it’s like always the moments that I’m not prepared for that are the ones that stay with me.
DL: The more you prepare the better, but only because then the things that show up outside your preparation are really interesting. Whereas if you don’t prepare, everything that shows up is outside your preparation. And then you don’t know, and you can’t learn from anything.
EC: Do you spend time on the floor everyday doing Awareness Through Movement?
DL: I would say almost every day. And when I do other things, like different Buddhist practices or Chi Gong, it’s always folded in.
EC: I heard David Zemach-Bersin say that early in his studies he would spend three hours a day on the floor doing ATM and he kind of suggested that was a key part of getting good.
DL: I think you can do it, or it doesn’t have to be movement. Something else about the work can really captivate you. It could be something conceptual.
Let’s say you don’t have any idea of Darwin. It’s like, it’s evolution, it’s a fact, who cares? But when you read about it and you sense the vitality in that tradition, then you realize, Well, if evolution is some kind fact, and there’s no reason for me to think otherwise, then wouldn’t the laws of Nature evolve?
There are cutting edge Physicists who are realizing, maybe these constants which people started measuring a long time ago, maybe they’re not constants but they’re variables, so the whole universe is evolving. So what are these laws of nature? Do they exist outside of whatever the universe is? Well then you have a whole problem of how do these laws have an effect inside time, if they exist outside time? This has always been the big problem, right?
So essentially, from the beginning of time there are philosophers of becoming and philosophers of being. Philosophers of being can describe the ontology of things, the beauty and relationships, what an object is. But they can’t tell you how things change. And the philosophers of becoming can tell you how things change, but they can’t tell you why things stabilize. So let’s say you look into all of that, then you would come back to Feldenkrais with some kind of renewed sense of how to think about those kinds of things.
EC: Maybe I’m asking a question about time spent every day being in a state where you’re learning something. Feldenkrais makes a distinction between life and learning, so I find that after studying Feldenkrais for a while I notice when I flip my learning switch on or off. For the hours of the day that I spend on the floor, maybe somebody else is spending those hours meditating, and for them meditation is the switch into some kind of mode where they’re more investigative.
DL: These are parts of discussions that we had with Feldenkrais in Israel. He was saying that it’s about segregating those things. He felt that if people were doing Awareness Through Movement and then trying to incorporate that consciously, that was really a problem. Because when you learn something, there’s something in the moment that should just give way to the next moment, so you just have your life, eat, drink and be happy or be unhappy. And when you do the lessons, do them. And don’t try to make them one and the same, unless you’re going to say, as an experiment, “I’m going to take these next five days and just do this this this and this.” Whatever it happens to be. Like a Zen sasheen, where it’s set out.
I think certain ideas will resonate in terms of your practice and those ideas can go back in and affect your practice. And certain parts about your practice, your movement and sensing, gives rise to different kinds of ideas. Like one of my martial arts teachers said, “You have no idea what the rewards of practice will be. I can’t tell you. You can’t imagine it. But after 5 or 10 years of practice, you’ll think things and do things that are unimaginable to you now.” Then in 5 or 10 years all of a sudden you’ll get this idea, but it wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t practiced. Again, what’s the relationship of time to the timeless? These things are intertwined in a way. Maybe we are conceptually impoverished in terms of how we talk about it.
EC: How we think we’re going to get there vs. how we actually get there.
DL: And how we rationalize it after we’re there. So many people can do something and then their rationalizations afterwards are so.. Sometimes the rationalizations are very beguiling and compelling, but sometimes you’re thinking, “Wait a minute. I watched you do that. That isn’t what you did. You can fool these people, but you can’t fool me.”