by Susann Suprenant, Ph.D.
"Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed." ~Thich Nhat Hanh
"Regardless of how we get there, either through meditation or more directly by paying attention to novelty and questioning assumptions, to be mindful is to be in the present, noticing all the wonders that we didn't realize were right in front of us." ~ Ellen J. Langer
I teach many different types of classes in a variety of venues: technique classes at dance and theatre venues, college classes about the arts, as well as creativity workshops and Feldenkrais movement classes at The Center for Mindful Living. From the outside, this varied curriculum might seem only loosely related but from my perspective these courses all share an important common thread. In all cases, I aim to help students see themselves as more creative by helping them learn to look and listen and sense and feel with greater awareness.
I think the difficulty for many students is that they come with cultural assumptions about what it is to be "creative" or "talented" and have an unexamined sense of what is "good," often at the expense of their own creative exploration. I try to help them loosen those crippling expectations and get back to the place where real learning and creative change can occur because too many of my students are their own worst art critics.
Art criticism is a term used to describe certain educated and intellectual responses to works of art. Art criticism is accomplished in four stages: Describing, Analyzing, Interpreting, and Evaluating. These four stages require an increasing level of expertise in the specific art form: evaluating (judging the merit) of an art work is the most advanced stage and interpreting (determining meaning) also requires a high level of expertise.
These two advanced stages come more naturally when grown from a lifetime of study and art making and I intentionally do not focus on interpretation or evaluation with my novice students. I initially do not even focus on analyzing. My primary focus in all my classes is on the earliest phase of the critical process—and I would argue—the most neglected and essential. That is, the ability to describe which arises only from a heightened awareness.
Describing is the articulation of awareness. Awareness can be elusive if we have forgotten how to slow down and look closely or listen quietly. Many of us find it uncomfortable to just be still and simply experience our sensations.
Awareness requires us to approach experience in and through our bodies. It invites us to approach learning with true curiosity about what we might find. With no opinions, preconceived ideas, or assumptions to guide us, awareness asks us to carefully direct our attention without judgment and be open to what is, what we actually discover. And it is this awareness that is the key to real growth and change within us.
Awareness is not only a practice of mindfulness, it is nearly synonymous.
According to UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center, mindful awareness can be defined as "paying attention to present moment experiences with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with what is (non-judgmentally)."
Paying attention. Present moment experiences. Openness. Curiosity. Non-judgmental. These are the conditions for learning. These are the conditions for creativity. And these are the very same features that guide Feldenkrais® Awareness through Movement® lessons.
For those who are new to the Feldenkrais Method, I begin each lesson with guidelines for approaching the work. I ask students to move very slowly and use the least effort possible in order to bring their attention most completely to any subtle sensations they experience.
I give my movement instructions verbally while students are usually lying on the ground, often with eyes closed, in order to help them stay in the present of their actual experience rather than try to accomplish what they think they "should" be doing.
Although the work is extremely gentle and not physically taxing, I encourage students to rest often and even visualize a movement so they can stay open to their sensation rather than strive for a result. I ask students to repeat particular gestures, exploring different ways to make the same simple movement.
Repetition aids our awareness but only for as long as we stay curious about what we are sensing. As soon as a movement becomes rote, curiosity is gone and the brain is no longer primed for making new connections. And lastly, we approach each lesson as a non-judgmental exploration of ourselves as we are, improving the accuracy of our self-image without trying to "fix" ourselves. In short, we practice embodied mindful awareness.
So to anyone who wishes to enhance their comfort, creativity, connection to others, or their abilities in any art form—or even in the art of living—I invite you to start by simply cultivating awareness.