Feldenkrais's spontaneous action and laozi's wuwei

[from Felix Breuer's Feldenkrais’s Spontaneous Action and Laozi’s Wuweiexcerpted by Dwight Pargee]


The phrase wei wuwei appears in many places throughout the Daode jing; it is most simply translated as “do not do.” On the one hand, this is a word of caution, phrased in the negative, saying that you should not “do.” But it is also a positive recommendation, when wuwei is read as a verb on its own, telling you to “do not‐do” or “act by not acting.” It is useful to treat these two “verbs” as separate modes of action. In light of Feldenkrais, then, these two modes of action can be read as follows: “Not‐doing” means spontaneous action. The “doing” that is advised against means compulsory action.

The first and foremost property of wuwei in the Daode jing is that by “not‐doing” you can achieve everything. “Doing,” on the other hand, turns against the actor (L3, L37, L64). These statements appear paradoxical in the Daode jing. However, when interpreted as referring to spontaneous action and compulsive action, they no longer appear self‐ contradictory.

There is much more in the Daode jing, though, that speaks in favor of this interpretation. Indeed, the text in many places relates the mode of action to the emotional attitude of the actor. To begin with, it identifies “competition” as a harmful motivation for acting: “The big winner does not compete” (L68). “Good people are not contentious; contentious peo‐ ple are not good” (L81).

The text further connects competition with the actor’s attitude toward achievement. The desire to win must not be too great, and the hold onto the objects of desire, even on life itself, must be easy (L12, L16, L33). “Not competing, [wise souls] have no competitor in the world” (L22); “Whatever you lose, you have won. Whatever you win, you have lost”(L42). “Great power, not clinging to power, has true power. Lesser power, clinging to power, lacks true power” (L38). 

“The wise do without claiming, achieve without asserting, wishing not to show their worth” (L77). 

“To give birth, to nourish, to bear and not to own; to act and not lay claim; to do the work and let it go: for letting it go is what makes it stay” (L2). “So wise souls leaving self behind move forward, and setting self aside stay centered” (L7).

The “self” to be left behind reflects the grim, competitive hold on life that “lacks true power.” It is precisely the compulsory emotional attachment to the ends of the individual’s actions that, in Feldenkrais’ view, stand in the way of mature behavior. Just as the mature individual has to learn to separate the emotional affect from the object of action, so the wise soul has to “let go.” “Trying,” “claiming,” “asserting,” “losing,” “winning,” and even “holding”—these are all emotionally charged modes of action, and both Laozi and Feldenkrais argue against this emotional content. For whenever you “try,” “claim,” or “assert,” the end looms larger in your mind than the action, you feel compelled to succeed and failure appears threatening. The wise soul or mature individual, on the other hand, may compete, but they are not competitive, as losing is a possible result of action and one that they do not fear any more than winning. Because they are not compelled to prefer one course of action over the other, they are free to choose as the situation requires.

Laozi clearly talks about compulsion when he writes, “So you come to the deep sameness. Then you can’t be controlled by love or by rejection. You can’t be controlled by profit or by loss. You can’t be controlled by praise or by humiliation” (L56). “To be in favor or disgrace is to live in fear” (L13).

The outcomes of your actions – “love” or “rejection,” “profit” or “loss,” “praise” or “humiliation” – have the power to control you, only if you feel compelled to achieve the former and prevent the latter. Indeed, by definition, behavior becomes compulsive whenever emotions exert control. Note that in this interpretation neither Laozi nor Feldenkrais advise against feeling emotions, only against feeling compelled by them. The wise soul or the mature individual feels, but as far as their choices are concerned, their emotions do not hold power over them.

The rigid, compulsory quality of “trying,” “claiming” and “clinging” is perhaps best summarized in the fundamental human experience of “wanting.” Laozi explicitly warns against the dangers of wanting and extols the merits of not‐wanting (L37, L64). “The greatest evil: wanting more. The worst luck: discontent”(L46). “The unwanting soul sees what’s hidden, and the ever‐wanting soul sees only what it wants” (L1). “To follow the Way is not to need fulfillment” (L15). 

Feldenkrais characterizes spontaneous action in a number of distinct points in the Potent Self:

Spontaneous action is not compulsive. A large part of typical human behavior is governed by compulsion; most human behavior is learned and emotions are attached to certain forms of behavior through success or failure, praise or criticism. This phenomenon is particularly acute as most learning takes place during childhood, when the individual de‐ pends on grown‐ups and seeks their approval. So we “screw ourselves up to do things” because our emotional well‐being depends on it, and as a result the learned behavior becomes entangled with an emotional affect (F58).

When we learn to free ourselves from “the affect that is associated with every situation and action” spontaneous action becomes possible (F57). And indeed, by the time they reach adulthood, most people learn “how to dissociate emotion from patterns established under the stress of dependence and to fix the urge for action on what [they find] expedient” (F103). For Feldenkrais, this is the very definition of maturity: Mature adults have the ability to direct their emotions in a way appropriate to the intended behavior.

Often, however, there remain instances of behavior where this dissociation is not learned. The results are what Feldenkrais calls cross‐motivations: conflicting motivations that give rise to compulsive behavior.

At the root of all anxiety, where education has failed, lies inner compulsion to act or to check action. And compulsion is sensed when motivation for action is conflicting; that is, when the habitual pattern that the person can en‐ act is sensed as compromising the person’s security. The feeling of security is linked with the image of self that has been cultivated in the dependence period. Thus, for some people, their good looks – for others, absolute unselfishness, absolute virility, superman ideas, absolute goodness, and all kinds of imaginary, untestable notions, habits of thought and patterns of behavior – have served as a means of obtaining affection, approval, protection, and care. Compulsion is sensed when there is a threat of any of these means becoming ineffective; the person feels endangered and left without any means of protection. (F11).

 Spontaneous actions make effective use of self. Mature individuals are able to choose any action that they see fit in a given situation. They are of course constrained by their abilities and their environment, but they are not constrained by any emotional compulsion, conscious or subcon‐ scious, and they are not hindered by “parasitic” behavioral patterns. They “use only those elements of [their experience] that are expedient for the present moment” (F44) and are thus able to make the most effective use of self. Indeed, Feldenkrais identifies mastery of any skill with the ability to perform it spontaneously (F86).

Spontaneous actions feel effortless. The reason is that the subjective experience of effort does not stem from the difficulty of the task at hand, but arises from cross‐motivations that cause the individual to unwittingly struggle with one self, one motivation striving with the other. “The sensation of effort is the subjective feeling of wasted movement” (F111). When actions are mono‐motivated the individual uses himself effectively and spends just the amount of effort that is needful, thus making the action feel easy. All feeling of resistance, physical, mental or emotional, is contrary to spontaneous action. “Correct coordinated action seems, and feels, effortless no matter how great the actual amount of work involved may be” (F86).

Spontaneous actions are optional. This means that the mature individual may choose freely to perform the action or not. Neither of the two options puts the individual under emotional stress, conscious or subconscious, as the action is free from the emotional affect that may have been tied to it in the process of learning. This does not mean that the least strenuous action is the most spontaneous. For example, if an individual is scared of speaking in public, this does not mean that avoiding a public speech is spontaneous. On the contrary, because the individual is not free to choose either way, neither action is spontaneous.

Spontaneous actions allow the possibility of failure. Any action, no matter how skillfully executed, may fail. An action is only spontaneous if failure, or the possibility thereof, does not endanger the emotional safety of the individual. This does not mean spontaneous actions have to be inconsequential. Even actions involving great personal risk may be spontaneous. The decisive factor is that for an action to be spontaneous, the individual may have a desire to succeed, but he may not feel emotionally compelled to do so. “The alternative of failure has no compulsive tension about it” (F193).

Spontaneous actions are reversible. A spontaneous movement can be stopped at any moment and reversed in direction without a significant increase in effort (F113). Indeed, to Feldenkrais, reversibility was one of the most important characteristic of spontaneous action in general, not only in regard to bodily movement. “The importance of reversibility is that it is possible only when there is fine control of excitation and inhibition and a normal ebb and flow between the parasympathetic and the sympathetic. The test of reversibility holds true for all human activity whether it is viewed from the physical or the emotional standpoint” (F114).

Spontaneous actions both follow and guide the ebb and flow of sympathetic and parasympathetic dominance. Feldenkrais identifies two classes of motivations. On the one hand, there are the motivations directed towards self‐protection and self‐assertion, which are connected to the dominance of the sympathetic nervous system. On the other hand, there are those motivations associated with recuperation, relaxation, calmness, contentment and rest, which are connected to the dominance of the parasympthetic nervous system (F144, F167).

Feldenkrais sees mature behavior as governed by a never‐ceasing oscillation between self‐assertion and recuperation. For either system to be stimulated fully, its counterpart has to be fully inhibited, and this pendulum of excitation has to swing back and forth between these two poles (F170). He notes, however, that the functions of self‐assertion are typically overexcited. Thus these two classes of motivations become conflated which leads to cross motivations that particularly difficult to resolve (F215, F227).