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Moshe Feldenkrais & Émile Coué

Scott Clark
© Copyright 2009


In my personal investigation of Feldenkrais, I have returned many times to the question of the influences on Moshe’s work. How did he happen to arrive at the particular ideas that make up the Method? What did he learn from his various teachers, and from the seemingly quite disparate education that he cobbled together for himself? A name that appears early in his development is that of Émile Coué; Moshe’s first book was (according to Mark Reese’s short biography) “Autosuggestion (1930), a translation from English to Hebrew of Charles Brooks’ work on Coué's system of autosuggestion, together with two chapters that he wrote himself.”
The only thing that I knew about Coué was that he was responsible for the notoriously optimistic sentence “Every day, in every way, my life is getting better and better.” When a friend of mine recently wondered if Coué’s books had been translated into English, it set me looking. The result has been very surprising and even a bit challenging; it has certainly put some of the themes of Moshe’s thinking into a clearer relief.
Émile Coué (1857 - 1926) was a French psychologist and pharmacist. Noticing the strength of the placebo effect on his pharmaceutical customers, he experimented with means of exploiting it. The easiest was to tell the customer, as he handed them their prescription, how wonderful it was. More sophisticated were trials of formal hypnotism, but Coué abandoned these as being unnecessarily complex. The key, he believed, was simply to insure that the person’s thinking was unambiguously positive, that there was no doubt in their mind of a positive outcome.
He wrote that there are, within each of us, two distinct ‘selves’ — one conscious and the other unconscious. He identified the conscious self as our will, our sense of intention; the unconscious self he called imagination. And imagination, unlike what we might believe or wish to believe about ourselves, always has the upper hand:

Not only does the unconscious self preside over the functions of our organism, but also over all our actions whatever they are. It is this that we call imagination, and it is this which, contrary to accepted opinion, always makes us act even, and above all, against our will when there is antagonism between these two forces. 1
He offered this example:
Suppose that we place on the ground a plank 30 feet long by 1 foot wide. It is evident that everybody will be capable of going from one end to the other of this plank without stepping over the edge. But now change the conditions of the experiment, and imagine this plank placed at the height of the towers of a cathedral. Who then will be capable of advancing even a few feet along this narrow path? ... Before you had taken two steps you would begin to tremble, and in spite of every effort of your will you would be certain to fall to the ground ... Notice that your will is powerless to make you advance; if you imagine that you cannot, it is absolutely impossible for you to do so. 2
Coué derived four ‘laws’ describing the relationship of these two forces:
  • When the will and the imagination are antagonistic, it is always the imagination which wins, without any exception.
  • In the conflict between the will and the imagination, the force of the imagination is in direct ratio to the square of the will.
  • When the will and the imagination are in agreement, one does not add to the other, but one is multiplied by the other.
  • The imagination can be directed. 3
His method, then, was the means by which he believed that imagination could best be directed. Curiously enough, the first step he would take with a new client would be based in movement:
Ask the subject to stand upright, with the body as stiff as an iron bar, the feet close together from toe to heel, while keeping the ankles flexible as if they were hinges. Tell him to make himself like a plank with hinges at its base, which is balanced on the ground. Make him notice that if one pushes the plank slightly either way it falls as a mass without any resistance, in the direction in which it is pushed. Tell him that your are going to pull him back by the shoulders and that he must let himself fall in your arms without the slightest resistance, turning on his ankles as on hinges, that is to say, keeping the feet fixed to the ground. Then pull him back by the shoulders and if the experiment does not succeed, repeat it until it does, or nearly so. 4
The succeeding procedures build further on this sense of trust and rapport, in a very physical context of moving and falling. Through this, Coué expects to be able to build a single unambiguously positive thought in the mind of his subject. Does this suggest a root from which Awareness Through Movement might spring?
Further, Coué anticipates one of Moshe’s major themes:
We must therefore realize that it is impossible to separate the physical from the mental, the body from the mind; that they are dependent upon each other; that they are really one. The mental element, however, is always dominant. Our physical organism is governed by it. So that we actually make or mar our own health and destinies according to the ideas at work in our subconscious. 5
One more extended example must suffice. This is from the book that Feldenkrais thought worth translating into Hebrew, and gives an account of Coué’s interaction with one of the many people who came to see him:
The blacksmith with the disabled arm, when told to think “I should like to open my hands but I cannot,” proceeded without difficulty to open them.
“You see,” said Coué, with a smile, “it depends not on what I say but on what you think. What were you thinking then?” He hesitated. “I thought perhaps I could open them after all.” “Exactly. And therefore you could. Now clasp your hands again. Press them together.”
When the right degree of pressure had been reached, Coué told him to repeat the words “I cannot, I cannot ...” As he repeated this phrase the contracture increased, and all his efforts failed to release his grip. “Voilà,” said Coué. “Now listen. For ten years you have been thinking you could not lift your arm above your shoulder, consequently you have not been able to do so, for whatever we think becomes true for us. Now think ‘I can lift it.’” The patient looked at him doubtfully. “Quick!” Coué said in a tone of authority. “Think ‘I can, I can!’” “I can,” said the man. He made a half-hearted attempt and complained of a pain in his shoulder. “Bon,” said Coué. “Don't lower your arm. Close your eyes and repeat with me as fast as you can, ‘Ça passe, ça passe.’” [It goes, it goes.] For half a minute they repeated this phrase together, speaking so fast as to produce a sound like the whirr of a rapidly revolving machine. Meanwhile Coué quickly stroked the man's shoulder. At the end of that time the patient admitted that his pain had left him. “Now think well that you can lift your arm,” Coué said.
The departure of the pain had given the patient faith. His face, which before had been perplexed and incredulous, brightened as the thought of power took possession of him. “I can,” he said in a tone of finality, and without effort he calmly lifted his arm to its full height above his head. 6
This story had a very immediate effect for me. Shortly after reading it, I was at work, giving someone an FI. I found myself indulging one of my bad working habits — pushing too hard, taking the person too close to the limit of their ease. So I remembered Coué, and thought “How can I give this person the feeling ‘I can’ ? What does that feel like, ‘I can’ ?” And so I continued the FI, repeating those words to myself “I can, I can” — not just about my own possibility, my own capability, but about theirs. I recommend it!

+++ Notes +++

1. Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion, Émile Coué, 1922; Chapter 2.
2. Ibid., Chapter 3.
3. Ibid., Chapter 5.
4. Ibid., Chapter 6.
5. My Method, Émile Coué, 1923; Chapter 1.
6. The Practice of Autosuggestion, Cyrus Brooks, 1922.

Scott Clark: Feldenkrais Classes & Lessons in London

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