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Minute Particulars #43

by Andrew Feldmár

On The Distracted Centipede, by Mina Semyon (Trafford)

I was introduced to the practice of yoga by Mina Semyon in London, England, in 1974. At that time she was married to Arthur Balaskas, who also taught yoga. Mina was always gentle and attentive. The one time I allowed Arthur to get near me, he bent my arm back with such force that I could feel the burning of tearing muscle. I was hurting for weeks afterwards, and he thought it was good for me. I became aware of my limitations through pain. The prospect of possible change, of loosening up, seemed so remote. I realized that I didn't want to experience any pain; I simply wanted to change, gratis.

Mina recently sent me the manuscript of her book, soon to be published, entitled The Distracted Centipede. I've known the authorless ditty, from which she borrowed, for many years, but until now I didn't realize its essential message:

The centipede was happy quite
Until a toad in fun
Said, 'Pray, which leg comes after which?'
This raised her mind to such a pitch,
She lay distracted in a ditch,
Considering how to run.

Every midwife, obstetrician, birth coach, all the experts who want to help women to give birth might do well to meditate upon these few lines of wise poetry. The martial arts, yoga, meditation, music, dance, and singing – all teach, transmit the same wisdom: GET OUT OF THE WAY! Life knows how to bring new life into this world. Life knows how to protect itself. Life lives us. We are not surviving because of our cleverness and heroic efforts; we survive in spite of them. Faith is surrender to that which lives us. Life knows how to walk the centipede; the self-conscious centipede doesn't. Toad's question became a debilitating distraction.

There are so many distractions! Mina's list includes anger, greed, craving, envy, jealousy, arrogance, pride, praise, blame, what other people think of you, you name it. I would add fear, one of my major distractions. Whenever the world threatened me, didn't conform to my ideas, disappointed me, from childhood on, I began to develop reactions that were adaptive to my environment. These adaptive behaviours helped me to survive danger, antagonism, even lovelessness, but the resulting habit patterns became rigid and obstructed my connection with my inmost being, with what was living me. Original trust was replaced by a reliance on knowledge, possessions, and my own capacities, with all their false promise of security. Original faith gave place to reliance on conventional patterns and the effort of keeping up the appearance required by the world. Original union with Life was supplanted by dependence on the acceptance and approval of others. When I started to practise yoga and meditation, I began my journey back to a heartfelt response to life, away from automatic, defensive reactions that ensured survival once upon a time. This seems like a never-ending process, and each moment is the best of all opportunities. Each moment is a critical moment. And although freedom is reality, and habits are illusion, layer upon layer of illusion lifts, yet layer upon layer remains.

The world expects us to be continually doing whereas the Life that lives us requires us, simply, to allow what needs to happen, happen. Laing often asked, "What to do when you don't know what to do?" The implied answer was, "Nothing!" Do nothing, wait until you are moved by what is larger than yourself: by the situation.

Karlfried, Graf von Dürckheim, in Daily Life as Spiritual Exercise, which I first read around the time I met Mina in London, says there are two great enemies of the right way of being. One is hypertension, when "excessive self-will, persistent self-control and constant surveillance by an all-too-watchful ego, block the flow of the forces of" Life. All hypertension is an expression of a lack of trust in Divine Being. The other is slackness, when "man has let himself go and therefore forfeited his inherent form... If he remains true to his conscience, it is impossible for him to be without form." No straining, no lassitude... Caring, but not willful... My father was both hypertense and slack. He had a responsible, high profile job in communist Hungary, which meant, at the time, playing very careful theatre in public under scrutinizing, paranoid, policing eyes; in private, he would fall asleep, whether he tried playing chess with me, or wanted to listen to a concert. He was either hyper-on or slack-off. I've never seen him in a relaxed state of attentiveness.

Change is risk. We cling to the familiar, even if it causes suffering. When using biofeedback, you learn to relax your muscles, by quieting a tone representing tension, and when you succeed, the actual sensation in your body is uncomfortable. The attending technician is often asked, "Can I relax now?" Becoming comfortable again means returning to one's habitual, familiar level of chronic tension. And so it is with all habits.

Mina writes, "I, personally, don't want to be less transformed by lovemaking than by standing on my head, otherwise I'll prefer to stand on my head for a half an hour, feeling connected and in one piece. I want lovemaking to enhance my connectedness not disturb it.

It is worth reminding ourselves that in lovemaking we may open to the earliest feelings of intimacy and the earliest hurt. Can I trust you with my heart? Can you trust me with your heart? It is a constant process of letting go of what stands in the way of being open and loving. If both partners are open to explore this journey then there is hope for true intimacy, for God's sake."

It's not easy to drop the armor that once protected us from being annihilated. Yet keeping it on imprisons us in loveless isolation.

Yoga helps to crack the armor. And my armor keeps me from wholeheartedly practicing yoga...


- Further information and online purchase of The Distracted Centipede are available on the Trafford Publications website -

"Minute Particulars No. 43"
In a Nutshell: Victoria Mental Patients Newsletter
Andrew Feldmár
May 2004

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