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Thursday 13 March 2008

The Conductive Soul

The conductive soul

Some thoughts after a first reading of András Pető’s

András Pető was interested in many different schools of medicine and the effects that these have on different organs and bodily functions, and in turn how they affect people’s general well-being, their healthiness.

In the Unfug András Pető wrote not about fixing the soul and the body separately but healing all the parts of the body and its functions in order to heal a specific illness, whereas someone working more traditionally would just look at the specific symptom of an illness. András Pető’s method would lead to a healthy soul. The more that I read I came to understand that András Pető was using the word Seele in the same way that ‘the whole personality’ is used when talking about Conductive Education.

Die Seele (German) – ‘the soul’

This German word Seele is so difficult to translate or describe in English. Seele is a word that is felt rather than understood, not to be defined with a single word and maybe also not with a hundred either.

There is no single exact English translation of this very useful, meaningful word. In the dictionary we discover that it covers anything from the soul, to heartiness, to pleading, to the chest, the mind, the psyche, even to coughing up your guts and selling your granny!. All this and more is understood in the German language through using this one five-letter word.

By the way, the German word sounds a bit like the English ‘sailor’, not like the English ‘seal’!

What PONS, the big German-English dictionary on the Internet, has to say about die Seele:

die Seele aushauchen – to breathe one’s last
mit Leib und Seele – (literally with body and soul) – wholeheartedly
ein Herz und eine Seele – inseparable
die Seele aus dem Leib husten – to cough ones guts up
eine seelige Mensch zu sein – to be a good-hearted soul
es brennt auf der Seele – can’t wait (to do something)
jemand auf die Seele knien – to plead with someone
liegt ihm auf die Seele – is weighing on his mind
von der Seele sprechen – get something off one’s chest

Seelenfriede – peace of mind
Seelenheil – salvation, spiritual welfare
Seelenmassage – gentle persuasion
Seelenverkaufe – someone who would sell his own granny.
Seelenruhe – calm
Seelisch – psychological
Seelsorge – spiritual welfare

This selection shows how much die Seele is used in everyday speech in German and how little the word ‘soul’ appears in the translations into English. Does this mean the English are afraid to talk about their soul? Die Seele is full of meaning that cannot be expressed with English words except by using rather more. One has to know this myriad of uses in German before coming near to feeling the meaning of the Seele.

I have recently discussed the Seele with an Englishman (35 years in Germany, English teacher) and a German student (fluent English-speaker). The Englishman said that for him the only explanation of the Seele that he could give was the difference that he felt when listening to Aretha Franklin compared to Amy Winehouse. For me the Seele could mean listening to Joan Baez , Tina Turner, or Louis Armstrong. Whose Seele are we talking about in this case, the singer’s or the listener’s? Or a general atmosphere of Seele?

It is something to be felt and not explained? It is something to use to make life, work and communication easier?

Pető the mystic: Seele, atem, leben ( soul, breath, life)

András Pető wrote that these words are so near to each other in meaning that it is impossible to drawn a line between them. The Greek psyche, he wrote, means at the same time ‘life’ and ‘soul’. In many other languages the words used to describe the Seele include air, breath, breeze, mist, puff, whiff, as in breath of life, and demonstrate the closeness of the three. Pneuma (Greek) in the New Testament is the wind, a ghost and an intake of breath. Just as it is the nature of the wind to blow here and there, it is also the Seele’s. The Seele is always moving here and there, floating, invisible, untouchable when one grabs at it, when one wants to hold it; it is a floating, moving, breeze

He lists other words connecting breathing and Seele.

Sanskrit: anilis, wind; aniti, the breath
Greek: anemos, wind
Gothic: anan, breathing

Latin animus and anima, András Pető wrote, are two words with very deep meaning, that maybe could be translated into the spiritual soul Geistseele and the bodily soul Körperseele. In Arabic, the Seele breathes; it never rests, but moves in a rhythmical pulling together and pushing apart, joining with the breath outside the body, that is with the continuous breath/force of nature. In the Old Testament God breaths life into the souls of the people, (all three, the soul, life and breath)

The Seele that has had life breathed into it is the life of the person, the life of man is the rhythmic moving together of the life and of the soul, the seelische breathing:

‘the soul that stops breathing lives no more, it stops being a soul.’

András Pető: life and soul

In the western world we see the soul as something floaty and airy-fairy, the part that floats off when people die but to which we pay little heed while someone lives. Although we do say that someone is the ‘life and soul of the party’ we really mean something about the external character that livens up a room and not the inner soul. I think that he saw the Seele as more concrete, the whole personality, more tangible.

András Pető wrote about how yoga uses breathing. This section about the breathing is fascinating as to me there always seemed to be more to the breathing programmes in Conductive Education than anyone ever told us.

András Pető was thinking about a more concrete Seele than we think about in mainstream Western culture. Could it be out of his eastern/mystic influences he considered the Seele as being more tangible, not so altogether uncatchable as the Arabic that he quotes above suggests?

Die Seele in my conductive practice

I could not work without mine or without its being in touch with that of my clients and helping them be in contact with (or feel) their own. The clients cannot work to the full without the Seele being involved, without my first getting through to their Seele. But what exactly is it? Is it the inner voice, deep within? Not only the client’s Seele is important, and that of the conductor, but the Seele of the group, the atmosphere created, is also important. How does this come about?

Will this Seele remain if the construction of the group changes? Does a who or a what influence this tangible group Seele? The group Seele is certainly influenced by the individuals within it but is it strong enough to remain if a member of the group is no longer there?

I met a German parent a few weeks ago, in Reutlingen. He had recently had contact with several conductors in his search to provide Conductive Education for his daughter. He said: ‘There is a very special feeling when being around conductors’, meaning that it was also there with the other conductors. I am sure that he was talking about the Seele.

I am a conductor, I have worked with lots of conductors, and he is right. That feeling, that open Seele, is always there (when the conductors are good ones, that is). Without this presence, Conductive Education cannot or does not work effectively. The children do not respond well, the work does not flow and there are no smiles or loud laughter. With the Seele in action little verbal communication is needed to motivate and to achieve results, and the clients’ aims become more reachable.

Where does the Seele come from, how does it develop in Conductive Education? Why is it so important in Conductive Education? Is it part of the training curriculum, can one learn it? Do only people with Seele get involved in Conductive Education, or is it inevitable that this Seele develops precisely because of being involved in Conductive Education? Does the Seele evolve the more one’s understanding of Conductive Education deepens? I believe that it does. Conductors or academics must have a Seele to be interested in Conductive Education to begin with but I think the Seele becomes broader and more accessible, the more one gets involved, the more one understands the concept.

Why is the Seele so important in Conductive Education? It is because Conductive Education is about LIVING and HOPE. The doctors or teachers or therapists who offer despair instead of hope are certainly not developing their own Seele – or in touch with that of their patients and pupils.

How does this conductive Seele develop? Maybe through the interactions between conductor, parent and client, maybe with the introduction of hope into a despairing family.

How does one give a Conductive Education centre a Seele, especially in countries where no word for Seele exists? Seele involves communicating without words, being full of high expectations, respect, love, hope, fun, smiles, understanding, common aims. I certainly do not mean that it cannot be created in the UK, America etc, but it is certainly is difficult to describe what one is searching for. If I started to talk about ‘the soul’ in English I would be dismissed as a bible-basher, a born-again Christian. If I were to talk about ‘lightness of heart’ I might be accused of smoking dope, being high. The Seele is part of everyday speech in Germany and if I talk about the Seele in my professional role there I will be welcomed with open arms. How does one do this where there is no such word?

It is a word to do with feelings it involves the whole body, just like Conductive Education does. The conductor’s Seele is full of hope and expectations for everyone involved. Conductive Education works because of its expectations… back to ‘hope’ I think. A good definition of having a Seele is to be full of expectations and hope.


The more I understand Conductive Education the more I seem to work ‘instinctively’, through my Seele and not my brain.


Karl Otto Bärnklau (1965) Unfug der Krankheit—Triumph des Heilkunst, Hannau/Main, Verlag Karl Schustek

PONS Online German-English Dictionary


Andrew Sutton said...


It is quite extraordinary how narrowly Conductive Education has been viewed over the years. It’s a real problem for something that introduces a new paradigm that even its advocated might at times take positions and describe it very much accordingly to their own existing background, experience and ideology. Over the years many, many people have examined and even claimed to adopt Conductive Education from out of the background, experience and ideology of prevalent services and mind-sets concerned with disabled children and adults – resulting in sometimes major distortions and omissions.

One extraordinary omission – and I know that this is particularly apparent in German-speaking lands from where you write – is Conductive Education’s assertion that treatment, intervention etc for motor disorders (it matters not from this argument the specific word used) has to be before all things a psychological process. This omission is particularly poignant for the conductive movement amongst German-speakers because

(a) they could easily read at least some of András Pető’s original thinking first-hand in their own language (though, remarkably, precious few seem to have done so) and

(b) so much of the enthusiasm amongst German-speaking people has been diverted into thinking that seems so ‘medical’ as to be the very antithesis of what Pető was advocating.

Using concepts available to him from his own personal ‘background, experience and ideology’ Pető to articulated his insight in terms of die Seele (‘the soul’). Thank you so much for drawing this to wider attention. As you make very clear, in English the word is its own worst enemy, especially amongst those deal with motor disorders at a technical level (though I do wonder whether lay people would have the same problem with it). Putting the specific meaning of the word aside, however, and going for the underlying sense that Pető may have been trying to convey, outside the ‘conductive goldfish bowl failure to incorporate this factor has been a long-standing question in other kinds of intervention and for a long time. As such it has attracted its own technical formulation and study, with the convenient formulation of ‘warmth, empathy and genuineness’ perhaps standing as a modern-day synonym in more acceptable technical jargon for what you speak of in your posting.

Twenty-odd years ago now, I wrote (Sutton 1986):

‘It has long been widely known that, regardless of the specific methods used, a certain personality, a certain kind of relationship with the client, can have major effects upon the outcome of an intervention.’ (p. 173)

I cited in support of this the magisterial review of research into the effects of psychotherapy by Truax and Carkhuff (1967)

‘The findings suggest that a person (whether a counsellor, therapist or teacher) who is better able to communicate warmth, genuineness and accurate empathy is more effective in interpersonal relationships, no matter what the goal of the interaction (better grades for college students, better interpersonal relations for the counseling center, adequate personality functioning for the seriously disturbed mental patient, socially acceptable behaviour for the juvenile delinquent or greater reading ability for third grade teaching instruction students).’ (pp. 116-117)

I do not advance this as evidence, as one often hears or reads, that ‘András Pető was ahead of his time’. In this respect anyway, he was not. He merely expressed things in a peculiar way, a way that many even then might have reasonably considered to be well behind the times. But to assert it in the field of physical illness and disability was novel, revolutionary, and to judge from the present way that things are done, it still is. Thank you again for making this message explicit.

Philippa Cottam and Andrew Sutton (eds), Conductive Education: a system for overcoming motor disorder, London: Croom Helm

C. B. Truax and R.R. Carkhuff, Towards Effective Counselling and Psychotherapy, Chicago, Aldine, 1967

LeticiaBTK said...

I am not surprising knowing that Peto said some about Yoga. But it is first time i have read it!
I am practicing yoga since a long time and i always can see CE and Yoga connected. Everytime I mention examples using yoga to describe CE. We have a yoga teacher in our group as well.
I would like to know more if you have some clues.
Nice work.

Anonymous said...

I felt the absence of 'die seele'when I held my first grandchild, stillborn at full term. Just a 'breath' it seemed would open her eyes.

Thank you for this extraordinary piece. Good luck to you and your blog. Thanks to Andrew for pointing it out.