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Striking Out In The Wrong Direction

crossroads1

To those who know me and love me, who have helped me over and over again to get to where I am trying to go. Ironically, I am likely to be remembered for my exquisite sense of direction within the body, and for my utter and complete lack of direction within the world around me. At last, I’ve found a kindred spirit, also “spatially dyslexic.” Paul Auster writes:

“Always lost, always striking out in the wrong direction, always going around in circles. You have suffered from a life long inability to orient yourself in space, and even in New York, the easiest of cities to negotiate, the city where you have spent the better part of your adulthood, you often run into trouble. Whenever you take the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan (assuming you have boarded the correct train and are not traveling deeper into Brooklyn), you make a special point to stop for a moment to get your bearings once you have climbed the stairs to the street, and still you will head north instead of south, go east instead of west, and even when you try to outsmart yourself, knowing that your handicap will set you going the wrong way and therefore, to rectify the error, you do the opposite of what you were intending to do, go left instead of right, go right instead of left, and still you find yourself moving in the wrong direction, no matter how many adjustments you have made. Forget tramping alone in the woods. You are hopelessly lost within minutes, and even indoors, whenever you find yourself in an unfamiliar building, you will walk down the wrong corridor or take the wrong elevator, not to speak of smaller enclosed spaces such as restaurants, for whenever you go to the men’s room in a restaurant that has more than one dining area, you will inevitably make a wrong turn on your way back and wind up spending several minutes searching for your table. Most other people, your wife included, with her unerring inner compass, seem able to get around without difficulty. They know where they are, where they have been and where they are going, but you know nothing, you are forever lost in the moment, in the void of each successive moment that engulfs you, with no idea where true north is, since the four cardinal points do not exist for you, have never existed for you. A minor infirmity until now, with no dramatic consequences to speak of, but that doesn’t mean a day won’t come when you accidentally walk off the edge of a cliff.”

Paul Auster from Winter Journal

The Physiology Of The Human Spirit

Last week, in Seoul, Korea, my workshop theme was, The Physiology Of The Human Spirit.

Leonardo daVinci set out to discover the seat of the soul. No small task. He explored an area of the body known, in his time, as the sensus communis. Here, he plots the site of the sensus communis at the intersection of upright and diagonal lines seen within the tilted plane, at a point that marks the proportional centre of the skull.

DaVinci's Sensus Communis

DaVinci’s Sensus Communis

 

Leonardo saw the sensus communis as a point of convergence, a center from which all voluntary action was controlled – everything from running, to walking, to lifting an arm, to singing a song, to the smallest details of expression like smiling, or raising an eyebrow. For daVinci, the sensus communis was the locus of the human soul. Leonardo writes, “The soul seems to reside, to be seated in that part where all the senses meet, called the sensus communis, and is not all-pervading throughout the body, as many have thought. Rather it is entirely in one part.”

The work, developed by F.M. Alexander seems, almost mysteriously, connected to Leonardo’s insights. But Alexander went a step further. He evolved a way, through touch, of helping others to experience this center in themselves.

Here, in these images, you can see people coming into contact with their sensus communis, you can see them residing in a place where the soul sits, in peace.

 

Eva Ehrenberg

Eva with her Alexander Alliance Quilt.

Eva with her Alexander Alliance Quilt.

For Eva’s family and friends, and for the Alexander Alliance,

As the years go by, it becomes ever clearer that the Alexander Alliance is more than a place where people learn about the Alexander Technique.

In 1982, Martha and I had no idea the Alliance would become a haven of deep support and love for so many people, in so many ways, over so many years. In a community the size of the Alliance something is always happening – relationships beginning, others ending, someone gets a new job, and another is losing theirs, someone’s life seems finally to be coming together, while someone else’s life appears to be falling apart.  A baby’s on the way into the world, and at the same time someone’s life is coming to an end.

But no matter what is happening to us, there will be people close by who will celebrate with us, or comfort us. There will be someone near who we can turn to, talk to, confide in, that will do their best to help us out.

When Eva Ehrenberg came into the school I remember her as a gentle, though frightened person, a person who felt wounded and vulnerable. A lone, scared deer in a dense woods. But gradually, almost imperceptibly, Eva began to change. By the time she graduated, four years later, Eva was lighter, less fearful, less fragile, willing to try new things. She laughed more, worried less. I remember how, when Eva first joined the school, she refused to practice tai chi, due to it’s martial underpinnings. It was against her non-violent philosophy. But on the last days at the school, she changed her mind, and started learning the form and was loving it. She’d become more flexible, more open, in a word, happier.

The journey each person takes through the Alliance is a different one. It’s not always the journey we expect, but it’s the journey life deems we need.

For many of us, even after we graduate, the Alliance remains a real part of our lives. It did for Eva. The Alliance helped carry Eva through until the end of her days. And in so doing, the Alliance became stronger.

Thank you Eva for being a part of us,

Bruce Fertman for The Alexander Alliance Community School

The Culmination Of Character

the culmination of character

According to Aristotle, the psyche, (meaning soul, breath, animating spirit, mind), is the form of the body, in that it forms the body, is the origin of its movements, and is the body’s final aim and purpose. The psyche sculpts the body, yet is itself without body, and therefore cannot be located in, or reduced to, a particular organ, or cell, or gene.

James Hillman, in The Force Of Character, compares the body and the soul to a sock.

Take, for instance, your favorite pair of wool socks. You get a hole in a heel and darn it. Then you get a hole in the big toe – and you darn that too. Soon the darned holes are more of the sock than the original wool. Eventually, the whole darned sock is made of different wool. Yet, it’s the same sock.

A human body is like that sock, sloughing off its cells, changing its fluids, fermenting utterly fresh cultures of bacteria as others pass away. Your material stuff through time becomes altogether different, yet you remain the same you. There seems to be an innate image that does not forget your basic paradigm and that keeps you in character, true to yourself.

If what outlasts the wool is the form, then a preoccupation with physical decay – with where the sock is wearing thin – misses a crucial point. Sure, the sock is showing holes, and stitching up its weak places keeps it functional. But our minds might more profitably be thinking about the mystery of this formal principle that endures through material substitutions.

There comes a time when we look into the mirror and wonder who that old person is staring back at us. It’s as if our bodies no longer reflect who we are. They don’t express who we feel ourselves to be, internally. There’s a distinct and disturbing mismatch. There’s a sense of being estranged from our own bodies. Then it hits us and the question arises, Yes, I need this body, but am I this body?

Ultimately, the body is not about the body. The physical is not exclusively about itself, not for humans. The soul is the body’s final aim and purpose. There lies within us a metaphysical dimension that seems not to wither with time. To the contrary, the soul seems to mature, to evolve, to become ever more vital. And thus, the mismatch. Outside we are becoming stiff, inside more flexible, outside, weaker, inside, stronger, outside, ragged, inside, refined.

As we become older the body can do less, but can empathize more, and not just with people. The senses become mediums of communion. Boundaries blur. It’s as if we become a host for the world around us. We open our sensory doors and welcome the world in; we let everyone and everything fill us. The emptier we become, of ourselves, the more completely the world can enter and fill us, sometimes to the point of total identification with the world at large. No longer identified with ourselves, we’re overcome with a joyful neutrality. We’re free.

Shortly before he died, Carl Jung wrote, I am astonished, disappointed, pleased with myself. I am distressed, depressed, rapturous. I am all these things at once, and cannot add up the sum. I am incapable of determining ultimate worth or worthlessness; I have no judgment about myself and my life. There is nothing I am quite sure about…

When Lao-tzu says: ‘All are clear, I alone am clouded,’ he expresses how I now feel. Yet there is so much that fills me: plants, animals, clouds, day and night, essences of people. The more uncertain I have grown about myself, the more there has grown up in me a feeling of kinship with all things. In fact it seems to me as if that alienation which so long separated me from the world has become transferred into my own inner world, and has revealed to me an unexpected unfamiliarity with myself.”

When my dog Amy was old, so old that she could not walk, was incontinent, could not hear, or see, I still cared for her because when I held her in my arms and carried her out into the yard and lay her down on the green grass where she could feel the breeze blow through her fur, I knew her body was doing what it was intended to do, to bring joy to her soul.

Yes, the day came to put Amy down. She died in my arms, and the moment she did, she was gone. Her body had done its job, and done it well. Anyone who has held someone and felt the moment of their dying knows that a person is not their body. In that moment, immediately, the body becomes unreal, like a wax figure of someone who once was and will never be again.

So let us remember, especially as our bodies begin to falter, why we have them, why they outlast their beauty and their skillfulness. Bodies last beyond their usefulness to give us as much time as possible to reach their final aim and purpose; the maturation of soul, the culmination of character.

Homeland

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Most people don’t know I’m “half Korean.” They don’t know I spent hours feeding and staring into my Korean babies faces. They grew up feeling they looked like me, and I grew up feeling I looked like them. They became Caucasian, and I became Asian. Years back, I taught annually in Korea at Music Camps for kids. I felt right at home. Everyone looked like my kids, like me. It’s great to be invited back to teach again, this time for the general public. Thank you Sungwan Won for inviting me back to one of my homelands.

Letters To A Young Teacher – All That Goodness

Photo: Tada "Anchan" Akihiro

Photo: Tada “Anchan” Akihiro

Letters To A Young Teacher – Continued…

Here’s a question: When there is an absence of fear, what opens up for you? What presents itself?
Teach from there.

Right now I think curiosity arises when there is an absence of fear. But the curiosity is from the absence of fear, not the path that works with fear when it’s present.

I see what you mean. When you are not afraid, you are in touch with your curiosity. No problem. But what you are wondering about here, (what you are curious about because you are not afraid), is what path do you take when you are afraid. How do you cope with your fear when you are afraid?

Fear, trepidation, anxiety are emotions I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, particularly in regards to the technique, and teaching the technique. How do I work with those emotions when I am teaching, and experiencing them? What do I do in the moment? Those aren’t necessarily questions I expect anyone to be able to definitively answer, but they’re questions I’ve been posing to myself.

Finding a good question to pose is key, and you’ve found one.

When I’m working with a student I’m able to continue despite my fear, but it becomes more overwhelming when I’m putting my hands on a teacher.

Ah, yes. Why is this? Why do so many of us get scared when working with a teacher? Alexander had a hunch. That we want to be right, recognized as good, praised, liked, approved of. That we don’t want to be seen or judged as wrong, untalented, stupid, slow, bad. That we don’t want to be unvalued, unappreciated, rejected. We all want to please our teacher, (or our mom, or dad, or any authority figure), and we’re afraid we won’t.

Of course, if the teacher tends to be overly severe, destructively critical, unkind, unskilled at giving constructive feedback, our task becomes that much more challenging. But not impossible. And if we are also overly severe, destructively critical, unkind, and unskilled at giving constructive feedback to ourselves, or to the teacher, then our task becomes that much more challenging. And this is how so many of us are toward ourselves and others in situations like these.

So what to do when, there you are, afraid, and working with a teacher. There’s a lot of ways into a solution. But let’s see if we can keep it simple.

You know that quote from Rumi, Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. How can we get ourselves into that field? Because inside of that field lies less fear. Erika Whittaker, the person who studied Alexander’s work longer than any human being, even Alexander, told me once that Alexandrian inhibition was decision. I did not get this for quite awhile, and then I did. You make a decision like, “Next week when I work with my teacher my decision, my hearts desire, is to live inside this field of no rightdoing or wrongdoing. You can’t make the decision lightly. You’ve got to sit with it, inside of it, maybe for days. This decision has to sink down to the bottom of your soul. Then, as Alexander said, you do your best to stick to that decision against your habit of life. When you are living inside that decision, even for a minute, inside of that minute, you are free, free from your fearful life habit. That’s a huge accomplishment, reason for a party, I tell my students. If you’re with your teacher, and you fall back into your pattern, no problem. It’s another moment of opportunity. (Alexander referred to this as “the critical moment”, but I prefer calling it “a moment of opportunity.) You might, in that moment, even let your teacher know what you are working on. Why not? (One of my favorite questions.)

Marj Barstow had another approach. Marj’s magic sentence, when we noticed some interference, be it mental or physical, was “What would happen if….. then fill in the blank….if I let my neck be free…or if I un-gripped my neck…or if, just for a moment, I let that stressful thought fall…or if I gently shifted into the field beyond right and wrong….or if I allowed myself not to have to be good at anything…or if I simply became curious…and then went with that, and found out what it would be like?

Elisabeth Walker was a master at putting a student at ease when they were working with her. It was because she was always playing. She told me she disliked the term Alexander Technique, too technical, too serious. She didn’t like the term Alexander Work, too hard, too heavy. She’d say, “Let’s play, let’s do some Alexander Play.” That was her field beyond wrongdoing and rightdoing. You couldn’t make a mistake when working with Elisabeth. Curiosity is another way into that field, and a good one for you. I wonder what would happen if…It’s a good one for me too.

When I got nervous working with Elisabeth she’d say to me, “Bruce, have no doubt!” (in my potential). And knowing you, having worked with you, I say to you, “Have no doubt!” You are talented, skillful, intelligent, and you love the work. It’s the love for the work that will carry you through. You can trust that. I trust it. I have no doubt that, with practice, you will, we will, become ever better teachers. You are already able to help people, and you will be able to do so more deeply over time.

I fall into my habits of harsh doubt and self criticism. My mental habits are much more difficult to change than my physical ones, though I can see how they affect one another. But the mental habits are wily, like whispers that I don’t even know I’m hearing. I’ve had less experience working with them directly, as I had my physical tension. It might be an interesting experiment to purposefully place myself in situations where I know my mental habits will be challenged and triggered, so that I can become curious about how to inhibit/redirect them. That’s a difficult task to set for myself. I’d rather find I’ve inadvertently tightened my neck than begun to believe the whispers. I find a tight neck easier to deal with. But what a possibly fruitful journey that could be.

Yes, like whispers I don’t even know I am hearing. It will be an interesting experiment, and it will be a fruitful journey. Ultimately, the only habits that do us in are stressful mental ones, our distorted thoughts and beliefs. Alexander said his work was about how we react to stimuli from within and without. It’s rarely something out there that pulls us down. Your teacher is not scaring you. Your thoughts are scaring you. In the end, it’s the thought that needs to be questioned, and allowed to fall away, making space for a thought or an attitude that’s more constructive.  Use what you know about releasing and redirecting a stressful muscular pattern. You know how to do that – give yourself time to identify the distorted thought or belief, see it for what it is, accept it, question it, get to know it, then, without effort let it fall, and redirect all that goodness.

Open your time frame. You’ve got your whole life to hone your craft. And remember, it is not your teachers who certify you; it’s your students.

Yours,

Bruce

 

Letters To A Young Teacher – Humility

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I was wondering if you have any insight on the difference between ego and confidence.

Confidence is the absence of fear. Nothing else. Being cocksure, or hubristic, rises from ego. It’s put on, assumed.

In my experience the Alexander Technique challenges my ego, and to learn it well I need to let go of some of my ego.

As I see it, we’ve got a “tension body” and a “real body.” The tension body is our ego body. We identify with our tension body. We become it, and it becomes us. Jung referred to it as our suit, a suit that wears us. So when this suit becomes looser, when we begin to identify with who we really are, underneath the suit, we are not who we felt ourselves to be. So yes, the work challenges our ego, and this begins to raise doubts in us, but constructive doubts. We are not so sure who we are. This is good. We don’t want to confine ourselves, definitively define ourselves. We want to be able to change and mature.

But when my ego is challenged, I often lose my confidence as well.

You are not losing your confidence. Your ego is losing its confidence. Constructive doubt may be arising.  The I don’t know mind. Humility.

Is it possible to teach from a place of less ego, but retain confidence?

If confidence is the absence of fear, then yes.  (Remember, as Marjorie Barstow said, “There’s nothing to get or to have, there is only something to lose.)

James Baldwin writes, “Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.”

Rather than worrying about confidence, continue to work on loosening the garment of identity. More and more will you begin to sense your own nakedness. There you will stand, unadorned, disclosed. Humility. That is from where great teaching comes.

Hope this helps. And I hope you are well.

Yours,

Bruce

 

 

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