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Just Shy Of Infinity

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Who would have thought? I mean, who would have thought that when I was 25 years old and utterly convinced that Marjorie Barstow’s approach to teaching Alexander’s work was superior in every way to the stiff, postural, ritualistic procedures that had come to be known as the Alexander Technique, who would have thought, that forty years later, I would not feel that way?

I mean, wasn’t it completely obvious that working in groups was the best way to develop your eye, that it was the best way to get your students working on their own, of weaning them from dependence on your hands? Didn’t everyone know that group teaching was the way to get the work into the larger system of education, where learning happened in groups, like in universities and elementary schools, in dance classes and yoga classes, and in physical therapy colleges? Wasn’t it as clear as day that working in activities was the quickest way to demonstrate to people that the work was eminently practical? And wasn’t is a no brainer that adhering to a 1600 hour, 3 year residential training model as the only possible model for training was absurd? I mean how could one not recognize this training structure as elitist, as out of touch with the needs of everyday working people? Hadn’t they noticed the emergence of night schools, of adult education, of retreat centers, of all the ways society was enabling hard working people, people with families, to study and train and grow?

Those were my beliefs as a twenty something, arrogant, brazen Alexander teacher. Slowly, very slowly, I got off my white horse, I took off my shining armor, I stopped fighting, and I started questioning everything, most importantly, Marj’s work, and my own opinions.

Really, was my use all that great? Was I not physically uncomfortable some of the time? Wasn’t my body still inflexible in certain ways? Wasn’t I still driven, obsessed? Was I really free to respond to situations the way I wanted? Was I able to control my impulsivity, my anger, my defensiveness? No, I wasn’t. So why did I feel like I knew what was best for the entire Alexander world?

It came down to wanting to be right, special, the best. So of course I had to have a teacher who was the best, better than anyone else. How, without having directly experienced all the approaches to the Alexander Technique I was capable of arriving at the irrefutable conclusion that Marj’s work, and therefore my work was the best work out there, I have no idea. But there you have it, the human mind at work in all of its glory.

I see now that Marj, like everyone, had her strengths and her weaknesses. She had a great eye, but she had her blind spots too. I needed to get some distance from Marj, I needed to see her and her work more honestly if I was going see myself honestly, if I was going to see what I knew, and what I didn’t know, which the older I get I see is just shy of infinity.

For example, Marj changed Alexander’s directions from “neck free, head forward and up, back to lengthen and widen” to, “what would happen if ever so delicately your whole head move slightly away from your body and your whole body immediately followed?” I clearly understand why Marj chose the language she did, but now I also know what she lost by excluding reference to the neck and the back, and to directional language such as forward and up, or lengthening and widening. I can get both ways of directing to work for me, but honestly, I love Alexander’s directions. At this point they work better for me. I’ve also developed other ways of directing and allowing the primary movement to surge through me, but the point is I know now that there isn’t one way that’s right for everyone, forever, all across the board.

You see that’s the thing. When we are getting something new, we don’t see what we’re losing. And when we are holding on to what we don’t want to lose, we don’t see what we could be getting.

My friend Lena Frederick died in her early 40’s. I would have loved to see who she would have become if she had lived into a ripe old age. Lena trained with Walter Carrington, and then went on to study with Marj for many years. I remember her telling me that Alexander’s procedures were too hard for most everyone. She said that it would have been much easier for her if she had first studied with Marj for about ten years, and then went on to study with Walter.

I didn’t understand what Lena meant by that, but I knew Lena was a wise woman, so I decided to take that in, and clearly I did, because 25 years later here I am realizing it’s true. Now I’m ready to work through Alexander’s procedures. And I’m going to find a way to do that.

It’s like Keith Jarrett, for his entire career an improvisational jazz musician, deciding to play classical music, which he did. Or Steve Paxton, originator of Contact Improvisation, as an old man, deciding to choreograph ever so precisely to Johann Sebastian Bach, which he did. I’ve spent my life teaching improvisationally to Alexander’s principles outside of his classical procedures. I know how to do that.

But if I want to keep growing, if we want to keep growing, we sometimes have to leave what we are good at, we’ve got to go forward toward a place unknown, into a place we resist, into a place we feel is wrong, just what Alexander suggested we do.

It’s in that place where we didn’t want to go, that’s where the gift may lie, just what we need, just what we always wanted.

The Space Within, Around And Between

photo: B. Fertman

photo: B. Fertman

Within but not enclosed, without but not excluded.
Hildegard von Bingen


The world is our consciousness, and it surrounds us.
Gary Snyder


Our souls dwell where our inner world and the outer world meet. Where they overlap, it is in every point of the overlap.
Novalis


I don’t paint what I see. I paint what is between me and what I see.
Monet


All I’m trying to show you is a little bit of nothing.
Marjorie L. Barstow
 

The Alexander Technique is as much about the metaphysical as it is about the physical, as much about the mind as it is about the body, as much about the spirit as it is about the senses, as much about stillness as it is about movement.

Good postural support and moving well are wonderful, but they’re not, essentially, what the Alexander Technique is about. They’re perks.

The Alexander Technique is about space, space deep within us, physically, mentally, and spiritually. It’s about presence through absence. It’s about the space all around us, beside us, behind us, before us. It’s about the space between; it’s about closeness through distance.

In this workshop you will learn, practically, how to bring greater spaciousness into your body and being. It may very well change the way you relate to yourself, to others, and to the world at large. It’s not difficult.

Whether you are new to the work, studying the work, training to become an Alexander teacher, or an Alexander teacher, I invite you to join me for a day you likely won’t forget.

Bruce Fertman

Founding Director Of The Alexander Alliance International

Naturalness And The Alexander Technique

 

photo by Bruce Fertman

photo by Bruce Fertman

When an investigation comes to be made, it will be found that every single thing we are doing in the work is exactly what is being done in nature where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously. – F.M. Alexander

There lies the rub. Conscious naturalness is virtually a contradiction in terms. As soon as we become conscious of our breathing we immediately begin interfering with it. Consciousness is a double-edged sword. It can free us, and it can stifle us. In our attempt, as Alexander teachers, to understand, embody and impart naturalness to our students we sometimes, unbeknownst to us, begin manifesting certain artificialities.

We can, at times, become a bit stayed, crusty, overly starched and pressed, like the beautiful white shirts my grandfather once wore. Sometimes, rather than simply occupying ourselves, we be become preoccupied with ourselves. Giving so much attention to the subtle relationship between our head, neck and back, we can become top heavy, losing our full ground support.

Inadvertently, in our quest for poise, symmetry, and calmness, we can hamper our spatial, gestural, and emotional freedom. It’s not easy being consciously natural. It’s understandable that sometimes we fail. In this workshop we’ll take a look at what some of the antidotes might be for countering these unwanted side effects.

If you are an Alexander student, trainee or teacher I hope you will join me.

Bruce Fertman

Founding Director of The Alexander Alliance International

Something To Consider

Richard M. Gummere, Jr.

Richard M. Gummere, Jr.

Once I asked a man what he did for a living and he said, “I’m an anesthesiologist. And what’s your job,” he asked? “I’m a esthesiologist. You say to people, ‘You’re not going to feel a thing.’ And I say to people, ‘You are about to begin to feel everything.'”

My mom wanted me to be a doctor, and my dad thought I’d make a great rabbi. So, in my attempt to satisfy them both, I became a metaphysician…of sorts. In Greek, meta can mean, after, along with, beyond, among, or behind. I’m not equipped to know what lies after or beyond the physical, but I have given an enormous amount of time considering what accompanies the physical, what lives “among” and “goes along” with the physical, and with what dwells “behind” the physical.

I am not an academic metaphysician, though I did bumble through as an undergraduate Philosophy major, studying primarily western European philosophy, my favorite characters being Heraclitus, Plato, Heidegger, Spinoza, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty, William James, Emerson, and Buber. No doubt, some of their ideas sifted down somewhere into my unconscious.

I’m a metaphysician by trade. I’m a clinical, personal metaphysician. My work centers around changing people’s subjective experience of time and space, of what it feels like to be, and to change. It’s about the practical relationship between mind and matter, about how we perceive and interact with the stuff of the world. My work is about shifting people’s sense of self, encouraging them to question their sense of identity. In a nutshell, my work revolves around improving a person’s quality of experience. And given that life is but an accumulation of experiences, one streaming into the next, Alexander’s work, Marjorie Barstow’s work, and now my work, becomes about improving the quality of people’s lives.

If we were only physical, then we would not have come up with the words, mind, heart and soul. Instead of saying, mind your own business, we’d be saying body your own business, or body your manners. The title of that Dean Martin song wouldn’t be Heart and Soul; it would be Body and Body.

You see, we are not merely physical; we’re metaphysical. Sure, we can physically reduce ourselves down to oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus. But we don’t go walking around feeling like oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus. That’s not our experience of who we are. That’s what we are.

When I first started out as an Alexander teacher, I was predominately movement oriented. My mentor, Marj Barstow, was too. She used to talk about life as movement. She’d say it’s all about movement. No movement. No change. I get that as a philosophy of life. We can’t stand still. Life comes to pass, not to stay. But I think many of us who studied with Marj, especially those of us who were athletes and martial artists and dancers, took her literally. The work became about movement, about the quality of our coordination, about physical grace, comfort and clarity. We all knew it was about something bigger but, technically, pedagogically, most of us ended up focusing on the physical dimension of the work.

Buzz Gummere served as the historian and philosophical advisor to the Alexander Alliance for 25 years. Buzz studied briefly with John Dewey. He trained with F.M., A.R., and with Marjorie Barstow. He trained along side of Frank Pierce Jones. He was super smart, could finish the New York Times crossword puzzle faster than any man alive. Like Frank Jones, Buzz taught Greek and Latin. He helped found Hampshire College, was the Dean at Bard College, and a career counselor at Columbia. Why he came almost every month, year after year, to the Alexander Alliance I don’t know. He loved our community, and we loved him. And we learned from him, continually. Maybe that’s why.

After one of my classes Buzz came up to me and complimented me on my class. “You really got everyone organized and moving so well. You’re a great movement teacher.” That should have felt like a compliment, but it didn’t. Why didn’t Buzz say I was a great Alexander teacher? Like Socrates, Buzz had his way of throwing me into a state of constructive doubt.

At the end of a retreat we were saying our goodbyes, and I asked Buzz, as I did often, “Do you have a question for me, something to consider?” He looked at me for a moment, quite sternly, and said, “What’s the difference between a movement teacher and an Alexander teacher?” Then he smiled and laughed and thanked me, as he always did.

I think, after 30 years, I can answer that question. Our work is only secondarily about movement and postural support. They’re perks. As Alexander clearly said, the work’s not about endlessly getting in and out of a chair. It’s not a form of physical culture. Our work is primarily about how we choose to respond to stimuli from within us, and all around us. How do we choose to respond to our own thoughts and emotions, to sensations within our own bodies, sensations of appetite, sexuality, discomfort, fatigue, and pain? How do we choose to respond to criticism, to praise, to deadlines, to the wind? How do we interact, how do we adapt, how do we relate, how do we receive, how do we play the game?

Now I am almost the age Buzz was when we first met. I want to tell him my answer, like some little kid in school who finally solved the problem. I want him to see I’ve grown, changed, matured; that I’m finally an Alexander teacher. I want to know what he’d say in response to my answer.

“But Bruce, why do you want to know what I think,” I hear him saying through his severely loving eyes, suddenly smiling and laughing, thanking me as always, turning and walking away into the white, cloudy distance.

Summer of 2000 - Buzz Gummere, at 90, and Bruce Fertman

Summer of 2000 – Buzz Gummere, at 90, and Bruce Fertman

Without Apology

Photo: Tada Anchan Akihiro

Photo: Tada Anchan Akihiro

Babies don’t interfere with themselves.

Babies don’t judge, correct, or evaluate themselves.
They can’t make a mistake because they don’t know what it means to make a mistake.
Babies can’t fail because they don’t know what it means to fail.
Babies are moved to move. They don’t know why. What does why mean to them?

Babies want what they want. They are happy when they get it.
What they don’t want, they don’t accept. They’re honest.
Babies are unselfconscious, unabashed, and unpretentious.

We love them because we want to be like them.

Babies sit on the floor, effortlessly upright, delighted to see the world from a new perspective.

Babies stop eating when they are no longer hungry.
They immediately throw up anything they don’t like.

A baby can scream for hours without straining their voice.
Babies express strong emotions, and when the reason for doing so is gone,
They stop, and forget about the whole thing.
Babies cannot hold grudges. They don’t know what it means to hold a grudge.

Babies can spread out all their toes, even the little ones.
Babies can put their feet in their mouth and they don’t care what anyone thinks about it.

Babies fall, over and over again, don’t care, don’t get hurt, and don’t take it personally.
They just get up.

We love them because we want to be like them.

As babies,
We did not identify ourselves as male or female, or even as human.
We had no identity.
We were uncoordinated, inarticulate, illiterate, uneducated, unskilled, and unsocial.
Appearing completely selfish, we had no self.
As we ceased being babies, gradually, we became more self-conscious.
Coordinated, articulate, literate, learned, skilled, controlled, socialized and civilized.
We assumed an identity, a false identity.
We gained impressive skills,
We lost, to a great degree, the inherent qualities we had as babies.

We yearn to become unself-conscious, unambiguous, uncomplicated.
We long to unlearn, not to know, to surrender control.
We no longer want to equate our self worth with our skills and accomplishments.
We don’t want to be dictated by what others think of us.
We want to be ourselves, without apology.
We want to experience our innocence, through our maturity, to come around, full circle.
We want to be able to play again.

We want to see the world, one more time, through the glistening eyes of an infant.

From Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman

Not Yours. Not Mine.

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Not in a place, not in a space,
Not a person, not a thing,
Not a ping or a pong,
Not the soundless sounding of a gong.
Not a word, surely not absurd.

Don’t look.
You’ll not come across it in a book.

Don’t seek,
And you will find,
It is not yours, not mine.

It has no foes, woes, or toes.
There – off it goes!

It hates to sit.
Does not come in a kit.
Some think it illegit.
About to quit?

It’s a zone…where you are not alone.
It’s a ball…floating through us all.
It’s a climate…of refinement.
It’s a breeze…full of ease.

It’s changeable as the weather.
Totally untethered, soft as a feather,
Like a field of heather.

Nowhere does it dwell.
It’s like a well, but without the well.
Well, well, well…impossible to tell.

It is…it is…it is.

From Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman

My Letter Of Resignation

Van_Gogh_Museum_-_The_sower,_1888 wikimedia

At the ripe age of 64, I hereby announce my retirement. Below, you will find my letter of resignation.

June 15, 2015

To Whom It May Concern,

I have quit.

I’ve quit being overly ambitious. What I have is exactly what I want. And what I want is exactly what I have. And when I believe otherwise, then I know I am confused. That’s when I stop profoundly, get still, and wait until the mud settles and the water is clear.

I’ve quit needing to be in control. That’s what the first half of life is about. Taking your life by the horns. Exercising your will. Creating the world in your own image. The second half of life, that’s more about giving up control, letting go of your grip on things, letting go of your grip on yourself. It’s not about being willful; it’s about being willing.

Willing to be wrong, which means I’ve quit having to be right all the time. I don’t have an opinion about this, and I don’t have an opinion about that. I’m old. I don’t have the energy to butt heads. Besides, it’s funny how often it turns out I am wrong! It’s really helpful to have a lot of people around me who know better.

I’ve quit having to be good looking. Sure people sometimes tell me, especially in Japan, that I look like Richard Gere, (minus the hair). But, in reality, I look more like Bernie Sanders. I’m no longer lean and mean. I’m pudgy. I’m getting crusty on the outside, but supple on the inside. On the surface I’m looking old, but deep within I’m finding my innocence through my maturity.

I’ve quit having to earn money to justify my value. I know my self-worth, and it’s got nothing to do with money. Poverty is having nothing left to give. I’m giving away what I know as generously as I can. Sometimes I make money doing that. Sometimes I don’t.

I’ve quit having to be a star. I know what it’s like to be a star that has lost its constellation. It’s like being nowhere, lost in space, spinning in utter darkness. Existence is co-existence. To be means to be with other people. Less celestrially speaking, I’ve changed from being a pitcher, to being a third base coach. I stand on the sidelines, speaking in code, discreetly tipping my cap, pinching my nose, and pulling on my ear. I want others to make their way to home base.

I’ve quit feeling responsible for the lives of my grown children. That was a tough job to give up. Loving my children; that job I will never give up.

I’ve quit taking myself personally. Whatever people see in me, I know they’re seeing themselves. I know I’m just a mirror, and that others are mirrors for me. I know we’re only reflections of one another.

I’ve quit acting like a donkey with a carrot dangling in front of my nose, forever enticed by something I’m never going to get. I’ve quit chasing after the carrot of enlightenment.

I don’t dance. I quit being a dancer, not modern, not tango. No twisting again. One day I woke up and after 40 years of doing Tai Chi everyday, I just stopped. And I don’t miss it at all. I don’t identify with being a good mover, nor a movement educator. I’ve quit identifying with my coordination. I don’t care about being physically fit. In fact, I’ve quit identifying with my body at all. I’m a big, not so fat, no-body. For a long time I thought I was a somebody, somebody special. But now I know better. I’m finally free from that illusion. Free at last. Free at last.

Know that, though I resign from my previously held, long-standing position, I still love my work.

I hereby throw myself, with renewed vigor, into my life as an “Alexandrian,” as a “Barstowian,” and as a “Fertmanist.” I throw myself into my life, into my destiny, with joyful abandon. I throw myself, I scatter myself, into the world like Von Gogh’s sower of seeds; what grows, grows; what doesn’t, doesn’t.

What Walt Whitman declared in Song Of The Open Road, now I too can declare:

All seems beautiful to me,

I can repeat over to men and women,

You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,

I will recruit for myself and you as I go,

I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,

I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,

Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,

Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.

Photo: B. Fertman, Pedernal, Coyote, New Mexico

Photo: B. Fertman, Pedernal, Coyote, New Mexico

 

Yours truly,

Bruce Fertman

P.S. Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman

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