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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

MonasteryGarments_Prostration

 

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

 

 

The Gift Given

Photo: Holly Sweeny

Photo: Holly Sweeny

 

The Gift Given

- In Memory of Marjorie Barstow

Marj didn’t teach us what she did. She showed us what she did, over and over again. We experienced the results of what she did. We walked away, mysteriously transformed, hearing Marj say, “Think about that.”

That was it. No instruction. No words of advice. Sentences were rarely comprised of more than five words. We hung on to her quips.

It’s not a position. It’s a movement.

There’s nothing to get; there’s only something to lose.

You’re all trying to do something, and that something is your habit.

It’s just a little bit of nothing.

This is not complicated. It’s your habits that are complicated. This is too simple for you.

No pushy. No pully.

No especially anything.

There are three kinds of strange: good strange, bad strange, and crazy strange.

If you’re up because you’re afraid to be down, you’re not up.

At some point you have to say, I’m tired of hurting myself.

Can you leave yourself alone?

Through her hands, Marj let us know what was possible without major surgery. As if she was an eagle, she’d swoop us up and sweep us to the top of the mountain so we could observe the world from a vista, unknown.

Before we knew it, we had slide back into the foothills. What we felt was how far we had regressed. What we often failed to notice was that, each time, we regressed less. Step by step we were walking our way up that mountain. There was space, and it was vast. Our eyes were opening. The air was fresh and clean.

Marj was clear about us having to walk our own walk. She did not baby us. It was not in her nature. Those of us who, through Marj’s inspiration, turned ourselves into teachers found our individual paths up that mountain. Along the way we developed our own way of walking, had our own revelations, figured out how to best use our hands, hone our language, sharpen our seeing, refine our kinesthesia. We developed our own pedagogy. Our tradition was one of originality.

Each of us saw something in Marj that was latent within us. We saw in her our potential, what we valued, what we aspired toward, what we most needed. An educator par excellence, she educed from us that which was longing to come out. Like a skilled midwife, she led the gifted child within us out into the light of day. We had to do our own labor, but she was there to see us through.

If I were to choose three values of Marj’s that I want most to see kept alive and passed on to other Alexander teachers they would be – Delicacy, Naturalness, and Movement.

Delicacy

Delicacy is a tricky word. It has multiply meanings. It can mean carefully, which was not what Marj meant when she used the word delicately, which she did countless times in a day of teaching. She meant extraordinarily fine, texturally and structurally, like a spider’s web, strong, flexible, spacious, patterned, and yet delicate. She meant delicate like the scent of sweet alyssum, the faintest of pastels, the softest of breezes.

Delicacy also means something rare and delicious, something special.

Using the word delicacy was Marj’s way of bypassing the doing/non-doing conundrum. We’re after something that is not a doing and not a non-doing. It’s in between doing and non-doing. Or it’s both doing and non-doing. That’s getting closer. You see what I mean? Hmm….language.

Marj observed that often students who were working with the idea of not doing, only thinking, were not changing, not moving, not releasing into greater freedom, but subtly holding themselves still, one foot slightly on the break, afraid of forcing it.

With these students you’d hear Marj say something like, “Move. Why don’t you move? Don’t be afraid to move. No movement, no change.”

Then the next person she’d work with would be a person who was moving with too much force, and you’d hear Marj say something like, “Ehhh, wait a minute. You’re pushing from here, pointing the tip of her index finger on the center of the person’s sternum. No pushy. Ehhh, wait a minute. Now, you’re pulling from here, lightly touch the sides of the person’s neck. No pully. Can’t you just ever so delicately follow my hands this way?”

Marj would say what she had to say to coax a person into the realm of delicacy. Delicacy was more important than direction for Marj, perhaps more important than anything. Nothing real could happen without it. No matter what you did, if you did it within the realm of delicacy, well, that was a beginning.

When I teach I rarely use the word delicately unless I am role-playing Marj, which I love to do. It always gets students smiling. I use phrases like “ever so softly can you”, or “without any effort see what happens if you…I talk about deep softness, powerful softness, softer than softness.  The meaning and feeling behind words change from generation to generation. I use words that work for my students, now.

Marj’s delicacy was like the feel of air, like space itself. Deep softness  feels like water. You can put your hand right through it, there is substance to it, but a substance yielding and fluid. Water can take the form of a droplet hanging from the tip of a leaf, and it can take the form of a one hundred foot wave rising over an entire village. Both are soft. Both are fluid and moving. Power and delicacy are not mutually exclusive.

The realm of delicacy, that’s where our work lives. And only there.

Naturalness

Naturalness is the absence of artificiality. You can’t be natural, just as you can’t be confident. Confidence is the absence of fear. You can’t make yourself relax. But you can learn to release unnecessary tension. You can’t be yourself, but you can be less of what you are not. Absence. Presence through absence. You can’t be present. Presence is the quieting, the falling away of distraction and contraction.

So to understand naturalness, we have to understand artificiality. In the Alexander world artificiality has a certain look to it. When I was at the 3rd International Congress for The Alexander Technique in Engelberg, I overheard a conversation. “Do you know anything about the group that’s here?” “Not really, but it looks like they are here because there’s something wrong with their necks.” A good actor once said to me, “I can spot an Alexander teacher from a mile away. And then when I see them sit down, it’s a dead giveaway.”

Marj’s pedagogy was partly predicated on eradicating artificiality within Alexander’s work. She succeeded to some degree, but not entirely. We are almost programmed to hold on to what we like. So when we experience freedom and naturalness, immediately, we try to hold onto it. And it is this holding onto it that builds artificiality. When Alexander saw a person holding on to the newfound freedom they didn’t want to lose, sometimes he’d go over to them, put his hands on their shoulders and jiggle them about, telling them to give it up, to let it go. When Marj saw us all trying to hard, she’d say, “Why don’t you all just have a good slump?”

How can we hold a moonbeam in our hands? We can’t.

Marj perceived this look of artificiality in many Alexander teachers when they were working through Alexander’s procedures. I think she loved those procedures. She taught through them for many, many years. And then one day, she didn’t.

In the late 1960’s, Marj had been invited to Southern Methodist University to teach in their Performing Arts Department. She packed her big blue suitcase, put it in the trunk of her old Plymouth, and drove down to Texas. When she got there, the director of the program told her there were about 50 or so students who wanted to work with her. Clearly, it was going to be impossible for her to give individual lessons. She was forced to work with all these kids in a group. When she got in front of this wild horde of hippies, Marj knew that having them all watch her get someone in and out of a chair was not going to work. So she said, what do all of you like to do? These freewheelers were into juggling and circus arts, into acting, dancing, stage combat, playing music. Marj thought it would be a lot more engaging for them if they watched each other doing what they did. After all, they were performers. And so it began.

What Marj saw was that these kids were getting free and more organized within what they were doing, and it was all looking pretty natural. At the same time it was freeing Marj up too.

It was a beginning, a way of working that she pursued and refined for 27 years with the goal of bringing more naturalness into Alexander’s work, to ridding it of its ritualistic formality, its starchiness, to making it extraordinarily ordinary. She passed this ball onto me, and I caught it and have been running with it for 38 years. That’s 65 years of research. We’re getting somewhere.

Movement

Marj was a gymnast as a kid, and later studied modern dance with some of its pioneers: the Duncan Dancers, Ted Shawn, and Ruth Saint Denis. She rode horses all through her life, well into her 80’s. She loved to move. I remember seeing a photo of Marj in her 20’s seemingly floating in the air, high above the ground, suspended at the top of a high leap, and under her the inscription, The Wild One. In the photo her body was masculine, strong and muscular. Most of us met Marj in her 70’s and 80’s and saw a slender, petite, slow moving, slow speaking, elderly woman with an intense sparkle in her eyes.

After graduating from Alexander’s first teacher training program, Marj actively taught the Alexander Technique for eight years along side of A.R. Alexander, assisting him in Boston and Philadelphia. When Marj’s father died, she moved back to Lincoln, Nebraska to help run her family ranch. For over twenty years Marj rarely taught the Alexander Technique. She lived the life of a rancher. Marj told me that it was only after years of hard, physical labor that she really learned how to bring the technique into her everyday life. Marj was profoundly physical.

This brought something dynamic and practical into Marj’s work. She could see movement. She knew what good coordination looked like, in people and in animals. She trained world famous quarter horses. Alexander too was an avid rider, and began riding as a child. I think this contributed to their subtle ability to lead movement without force.

Marj preferred Alexander’s earlier description of “a true and primary movement in each and every activity,” rather than his later reference to the Primary Control. This inner control was a result of an effortless movement that reorganized the head in relation to the torso, and the head and torso to the limbs. So Marj focused, pretty much exclusively, on this primary movement.

Often she’d say, “It’s a movement.” And it was this movement, and what resulted from it, that we watched six hours a day, day after day, until we knew it inside and out. We saw that it had a particular quality, (ever so delicate), that it initiated from a particular area, (from the relationship between the head and neck), that it had a sequence, (there was a kind of rapid rippling response as a result of this subtle movement initiated between the neck and head), but that this rippling was so rapid, as to look and feel simultaneous with the initiation of this primary movement, hence Marj’s phrase, “the head leads and the whole body immediately follows.” And Alexander’s phrase, “altogether, one after the other.” So we discerned a particular timing inside of the sequencing. It was a bit like when you drop a stone into the calm surface of a pond, and rings form rippling out, one after the other and all of them widening and expanding at the same time. Then this primary movement had particular directionality; the head seemed to float up, rising like a boat resting upon the water as the tide slowly rose. Then we saw that the head had this tiny tipping motion forward, a rotational movement on a horizontal axis that happened at the same time the tide was rising, which we could see was the spine decompressing. As all this was happening we saw an omni-directional expansion of the body as a whole, almost like a sphere inflating in every direction, an overall increase in three dimensional volume, like bread dough rising, the whole body filling into its rightful space. At the same time we could see a gathering, strengthening movement within the expanding movement. It was similar to the dynamics of a vortex funnel, to centripetal and centrifugal force, the same force moving in opposite directions, one up and out and the other in and down. Maybe this was why Marj didn’t use the terms lengthening and widening, because of their two-dimensional connotation. Maybe this is why she spoke of the whole body rather emphasizing the back. She saw and we saw that everything was filling out: the back, the front, and the sides. Something was happening to the whole body in its entirety.

And out of this “true and primary movement”, this “easing up,” this “little bit of nothing,” we witnessed changes not only in the body, but in the person. We saw seemingly opposite qualities working in harmony. As the true and primary movement began to happen we beheld the person before us as stable and mobile, light and substantial, relaxed and ready, peaceful and vigorous, gathered and expansive, soft and powerful, open and focused, unified and articulate.

Essentially, we saw beauty. We saw people unveiled, people wholly themselves, authentic, honest. We saw integrity. It moved us. It moved some of us so much we decided that this was a good way to spend the rest of our lives.

This is Marj’s legacy to us. The gift given…the gift received… the gift given…the gift received…the gift given… from generation to generation.

 

Meditations On The Sensory World

DaVinci's Sensus Communis

DaVinci’s Sensus Communis

There are three senses most of us know little about.  They’re rarely acknowledged or consciously cultivated. They’re vital to us and we could not live without them. They’re senses that tell us more about ourselves than about the world. We learn hardly anything about them in school, not even their names. Perhaps we don’t know much about them because, long ago, many religions began to belittle the body, sometimes to the point of perceiving the body as vile, even demonic. The spirit and the body were divorced.  The spirit was higher and holy, the body lower and lowly. The spirit was etherial and eternal, the body material and transitory. That which was material was of less worth, soulless, and those who took care of and nurtured the material world also were of less worth, and therefore subject to exploitation.

Perhaps we don’t know much about these three senses because our modern world is greatly influenced by the scientific model, which often concerns itself, brilliantly so, with the observation, predictability, and control of external nature. As for arriving at objective knowledge of subjective experience, science finds itself on shakier ground.  To add to the confusion, secular society has virtually deified what I refer to as “the cosmetic body”, encouraging a preoccupation with how we look. This draws attention away from appreciating how our bodies work. The cosmetic body distracts us from noticing and feeling what our real bodies do for us, how devoted they are to us, how they continually serve us, how they do everything within their power to keep us alive.

Our institutions of learning lack the knowledge and the sophistication needed to educate our children about how their bodies work, how to take care of them, how to use them, how to respect them, and how to love them. Fortunately, as adults, we can choose to round out our education.

The three senses I have spent a lifetime studying, the intrapersonal senses, are the kinesthetic sense, proprioception, and the tactile sense. These senses tell us about where we are, and how it feels to us to be doing what we are doing, as we are doing it. Neurologists and physical, speech, and occupational therapists know a good bit about these senses, because when these senses are impaired, like when a person has a major stroke, or a severe spinal injury, everyone knows life is going to get seriously challenging. People get acutely disoriented, often depressed. They can’t do a lot of things they took for granted, like knowing where their limbs are, or being able to lift an arm, or hold a fork, or speak, or balance.  Neurologists and therapists will then work, as best they can, to restore these senses. God bless them for what they do, day in and day out.

We are taught that touch is one of the five senses that tell us about the world. This is true. But it has a dual function. Touch tells us both about the world and about ourselves, because all touch is mutual, 100% of the time. The fact that we perceive ourselves as touching things in the world, without sensing that whatever we are touching is touching us back, (giving us information about ourselves), is due to how we are educated, to the almost exclusive value we place on the external world to the neglect of  intrapersonal life. Touch is our unifying sense, the sense of togetherness, of closeness, of intimacy, of connection, of kinship with the world, of union and communion.

So, what would happen if we took people with adequate tactile, kinesthetic, and proprioceptive senses, and trained these senses to function at exceptionally high levels, at extraordinarily high levels? What if these senses became, accurate, reliable, open, refined, awakened? How would we experience the world? What would it feel like to be alive?

What if we then trained people to be able to simultaneously use those senses that tell them about themselves; kinesthesia, proprioception, and touch, with those senses that tell them about the world: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch? What if all the “inlets” were open?

…for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this Age.

William Blake

What if we could create sensory consonance within ourselves? What if we could become synesthetes? What if we did discover what DaVinci longed to discover, the Senses Communis, the union of the senses, the seat of the soul?

If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to us as it is… infinite.

William Blake

As Alexander teachers, let us not aim too low. As important as bodies are, as debilitating as bad backs can be, let us remember the breadth, the width of Alexander’s work. Let’s take this task upon ourselves, and educate ourselves accordingly.

 

 

House And Home

handwriting

Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet

Letters To A Young Teacher

Bruce, you write, “Aren’t there more direct, fun, practical, and effective ways to work with how we react to stimuli from within and without besides endlessly getting people in and out of a chair?” My AT teacher at school would probably say: “Chair work will indirectly affect their use in everyday life – let them make the transfer.” So how does that tie in with your take on teaching “activity work”, which to my mind is not indirect, but direct? 

Thank you for your good question. My understanding is that when Alexander spoke of working indirectly he meant that when a person comes to you with a specific problem, let’s say, a frozen shoulder, working directly would be choosing to work immediately to regain range and comfort in the shoulder, through working on the shoulder. A reasonable idea. The approach in Alexander Work, if we are sticking to the principle of working indirectly, is to attend to a person’s overall integration and coordination, and in turn that may, (and may not), resolve the shoulder issue.

It’s a bit like family therapy. Let’s say the whole body is the family, and the hurting child is the frozen shoulder. The parents are fighting, a lot. The kid begins developing asthmatic symptoms. The problem may not lie within the child, but within the family dynamics as a whole. By the parent’s shifting their way of functioning, their child may begin to function differently as well. That, as I understand Mr. Alexander, is what he meant by working indirectly. Indirectly, that is, getting to the part through the whole.

Once you begin to get this idea of working indirectly, you begin to see that Alexander stumbled upon a very big idea, one that, now, everyone understands. If bees are beginning to disappear, or tree frogs, and you start looking for the cause inside the bee world, or the tree frog world instead of backing up and looking at the entire world they inhabit, their larger body, of which bees and tree frogs are an integral part, you won’t see the whole problem, or find the solution.

Alexander discerned an ecology within people, an inner ecology – the study of our inner house and home, in relation to our larger house and home.  (You could say we are the overlap through which our inner and outer environments become one.) Alexander, seen in this light, was a holistic and ecological thinker and practitioner.

As for working through Alexander’s “conventional” procedures, that is, the procedures that have  become the norm within today’s Alexander world, I am not an expert. Yes, I have worked with lots of teachers, including most of the first generation teachers who employed these procedures and, to the best of my limited ability, I have taught through these procedures as well. But I have spent more time learning about Alexander’s work through his less conventional procedures – walking, going up and down steps (lunge work is beautifully woven within this action),  the performing arts, speaking, and everyday activities. These were the procedures that my mentor, Marj Barstow, enjoyed and explored. Consequently, these are the procedures I have taught through most successfully.

Over the years I began to sense that working through Marj’s procedures were, in a way, working too directly, too specifically, but for a very different reason than your teacher might think. I started to see that any activity happened within a larger context, and that I had to zoom both further in, and further out if I was to work holistically or ecologically. That’s why I no longer refer to what I do as “working in activity.” I call it “working situationally.”

For example, a young man is late. He jumps up from his desk, swings on his coat, hops in his car, squeals out his driveway, double parks, runs up three flights of stairs, knocks on his girlfriends apartment door, and waits, standing there, reliving that phone call, the fight they had that morning, feeling like a total jerk, wondering if she will open the door or not, whether she will ever speak to him again, whether she will call off their engagement, and what his parents will say.

Okay. You could work with this poor, distraught young man by taking him in and out of a chair, a la Alexander, or work with him driving his car, walking up steps, and knocking on a door, a la Marj Barstow. Still, are you really going to get to the precise inner and outer stimuli that cause this man to fall apart, to lose his psycho-physical composure, his integrity?

If I am going to work with this man in his entirety, in relation to his inner and outer home, then I may need to address such factors as his relationship to time, how he listens to his girlfriend when she is feeling insecure and starts criticizing him, how he reacts when he starts believing thoughts like his being a total jerk, or what happens to him when he starts caring too much about what other people think about him. But I am going to figure out a way to do this somatically and personally, not psychologically or clinically. I’m going to “stick to principle” and work as the Alexander teacher that I am.

Not our postural habits, nor our movements habits per se, (though they are part of the picture), but our habits of life, these are the habits we are attempting to unearth, and bring into the light of day, to be seen, felt, and known, accepted, and resolved. This is, for me, profoundly humbling work, both personally and as a teacher. Sometimes I wonder if I’m making any progress at all. I wonder if I will ever really be able to live and teach Alexander’s work. Forty years later, I begin to understand Marj when she would say, “I really don’t know how to teach this work.”

I really don’t.

Not knowing has for me become a good thing. It keeps me questioning, as you are questioning. It keeps me experimenting. It keeps the work fresh and alive in my soul, as it is in yours.

Let’s keep going.

Yours,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

A Wordless Whisper

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

 

Not many folks like the wind out here. Yes, there are times, in the late afternoon, when the breeze, like waves, comes rolling in from the west, trees swaying, branches bending, and you can hear the ocean in the wind, the way when, as a child, you held a conch to your ear and heard the ocean winds whistling, wondering how that could be.

Then, without notice, the wind builds, picking up dust and dirt, traveling like some brown caped ghost, it envelops you, takes you, knocks your hat off, throws sand into your eyes, pushes you from behind, hard, not letting up, for hours.

Why I don’t mind the wind, no matter how relentless, I don’t know. It’s the world breathing, beckoning. It’s like God’s hand, stroking, nudging, pushing me forward. It’s God’s wordless whisper, “Bruce, wake up, wake up, wake up.”

The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.  – John 3:8

That’s okay with me. Hearing the wind is enough. Feeling the wind against my face is enough. My job’s not to know, but to be known.

In Blind Daylight

Below, in the subway, sitting on a blue blanket, her hair hangs, golden, straight, long, down her back. Beside her lay a black lab, chin resting on his crisscrossed paws. A guitar in her lap, she’s singing a song I don’t know. Albums and tapes sit next to a small basket filled mostly with coins and a few one-dollar bills.

Her song ends. The dog sits up. Putting a dollar in her basket, though at the time I was living on a meager, self allotted $25 a week allowance, I ask her who wrote that song. She says she did. She asks me what I did. I dance with a modern dance company, study Tai Chi, and I’m beginning to teach something called the Alexander Technique.

I’ve heard of the Alexander Technique. I’d love to study. My voice gets tired after about an hour, my back too. I ask her where she lives. In Germantown. Me too. I’d be happy to give you a lesson in exchange for one of your albums. That’s a deal she says, handing me an album and a tape.

Ellen rings the doorbell right on time. Up the steps and straight back through the kitchen, I say. Up the steps and straight back through the kitchen she says to her dog. Her dog leads the way, Ellen follows and I follow Ellen. Watching her walk up the steps I see she’s exceptionally upright, but quite stiff throughout her entire body. (I later find out that her stiffness came, in part, from years spent walking with a stick and bumping into side mirrors of big trucks, and such, things now that her dog sees well ahead of time and avoids.)

After a brief introduction as to what Alexander’s work is about, I suggest we begin simply with her sitting back in a chair. I encourage her to slowly and softly sink into a comfortable slump. Ellen I say, slumping and uprightness are not two different positions, one wrong and one right. Together they make up a range of motion, and emotion, a continuum upon which you can learn to slide up and down easily and comfortably. We spend a good bit of time on this until her rigidity, which feels like fear under my hands, is gone.

Ellen, I say, for purely selfish reasons, sing me a song. Smiling, her smile large and expressive, she says, I won’t be needing my guitar for this one…

I see trees of green, red roses too.  I see them bloom,  for me and you.  And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. 

I see skies of blue, and clouds of white. The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night.  And I think to myself, What a wonderful world. 

The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky, are also on the faces of people going by, 

I see friends shaking hands, saying, “How do you do?” They’re really saying, “I love you”. 

I hear babies cry, I watch them grow. They’ll learn much more, than I’ll ever know. And I think to myself, What a wonderful world. 

She finishes. I ask her how that felt. More comfortable she says.  I could hear how my voice sounding smoother, less raspy. I could see everything more clearly. Later I learn Ellen inherited retinitis pigmentosa, and could see well until she was six years old, when her sight began to fail. By the time she was twelve she was legally blind, as opposed to illegally blind, she used to say.

Ellen, how do you feel, not in your body, but as a person,  just as a person inside yourself?  I feel less guarded, like there was a wall around me, and now there isn’t. I didn’t know it was there. Yeah, less alone; I feel less alone. Great. That’s it for today. Call me if you want to continue.

The next day she calls. Bruce, after the lesson I went to the park and sat on a park bench, where I often sit, and play. I sat down and I didn’t feel like playing, so I didn’t. It was enough just to sit in the warm daylight and feel myself in the world without my “wall.” A man came over, asked if he could sit down on the bench next to me. First time that ever happened! You know, I sing as a way of reaching out to people. And here I was, reaching out to nobody, and somebody walks right up and sits down next to me. We talked a lot, and for a long time, about real things. It was so effortless.

Bruce, I’d like to study more. Sure, just pay me what you can afford. I’m a new teacher. I need the practice.

Ellen and I worked together for two years. At some point she wanted to learn Tai Chi, said she couldn’t figure out how to study it because she couldn’t see it. She heard that it was beautiful and she liked the philosophy behind it. Sounds like Alexander Technique in motion. That’s how it feels to me, and yes, I’d be happy to teach you Tai Chi.

Through touch and language I led her through every little movement, over and over again. Her movement memory was great. Ellen loved my touch. You know, people want to help me all the time. Well meaning, they grab my arm and pull me with one hand, while pushing me with the other. They squeeze me, jerk me, and push me down to stop me. But you do almost nothing. Your touch is so soft and I know exactly what you want me to do and where you want me to go,  and then I just go there by myself.  I have good teachers, I said.

Guiding her with my hands, I would do the form closely behind her, like some benevolent shadow. Though I was behind her, she followed me. I followed her following me.

Balance was not an issue for Ellen. She had plenty of practice balancing without seeing. She knew where the ground was through her feet. Her vestibular balance must have been good. It looked like her hearing helped her balance as well. She seemed to know the precise angle from which a sound was coming.

Most challenging was getting Ellen’s form spatially accurate. I began by getting her to imagine herself inside of a large cube. I got her to sense front, and back, and sides, the front diagonals, and the back diagonals, that is, all the corners of the cube, and of course the top and the bottom. Once the cube was firmly in place, we began trimming off the edges of the cube until, there she was, moving clearly and calmly within an invisible sphere.

Ellen came to know, kinesthetically, exactly how far, exactly how many degrees, for example, her hip joints had to rotate in their sockets for about a hundred little movements in the Tai Chi form. She applied this same sensitivity to her ankles and knees, to her wrists, elbows and shoulders, to her spine and head. Each joint became a compass.

I taught Ellen how to see kinesthetically. Ellen taught me how to live like a blind man, who just happened to be able to see.

The more the senses open to the world, the more the world opens to us. And the walls they come a tumbling down.

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