In these days, I am happily at work on a book entitled, In Good Company – The Physiology of Self-Respect. In these times, this book, in itself, is good company for me. Today, the thought occurred to me to share a chapter with you.
For those of you who have studied with me in the last couple of years, this material will sound very familiar.
Whether this material is familiar or new, I would very, very much appreciate your feedback. Let me here ask you a few questions, and make one request.
One. Is my writing clear? Am I communicating my ideas clearly?
Two. Do you think a person with no experience in the Alexander Technique could understand these ideas and make use of them just from reading the book?
Three. Are the ideas too weird for the general public?
Four. What do you think of the title? Do you feel self-respect is a subject that might interest a larger audience other than people who are interested in the Alexander Technique?
Five. Any typos?
Six. Any suggestions whatsoever.
Five. (request) If you are a person who studies with me or who has studied with me and already has an “inner butler”, I would be most grateful if you wrote to me a paragraph or two describing an occasion when your butler benevolently intervened and something you were doing changed for the better. And, if this practice is new for you and if you should begin to practice it just from what you learned from the book, and if you have any experiences when your butler helped make something you were doing better, in a paragraph or two describe it for me.
Six. If any of you should be able to put me in touch with a literary agent or publishing house who might be interested in this book, please do.
Hoping In Good Company, is good company for you as we do our best to live through these days together.
Be safe. If there was ever a time to be OCD, the time is now.
In Good Company – The Physiology of Self-Respect is divided into five sections: Being and Doing, Time and Space, Rest and Support, Existence and Co-existence, Constancy and Uncertainty. This chapter, Sensory Receptivity is in the first section of the book, Being and Doing.
A Little Theory
We all are endowed with senses, though some of us do not have all of them. We see, hear, smell, taste and touch. We also have less known, often less educated senses that tell us about ourselves, our kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses.
There’s a very simple way to understand what happens to our senses. As our motoric activity increases, often our sensory receptivity decreases. The result is that our actions are not as informed as they could be, which often makes our actions less accurate, more effortful, less effective, and sometimes inappropriate. To add to this, a diminishment of sensory receptivity prevents us from experiencing how we are doing, what we are doing, as we are doing it, reducing our ability to delight in and appreciate life as we are living it.
It is as if, within us, there is a doer and a receiver. There is the you who washes your hair, and the you who senses and enjoys your hair being washed, or the you who does not sense your hair being washed and therefore cannot enjoy it. There is the you who is feeding you a spoonful of soup, perhaps potato leek soup, or miso soup, or lentil soup, or split pea soup, or French onion soup. And then, there is the you who is tasting it, savoring it, feeling thankful for it, or the you who is not tasting it. Reawakening the receiver within us, the one who is not putting out, not on output, but the one receiving, on input, keeps us from becoming depleted, allows us to be replenished.
It’s Wednesday afternoon. Every Wednesday at 3pm I pick up my son, Noah, at his school and, as we drive to soccer practice, I try to strike up a conversation with him, which is not easy. I then go to the co-op and pick up some food for dinner. After that I go to the barn and watch Eva, my daughter, ride. Eva spends most afternoons cleaning out stalls and caring for horses in exchange for riding lessons. Eva and I then drive to pick up Noah from practice, Eva talking non-stop, my not getting a word in edgewise. Noah and Eva both jump into the back seat and, depending on God knows what, either act as if they love each other or hate each other. We get home. I walk straight into the kitchen and start preparing dinner. That’s how it is every Wednesday afternoon.
It’s Wednesday, 2:55pm. Prying myself away from my computer, I jump into my aging Suburu and, just when I am almost at Noah’s school, I remember that this morning, as I was packing lunch for the kids, my wife and I decided that today she would take Noah to soccer practice, get some food for dinner, go watch Eva ride, and then pick up Noah, because today I needed to pick up my Dad at 3pm, take him into center city to see his orthopedic surgeon in preparation for his second hip replacement.
There I was driving 180% in the wrong direction, driving to pick up my son when I needed to be driving to pick up my dad! Not only was my car on automatic, I was on automatic, doing what I always do on Wednesday afternoons. Actually, I was unaware of driving at all. I had, for all practical purposes, become an automaton.
That’s how it is for so many of us, so much of the time, when making the bed, when taking a shower, brushing our teeth, getting dressed, eating breakfast, driving to work. We do the same things in exactly the same ways, over and over again, not only inside of our everyday activities, but within our relationships as well. The same buttons get pushed; the same reactions triggered. The eternal recurrence of the same. Groundhog Day.
Instead of going Back to The Future, we’re going Forward to The Past. Is it possible to go forward into a free future, a future not utterly determined by the past? How do we become conscious when we are unconscious that we are unconscious? How can an automaton know that it is living on automatic? When we have turned ourselves from a human being into a human doing, how can we turn ourselves back into a human being?
As difficult as it would be, if I had to choose one set of practices in this book for you to incorporate into your life, the practices that might have the most profound and lasting effect on how it feels to live your life with deep, heartfelt respect toward yourself, I would choose the practices in this section, Being and Doing. My goal is to teach them to you as thoroughly and as well as I can so that these practices become easy and fun for you. So much fun, that practice may not be the right word. It is more like an “inner playing.”
To facilitate learning about the physiology of self-respect, we are going to ask someone to help us. That someone is going to be a person to whom I refer to as, The Butler.
Before I tell you about my personal butler, let me tell you that the butler is an imaginary butler, an inner figure, a figment of our imagination, but a sane, constructive, and healthy figure. The inner butler is an alter-ego, a different version of us, our complementary opposite, someone who completes us in some way and who is a devoted friend. As a child, after my homework was done and just before dinner, my mom let me watch Superman. Superman was Clark Kent’s alter ego, his complimentary opposite. Clark Kent was meek. Superman was strong. Clark Kent was stuck behind a desk. Superman could fly. But I liked Clark Kent and I liked Superman. It wasn’t like Clark was all bad and Superman all good. Clark had his quiet strengths and Superman had his hidden weaknesses. The color orange is not bad and the color blue good. One heightens the other.
Think about children who invent imaginary friends. Dr. Laura Markam, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, writes, “Children are naturally imaginative, and exercising their imaginations is good for their emotional and mental health. They enjoy them, so they always have someone to play with if they feel lonely or bored… There is no evidence that they have any issues with mental health. It’s not the same as Dissociative Identity Disorder or having multiple personalities, which is extremely rare in any case. Children who have imaginary friends grow up to be creative, imaginative, social adults.” It has been found that children with imaginary friends get along better with classmates. They also know that their imaginary friend is not real in the same way as they are. But, like any good actor trained in the tradition of Stanislavsky knows, to create a convincing character one must know how to believe that an imaginary situation is true. Children who invent imaginary friends are good at this.
My experience has shown me that imaginary friends are good for adults too, good for our emotional and mental health. They give us someone to play with when we get lonely or bored, make us more imaginative and creative, better able to entertain ourselves and helps us get along with others.
Any good actor also knows that to create a character, to internalize a character, to receive a person into us, it helps to know a lot about them; their history, where and when they were born, how they grew up, what their family was like, their education. It is important to know what they looked like, how they thought and felt about everything, how they spoke, how they moved. We need to know about their dreams, their nightmares, their ambitions, their fears, their hidden strengths. Everything.
So, to create your inner butler, a person who is going to teach you about the physiology of self-respect, it is important to put in this preliminary imaginative work, which brings your butler to life.
Allow me to introduce my butler, a person whose company I have had the honor to be in for many years.
As for my butlers’ parents, he has never spoken of them. They remain a mystery to me. I do know he is of English descent, yet there is something Asian about him. Perhaps, it is due to his having spent 20 years living in a Tibetan monastery, or there may very well be Asian ancestry in his bloodline. He reminds me a lot of Bruce Wayne’s butler, Michael Caine, in Batman, which is ironic as Alfred was his name as well, and Bruce is my name. Other parts of our stories also coincide which, frankly, feels eerie. Yet, I am nothing like Batman. My butler also reminds me a little of Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day because my butler is so meticulous. But his body is much more like Michael Caine’s because unlike, Anthony Hopkins whose body is a bit tight and compact, my butler’s body is very soft as is his temperament. He’s like a male mother. He rarely speaks about himself, yet over these many years I have gleaned a good bit about him.
To be honest, I envy his education. It revolved around the opening, cleansing, and refining of all his senses. He learned traditional Tibetan calligraphy, writing out long Buddhist texts by hand while illustrating them in great detail, creating the most beautiful illuminations. The one he has in his bedroom, over his desk, is every bit on par with Blake’s illuminations. At least, I think so. He created elaborate sand paintings with his fellow monks, made from crushed gypsum, yellow ochre, red sandstone, and charcoal, mixing them with corn meal, flower pollens and powdered roots and barks. These colored sands were then slowly arranged, from the center outwards, forming intricate mandalas full of symbolism only, after months and months of work, to be methodically deconstructed, collected in a jar, wrapped in silk, taken to a river where it was poured into a fast moving current, a reminder of the ephemerality of our lives and this world.
He studied martial arts and was especially adept as a horse archer. He played numerous Tibetan instruments in addition to the cello, which he learned to play as a child, the only thing I really know about his childhood. He speaks Tibetan of course, but is also a Sanskrit scholar, and fluent in Classical Greek and Latin. I can always ask him for the etymology of a word, and he always knows it. He sometimes cooked for his Tibetan community. He grew herbs not just for cooking, but for the making of medicines. When needed, he helped with the community’s bookkeeping. But mainly, he served his elderly master, day and night, keeping his master’s room and office in order. When his master was extremely old, (he lived to be 117), he bathed him and fed him.
When his master died, Alfred decided to return to school. He applied to the University of Pennsylvania and though in his late thirties, was accepted. Both my mother and father were professors of medicine and research scientists at Penn. After studying with them and assisting them for 10 years in their cancer research, my mother tragically died in a plane crash. My father never recovered. A year later he died from the very cancer he was attempting to cure.
Alfred promised my father he would care for me and raise me, which he did. It was not easy. He was, at once my father and my mother. I was hyperactive, likely an ADHD kid. I had limitless attention for what interested me, and none for what did not. School was a nightmare.
As an adult, remnants still remain. I have no sense of direction. Rather than compute where I am, I get lost in the details of what’s around me, the movement of tree branches blowing in the wind, or the shape of a cloud, or the make and model of a beautiful car and then, when I look up, I am lost. I don’t know where I am.
I have trouble keeping my room in order, especially when I am absorbed in some project. I eat too quickly. I move too quickly. I make decisions too quickly. Basically, I am nothing like Alfred. Though he serves me devotedly, there is nothing subservient about him. He is the most dignified person I know. The most patient, the most poised, the most principled. Ever so slowly, through his way of being, through his calm presence, through how he lives his life, I am changing. I am sure my father knew that Alfred was the only person who could raise me and keep me in balance.
Yet, at the same time, he gives me space. He watches me from a far. Yet whenever I get frazzled, he is right there next to me. “Here, Sir, let me help you with that.” “Let, me do that for you Sir.” “Sir, I can get that for you. Let me do it.” I allow myself to receive his help. I find myself thanking him all day long.
There are weeks when Alfred is gone. He returns to his monastery. But he always comes back. Serving me seems to be his spiritual practice.
We are both getting older. I am in his company now, more than ever. As the years go by, I find myself becoming more and more like him. I am beginning to understand that, though he serves me, he has been the true master all along.
We need an inner teacher, someone who knows much more about this subject than we do. Over the next few days, find some alone time, get quiet, and begin creating your butler. Writing, just as I have done, can help tremendously.
A note. When I introduce this notion to some of my students in England, some find this exercise difficult, due to an aversion they have of the class system in their country. Many of them had to find a different role for their alter-ego, not that of a servant, but of a friend, or some protective figure, sometimes mythological. Remember, it is your imaginary figure. You want to create someone you like being around, who you are comfortable with, who, by just being with them, centers you. Someone who is always there to help you out when you are working too hard at something. Think about the films you have seen, the novels you’ve read, the fairy tales you know. Butlers can of course be of any gender, or genderless, any age, or ageless, from any place, from any time.
How Butlers Serve
There are three main ways in which butlers serve which directly relate to the cultivation of self-respect. They are what I call, Nesting, Grooming, and Feeding.
Nesting is anything humans do that has to do with taking care of our immediate environment, so that it feels safe and homey. When I travel, which I do about 4 months a year, I move from one living space to another. The first thing I do is try to make my new place feel homey. Putting out my toiletries just so; my electric toothbrush and salt based toothpaste, skin cream from Korea for my worn out skin, medicine for keeping my Barrett’s Syndrome in check, my beard trimmer and old double edged razor that belonged to my dad, my hairbrush for brushing the few remaining hairs upon my head that have not abandoned me, and Clubman styling gel that costs a quarter of the price of other hair gels, which for my purposes works just fine. Finally, there’s my favorite shampoo from Lush packaged in cork rather than plastic and, for the same reason, lasts forever.
Then there is hanging up my shirts and pants, putting my socks and underwear and handkerchiefs in a draw, drawing up the blinds to let in some light, cracking the window open for some fresh air, putting an extra blanket on my bed. Sometimes if in a hotel, I ask for an additional pillow to put under or between my knees when sleeping or reading, and finally setting up my desk: my books, notebooks, computer, computer glasses, my favorite pen given to me as a gift from my students, my camera, my headphones, some Spruce scented incense from Japan, and finally, finding a logical place for my keys, wallet, and sunglasses.
Actually, I am not great at doing these things, but my butler is! Just like Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day, he attends to every detail, he takes his time, he thinks about every choice he makes both in terms of ergonomics and beauty. He is so much more precise than I am. Why not let him do it? Why not receive his help? Whenever I begin to engage in nesting activities, he mysteriously shows up and says to me, “Sir, may I help you with that? Or, “Sir, let me to do that for you.” I get out of the way and let him work.
My butler calls me Sir. This works for me. It won’t for everyone. When Alfred calls me Sir, it reminds me that I am a grown up, a dignified person and that I should conduct myself as such, not like some out of control kid bouncing off the walls. It likely would not help a person at all who is overly formal, rigid, impeccable, too serious, and unable to relax, lighten up and let go, to be called Sir. They might need to be called by some endearing or funny nickname.
There is another reason Sir works for me.
At a workshop, when I was introducing this practice to a group of students, we were searching for alternatives to Sir, ones that were gender neutral. One of my students suggested the word majesty as in, your Majesty. Though it sounded and still sounds too grand for me to use personally, when I asked Alfred its meaning he said it meant beauty, dignity, awe, power, authority, pride and glory as in, you are my pride and glory, that is, I find you worthy and you make me proud and happy. These are good qualities, qualities present within everyone, though only fully recognized and actualized by a few.
When I think of the word Sir, I think of someone like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi, people who were treated cruelly and judged as inferior and yet, internally were majestic, full of dignity, power, authority and beauty. They are my heroes. So, when Alfred calls me Sir, he’s acknowledging and addressing these qualities within me, he reminds me of them in the way the poem, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley, reminded Mandela of his inherent worth and dignity.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
When Alfred calls me Sir, and kindly offers to do something for me, like folding the bath towels and placing them on the shelf in the closet, and I let him do that for me, an uncanny metamorphosis takes place. Quite suddenly, my body becomes his body, much like Clark Kent transforming into Superman, but without the need for a phone booth. Because of his training, Alfred is effortlessly and naturally upright, much more so than I am. His pace is entirely different. He never seems to hurry; he’s never in a rush. It is as if my hands become his hands. He takes over. I let him. Suddenly, I am seeing everything in more detail. My hands are feeling everything they touch and are moving much more easily and accurately. This is sensory receptivity. More detailed, accurate, and refined input. I am even thinking more clearly, or perhaps I should say not at all, because my mind has become Alfred’s mind, which simply attends to how he is doing what he is doing as he is doing it. Folding the bath towels and placing them on the shelf in the closet becomes efficient, quietly enjoyable and calming.
A butler does, basically, all the nurturing functions that, hopefully, our parents did for us when we were babies and young children. And, even if our parents were not nurturing, were absent, or even abusive, we still can imagine what good and nurturing parents would be like. Because we are creating an imaginary person within us, that is all we need.
Parents create safe nests for their children, a comfortable place to sleep that is warm and dry and clean and a living space that is safe, where all our basic needs can be met.
Parents also do a lot of grooming. They bath us, and shampoo us, and dry us, dress us, brush our hair, cut our nails. Before going out to play in the snow, they tie our shoes, zip up our jacket, make sure our neck is warm, that we have our gloves and our hat. When we get home our parents help us warm up, wash and dry all of our clothes for us so they are fresh and clean for tomorrow.
Of course, we grow up and learn, to varying degrees, how to perform all these tasks for ourselves. But, in actuality, they are more than tasks, things that must get done, they are a source of nourishment, a source of affection, of kindness, and respect. The question is, are we performing these actions as mere tasks, or are we sensorially receiving, feeling, letting these nurturing, kind, respectful actions into our body and being.
A mother, 70, has a son with cerebral palsy. He is now 45 years old. The mother is small, and the son is not. For years the mother has lifted her son from his wheelchair to the toilet and back again. I ask her to show me how she lifts up her son. The mother moves well. She has to.
‘Chiyo-san, you do that very well. I’m sorry, but I’d like to see you do it one more time.’
‘Hai,’ Chiyo-san says, bowing quickly and sharply.
I notice an almost invisible gesture she makes as she gets ready to pick up her son. She quickly strokes the right side of her head, moving her thick, gray-streaked hair back behind her ear. I ask her to pause for a moment. I ask her if she felt the movement she just made. Chiyo says, ‘No, I didn’t do anything yet.’ I said, ‘Yes, you did.’ I tell Chiyo what she did. I ask her to do it again, very slowly, consciously. She does. I ask her to do it again, and then again. I ask her to continue, but to do it now as if her mother were brushing her hair. She continues. Soon Chiyo begins to cry.
I say, ‘Okay, Chiyo-san, go and lift up your son.’ She doesn’t move, doesn’t speak. I wait. Then Chiyo says, ‘I am too old to do this by myself. I need help.’ She turns to her younger son who is in the room and asks him if he wouldn’t mind helping her. He is happy to do it for his mom, and for his brother.
Chiyo-san stands there watching her two boys.
Have you ever fed a person? Many people have, but in my workshops, usually there are some who have not. We feed babies. We feed people who are ill, convalescing or dying. Some people can remember having been fed at least once in their lives. A few cannot.
Before giving you a practice for this, let’s think about the difference between eating and feeding.
Eat. What does that word mean?
We all know that an increasing and distressing number of us have problems around eating. I don’t have to quote the statistics. They are startling, and sad. All we have to do is look around. For many of us, all we have to do is look in the mirror.
How did something as natural as eating, become so neurotic? Do non-domesticated animals have eating disorders? Do they think about how much they should eat, or what they should eat? Does a baby think about how much they should eat, or what they should eat?
Babies don’t eat. Babies are fed. Now those are two different words. And they are two completely different activities. Linguistically, eating, to my surprise, has a much more aggressive connotation. Feeding has a kinder connotation. Here is what I found when I looked them up in the dictionary. Even though I could have simply asked Alfred, I chose to look them up.
To eat: to put food into the mouth, chew it and swallow it. To consume, devour, ingest, to gobble, wolf down…to munch, chomp, guzzle, nosh, snack, put away, chow down, demolish, dispose of, polish off, pig out, scarf down…eat away at…erode, corrode, wear away, wear down, burn through, dissolve, disintegrate, crumble, decay, damage, destroy.
But it gets worse. Here’s what I found under common phrases. I am not making these up.
eat someone alive informal (of insects) bite someone many times: we were eaten alive by mosquitoes. Exploit someone’s weakness and completely dominate them: he expects manufacturers to be eaten alive by lawyers in liability suits.
eat crow – be humiliated by having to admit one’s defeats or mistakes.
eat dirt – suffer insults or humiliation.
eat someone’s dust – fall far behind someone in a competitive situation.
eat one’s heart out suffer from excessive longing, esp. for someone or something unattainable…to encourage feelings of jealousy or regret: eat your heart out, I’m having a ball!
eat humble pie – make a humble apology and accept humiliation.
eat someone out of house and home – eat a lot of someone else’s food.
eat one’s words – retract what one has said, esp. in a humiliated way: they will eat their words when I win.
have someone eating out of one’s hand – have someone completely under one’s control.
I’ll eat my hat – used to indicate that one thinks the specified thing is extremely unlikely to happen: if he comes back, I’ll eat my hat.
eat away at something – erode or destroy something gradually: the sun and wind eat away at the ice. To use up profits, resources, or time, esp. when they are intended for other purposes: inflation can eat away at the annuity’s value over the years.
eat someone up or eaten up – to dominate the thoughts of someone completely or to be dominated by the thoughts of someone: I’m eaten up with guilt.
eat something up – To use resources or time in very large quantities: an operating system that eats up 200MB of disk space. To encroach on something: this is the countryside that villagers fear will be eaten up by concrete.
Personally, reading this list made me smile just thinking about the people who compiled it, how much fun they must have had. But also, I felt a little scared at the amount of aggression hiding in that tiny three letter word, eat. Now, this is what I found when I looked up the three letter word, fed. To feed or to be fed:
The act of giving food, or of having food given to one, receiving food…
To give food to…to supply an adequate amount of food…to derive regular nourishment…to encourage growth…to fuel…to supply power for operating…to supply water to a body of water… to provide…to nurse…to exist on… strengthen, fortify, support, bolster, reinforce, boost, fuel, encourage.
Why are these two little words, eat and feed, which technically, are synonyms, have such a different feel to them? I have no idea. But I do know, because I have conducted countless workshops on this subject, is that when I teach people how to turn the act of eating into the act of feeding themselves, which only takes a little bit of training, the results are astonishing.
In a nutshell, we eat. Our butlers feed us. When our butlers feed us, we are in good company, even when we are alone.