Something To Consider
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.