Over Tokyo Bay
It got me fired. A man, a father to one of the young gymnasts at the Mann Recreation Center in Philadelphia, where I worked as a gymnastic coach for a girls gymnastic team, was complaining about how kids in Philadelphia are not as intelligent as they were 20 years ago. At the time, I was 22 years old. “How do you know that?” I asked.
“Look, I’ve been teaching for 20 years; high school chemistry. I use the same text book. I cover the same material. My tests are exactly the same as they were 20 years ago” he says. “Interesting. Tell me, have you factored yourself into the equation? I mean, could it be that after 20 years of changing absolutely nothing it could mean that you have learned nothing new since then about chemistry, or about teaching? Could it mean you are bored, uninspired, uninspiring, and since you have come to the irrefutable conclusion that kids are not as intelligent as they once were, that you treat them that way, and the kids pick that up and don’t listen to you, don’t respect you, don’t put out for you because you don’t respect them, or put out for them?”
“What do you know, he said in disgust. You’re just a kid yourself.” Yes, I was a cocky, arrogant kid with a lot to learn. But I was a good coach. This man was, however, on the board and donated a lot of money to the team. And so I was fired. I landed a job a week later teaching for Senior Wheels East Late Start, a program that went into the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia delivering food to the housebound, providing daily lunches at a number of community centers for the poor and the homeless, as well as offering group activities and classes. My class was a safety in movement class. I’d never taught the elderly but I was a graduate student in the college of HPERD: health, physical education, recreation and dance at Temple University. I’d listen to their needs. I’d experiment. See what worked, what didn’t. I’d enjoy them, learn from them and figure it out as I went along. But that is a story for another time.
Forty-two years later, still teaching human movement, I walk into my class in Tokyo. I’ve been developing some new material. I want to try introducing my work centered around a new theme. I’m excited to have the opportunity.
Ohayo gosaimasu, I say bowing to everyone. Everyone, loud and in unison, bows and returns my greeting. There’s a lot of energy in the room.
“Why is it so important? I mean, why would His Holiness The Dalai Lama say to us that his religion is kindness. Why, given all the words there are in the world, would he choose the word kindness? What does that word mean?”
People are wondering why I am talking about kindness. They are here to be introduced to the Alexander Technique. But I have a way of taking the long way around to get where I’m going.
“In the English language the word ‘kind’ has two distinct meanings, seemingly unrelated. One meaning is ‘type’. For example, there are two main kinds of screwdrivers we use in America, a slot head and a Phillips. A slot head fits into a screw that has only one straight indentation across the middle of the screw, and a Phillips fits into a screw with two indented crisscrossing lines running through it. Do you have slot head and Phillip screwdrivers in Japan?” They nod yes, wondering why this is important.
I draw the screwdrivers onto my whiteboard. I love scribbling on whiteboards.
“Have you ever needed a little Phillips screw driver, but all you could find was a big slot head screw driver? But you tried to screw in the screw anyway? You risk three not so great things happening. One, you might damage the screw. Two, you might damage the screw driver. And three?” Everyone is thinking. I wait. Finally, one person says, “Maybe you could end up hurting yourself.”
“Right. Okay. Imagine this. You go up to a dog that looks friendly.” Now some of the students may be considering the possibility of my suffering from a mild form of dementia. “You stand in front of the dog and reach down to pet the top of his head. The dog ducks his head down away from your hand. He doesn’t read this gesture as friendly. One, you are much, much higher up, basically towering over the dog. Two, you’re standing straight in front of the dog, blocking his means of escape. And three, your big hand, which is not even a paw, is coming down directly over the top of the dog’s head.”
“Canines are a different kind of mammal from homosapiens. They have different ways of greeting one another. If you are a dog the friendly way to approach another dog is not to approach square on but to begin circling around to the side, lowering your head and politely sniffing the other dog’s butt, while gladly offering your butt to be sniffed in return. That’s friendly and feels safe to a dog.”
“Now if you tried to greet a fellow homosapien that way, with that friendly canine gesture, it most likely would be misinterpreted, perhaps even considered slightly rude.” My first really hearty laughter from the students. That’s important.
“Even now, with people I know well here in Japan, if I say hello to them and give them a friendly American hug they get uncomfortable. They pretend they like it, but I can feel how their bodies get stone rigid. They don’t like it. So, almost always, I just bow.”
“This brings me to the other meaning for the word kind. To be kind also means to be considerate and respectful of something or someone.”
“So when you understand and take into consideration the kind of thing or creature you are relating to, then you can treat that thing or creature kindly, with respect, the way it wants to be treated.”
“If I want to treat my screw and screw driver respectfully, I need to understand their design and use them according to their design. That is considerate. That is respectful. That is kind.”
“If I want to be considerate and respectful of a dog, I need to know something about dogs. Then I will choose to move slowly, to come down to his eye level, lowering my gaze, positioning myself slightly to the side of the dog. I’ll wait for the dog to move slightly toward me, then slowly bring my hand, turned down, making it look more like a paw, up under it’s chin. That is considerate. That is respectful. That is kind.”
“When I am in Japan, a particularly different kind of culture from America, if I want to be considerate, if I want to be respectful, its best to greet people in a way that makes them comfortable. That’s the kind thing to do.”
“Now that we know both definitions of the word kind, and how they are related, the question arises, how do I go about treating myself kindly?”
“Alexander’s work is founded upon this question; how do I go about treating myself kindly? My mentor, Marjorie Barstow once said to us, “One day you wake up and say, I’m tired of mistreating myself. That’s when you start making some progress.” As a young man, and as an actor, Alexander needed to figure out how he was mistreating his voice. He used the word ‘use’ instead of treat, and misuse instead of mistreat. I like the word treat because it has an ethical connotation. It’s not purely about function. Later Alexander’s inquiry became not only about his voice, but about himself as a person. In other words, his work became about how do humans mistreat themselves. And what do we need to understand and to master to be able to treat ourselves with consideration and with respect?”
After twenty minutes, I have finally arrived to where I wanted to go. I’ve explained what Alexander’s work is about. I have done it in a way that is simple and easy to understand. I have done it in a way that has made the students think about themselves, not so much about their bodies, yet, just about themselves as people. I can hear them asking themselves, “Do I mistreat myself? Am I ready to stop mistreating myself?” I have them where I want them.
“For us to learn how to treat ourselves respectfully, there are five facets of life worth considering. Time. Space. Contact. Movement. and Social Interaction. I seize the opportunity to write them on the whiteboard. I choose these because we are always living in relation to them. This is what this workshop will be about.”
“We live in time. We have to deal with clock time, with being on time, with getting things done on time. And there is psychological time. Do we feel we are running out of time? Do we feel we are wasting our time? Is it the right time for me to tell this person how I feel, or not?”
“We are always relating to space, the space around us, the space between us and things, like our electronic devices. There is psychological space, space within us. Do we feel trapped? Hemmed in? Up against the wall? Do we have room to think, to breathe?”
“We are always in contact. We sit in a chair at our desk, or in a carseat, or on the train. We walk down the street, our feet touching the ground with every step. We put food in our mouths. We touch our touch screens and our keyboards. We handle objects all day long, and lie on our beds or futons every night.”
“We move continually from the moment we are conceived until the moment we die.”
“And whether we are alone or not we are never alone. As James Hillman says, we are our communities internalized. Memories of our parents, critical thoughts about our boss, worries about our children.”
“For me as an Alexander teacher this is the work at hand. If we can learn to create time and space for ourselves, if we can learn to make respectful contact with everything we touch and that touches us, if we can learn to move according to our structural design, then perhaps this acquired composure, balance, and sensitivity will carry over into our social interactions.
“So when His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, my religion is kindness, I suspect he knows that this is no easy matter. I suspect he knows that to be truly kind requires knowledge, understanding, and devoted practice, and that this practice never ends.”
The silence and the stillness in the room is palpable.
“Okay. Let’s have some fun. Actually let’s have a lot of fun this weekend!”
The weekend goes unexpectedly well. Lots of new material emerges. I say things in ways I have never said before. I hear ideas I’ve never heard before. I use my hands in ways I’ve never used them before. I teach movements I’ve never taught before. I’ve got to know people I never knew before. I’ve learned a lot this weekend. It seems the students have learned a lot too. There’s a lightness in the room. I’m happy.
I pack up my things, looking forward to dinner, to a beer, to being with my friends. It’s beautiful outside. The sun is setting over Tokyo Bay. The thought crosses my mind. “Gee, students seem to be getting smarter with each passing year. They’re more open. They learn more quickly. They enjoy themselves more. In fact, they seem friendlier, kinder, and more respectful then ever.”
Kindness is my religion. I’m a devotee for life.