From Within And All Around
Boiled down, it all comes to inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus. But no one will see it that way. They will see it as getting in and out of a chair the right way. It is nothing of the kind. It is that a pupil decides what he will or will not consent to do. They may teach you anatomy and physiology till they are black in the face—you will still have this to face: sticking to a decision against your habit of life.
F.M. Alexander from Articles and Lectures (white edition), Mouriz 2011, p. 197.
The post office was crowded. Every line seemed equally endless. I chose one, and of course it soon became apparent this line was at a standstill. The teller had just disappeared into the back room, not to return for fifteen minutes.
Standing in lines made me almost claustrophobic. We were required to stand in lines every morning at Pennypacker Elementary School. Standing in neat rows out in the cement yard, we’d wait for the loud buzzer to sound before marching into school. On a particular day, while standing in line, a bee began buzzing around my mouth. Hysterically, I jumped out of line and began dodging, and ducking, and swinging at the bee. A teacher came over, demanded I get back into line, and the moment I did the bee stung me on my bottom lip.
In the meantime, I had just injured myself. We were rehearsing for an upcoming performance until well after midnight. Having hardly slept the night before, I was beat. Coming down from a barrel turn, I landed on the outside of my foot, my ankle twisting under me. A physical trainer did his best to tape it, but after another sleepless night, it was still swollen and throbbing. Standing was difficult. A poor, old kindly man was standing in front of me. His clothes were worn and soiled. There was a strong smell of urine in the air that was impossible to avoid.
I escaped into my thoughts. Images of a recent fight I got into with my girlfriend surfaced. It was over money. We were living together. The rent was due and we were short about $100. She wanted me to ask my parents for the money. I didn’t want to do that. We ended up yelling at each other and I heard myself sounding just like my father. I hated that about myself, but as hard as I tried, I couldn’t seem to get control over it. I felt like a dog who, when the mailman walked by, had to bark, and basically had to go crazy. Certain situations pushed my buttons, and immediately there I was, barking and going crazy.
About 40 minutes later, I found myself next in line. I had just had an Alexander lesson earlier that week with Catherine Wielopolska, a trainee in Alexander’s first teacher training class back in the early 30’s. “Kitty” was telling me how Alexander’s work was not about physical culture, not about how to get up and down from a chair, but that it was about how we reacted to stimuli from within ourselves and from all around us. Kitty had begun working with me on speaking. Speaking was a nightmare for me as a child. At six I began stuttering, which meant also dealing with the humiliation and shame that accompanied it. It was clear to me now that this was the source of the fierce habit I still had of jamming the back of my skull down into my neck, which ended up compressing my entire spine right down into my lower back, which all too often was a source of pain.
Consequently, when the time came to ask the teller for a book of twenty stamps I was determined not to go into my old speech pattern of thrusting my head forward. As the teller gave his customer his change and receipt, I stood there doing my best to free myself the way I had been learning to do from my teacher. But just as I stepped forward and opened my mouth to ask for a book of stamps, my head thrusted forward on its own. I no longer stuttered but that old stuttering pattern was still there, seemingly hard wired into my nervous system.
I asked for a particular series of stamps that honored great Black American heroes. The teller told me they were out of them. All that was left he said were the usual stamps with the American flag on them. I said okay. He looked in his drawer and then said he didn’t have anymore books of stamps, only rolls of a hundred stamps. I didn’t have enough money on me to buy a hundred stamps. I heard myself sigh and felt my head press itself even further into my spine. I was tired and frustrated. It seemed I was at the complete mercy of stimuli bombarding me both from within and without. More training, I thought to myself as a hobbled away empty handed. More training.
I was twenty-three years old. The trying twenties. Little did I know I was embarking on a life devoted to self examination and self reflection. Meanwhile, I had to get some control of myself, and of my life.
I set about categorizing stimuli in hope of making the whole enterprise more manageable. We all lived in time and in space. We all had to move. We were always in contact with the world through our senses, whether we knew it or not. And, whether we were with people or not, we were always with them. If they were not physically around us, they were in our minds or hearts. They were always in our past, and in our futures.
Time. Waiting. Hurrying. Deadlines.
Space. My fears of spatial confinement. My fear of heights. My inability to organize my things, my desk, my clothes. My utter lack of orienteering.
Movement. My limitations as a dancer and martial artist. My being injury prone..
Senses. Mental preoccupation with my unresolved past, or my fantasies of some utopian future often took me out of my body and out of the real world. How to come back to my senses.
People. Well, if it were any consolation, people seemed to be an issue for everybody. It was people above all, communicating with people, or rather mis-communicating with people that seemed to be the major source of pain in the world. Communication between husband and wives, parents and children, between siblings, bosses and employees, even between countries.
And then there was the world within, the amorphous world of thoughts, emotions, drives, and sensations.
Thoughts. Comparing myself to other people, being better than them, or worse than them. Thinking too much about myself, about my body, or about how great I was at this or that, or how terrible I was at this or that.
Emotions. Little control over anger, frustration, or fear.
Drives and Sensations. Physical drives ruled the day; a visceral appetite, culinary and sexual, and an insatiable appetite for new experience. I couldn’t seem to get enough. As for physical pain. My father was a man who, when he woke up in the morning and did not feel absolutely perfect, concluded that something was seriously the matter. I inherited this gene.
I know. I’m beginning to sound like Woody Allen.
Years have passed, 42 to be exact, and after a lifetime of disciplined, and increasingly pleasurable study, I am happy to say I’ve made some progress. Boiled down, it all comes to inhibiting a particular reaction to a given stimulus, I hear Alexander saying.
Time. Rarely do I rush. I have learned to give more time to things and to people. But then again, I am no longer raising children. When I need to be somewhere and I am running late, I have learned to ask myself if I am late, and if the answer is no, then I stop rushing. And if the answer is yes, then I decide to move lightly and swiftly and enjoy myself.
I rarely wait. When I find myself waiting I simply stop waiting and the world, through all of my senses, returns and entertains me. I still find myself waiting when I want to say the next thing on my mind and my translator is still translating, but less so. And I still, at times, interrupt people, but less so. I still wait when my computer is not moving as fast as I think it should. But I feel a little less exasperated.
And yes, sometimes I will awaken from an afternoon nap anxious about dying. It doesn’t last long. Once I get up and start moving, I am fine. Most of the time I feel like I have all the time in the world.
Space. I am no longer afraid of heights. I have not been for years. In Osaka, where I live half the year, I love feeling myself part of the river of people streaming in and out of trains morning and night. I get comfort feeling myself huddled together with others. I don’t mind the middle seat on planes. I like sitting next to people. I have no problem standing in lines. I enjoy not waiting.
Movement. I’ve learned to move well, comfortably and enjoyably. I used to think that movement was the end all and be all. Now, ironically, I move well and I care very little about the way I move. Or about how others move. I care about how I am, and how others are. I’ve fallen in love with stillness. I love sitting quietly and doing nothing.
Senses. This perhaps above all is what I have found through my years of study, the sensory world. The world of lightness and darkness, of sound and silence, of coolness and warmth. Literally, I have come to my senses.
My appetites no longer have the hold on me they once did. My sexual self seems to have fallen in love with the world at large, the wind against my face, the warmth of the sun on my shoulders, the scent of pine in the high country, the sand under my feet, the taste of the ocean in my mouth.
Thoughts. My thoughts no longer harass me. I’m at peace with my past. Most of my future is behind me. I’ve made it this far. I trust I will figure the rest out as I go along. At some point, thanks in large part to Byron Katie, I learned that I am not my thoughts. I’ve learned not to believe everything I think. I know how to question thoughts, how to diffuse them and let them fall. Thank God for teachers.
Physical pain remains a challenge. And I still bark like a dog when the mailman goes by. Something tells me I’m not going to work everything out this time around. But then again, who knows?
During the last few years of my father’s life not once did I see him get angry. Not once. My Dad had evolved into a peaceful man.
In the last weeks of his life, while in the intensive care unit, he began looking like Gandhi. He’d sit in the chair next to his hospital bed, wrapped in a white blanket, his shining bald head and his round wire rimmed glasses looking out from above, smiling, never complaining of pain or discomfort, though his pain and discomfort were considerable.
More training, I say to my self, happily.