A Blink of the Eye/ A Tremor of the Soul
Buzz died 12 years ago, at the age of 95. About a month before he died my daughter, Eva, and I drove up to Barrytown, New York to visit he and his wife, Peg, (who just died this year at the age of 100).
At breakfast Buzz says to me, “Well, I made it down the steps once again.” Buzz told me he’d rather fall and break his neck than not sleep next to Peg in their own bed. Besides, he liked going up and down the steps.
Before him on the breakfast table lay a row of multicolored pills and capsules. “My doctor says if I don’t take all of these pills in the morning that I’ll be dead by nightfall. So I take them.”
That afternoon John Gummere, Peg and Buzz’s son, drives us to the Hudson River, and Peg, 88, takes Eva and I out on her vintage wooden trimmed sailboat. Peg sits by the tiller, the wind blowing against her uplifted face, through her long, silver hair.
Buzz chose, rather than go sailing with us, to sit and rest under an old oak tree by the river. As we recede from the shore, I watch Buzz grow smaller and smaller. I knew this would be the last time I’d see him.
Five years earlier, when Buzz was a mere 90, he and Peg drove down in their Subaru to JFK airport, caught a plane going to Albuquerque whereupon they rented a Jeep and drove north for three hours to Ghost Ranch, where we were holding our Alexander Alliance Retreat.
On the Ides of March, 2000 the snow came down all morning but by mid-afternoon, under the New Mexican sun, all the snow had melted. We decided to put on some jackets, except for Buzz, and hold class outside.
Buzz wanted to work on his speaking, on giving a talk. Even though Buzz trained with F.M. and A.R. Alexander, and was a certified teacher, public speaking still got him off balance. He wanted me to help him. He wanted to give a little talk on his thoughts about Alexandrian inhibition and just what that was.
Ironically, Buzz had taught me a lot about Alexandrian inhibition via the help he gave me with my writing, writing being something Buzz did very well. He noted I seemed very at ease when I spoke, and he wondered what was getting in his way.
Fortunately, a student taped the lesson, more like the conversation Buzz and I had that day. And Anchan, our school photographer, took a photo of us working together.
Here, I share that day with you, that conversation, and Buzz.
Bruce: I remember, years ago, writing an article in honor of Marj Barstow’s 90th birthday. I gave it to you to read. Directly, you proceeded to remove about half the words.
Buzz: I remember that.
Bruce: You edited it severely. You pruned it way down. I remember rereading it thinking, “That’s not right! That’s not right! That’s not how I write!” I was mad and insulted. I felt misunderstood. I remember defending the right to split every infinitive, because splitting infinitives sounded more expressive, sounded right. To hell with the rules of grammar! I defended my run on sentences too. How else could I capture all the subtleties taking place simultaneously? There was no other way but to try to say everything all at once, within the span of one endless breath.
Buzz: You were used to it, used to it like a bad habit.
Bruce: “That’s not right, listen to how that sounds,” I said to you over the phone, then hung up. I handed your “improved” edition to Martha to read and she said, “Now that’s a lot better! First of all, it’s grammatically correct and secondly, it’s just more to the point. It says what you want to say, and it says it simply, directly, and clearly.”
Painfully, the more I read it, the better it sounded. “Maybe it is better,” I thought. “Maybe it’s better. You know, I think it is better. In fact, I know it’s better.”
Buzz, I’d like to see if, right now, I could return the favor. I’m going to be your editor, not for the way you write, which is exemplary, but for the way you communicate when you are before a group of people.
Buzz: Very good.
Bruce: We’re going to leave words out, sometimes whole paragraphs. It’s likely to feel wrong. You’ll probably get mad at me, the way I got mad at you.
Bruce: Erika Whitaker says, inhibition is decision.
Buzz: That’s true.
Bruce: Inhibition is decision. Even though the talk you are about to give is not memorized word for word, I’d like you to decide that you are only going to let words come out of your mouth that have a direct connection to the main idea you wish to communicate.
Buzz: The main idea. First I have to decide what that is.
Buzz: The title of this talk is A Blink Of The Eye/A Tremor Of The Soul.
Bruce: That’s a beautiful and evocative title. Let me draw you a simple map around that title. Let’s say we have a circle like this, and in the center of that circle is the essence of that title. The only reason you’re going to say what you say is to get people to understand the essence of that title. You are going to keep everyone in that inner circle with you.
Now, let’s put another circle around our most inner circle. When you wonder off into that circle you know you are further away from the essence of your title.
For example, you might ask people if they know the meaning of a certain word you are using. Or you might go into some unnecessary detail about something that’s truly interesting but does not sit in the most inner circle.
Because you know a lot and perceive so many important connections to your theme, sometimes you spin off into a commentary. That commentary can gracefully lead to a commentary on that commentary. Before you are aware of it you’re off track, out of the most inner circle.
I want to see is if you can stay right in your most inner circle. You’re going to have to trust me for about fifteen minutes, and then you can mistrust me for the rest of your life!
I’m going to lightly tap you, like this, when it seems to me you are moving outside the core circle. Trust me to make the call, to do the editing. What do you say? I’m asking you to make a decision, a conscious commitment to yourself, to your material and to your students who clearly love you and value your wisdom.
Buzz: Good, very good.
Bruce: I want you to decide again to remain within your core circle, real close to what is essential about A Blink of the Eye, A Tremor of the Soul. Can you make that decision?
Bruce: Have you made your decision?
Buzz: (After a long pause.) Yes.
Bruce: All right. So be it. Let’s begin.
Buzz: I will try.
Bruce: Hmmm….“Do not try. Do or do not, as Yoda once said.” Stick to your decision. You can always stop and make it again. You can make it as many times as you want. But don’t try to keep your decision. Make your decision. Be that decision. Live out that decision. Or don’t.
Buzz: (Buzz begins his formal talk).
“You can study anatomy and physiology till you are black in the face. You still have this to face – sticking to a decision against your habit of life.” (quote by F.M. Alexander).
Bruce: Take all the time you need. Instead of going into commentary, just be inside the silence. Take all the time you need to connect to what is essential then, say what you want to say.
Buzz: Alexander craved recognition by scientists. The most eminent one to support his ideas was the genial Sir Charles Sherrington. His bold research in physiology started with an intensive study of the knee jerk. You all know what a knee jerk is?
Bruce: Stop there.
Buzz: I’m not supposed to ask them am I?
Bruce: I think it is safe to assume they know.
Bruce: Now decide again. Give yourself a moment. Make your decision.
Buzz: I’ve decided again.
Bruce: Let’s do it this way Buzz. (Bruce addressing the students listening), “Fellow students – if you have a question, feel free to ask Buzz, on the spot. O.K? That’s your job.” (The students nod a collective yes).
Buzz: Very good.
Bruce: Decide again.
Buzz: I’ve got it.
His bold research, at the expense of a small army of laboratory monkeys, carried him along to several major epic discoveries in human physiology, and to a Nobel Prize. Among his discovers was what, in us vertebrates, he referred to as “inhibition.”
Bruce: Now pause there. I just want to say to you, that it’s possible you might be feeling like this is going to be real boring to them, or you may feel you are not entertaining them enough. May I suggest you not worry because I, for one, am finding the content of your talk relevant. So there’s nothing extra that you need to do. Decide again, and stick, cling, adhere, lean into your decision. You’ve made your decision, now trust your material.
Buzz: (Buzz continues his talk).
Now everybody raise one hand. That action took place because, leave your hand up for a moment, because your excitatory nerves went into action. Leave your hand up there. Now you cannot lower that hand without the inhibitory nerves resuming their democratic role in the politics of your coordination. Those inhibitory nerves give you the permission, and the ability, to lower your hand.
I’m leaving out a great deal.
Bruce: That’s okay. We are engaged in an experiment. Just sense yourself leaving it out. Sense as you leave out what may not be essential how you are filling the space with repose. Look, the students are moving towards you. You have them. Whatever falls away, let it fall away. Just wait until what’s essential rises to the surface.
Buzz: In any good legislature, the “excitors” are the ins, and the “inhibitors” are the outs. But everybody knows in a good legislature the outs are “the loyal opposition.” For the Alexander brothers it was civil war. I heard them both say, “The excitors have got the better of the inhibitors!”
Student: Could you say that again please?
Buzz: I’m trying to be British. “The excitors have got the better of the inhibitors!”
Bruce: When you said, I’m trying to be British, you could have left that out. I think that’s your false modesty at play. You are quite good at sounding and looking British. Isn’t that true?
Buzz: Right. Absolutely. Absolutely. I’ve learned something!
Sir Charles Sherrington knew a lot about excitation and inhibition, as a physiologist. In his younger days, Sherrington did his work in a hospital. When he got bored with his laboratory work, he would climb up to the top of the highest tower of this Victorian hospital building and do parachute jumps.
Bruce: Buzz, when you’re leaving things out, just close your lips very lightly, just very lightly. Give yourself time. People are taking in that image. That’s a great image. Personally, I’m seeing Buster Keaton. You got a little chuckle there. Did you hear that?
Bruce: They are definitely listening and responding to you.
Buzz: Recently an American physiologist named Benjamin Libet has stepped up beside Sir Charles Sherrington as a powerful supporter of Alexander’s ideas. He’s associated with a medical school on the west coast. Libet is studying inhibition while working with patient human volunteers rather than suffering laboratory monkeys.
Bruce: Pause here for a second Buzz, and just come forward like that, away from the back of the chair. Now when you return to the back of the chair, just talk to your lower back for a second. Ask your lower back to un-posture. Just let it gently un-posture. Even more. Great. And then just talk to your shoulders a little bit.
Now, that’s good. There’s going to be a real temptation to want to comment on the strong change in kinesthetic feeling. But forget it because it’s not in your essential circle. See what I mean?
Buzz: I was about to talk about how I felt. I was out of my circle.
Bruce: In a flash you can go right back into your core circle. Go right back.
Buzz: Libet went even beyond Sir Charles by clocking the time we are offered by our system for inhibition. He did it in milliseconds. A millisecond is one thousandth of a second.
Bruce: Take a pause there and let them think about that. And while they’re thinking about it, let this shoulder drop. (Buzz’s right shoulder drops as his back widens dramatically). No comment Buzz, no comment.
Buzz: Dr. Libet found that a human response to a stimulus, any stimulus – a doorbell rings, lightening flashes, you think of how much you’re going to have to pay the IRS, (laughter from the crowd), any such stimulus of the millions of kinds we have, takes 500 milliseconds. Everybody say one, one thousandth.
Students: “One, one thousandths!”
Buzz: That was one second. Cut that in half. That leaves 500 milliseconds. The first 350 milliseconds of that 500 are unconscious. The last 50 are unconscious too. They are the action you begin to put into motion. You hear the phone. You go to answer the phone. How much time is left between the unconscious beginning and the unconscious ending of a response? Anybody?
Student: One hundred milliseconds.
Buzz: Take a ten and go to the head of the class. No, that was outside of the circle. I made a mistake. I could have left that out.
Bruce: Maybe. Maybe not. You sensed that you might have gone outside the circle, and you knew it before you were finished speaking!
Let’s analyze what just happened based upon what you just taught us. The student answers correctly. During the next 350 milliseconds your response is unconscious. We slide into that slender, infinite space of 100 milliseconds. During that micro instant you weren’t quite awake. The power of your decision had weakened just enough to allow the excitors to sneak ahead of the inhibitors. Before you knew it you were into the last 50 milliseconds. Your tongue began to form the word “Take”, “Take a ten and go to the head of the class.” That 100 millisecond window had come and gone.
But you know, Peg used to tell me, I always had another chance. Peg told me that a lot. She knew how hard I was on myself. And Buzz, I know how hard you are on yourself. So, I say to you Buzz, there is going to be a next time. There’s going to be countless opportunities for you to play with being awake inside of that 100 millisecond window.
Let’s continue. Make your decision. Be your decision.
Buzz: Blink your eye; one normal quick blink. That’s a half second, 500 milliseconds.. You should be getting an idea now of “inhibition time” – one fifth of a blink of the eye. Inhibition time. It’s just a hundred milliseconds.
Bruce: Rest in that thought. They are really thinking. Look at them. They are more than thinking – they are meditating on the magnitude of that truth. They’re inhibiting right now. They have stopped thinking about inhibition as they have thought of it before. They are in that space of wondering, of not knowing.
Buzz: What a small window of opportunity. The freedom to decide, the freedom to choose offers itself to us in one-fifth the time it takes for us to blink. Do we remain open to something new and surprising in our response, or do we stay with something old, familiar, predictable?
Bruce: Pause there. Look at these faces. They are hanging on that question. Now, come forward a bit, like that. Have no doubt that what you’re doing, even though it may feel strange and wrong, kind of empty, overly spacious, or too quiet, not funny enough, is working.
Your old habits may be trying to convince you that they know the right way, the time proven way. They want to re-convince you that there is no good reason to do anything any other way but the old way. They’re trying to talk you out of the experience you just had. But I can feel them losing ground.
Look around. Look at the facts. You’ve got an engaged group of people here who are taking you very seriously. Now, we’re going to let go of that lower back. Gently and decidedly un-posture. Undo. Undo yourself. I want to keep those front ribs soft and moving, soft and moving. Now kindly let go of your hip joints a little bit too, so you roll back nice and easy.
Now you’re not going to comment on this at all, you’re just going to use it.
Buzz: Sir Charles Sherrington was the first physiologist to recognize and state that to not do something is just as much of an act as to do something. That bothered a lot of the bustling Edwardians around the turn of the century. But Sherrington proved this experimentally. He published a classic book, “The Integrated Function Of The Nervous System” – 650 pages, weighs about 4 pounds.
I couldn’t resist saying that.
Bruce: I think that was inside your circle, maybe at the edge, but still inside.
Buzz: The central point of Sherrington’s great book is that he glorifies inhibition! For Sherrington inhibition is the source of the command over the entire organism – the muscles and the bones are the servants of the brain and its inhibitory machinery.
Bruce: That’s a powerful thought. Give it some time. Let it have its weight.
Buzz: Now when you enter some Alexander studios what do you see? You see a skeleton. Occasionally you will see in the studio of an Alexander teacher a wall chart of the human musculature. You think you’re in a butcher shop.
What you rarely see is a wall chart of the central nervous system – the servant of the brain. The beautiful filigree of the human nervous system as it spreads and fans out. It’s got its little dendrites and axons fluttering everywhere, like bees coming out in the spring.
The present tendency in promoting the Alexander work, 19 out of 20 leaflets that I’ve seen about workshops in the Alexander Technique, convey the work as body work.
Bruce: Now let them deal with that constructive challenge. This could be one of the most important ideas these teachers may hear about what it means to be a teacher of Alexander’s work. It was for me. Now can you feel my hand touching your back?
Bruce: You’re almost going with me back here, but not quite. You’re pushing against my hand a little bit. Can you give yourself a little time to sense my hand back here and when my hand goes this way, can you go with me? It’s going to feel like I’m taking you into a classic slump. I know this feels strange and wrong.
But what’s happening as you go with me is you are ceasing to pull your upper body back. That’s terrific. This may feel rather un-presentational, like you are just some regular guy sitting, relaxing, saying something you know to these people who are sitting around you, too ordinary, but this kind of ordinary is quietly extraordinary.
(Buzz is listening to the birds that suddenly seem to be singing all around us. Everything is still wet from the snow and sparkling from the sun.)
Buzz: You hear that? Coming from the top of the ziggurat? It’s a voice! It’s got a British accent! There it is! It’s saying, “Inhibition time.”
Buzz takes a bow. Everyone is smiling, a few of us crying a little.
Yeah, I miss Buzz. I miss his intelligence, his energy, his thoughtfulness, his endless openness to learn. What can I do? I have a few photos. I have some writings, some memories. I’ll do my best to learn from his example.
I’ll share him with others when I can, as I have with you.