Fieldnotes – Gleanings from the Life and Work of Tommy Thompson – A Review of Tommy’s New Book – Touching Presence
Parallel play. That’s when toddler’s play adjacent to one another without trying to influence one another’s behavior. Two kids, playing alone, in the same space with a peripheral interest in what the other is doing.
Tommy and I did not meet until we were quite a bit older, but this is what we did. Every once in a while we would begin to interact. Martha and I invited Tommy down to Philadelphia to teach for us. Tommy invited me up to Boston to teach for him. Together we helped with the conception and founding of ATI. Every few years we’ed bump into one another at International Congresses and talk. Life happened. Twenty years sailed by without much contact at all. Finding out Tommy would be in my neighborhood in Osaka, I make an arrangement for us to meet over dinner at a little French restaurant Tommy liked. There we were, two considerably older men, weather worn but the better for it, and under it all still sparkling, those little kids somewhere alive within us.
Shortly after that meeting, my book comes out, Tommy reads it and is kind enough to write a review. He says to me, “Now I don’t have to write my book. You said what I care most about.” But Tommy did write a book, with the expert help of Rachel Prabhakar and David Gorman, and I am glad he did, because while there indeed exists considerable overlap in what Tommy and I find important in the Work and in how we are as teachers, we are also different.
It is with great pleasure, and with enormous respect, that I offer this review of Touching Presence by Tommy Thompson.
Gleanings from the Life and Work of Tommy Thompson
Reading Tommy’s book, Touching Presence, I hear Tommy speaking primarily to trainees and teachers and to advanced students of Alexander’s work. Given that, I will address this same audience.
This book is not so much about the Alexander Technique as it is about how Tommy uses the Alexander Technique as his vehicle through which he guides his students into living more compassionately conscious and self-embodied lives. Use is too narrow an arena for Tommy. He is interested in personal transformation.
In our profession, thankfully, we have many gifted teachers doing research into different aspects of Alexander’s work. Some of us are reductionists. Some of us are more physiologically oriented and want to zero in on the precise physiological mechanisms involved in bringing about improved use. This is exciting. At the same time, some of us, like Tommy, are what I would call expansionists. Tommy wants to expand Alexander’s work beyond the workings of the body into the workings of the heart and soul. That is where Tommy’s work lives. This too is exciting. For Tommy, Alexander’s work is a spiritual path, a way of life. I think this is true for many of us. Tommy is as much a healer and secular rabbi/sheik/priest as he is a teacher.
I am fine with this because when reading, Touching Presence, I feel in the presence of a person who is entirely himself, who teaches through who he is. He’s not imitating anyone. He teaches through his own personal ethical framework, expressing his own truth. He teaches through his own language. He teaches out of his own experience, sometimes painful experience. He’s real. He’s authentic.
Tommy often, like a Hasidic rabbi or Sufi sheik, teaches through story. He’s a good storyteller. He shares deeply moving stories with us of his birth, of growing up in the segregated south, of the love for and death of his wife, Julie. These are not just stories. The key concepts which Tommy holds dear about the Alexander Technique are clearly elucidated within these stories.
What are some of these key concepts? Here, I will not go into detail; for that I suggest reading Touching Presence and if possible, studying with Tommy.
1.) Perhaps the deepest and most far reaching of all of Tommy’s key concepts is that of “withholding definition”. This is his way of talking about Alexandrian Inhibition, of a radical sort, one that allows a persons’ fixed sense of identity to become unfixed, fluid, changeable. Tommy’s work revolves around the issue of identity, how we define ourselves and by doing so, how we limit ourselves from experiencing who we are and what we might become. In the words of James Baldwin, “Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned.” Tommy’s work seems to be about loosening the garment.
2.) Seeing a students’ beauty. Appreciating a student for how and who they are and letting your lessons unfold from there. Tommy’s work is profoundly non-corrective.
3.) Restoring a supportive sense of being as we do what we are doing. Remaining a human being rather than turning into a human doing. Our culture judgmentally demands: “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Tommy’s advice might be: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” First get a sense of where you are, what you are in relation with, how you are being, what you are experiencing and then let your doing arise out of this fullness of being.
4.) What most influences our students and allows them to change depends not so much on what we do but on who we are when we are with them. Ram Dass says, “The only thing you have to offer another human being, ever, is your own state of being.” Maybe Ram Dass heard that from Tommy! Sounds like Tommy.
Touching Presence does not read like a novel, or a textbook, certainly not a manual. Reading Tommy requires some work and some time. I found myself reading just a paragraph or two and then having to stop, become still, quiet, and just think, reflect, meditate before reading on. Touching Presence reads more like a Buddhist Sutra, or like the Cloud of Unknowing, where something important is said over and over again. Humility…is nothing else but a true knowledge and experience of yourself as you are. (Cloud of Unknowing). Or, The word is not the thing. (The Diamond Sutra). Or, Form is emptiness, and emptiness, form. (The Heart Sutra). Ideas not for thinking once and then forgetting, but rather ideas you sit on, like a mother hen, until one day, CRACK, your mind opens, your heart opens, and new possibilities, ones you never could have imagined, present themselves.
If you are training to become an Alexander teacher, or if you are an Alexander teacher and if you are interested not only in The Use of the Body, but are really interested in The Use of the Whole Self, if you wish to go beyond teaching about the body and about movement, if you are interested in physio-spiritual life, in your physio-spiritual life, then this book may help you along your way.