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A Blink of the Eye/ A Tremor of the Soul

 

Buzz Gummere

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.

Buzz:  Alright.

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.

Bruce:  Right.

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?

 Buzz:  Sure.

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 decisionOr 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.

Buzz:  O.K.

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?

Buzz:  Yeah.

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 decisionBe 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?

Buzz:  Yes.

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.

 

Richard M. Gummere, Jr.

 

 

 

Letter To The Editor

 

Teaching By Hand/Learning By Heart

Delving Into The Work Of F.M. Alexander

By

Bruce Fertman

 

Letter to the Editor:

Jean,

This makes me nervous, but I now send you my finished manuscript.

It is complete. Nothing missing. Nothing extra.

This is what I think the book does.

Part One communicates to people, no matter their level, from beginners to teachers, what AT is about in ways contemporary, understandable, relevant, and meaningful. Broadly and specifically. In Part One a lot of time is spent on primary movement/pattern/control, on inhibition and direction, on freedom and choice, though often not in that language. Now, with the two pieces added this month to Part One, it also speaks at length about sensory appreciation, and it includes some thoughts on breathing that relay Alexander’s unique orientation toward the subject. Part One now makes sense to me. A person should finish reading Part One and should be clear as to what AT is about. If the reader is an AT teacher he or she should come away with a lot of new and useful language, metaphors, images, and ideas and perhaps with more courage and desire to teach the work in groups.

Part Two then gives the reader an animated, heartfelt idea of what it looks like and feels like when I work with people on all the material introduced in Part One. The reader gets to see, and almost experience, what happens when a person sticks to principle. “Stick to principle and it will all open up like a great cauliflower,” as A.R. so aptly put it. Part One is about the principles. Part Two is about the cauliflower! Yes, plain, healthy, natural beauty.

The book as a whole also introduces me to the readers, not just my ideas, but who I am as a person and as an Alexander teacher, the two inseparably intertwined. In this way it is very much autobiographical, spanning a 55 year career. It is my hope the book may be, in part, inspirational to some younger AT teachers.

It is satisfying to have completed it.  It’s a bit like finishing a long, good novel, having read the last page and closed the book. There’s a gentle sadness and a deep joy. Yes I did it. I finished it. I like it. Now it’s forward into a free future with open arms and an open heart.

Jean, thank you for your continual support. The ball is now in your court. Obviously, it takes a village to write a book, and you are the Mayor!

Gratefully,

Bruce

 

 

Letters To A Young Teacher

The thing is I feel alone, in terms of doing the AT work, when I live in Taiwan.

I have heard about this feeling of loneliness and isolation from other Alexander teachers.You spend three years inside a school, then you graduate, and you are on your own. It feels like there’s no support. Life takes over and the work starts to fade away.

Shortly after I met Marj Barstow, when I was 25, I began to organize her summer workshops. There was a great community spirit at her workshops. In 1982, when we began the Alexander Alliance, my vision was to create not just a school, but a community/school. And somehow we did it. It’s now 34 years later and I am still part of an Alexander community. So I have never, first hand, experienced this kind of loneliness of which so many teachers speak.

If there are not other teachers close to you, then there are three things I can think of doing.

Invite people to come to you. I’ve invited over 50 teachers to my school over the last 30 years, some of them for many years, so I could study with them, and my students too of course.

You find a community of people you like and, when you can, you go to them. That’s what I did so I could study with Marj Barstow. I traveled 2000 miles in the winter and summer for ten years, and invited her to where I was every fall and spring.

You begin your own community from where you are. This is not easy and it takes great energy and passion, but it is possible.

It’s probably best to do all of them.

Just make a commitment to begin and you will begin to feel less alone.

Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I feel like I am gradually losing the coordination I had when training at my school. So my question for now is how to avoid losing the skill.

When Marj was 40 she stopped assisting A.R. Alexander in Boston and Pennsylvania, returning to Nebraska to help her father with their large ranch. She told me it was over the next 20 years that she really began to understand Alexander’s work. She said it was mainly through hard manual work on the ranch, and through training horses. She was a kind of cowgirl. She was beautifully coordinated, at 75, when I met her.

Marj working with me in 1976

Marj working with me in 1976

So what I hear in that story is that at some point you’ve got to get very interested in how you are doing the things you do in your everyday life, even that 4 hours of computer work that you are doing everyday at your job. You’ve got to be refining your own quality of coordination, and it’s important to find the pleasure in it all.

Now during those 20 years Marj hardly taught at all. But personally, I think it would help you to teach as much as you can. As you continue to figure out things about yourself and your own use, it really helps if you can share your insights with other people. For me this dynamic really works.

One time I asked Marj what I could do to improve my hands as a teacher. I was not going to see her for about 4 months. She told me to watch how I used my hands in everything I did. Everything. She said if I ever saw that I was distorting my hands, that I should stop for a second and then sense my whole body. She said I would begin to see that if I was distorting my hands I had to be distorting my whole body. Then she said once I knew how I was distorting myself I should free myself, that is, cease distorting my whole body, begin again, and this time find, as I began working, how not to distort my hands. She said if someone took a photo of my hands at any moment they should look beautiful.

Forty years later, I am still practicing this.

Erika Whittaker once told me a story. She said she began training when she was 16. She graduated 4 years later, stayed around for a couple of years assisting Alexander, met a man, got married, moved to Australia, got pregnant, had a daughter, raised the daughter, got divorced and found herself 50 years old. Someone said to her, “Erika, now, you could start teaching. You have plenty of time.” It hadn’t occurred to her. She thought, why not? I’ll give it a go. To her surprise she found herself tremendously better as a teacher than she had been when she was younger.

Erika Whittaker

So the work is working within you, whether you know it or not.

That said, from my own experience I can tell you there is no substitute for teaching and using your hands as much as you can. Never turn down an opportunity to teach the work, and to use your hands. Look for those opportunities. Make them happen.

From some of your photos you look to me to be pretty physical: snorkeling, pilates, climbing, hiking. Tap into those communities. Let them experience what you do.

If you can find a movement form that you really like, a formal study, it can be another way to keep the work going, especially if it’s a form that requires great sensitivity.

I hope these thoughts help you. Let me know.

Yours,

Bruce

Our Undivided Attention

Prell Concentrate

I can’t remember. Was it me who coined the phrase, or F.M. Alexander, or Frank Pierce Jones? It seems many Alexander teachers use the phrase now, teachers who I have not trained. Did the phrase migrate through the Alexander world, or did it emerge from the contemporary collective unconscious of the Alexander community?

No matter. What I do remember is that one day the phrase presented itself to me.

It began when I began understanding the difference between what Alexander meant by concentration and attention. When I was a kid my mom brought home a new kind of shampoo called Prell Concentrate. Someone had figured out how to put a lot of shampoo in a little plastic container, thus spending less money to package their product. Prell Concentrate was so concentrated that you now only needed to use a tiny bit to work up a good lather. “That’s it, I thought. That’s what we do. That’s why Alexander discourages concentrating. When we concentrate it’s as if we’re squeezing ourselves into a smaller container.”  This strategy might be saving Prell a lot of money, but for us it was creating a lot of tension.

prell301

Krishnamurti

Lots of us were reading Krishnamurti in the early 70’s, when I first began studying Alexander’s work. It’s worth quoting Krishnamurti here at length on the subject.

Ojai, California

May 6, 1982

What do we mean by attention? What is the difference between awareness, concentration, and attention? Could we go into that together? To be aware; as one is sitting under these beautiful trees on a lovely morning, nice and cool, not too hot, one is aware of that woodpecker pecking away, one is aware of the green lawn, the beautiful trees and sunlight, the spotted light; and if you are looking from that direction, you are aware of those mountains. How does one look at them? …Do you observe it, aware of it without any choice, without any desire? …How does one react to all that? What is the feeling behind that awareness? …Is it related to our life; is it part of our life; …That’s part of awareness, the awareness of the external and the awareness of one’s own reactions to the external, and to be aware of the movement of this…

…And can one be aware without any choice at all, just to be aware of the extraordinary sense of the blue sky, the blue sky through the leaves, and just move with it all? And is one aware of one’s reactions, and when one is aware of one’s reactions is there a preference; one more desirable than the other, one more urgent than the other…and so from the outer move to the inner – you understand what I am saying – so that there is no division between the outer and the inner; it’s like a tide going out and coming in. That’s an awareness of this world outside of us and an awareness of the world deep inside of us…

What is concentration? To concentrate upon a page, upon a picture; to concentrate all one’s energy on a particular point: in that concentration is there not the effort to concentrate? …You are trying to read a particular page and out of the window you see a marvelous light on a flower and your thought wanders off to that, but you try then to pull that thought back, and concentrate on something. So there is this constant struggle to focus one’s energy, visual, and so on, so there is a resistance, a struggle, and all the time trying to focus on a particular point…

kphotoG12

Frank Pierce Jones

Frank Pierce Jones was a classics professor at Brown University who trained with F.M. Alexander, A.R. Alexander, and Marjorie Barstow. He had a way with words.

For Jones concentration was like using a spot light to light up a black stage. One small area was intensely lit while the rest of the stage remained black. Using a diffuse light was kin to attention, the whole stage being lit.

For Jones attention was “the simultaneous awareness of oneself-in-relation-to-ones-environment.” A good phrase, but not yet, the phrase.

In Judaism there is a central prayer called the Shema. It’s so important Jews are supposed to recite it every night before they go to sleep and if possible it should be upon their lips as they are dying. It basically means, Listen, God is One. I once asked my rabbi what it meant. He said, God is one, not two.

Jones idea of a simultaneous awareness of oneself-in-relation-to-ones-environment remained subtly dualistic. I wasn’t there yet.

The Field

In New Mexico it is said you live in the sky. You look around you and 95% of what you see is the sky. One day I was sitting in my little adobe casita in New Mexico and the question came to me, “Am I inside or outside?” I am in my house, but my house is outside in the world.” If I am inside my house, but my house is outside in the world, then am I not also outside in the world?” Suddenly my body and my mind expanded in all directions. It was like a satori. My container was gone. There was no separation between me and my environment. There was no longer an inside and an outside. There was only outside, and I was in it!  God is one, not two.

And there I said the words, the phrase, for the first time.

A unified field…a unified field of attention. That is what I was. My way of being in the world shifted that day, and with it my way of teaching Alexander’s work.

I loved the word field…a field, a pasture, a field of study, field notes, a force field, a field of vision.

It was like zooming in or zooming out, a metaphor for expressing this concept I was later to learn from Robyn Avalon, director of the Alexander Alliance in America. Zooming in was concentrating, and zooming out was expanding your field of attention. Unifying your field of attention was going one step further. It was you no longer behind the camera, because there was no longer a camera, and there was no longer a you in the center of anything. There was just a field, a field of attention.

Seurat

A Seurat exhibition was at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. There it was, the field. Nothing but points, all the same size, all of the same value, nothing more important or less important than anything else, no especially anything, or just especially everything…a homogenous field of tone and attention.

points copy

Gazing into a drawing of Seurat’s mother I began thinking about the Heart Sutra. The words were suddenly making sense. Finally I was physically sensing the truth behind the sutra.

Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form.

That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form.

Embroidery

Undivided Attention

Pixels. You take a digital photo; a person in the foreground, hills and sky in the background. All pixels, all the same size. Pixels making up the person, the hills, the sky. All equal, all the same. You zoom in and in and in only to find space. More and more space.

What if we were like this? What if we were less solid than we felt ourselves to be? What if the whole universe was like this? Stephen Hawkins writes:

“Now at first sight, all this evidence that the universe looks the same whichever direction we look in might seem to suggest there is something special about our place in the universe.  In particular, it might seem that if we observe all other galaxies to be moving away from us, then we must be at the center of the universe.  There is, however, an alternate explanation: the universe might look the same in every direction as seen from any other galaxy too.  We have no scientific evidence for, or against, this assumption.  We believe it on the grounds of modesty:  it would be most remarkable if the universe looked the same in every direction around us, but not around other points in the universe!  The situation is rather like a balloon with a number of spots painted on it being steadily blown up.  As the balloon expands, the distance between any two spots increases, but there is no spot that can be said to be the center of the expansion.”

It’s a very large field indeed, a unified field, a field with neither center nor circumference, neither inside nor outside. One unified field. How miraculous that, for however briefly, we get to give it our undivided attention, that we get to attend.

The Gift Given

Photo: Holly Sweeny

Photo: Holly Sweeny

 

The Gift Given

– In Memory of Marjorie Barstow

Marj didn’t teach us what she did. She showed us what she did, over and over again. We experienced the results of what she did. We walked away, mysteriously transformed, hearing Marj say, “Think about that.”

That was it. No instruction. No words of advice. Sentences were rarely comprised of more than five words. We hung on to her quips.

It’s not a position. It’s a movement.

There’s nothing to get; there’s only something to lose.

You’re all trying to do something, and that something is your habit.

It’s just a little bit of nothing.

This is not complicated. It’s your habits that are complicated. This is too simple for you.

No pushy. No pully.

No especially anything.

There are three kinds of strange: good strange, bad strange, and crazy strange.

If you’re up because you’re afraid to be down, you’re not up.

At some point you have to say, I’m tired of hurting myself.

Can’t you see yourself?

Can you leave yourself alone?

Through her hands, Marj let us know what was possible without major surgery. As if she was an eagle, she’d swoop us up and sweep us to the top of the mountain so we could observe the world from a vista, unknown.

Before we knew it, we had slide back into the foothills. What we felt was how far we had regressed. What we often failed to notice was that, each time, we regressed less. Step by step we were walking our way up that mountain. There was space, and it was vast. Our eyes were opening. The air was fresh and clean.

Marj was clear about us having to walk our own walk. She did not baby us. It was not in her nature. Those of us who, through Marj’s inspiration, turned ourselves into teachers found our individual paths up that mountain. Along the way we developed our own way of walking, had our own revelations, figured out how to best use our hands, hone our language, sharpen our seeing, refine our kinesthesia. We developed our own pedagogy. Our tradition was one of originality.

Each of us saw something in Marj that was latent within us. We saw in her our potential, what we valued, what we aspired toward, what we most needed. An educator par excellence, she educed from us that which was longing to come out. Like a skilled midwife, she led the gifted child within us out into the light of day. We had to do our own labor, but she was there to see us through.

If I were to choose three values of Marj’s that I want most to see kept alive and passed on to other Alexander teachers they would be – Delicacy, Naturalness, and Movement.

Delicacy

Delicacy is a tricky word. It has multiply meanings. It can mean carefully, which was not what Marj meant when she used the word delicately, which she did countless times in a day of teaching. She meant extraordinarily fine, texturally and structurally, like a spider’s web, strong, flexible, spacious, patterned, and yet delicate. She meant delicate like the scent of sweet alyssum, the faintest of pastels, the softest of breezes.

Delicacy also means something rare and delicious, something special.

Using the word delicacy was Marj’s way of bypassing the doing/non-doing conundrum. We’re after something that is not a doing and not a non-doing. It’s in between doing and non-doing. Or it’s both doing and non-doing. That’s getting closer. You see what I mean? Hmm….language.

Marj observed that often students who were working with the idea of not doing, only thinking, were not changing, not moving, not releasing into greater freedom, but subtly holding themselves still, one foot slightly on the break, afraid of forcing it.

With these students you’d hear Marj say something like, “Move. Why don’t you move? Don’t be afraid to move. No movement, no change.”

Then the next person she’d work with would be a person who was moving with too much force, and you’d hear Marj say something like, “Ehhh, wait a minute. You’re pushing from here, pointing the tip of her index finger on the center of the person’s sternum. No pushy. Ehhh, wait a minute. Now, you’re pulling from here, lightly touch the sides of the person’s neck. No pully. Can’t you just ever so delicately follow my hands this way?”

Marj would say what she had to say to coax a person into the realm of delicacy. Delicacy was more important than direction for Marj, perhaps more important than anything. Nothing real could happen without it. No matter what you did, if you did it within the realm of delicacy, well, that was a beginning.

When I teach I rarely use the word delicately unless I am role-playing Marj, which I love to do. It always gets students smiling. I use phrases like “ever so softly can you”, or “without any effort see what happens if you…I talk about deep softness, powerful softness, softer than softness.  The meaning and feeling behind words change from generation to generation. I use words that work for my students, now.

Marj’s delicacy was like the feel of air, like space itself. Deep softness  feels like water. You can put your hand right through it, there is substance to it, but a substance yielding and fluid. Water can take the form of a droplet hanging from the tip of a leaf, and it can take the form of a one hundred foot wave rising over an entire village. Both are soft. Both are fluid and moving. Power and delicacy are not mutually exclusive.

The realm of delicacy, that’s where our work lives. And only there.

Naturalness

Naturalness is the absence of artificiality. You can’t be natural, just as you can’t be confident. Confidence is the absence of fear. You can’t make yourself relax. But you can learn to release unnecessary tension. You can’t be yourself, but you can be less of what you are not. Absence. Presence through absence. You can’t be present. Presence is the quieting, the falling away of distraction and contraction.

So to understand naturalness, we have to understand artificiality. In the Alexander world artificiality has a certain look to it. When I was at the 3rd International Congress for The Alexander Technique in Engelberg, I overheard a conversation. “Do you know anything about the group that’s here?” “Not really, but it looks like they are here because there’s something wrong with their necks.” A good actor once said to me, “I can spot an Alexander teacher from a mile away. And then when I see them sit down, it’s a dead giveaway.”

Marj’s pedagogy was partly predicated on eradicating artificiality within Alexander’s work. She succeeded to some degree, but not entirely. We are almost programmed to hold on to what we like. So when we experience freedom and naturalness, immediately, we try to hold onto it. And it is this holding onto it that builds artificiality. When Alexander saw a person holding on to the newfound freedom they didn’t want to lose, sometimes he’d go over to them, put his hands on their shoulders and jiggle them about, telling them to give it up, to let it go. When Marj saw us all trying to hard, she’d say, “Why don’t you all just have a good slump?”

How can we hold a moonbeam in our hands? We can’t.

Marj perceived this look of artificiality in many Alexander teachers when they were working through Alexander’s procedures. I think she loved those procedures. She taught through them for many, many years. And then one day, she didn’t.

In the late 1960’s, Marj had been invited to Southern Methodist University to teach in their Performing Arts Department. She packed her big blue suitcase, put it in the trunk of her old Plymouth, and drove down to Texas. When she got there, the director of the program told her there were about 50 or so students who wanted to work with her. Clearly, it was going to be impossible for her to give individual lessons. She was forced to work with all these kids in a group. When she got in front of this wild horde of hippies, Marj knew that having them all watch her get someone in and out of a chair was not going to work. So she said, what do all of you like to do? These freewheelers were into juggling and circus arts, into acting, dancing, stage combat, playing music. Marj thought it would be a lot more engaging for them if they watched each other doing what they did. After all, they were performers. And so it began.

What Marj saw was that these kids were getting free and more organized within what they were doing, and it was all looking pretty natural. At the same time it was freeing Marj up too.

It was a beginning, a way of working that she pursued and refined for 27 years with the goal of bringing more naturalness into Alexander’s work, to ridding it of its ritualistic formality, its starchiness, to making it extraordinarily ordinary. She passed this ball onto me, and I caught it and have been running with it for 38 years. That’s 65 years of research. We’re getting somewhere.

Movement

Marj was a gymnast as a kid, and later studied modern dance with some of its pioneers: the Duncan Dancers, Ted Shawn, and Ruth Saint Denis. She rode horses all through her life, well into her 80’s. She loved to move. I remember seeing a photo of Marj in her 20’s seemingly floating in the air, high above the ground, suspended at the top of a high leap, and under her the inscription, The Wild One. In the photo her body was masculine, strong and muscular. Most of us met Marj in her 70’s and 80’s and saw a slender, petite, slow moving, slow speaking, elderly woman with an intense sparkle in her eyes.

After graduating from Alexander’s first teacher training program, Marj actively taught the Alexander Technique for eight years along side of A.R. Alexander, assisting him in Boston and Philadelphia. When Marj’s father died, she moved back to Lincoln, Nebraska to help run her family ranch. For over twenty years Marj rarely taught the Alexander Technique. She lived the life of a rancher. Marj told me that it was only after years of hard, physical labor that she really learned how to bring the technique into her everyday life. Marj was profoundly physical.

This brought something dynamic and practical into Marj’s work. She could see movement. She knew what good coordination looked like, in people and in animals. She trained world famous quarter horses. Alexander too was an avid rider, and began riding as a child. I think this contributed to their subtle ability to lead movement without force.

Marj preferred Alexander’s earlier description of “a true and primary movement in each and every activity,” rather than his later reference to the Primary Control. This inner control was a result of an effortless movement that reorganized the head in relation to the torso, and the head and torso to the limbs. So Marj focused, pretty much exclusively, on this primary movement.

Often she’d say, “It’s a movement.” And it was this movement, and what resulted from it, that we watched six hours a day, day after day, until we knew it inside and out. We saw that it had a particular quality, (ever so delicate), that it initiated from a particular area, (from the relationship between the head and neck), that it had a sequence, (there was a kind of rapid rippling response as a result of this subtle movement initiated between the neck and head), but that this rippling was so rapid, as to look and feel simultaneous with the initiation of this primary movement, hence Marj’s phrase, “the head leads and the whole body immediately follows.” And Alexander’s phrase, “altogether, one after the other.” So we discerned a particular timing inside of the sequencing. It was a bit like when you drop a stone into the calm surface of a pond, and rings form rippling out, one after the other and all of them widening and expanding at the same time. Then this primary movement had particular directionality; the head seemed to float up, rising like a boat resting upon the water as the tide slowly rose. Then we saw that the head had this tiny tipping motion forward, a rotational movement on a horizontal axis that happened at the same time the tide was rising, which we could see was the spine decompressing. As all this was happening we saw an omni-directional expansion of the body as a whole, almost like a sphere inflating in every direction, an overall increase in three dimensional volume, like bread dough rising, the whole body filling into its rightful space. At the same time we could see a gathering, strengthening movement within the expanding movement. It was similar to the dynamics of a vortex funnel, to centripetal and centrifugal force, the same force moving in opposite directions, one up and out and the other in and down. Maybe this was why Marj didn’t use the terms lengthening and widening, because of their two-dimensional connotation. Maybe this is why she spoke of the whole body rather emphasizing the back. She saw and we saw that everything was filling out: the back, the front, and the sides. Something was happening to the whole body in its entirety.

And out of this “true and primary movement”, this “easing up,” this “little bit of nothing,” we witnessed changes not only in the body, but in the person. We saw seemingly opposite qualities working in harmony. As the true and primary movement began to happen we beheld the person before us as stable and mobile, light and substantial, relaxed and ready, peaceful and vigorous, gathered and expansive, soft and powerful, open and focused, unified and articulate.

Essentially, we saw beauty. We saw people unveiled, people wholly themselves, authentic, honest. We saw integrity. It moved us. It moved some of us so much we decided that this was a good way to spend the rest of our lives.

This is Marj’s legacy to us. The gift given…the gift received… the gift given…the gift received…the gift given… from generation to generation.

 

Everyday

 

Marj and Bruce

Marj and Bruce


I will never write an autobiography.

But if I did I would entitle it,

Leaving Myself In Your Hands

Marj Barstow lives inside of my hands, inside of my heart.

Everyday.

 

 

The Four Questions

passover-5

One. Why is this night different from all other nights?

No, no, not the four Passover questions, the four Alexander questions.

Here are my Alexander questions for the Alexander community.

If we all know Alexander’s work is not about getting in and out of a chair, if we all know it’s primarily about how we react to stimuli from within and without, then why do we, as a community, do so much getting people in and out of chairs? (1) Stimuli from within are thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Sometimes tough thoughts, self deprecating thoughts, or judgmental thoughts, emotions like anger and fear, sensations like pain. Stimuli from without is stuff like, an audience that you are about to perform for, or five black belt aikidoists who are poised to simultaneously attack you, or a cranky boss, or your computer crashing, or a kid that won’t stop crying, etc. Aren’t there more direct, fun, practical, and effective ways to work with how we react to stimuli from within and without besides endlessly getting someone in and out of a chair?

We all know that Alexander would not be crazy about how much we, as a community, spend our time working with students lying down on a table, but we are doing it anyway. Why is that? (2)

And we know that Alexander’s work is not about movement for movement’s sake yet, as a community, we have been quite focused on how we move. Once my mentor, Buzz Gummere, a man who trained with F.M and A.R., with Marj Barstow, and with Frank Pierce Jones, told me I had become a great movement teacher, and then he asked me a pointed question, which was his job as my mentor, “But Bruce, does that make you a great Alexander teacher?” That question haunted me for many years, which was Buzz’s intention I am sure. So why are we so preoccupied with how we move? (3)

Now, I am not saying all this is wrong. Things change, and thank God. And I have been alive long enough to know that I usually really need that which I most resist, so some really good table work and chair work is probably exactly what I need now. Really.

The fourth question. This one is the big one for me.

Sometimes I get Alexander teachers coming to me for lessons. That’s an honor. I notice that many of them move self-consciously. They sit down perfectly, in the prescribed manner, and something in me cringes. I tell them straight away that I never watch a person get in and out of a chair, so not to worry. Usually they look at me wide eyed, and then laugh out loud. I can’t always do it, but if I’m lucky I can sometimes get an Alexander teacher out of this trap. If I can get it across to them that our job is to free ourselves, and that it is our bodies job, via increasingly accurate, reliable, and refined kinesthesia, to figure out how to move itself around comfortably and enjoyably, and spontaneously, without over deliberation, then something shiftsI tell them it is not our job to choreograph our movement life down to a tee, no matter how precisely and perfectly we can do it. A three year old kid with a healthy, conventional nervous system, moves so well and so spontaneously and so unselfconsciously, and that’s why it’s such a joy to watch them.

So my last question is, how do we learn to move, and more importantly, live consciously but not self-consciously? How do we occupy ourselves without becoming preoccupied with ourselves? (4)

Thanks for taking the time to think about these questions with me.

Bruce