Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Buddhism’ Category

This Graceful, Practical Generosity Toward The Possible

Post-Congress Musings

In Honor of All Those Doing Their Best to

Train Future Generations of Alexander Teachers

 Part IV

Aszure Barton and Mikhail Baryshnikov – The Contemporary meets the Classical

 

Diversity Within Unity

 “…The orthodox presume to know, whereas the marginal person is trying to find out.

 …To accommodate the margin within the form, to allow the wilderness to thrive in domesticity, to accommodate diversity within unity – this graceful, practical generosity toward the possible and the unexpected… offers reconciliation by which we might escape the endless swinging between rigidity and revolt.”

Wendell Berry from The Unsettling of America

The last paragraph is so beautiful and, I sense, so relevant to our Alexander community at large if we are ever to survive and thrive in society. I have to quote it again.

“…To accommodate the margin within the form, to allow the wilderness to thrive in domesticity, to accommodate diversity within unity – this graceful, practical generosity toward the possible and the unexpected… offers reconciliation by which we might escape the endless swinging between… rigidity and revolt.”

Our Moment of Opportunity

This may be our “critical moment”. That term sometimes makes my students nervous. I choose more often to use the term, which I learned from Meade Andrews, “the moment of opportunity”.

There is no reason to be nervous. There is every reason to be positive and excited about this moment of opportunity now offered to us. Do we have the courage to embrace change, to let go into the unfamiliar, to open up and welcome the unknown, to try something new?

If we are to survive and thrive into the future I believe we need four radically different training structures. Right now we have one training structure that began in 1932 in England. It is still a good and worthy training structure for some trainers, in some countries. For people who wish to become Alexander teachers, this training structure is, for some, possible and wonderful. For others it is simply impossible. What happens to these people who want to become Alexander teachers but can’t due to the limited number of training structures that we as a community offer? Chances are they give up their dream and pursue another one, or perhaps they find a related discipline, like the Feldenkrais Method, which has flexible training models, and more likely one they can do. We then, as a community, lose a person who might have become a great Alexander teacher. I don’t want to even imagine how many great Alexander teachers we have lost over the last 50 years.

Another Time Tested Training Structure

There is another time tested structure of training that also has withstood the test of time, 36 years, that some people know of, but few know in detail, some not at all, and sadly some who harbor untrue ideas about this training structure that has, for a long time, been bringing about many accomplished Alexander teachers. Martha Hansen Fertman and I began experimenting with this model in 1982 in Philadelphia. At the same time, for some 13 years, we ran a parallel weekday structured program and so were able to conduct a longitudinal study, (the only one I know of), as to the pros and cons of these two training structures.

This model, which I refer to as a Retreat model of training, has evolved over the years. It’s gotten better. Here is its current form and the one we use to train teachers at the Alexander Alliance Germany.

In October, March, and July we conduct 9-day retreats.

(165 hours per year).

In between we conduct 3-day weekend retreats.

(90 hours per year).

In April we conduct a 4-day retreat.

(28 hours per year).

Twice a month there is a study group where trainees meet and work with graduates.This right now is a pilot study and so is optional, but most are participating, and so may soon be required. Those not near a group have formed a Skype group. This is important work, not only for the trainees but for our graduates as well because for our graduates it is post graduate training.

(40 hours per year).

Every trainee has a Personal Project that must be presented prior to graduation. (To be honest, I am not sure how much time trainees put into their projects. It varies. This is my guess as to the average number of hours.)

(20 hours per year).

Trainees are required to attend at least one intro workshop a year, and when ready to assist at one workshop a year. For us we consider being able to give an introductory workshop an Alexandrian Procedure!

(12 hours per year.)

Trainees attend a 5th year intern retreat. Here graduates assist a training retreat as supporting teachers.

(55 hours in the 5th year.)

Trainees attend at least one Alexander Alliance International Retreat in another country other than their own. This is optional but almost everyone does this at least once, and some do this every year. We are an intergeneration, multi-cultural, international community/school, so visiting other Alliance schools is part of who we are.

(55 hours).

Of course, everyday trainees are expected to work on their own self-study etudes, given to them by the faculty to explore. We find that trainees have to learn how to study on their own, and so we help them learn how to do this.

This comes to 355 hours of training per year. Adding the 55 hour intern retreat in the 5th year of their training, plus one 55 hour Alexander Alliance International Retreat outside their home country brings the total number of training hours to 1530 hours over a 4+ year period of training.

The Retreat model of training is a great model of training for numerous reasons.

*It gives people for whom a Weekday training model is simply impossible, people who very much love the work and wish to become teachers, a way to become an Alexander teacher.

But there is much, much more as to why people love this model of training.

*We rent a gorgeous retreat center with great food and accommodations and beautiful teaching spaces.

*Everyone gets to leave home and stop working and enter a, I dare say, sacred time when, morning till night their mind, heart, body and soul are devoted to studying Alexander’s work among friends in a nurturing environment.

*A climate of festivity and contemplation fills the air. There is time to be together in fellowship and time for solitude as well, which is so essential for internalizing the work.

*Graduates are welcome to join us free of charge. They become, essentially, lifetime members of our community/school. Some graduates have been returning to the school for over 20 years. This builds community, helps the trainees tremendously, and of course helps our graduates to become the best teachers they can be.

When Martha and I began this training structure we had no idea if it would work. But our intuition told us it would, and we were right. Because we were long-term apprentices of Marjorie Barstow we did not feel obliged to adhere to any particular model of training and felt free, as the educators we were, and are, to experiment. Martha had her Doctorate of Education and I had my Masters of Education and both of us had begun teaching movement when we were eleven years old.

Society has deemed this model worthy and effective and has endorsed it by keeping it alive and healthy for 36 years. We were able to train numerous music, theatre, and dance professors who, without our Retreat training model, would never have become Alexander teachers. Many of them have gone on to be of service to the Alexander community at large, both as members of STAT, ATI, and as organizers of and teachers for our international congresses.

My experience tells me it is possible to design and implement a Retreat model training program that is extensive, intensive, joyful, and effective. This model may be better for certain training directors and/or may work better in certain countries, under certain conditions. It works perfectly in Germany because of Germany’s enlightened extensive paid vacation program.

A Flexible Formula

There is a third model of training that, as yet, has not been tried, and I sense must be if we are to allow more people to become Alexander teachers. (It is one option for Robyn Avalon’s trainees). I call it the Immersion model. The Feldenkrais community has been very successful in finding flexible yet substantial training structures that allow people with varying life/work styles to train. Their flexible training structure also can adapt to different countries, to different social, cultural and economic conditions. They are far, far more successful than we have been in sharing their work with society. Here is their flexible formula:

“All training programs must have a minimum of 800 hours/40 days per year, 160 days over at least 36 months. Programs follow different formats ranging from weekend formats; to 4 two week segments a year; to 2 one month segments a year; to 40 days in a row. These are just some examples of formats.”

Here you can see they have both a Retreat model and an Immersion model. Of course our training is essentially twice as long. Still, we would do well to experiment with models such as these and see if they can work for us.

How will we ever know if we don’t try? What is the worst that can happen? We fail and learn? Is that so terrible? And what happens if it works?

“You can’t do something you don’t know, if you keep on doing what you do know.”

 Who said that? Einstein? Oh yes, I remember now, it was a guy by the name of F.M. Alexander! This was Einstein:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

 Let’s take Alexander’s and Einstein’s advice. Let’s begin thinking differently and do something we’ve never done before.

Brief Eternities

My training with Marjorie Barstow was an amalgamation of all of these models of training, plus one more, and for me, the most important one of all.

Marj’s month long summer events was an Immersion event. Four weeks, 6 days a week, 6 hours a day. For me it was 5 weeks because for many years I directed Marj’s summer events and had to arrive early to open up, and stay on to close up. This before and after time was an essential part of my training and I will say more about this soon. Marj’s winter events in Lincoln were 14 days long and would be what I would call a Retreat event.

When Marjorie came East for two weeks every Fall and Spring I would study with her and assist her up and down the east coast. Something almost magical happened in this time. I was not only studying, not only practicing, not only training. It was more than this. It was a living of the work through being with, through modeling, through absorption. It was what the Buddhists refer to as transmission.

This transmission happened during the times when Marj and I traveled together, in cars, in trains, in planes, when we took walks in Penns Woods in Philadelphia, or played horseshoes on her ranch, or when we went out for ice cream after a long weekend of teaching in Boston. So many meals together, so many discussions and lots of time just spent sitting quietly together. The best discussions took place after a workshop where I’d be there assisting her, after working in Washington D.C. with the National Symphony, with a junior high school choir, with a track team or sculling team, with theatre majors. Without notice individual lessons spontaneously arose when Marj was having trouble explaining something to me and felt the need to use her hands so that I could experience what she meant.

This is what I call the Apprenticeship model. Because of times like these, over many years, I simply internalized Marj. She lived within me, and she still does.

These are hours that cannot be counted. They are uncountable. Not all hours are equal. There is objective time and subjective time. Each hour of our lives has not the same duration. Some hours fly by unnoticed and unlived. Some hours last forever, and change our lives forever. Some hours are brief eternities. They cannot be measured or calculated, but they can be cherished.

Not Marjorie Barstow, but Marjory Barlow in An Examined Life writes, “… I do think the apprenticeship method of training has a lot going for it. After all, some of the greatest teachers learned that way …I have a preference for apprenticeship, and I would love to see it supported wherever possible…the problem isn’t the exact number of years and hours. It’s the quality of the trainers’ experience and devotion to the Technique, and the selection of trainees…”

Let’s Dance!

I am not sure but I suspect that those of us who teach through classical procedures may find that our weekday model of training works best, and maybe not. We will never know unless we experiment.

And perhaps those of us who train through contemporary procedures may find that Retreat, Immersion and Apprenticeship models work better, and maybe not. We will never know unless we experiment.

More and more of our teacher training programs are combining and integrating classical and contemporary procedures. It’s a bit like dance. There are classical ballet dancers who dance beautifully within their chosen style. And then there are contemporary dancers who dance beautifully through their chosen forms. Different forms appeal to different people, and people of different ages, and people from different cultures. And then there are many dancers who are trained in numerous styles and who integrate them beautifully. Think of Mikhail Baryshnikov who danced with American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet, but also with Twyla Tharp, Aszure Barton, and Gregory Hines.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Twyla Tharp – The Classical meets the Contemporary

The truth we need to embrace, as a community, is that a great dancer is a great dancer no matter their form, and a great Alexander teacher is a great Alexander teacher, no matter their form. Being an Alexander teacher is an art, and art changes and expresses itself differently over time and across cultures.

And so should we.

“… this graceful, practical generosity toward the possible and the unexpected… offers reconciliation by which we might escape the endless swinging between… rigidity and revolt.”

 This could be our moment of opportunity as a community at large, when the classical meets the contemporary. Do we have the courage to seize the moment, to embrace change, to let go into the unfamiliar, to open up and welcome the unknown, to try something new?

Watch Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines in White Nights. If they can do it, maybe we can too.

Let’s dance!

 

 

The Voice Of The World (A revision of Singing In the Rain)

I remember a class I took with Marjory Barlow in 1988. She was explaining how at first you give these words, these phrases to your student knowing they will have little or no idea of what you are talking about. But then, gradually, through the subtle and clear use of your hands you give your student an experience of what those words and phrases actually mean. The student mentally and physically couples them together and voilà, when she or he thinks the words, without having to really do anything, the words themselves trigger an effortless response, a response that comes to feel almost reflex-like, a response that is at once supportive, organizing and liberating. It just happens, like typing in a domain name of where you want to go, clicking on search and, presto, there it is, and there you are.

It’s ingenious really, and effective. As one continues to study with teachers, and on one’s own, which is essential, this kinesthetic coupling of the words with this effortlessly revitalizing reflex-like response becomes ever more wedded, ever more precise and powerful, which is why having hands on work through one’s whole life is a good idea, which is why being part of an Alexander community is such a good idea, which is what I have chosen to do, which has been a blessing beyond words.

Alexander referred to these words, these phrases, as directions. He writes, direction is…”the process involved in projecting messages from the brain to the mechanisms and in conducting the energy necessary to the use of those mechanism.”  By mechanisms I assume Alexander is referring to this ever so delicate but dynamic reorganization of the head in relation to the neck, and of the head and neck’s relationship to the entire torso, and of the head, neck, and torso’s relationship, as a flexibly working unit, to the arms and legs.

If you are an Alexander teacher or a long term student of Alexander’s work all of this is old hat. Sorry, but I am going somewhere and need to begin at the beginning.

Now these words are a shorthand, an abbreviation for a complex psychophysical happening within us, and yet they they still strike me as a bit long and cumbersome. Let the neck be free so that the head can go forward and up so that the back can lengthen and widen, all together, one after the other. And then there are secondary directions that speak to the limbs as well, to the heels, knees and hips and to the elbows, wrists, and fingers, and to the tongue, (which I see as limb-like; think of a frog.)

It takes a bit of time to stream through these directions, especially at first. When we get proficient, perhaps just a few seconds. Marj Barstow, one of my mentors, once said to a student who was belaboring the process, “I wish I could say all these words to you at the same time, instead of one after the other.” Marj understood that this sequence of instructions had to be played more like a fluid arpeggio on a guitar rather than a separate collection of notes.

The very same day I had a class with Marjory Barlow I also had a class with Wilford Barlow. I loved watching and listening to them both. Wilford deferred to his wife saying, “Now this is just my idea. If you want to know how it really works, ask Marjory.” But I loved Wilford’s ideas, and his hands too. He said something like, (it was long ago), “After a time the words are not always necessary. The change we want can come about without them.” I wasn’t sure but my guess was that after we had for many years used our conscious mind, and with it language to reeducate our kinesthesia we could come to trust it more and more and simply let it work for us. Perhaps our kinesthesia is like a child who for many years needs guidance, but then gradually grows up into a capable and responsible adult who no longer needs looking after all the time.

Years have flown by since then, 30 years to be exact. I’ve had some time to think about this on my own, and so now I will share with you my thoughts on the matter.

Let’s imagine you are on the road, traveling in some foreign country. A cold snap blows in unexpectedly. You decide to buy a scarf and a pair of gloves. You find something you like, a bit expensive and so decide to charge it on your credit card. You open your wallet and notice your Discover card is missing. You pick up your phone and know their phone number because their phone number happens to spell DISCOVER. So instead of having to remember 8 numbers in sequence, you only have to remember one word.

What if I could find one word that could contain for me the full sequence of directions. I decided on the word ‘One’. ‘One’ would now mean for me Let the neck be free so that the head can go forward and up so that the back can lengthen and widen, all together, one after the other. The word ‘One’ would now be the verbal trigger for my entire Primary Pattern. After all, the word ‘One’ is in essence just a sound, a sound English speaking people decide means the number between 0 and 2. It is just a sound. The meaning is not inherent to the sound. English speaking people collectively agree on what that sound means. A person for whom English is a second language at some point had to learn what that sound meant. At first, in their mind, they may have said to themselves what it meant in their own language, but over time they no longer had to do that. At some point the word One, the sound One immediately meant to them the number between 0 and 2.

So, I thought, why could I not change the meaning of the sound ‘One’ and have it mean what I wanted it to mean? If for me the sound ‘One’ was coupled with Let the neck be free so that the head can go forward and up so that the back can lengthen and widen, all together, one after the other, and if that phrase was kinesthetically coupled with this effortlessly revitalizing reflex-like response, then all three of them were now coupled, like links of a fence.

I played with using the word ‘One’ as my condensed Alexander direction. I liked how fast it was. I liked that it was less wordy. Yes it lacked a bit of the specificity that Alexander’s words had for me. But with practice I got pretty good at it.

Then the thought occurred to me that I didn’t have to use a word at all. That I could just use a sound, given that, in essence, a word is just a sound. I came up with the sound, Paaaah. This worked much better than the word ‘One’. It had something to do with the fact that it had no meaning to begin with and so I had not to de-couple any meaning from the sound. The sound was soft and expansive and seemed never ending. I also had associations with the sound, one being Alexander’s whispered Ah, and the other being the sound Kyudoists, (Zen Archers) use to refer to the moment when the arrow is released from the bow. Paaaah. I didn’t lose much specificity when using the sound Paaaah. It was indeed a better container for Alexander’s directions, at least for me.

I will, however, never throw out Alexander’s directions. They are for me like some song from another era that I still love singing. Those words still move me.

More years went by. I was in Tokyo standing at one of these interminably long red lights. I was end-gaining. I wanted to go but the red light was telling me to stay put. “That’s its collective meaning virtually all over the world, even though it’s a color, not a word, and not a sound. It’s also an object. Gee, I thought, we can pretty much make anything mean anything. It is totally up to us!”

I decided it would probably be a good idea to continue letting the red stop signal mean stop. But I decided that instead of it meaning stop on a superficial level, I decided that it meant stop on a deep level, that it meant to stop everything within myself, to completely stop any unnecessary holding within myself, to completely stop waiting, to enter into a condition of profound Alexandrian inhibition.

There I was at this infinitely long red light in a state of radical non-end-gaining, wide awake, vividly aware of everything around me. When the light turned green and everyone began walking across the street, I didn’t want to go. I was so happy exactly where I was, but then I thought, “better to follow the simple directions”, and so I crossed the street as I had never crossed a street before, as if I were singing in the rain, without the rain.

And then the revelation came. What if instead of using an internal trigger, i.e., Alexander’s words, words that were being produced from inside my mind, what if I projected my mind onto the world around me? What if I had the world speak to me from the outside in, instead of me speaking to me from the inside out? Instead of my mind being inside my body, what if my body was inside of a big, benevolent mind? It was entirely up to me to decide what any word, sound, object or creature meant to me, so what would happen if suddenly everything, absolutely everything  was saying to me, directly, wordlessly, Let the neck be free so that the head can go forward and up so that the back can lengthen and widen, all together, one after the other?

Ah, so that was what Gary Snyder meant when he wrote, “The world is our consciousness, and it surrounds us.” I got it!

Could it be this simple? Could anyone do it? Not really. First it would be necessary to have learned how to couple Alexander’s Primary Movement to some trigger, and perhaps Alexander’s words were the perfect first trigger because they are so specific and clear.

Again, I returned to my new insight.

What if I decided that everything, utterly everything in the world said to me, “Bruce, free yourself in relation to me. Free yourself in relation to me. Let your neck be free so that your head can go forward and up so that your back can lengthen and widen, all together, one after the other.” 

The Voice of the World. The silent, wordless voice of the world saying to me, “Bruce, free yourself in relation to me. Free yourself in relation to me.” 

Suddenly no words were needed at all. It was as if every object, my coffee cup, my keyboard, my computer screen, the flowers by the chair, the sound of the heater were all saying to me, directly, immediately, wordlessly, just through their sheer existence, “Bruce, free yourself in relation to me. Free yourself in relation to me. Everything was somehow kinesthetically coupled to my Primary Movement.

What if every person, especially people I struggled with meant “Bruce, free yourself in relation to me. Free yourself in relation to me.

No longer was there me trying to speak to me from somewhere inside of my body. The entire world and everything and everyone in it was now freeing me, directing me, opening me, awakening me. The Voice of the World was speaking to me and I was listening. Not only was I listening, I was following its direction, taking its good and loving advice.

Why not free myself in relation to everything and everyone?

That must of been it, the meaning of the Flower Sermon given by the Buddha. Sakyamuni gives a wordless sermon to his sangha. He holds up a white flower. No one understands it’s meaning except Mahakasyapa, who smiles.

That simple flower, and the meaning we bestow upon it speaks to us, in silence, inviting us back to who we are.

 

Bruce Fertman

Teaching By Hand/Learning By Heart

 

 

 

 

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.

Leaving Myself In Your Hands

Guan-Yin-Close up

Bill Coco

“Show me how to do that?” And I would. I would stop my own workout and teach someone how to do what I had somehow figured out how to do, like a front somersault, or a reverse kip up on the rings, or circles on the side horse. No wonder I missed making the Olympic Team. I was busy coaching. Looking back, it’s clear; I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. I was supposed to be learning how to use my hands to guide someone into balance, to indicate exactly from where to initiate a movement, in what direction, and with what quality of impulse; to punch it, or snap it, or swing it, or draw it out, or press it up, or let it go. I was supposed to be developing my ability to use language to facilitate coordination.

Unbeknownst to me, I was supposed to become an Alexander teacher, but when I was twelve, and first began using my hands to teach other kids how to move well, I had no idea what that was. As gymnasts we used our hands to help each other as a matter of course, and sometimes as a matter of life and death.

My first coach, Bill Coco, gave me my first experience of educative/nurturing touch. “Okay Bruce. You’re going to do your first back layout with a full twist. I want you to show me your round off. Remember no more than 3 preparatory steps, one back handspring, block with your feet so you transfer your horizontal power vertically, hands reaching toward the ceiling. Don’t look over your left shoulder until I say, “Look,” then wrap your arms quickly and closely across your chest, and leave the rest up to me. Got it?” “Got it.” My faith in Bill was total.

One step, round off, lightning fast back handspring, block, reach…”Look,” I hear Bill say! I look over my left shoulder, wrap my arms across my chest, and there’s Bill’s big hands, soft, light, around my hips. I’m suspended, my body laid out in an arch, weightless, floating two feet above Bill’s head. I’m ecstatic. Bill’s hands spin me to the left, and the next thing I know my feet have landed squarely on the ground. “There you go Bruce. Your first lay out with a full twist. You did 95% of it on your own. By the end of the week it will be yours.”

I guess that makes Bill Coco my first Alexander teacher. He taught be how to lead with my head and let my body follow. He used his hands exactly where, and only when needed, and only with the amount of force necessary. Bill looked like a boxer, more often than not with a fat, unlit, cigar in his mouth, disheveled, sported a sizable beer belly, seemed like a tough guy, and deep down was the softest, gentlest, hugest teddy bear alive. He died when he was forty. I was fifteen. But he passed on to me exactly what I needed, and no doubt he did for a lot of Philadelphia kids like myself.

Bill Coco

Bill Coco

And so it went. Teacher after teacher, teaching me exactly what I needed to learn to get exactly to where I am now; a person who knows how to use his hands to bring people into balance, a person who knows the language of movement, and pretty much a soft, gentle teddy bear of a person, minus the cigar.

But were my teachers only teachers? What else were they to me? How did they really pass onto me what I needed to learn? There are teachers, coaches, counselors, instructors, educators, professors, rabbis, priests, role models, idols, heroes, and mentors. We’ve got different names for people from whom we learn, people who pass on knowledge and skill to us, who bring out knowledge and skill from us. But what is the name for those teachers who pass themselves onto us?

It’s important for me to know what, and who I am to my students if I am to best serve them, if I am to pass on to them the best in me, if I am to leave myself in their hands. Sometimes I am teacher, father, friend, coach, holy man, enemy, sometimes mentor, advocate, adversary, role model. I am exactly, at any given moment, who my student perceives me to be, and needs me to be. I know I am, in essence, none of the roles I assume. I am the person who assumes them.

Marjorie Barstow

Marj Barstow was many things to me, which is why she made such an impression. Most importantly, she was a mirror into my future. She was the manifestation of my potentiality. I could see in her what was lying latent within me. And so I watched, and I listened as if my life depended on it, which it did.

She was not a holy person, not a guru, not a mother, Boy, did she not mother us. She was not a technique teacher, not a coach. She was an artist who showed us her art, over and over again, a kinesthetic sculptor. Humans were her medium. And sometimes horses. (Marj had trained world champion quarter horses.) Sometimes I think she really didn’t care all that much about us as people. She was not a person-centered teacher, as I am. She was a technique-centered teacher. She used us to work on her technique, on her art. That was okay with us. We benefited from her artistic obsession.

Marj inspired me. Her work was astoundingly beautiful, mesmerizing, like watching a master potter spin a clump of clay into a graceful bowl.

Marjorie Barstow working with me.  1977

Marjorie Barstow working with me.
1977

More than anything in the world, I wanted to be able to do what she did. I watched her work day after day, year after year, but I didn’t just watch her with my eyes alone. I watched her kinesthetically. I watched her with my whole body and being. I developed a kind of synesthesia. I was taking her in, at once, through all of my senses. It was like I was swallowing her whole. I “grokked” her.

When I was in college and read Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, I knew that was how I needed to learn. “Grok” means water. To grok means to drink, to drink life. Not to chew it. Not to break it down to understand it. At the moment of grokking the water and the drinker become one substance. As the water becomes part of the drinker, the drinker becomes part of the water. What was once two separate realities become one reality, one experience, one event, one history, one purpose.

Marj didn’t break things down. Marj didn’t teach us how to use our hands. After we would watch her for a few hours Marj would say something like, “Okay. Let’s divide into smaller groups. Bill, Barbara, Don, Bruce, Martha, and Mio, go and teach for a while. (Or it could have been, Cathy, David, Diana, Catherine, and Pete.) The teaching just happened. We could do it. It was as if we were riding Marj’s wave. We were grokking her.

About a year before Marj died I had a dream. Marj was dying. She was in her bedroom, in her house in Lincoln Nebraska, a room I had never seen. “Bruce come sit next to me.” I did. Then slowly Marj pulled the corner of her bedcover down and asked me to lie down next to her. I was shocked, but I did as she asked and gently slid by her side and covered both of us. Then Marj said, “It’s okay Bruce. Now I am going to breathe you for a while, and she placed her mouth on my mouth and began to breathe into me. I could feel her warm breath entering and filling my lungs. I could feel my breath entering into her lungs. In total darkness, we breathed together for hours.  And then I woke up. I got out of bed, picked up the phone, and called Marj. “Marj, are you okay? I had a dream about you and got nervous.” “Bruce, don’t worry about me. I am fine.” “Okay Marj. Sorry if I bothered you.” “No, you didn’t bother me. Thanks for calling.” “No, thank you Marj.”

I’m still thanking her.

Rebbe Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

What was he to me, a rabbi, a teacher, a spiritual father? Marj gave me my craft, my art, my vocation. Rebbe Zalman taught me how to teach, how to sit quietly with people, as if they were in my living room. He showed me that it was fine to be silent, that it was okay to take the time I needed to think, and to wait until I had something worth saying. He taught me how to tell a story. He taught me to be unafraid to look into people’s eyes. He taught me how to think metaphorically. He taught me how to listen to my still, inner voice, and follow it. He taught me how to listen to the inner voices of others. He taught me how to bless people, and how to be blessed by them. He taught me that I could never know one religion unless I knew two, and actively encouraged my interest in Zen Buddhism, in the Christian Mystics, and the Sufi Poets, and in the teachings of Lao Tzu.

Rebbe Zalman

Rebbe Zalman

One day Rebbe Zalman entered a classroom at Temple University where I was taking a graduate course on Martin Buber and the Early Hasidic Masters. Rebbe Zalman enters the room, walks across the room to the other side, stands in front of a large window and looks out at the day. After a minute or two he turns around, walks to his desk, sits on the top of his desk, crosses his legs, closes his eyes, tilts his face up toward the ceiling like a blind man, and begins gently rocking from side to side, bending like grass in the wind. He begins singing a niggun, a soft melody that repeats itself and has no ending. At some point we begin singing with him, singing and singing without end, until we feel as if we are altogether in one boat, floating upon an endless melody, down a endless stream. Rebbe Zalman’s voice fades out, and ours with his, until we’re sitting in a palpable silence. Eyes closed, his rocking slowly getting smaller and smaller. And there in the stillness, in the silence, we’d hear, “That reminds me of a story.”

And Rebbe Zalman would begin to tell us a story, and within the story there would be another story, and within that story another story, until we were transported, like children, into another world. And when we’d least expect it, at a particular point, the story would end. No commentary. No discussion. Class was over. We’d leave knowing those stories were about us, about our very lives. Rebbe Zalman didn’t have to give us any homework. He knew those stories would be working within us until next week. Marj Barstow and Rebbe Zalman were transformative educators, par excellence. They knew how to educe, how to lead us in, and then how to lead us out, out of ourselves, into places unknown to us.

A Modern Day Bodhisattva

Many years later I met a woman, another modern day bodhisattva, another person who inspires, who teaches through example, who knows how to bring out the best in people. I spent hours, years, watching her work, watching her lead one person after another out of their confusion; I spent years grokking her, absorbing her through my pores, into who I am now.

11th century Guanyin statue, from northern China

11th century Guanyin statue, from northern China

Again, I see there are no accidents. We meet exactly the teachers we need, exactly at the time we need them, so that we may become exactly the people we were meant to become.

Aaah, but that is another story.

The Best Way Of All

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

 

It is not that we should abandon, neglect or deny our inner self, but we should learn to work precisely in it, with it, and from it, in such a way that interiority turns into effective action, and effective action leads back to interiority, and we become used to acting without compulsion.

Start with yourself therefore, and take leave of yourself. Examine yourself, and wherever you find yourself, take leave of yourself. This is the best way of all.

Meister Eckhart/from Selected Writings/Oliver Davies

 

The Great Undoing

 

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Unafraid, unashamed, unaffected.

Unassuming, unarmed, unanalyzable.

Unbound, unblocked, unbraced.

Unburdened, unbridled, unbiased.

Unchained, unclogged, uncorked.

Unclassified, unconventional, unconditional.

Uncovered, unclenched,

Uncertain.

Undisguised, undistinguished, undone.

Unguarded, unhurried, unhinged.

Unmasked, unraveled, unreal.

Unpretentious.

Unselfish, unsophisticated, unspoiled.

Untied, untangled.

Unveiled.

Unwritten.

Most Inner Of Rooms

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Daitoku-ji Revisited

Twenty-five years ago I first entered the gates of Daitoku-ji, one of the most beautiful Zen Temple in Japan, known for its rock gardens.

Today I returned, and found myself no less in love with them. They have not changed, but I have, and so they have.

1988

Ryugintei and Isshishan are Zen Rock Gardens within the monastery walls.  Shoko-ken is a small teahouse I found when I was roaming around within a bamboo forest on a snowy night, completely lost.

 Ryugintei

Leaving this world.

Gazing down from high above.

Seeing far below.

Small islands.

White waves.

No details.

Only large patterns,

Orderly in their randomness,

Unknowable in their logic.

Isshishan

Tall rocks,

Jutting through gravity.

Once I loved them.

Now they seems too ambitious,

Working so hard.

Shoko-Ken

Moonlight falls.

Snow settles slowly upon the thatched roof.

Steam rises from an old, black pot.

The smell of thick green tea.

Two tatami mats.

Most inner of rooms,

Where you and I can meet,

Who knows for how long?

Thank God I lost my way,

I never would have found you.

On The Grounds Of Modesty

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Bruce,

Today I have a question for you. It’s about the center of the body. People often say the center of body is near the navel. But when I think about the navel as my center I tend to bend at the waist and this doesn’t feel right. When I relocate the center of my body nearer to my hip joints, this seems to work. But actually, I ‘m not sure. What do you think?

Different ideas work for different people. You have to play with it, as you are doing. I have thought about this one for about 40 years. Here are just three possibilities.

In Aikido there is the idea of one point. You meditate on your one point getting smaller and smaller as you are becoming larger and larger. But it is not at the navel. To find your one point, walk the tips of your fingers straight down below the navel until you come to a place that is very firm, just above the beginning of the pubic synthesis. Then press in slightly but firmly, on about a 70% angle, scooping upward toward the back, just where the lumbar spine begins to curve into the thoracic spine. This is easier to show on a skeleton. You just have to poke around until you find what works for you. If I direct through that point just so, then I sense my body becoming strongly organized. But be careful not to start sucking in your abdominal muscles. One point is deeper in than that, behind the stomach muscles. If you tap into this you will find that your body has a tendency to organize itself over the hip joints, which will likely create a sensation of being ever so slightly inclined forward. But it is not a bend from the waist. It’s being poised over your hip joints in such a way that they feel oiled, so you are ready to move in any direction. When the body is in a condition of readiness, like an Olympic diver preparing for a dive, you won’t see a person who is standing at an exact 90% angle in relation to the floor. Their whole body will incline slightly forward from the ankle and a tiny bit from the hip joint.  When you are sitting, and you tap into one point, it will orient you slightly toward the front of your sits bones.

Now if we travel from Japan into China, the Hara becomes the T’antien, which most often is translated as belly. So rather than being a point it becomes a whole area, a large container. In English the word belly usually implies bigness, fullness, relaxation and sometimes humor. My tai chi teacher used to talk about the belly as a large basin, a very big bowl, like  people, in the old days, would use to wash up before there were sinks and running water. My teacher would ask us to move as if that basin were completely full of water. She wanted us to sense the weight of the water, while at the same time, moving so that we didn’t tip the bowl causing the water to spill out of the bowl to the front or to the back or to the sides. This is particularly important when doing tai chi, as it is critical to cultivate a strong sense of horizontality while moving.

For some people this larger sense of center works better.

Now we get to my favorite version.

Nietzsche wrote, The center is everywhere. This frees me. I no longer have to look for “my center” or locate it somewhere inside my body. Actually, I don’t have to try to locate it anywhere.  Drop the very notion of a center and sense what happens. Look around and sense that the center is everywhere. When this works, it really works.

Stephen Hawking, the great astrophysicist, has the same idea, but here he is contemplating our macro-cosmos.

“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.”

As usual, great question. I hope this gives you a few possibilities with which to play. If you discover something let me know.

Ohanami

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

This life of ours would not cause you sorrow

if you thought of it as like the mountain cherry blossoms

which bloom and fade in a day.

MURASAKI SHIKIBU (974-1031)

 

Down Here In A Place Just Right

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

They say mathematicians and astrophysicists peak early. Perhaps war heroes too and ballet dancers. You don’t know when it will happen, or what will happen when it does. It’s depressing just thinking about it. Over the hill, a has been, burning bright and then burnt out. Forsaken. Forgotten.

I’m wondering about the metaphor. I mean about this peaking business. I’m wondering about these top-down metaphors. Maybe they’re off, not accurate.

Sure, there are mountains, but there are caves too and some people love spelunking as much as others love mountain climbing. Rivers run downstream, and love too. Snow falls. Ocean floors and riverbeds. Why is down so scary to us?  Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death,  the downward spiral, downhearted. Down. A downer.

Take the word depression. Maybe the spatial metaphor of up and down is off, not helping us at all. When we’re depressed are we down? When we are manic are we up? Maybe emotions don’t go up and down. Maybe they change color, or texture or tone. What if depression wasn’t feeling low? What if it’s going in? Maybe we’re not pressing anything down. Maybe we’re holding something in. Maybe that feels different just thinking about it that way.

Maybe time doesn’t go forward and backwards. What’s it like to sense time without a concept of space?

Does a sphere have a top and a bottom, a front and a back? Is there really such a thing as East and West? What is a sphere when you don’t break it apart spatially?

Being at the top of your game, or king of the mountain isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. It gets lonely up there. Lightning hits the tallest tree. Look down at people and they will not look up to you.

It’s all downhill from here. Is that so bad? Downhill skiers love going downhill. And so do little kids on sleds in the winter. Downhill. No sweat, a cool breeze against your face, coasting, picking up speed. Going along for the ride. Letting go.

There’s this ferris wheel I rode on a couple of days ago, the largest in the world. You only get to go around once. About two thirds of the way up I felt as if I were flying over the river to the open sea. I was getting real excited about being at the top. In anticipation, I stopped looking at what was around me. Part of the ride went unlived. Suddenly I was on top of the world… for about a half of a second. The great apex, the summit, the pinnacle, the zenith, the peak; gone the moment it arrived!

Here’s the truth. There is no peak when you’re going around in a circle. There’s just the circle, every point equal distance to the center of life.

At the top of the largest ferris wheel in the world, I felt the bottom sliding out from under me. Something told me to turn around 180 degrees, to sit on the other side of the car, to face the other direction. I did what I was told. Sitting there across from me was my wife. From where I was sitting now I could see her and appreciate her.

And to my surprise the way down, this coming down to the earth was sweet, tender, restful. It was like coming home from a long, long journey. It was peaceful, full of peace.