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)
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)
By Keiko Ishii*
I had an operation on my right hip joint nearly three years ago. With a new artificial hip joint, my walking is fairly normal. Recently I learned that the cartilage around my left hip joint is wearing thin. My orthopedic surgeon warned me against impact. When I go down the steps and my left foot drops down onto the step below, I feel impact. Is there another way? In ten minutes I learned that there was another way. Here is what I remember.
After watching my usual way of going up and down the steps, Bruce quietly said, “Okay. I see.”
He had me place my right foot on the lowest step with my right hand on the handrail. I found myself looking up at the top step thinking, “I have to go all the way up there?” As if he could read my mind, Bruce said, “No need to look way up there. Just see right where you are. That’s enough.”
He gently placed his hands on my head and neck. My consciousness instantly dropped into what felt like my “inner body.” His hands touched my shoulders, my ribs, under my arms. Everything, my ribs, my entire spine, from my tailbone right up into my skull, was lengthening. Everything was getting bigger and lighter, and before I knew it, as if by itself, my body floated up the steps with no limp and no pain.
Bruce then asked me to walk down the steps. Immediately I tensed up. Bruce watched me take one step then said, “That’s fine. Keiko, pause for a second. Where are you looking? What are you looking at?” I was looking straight ahead. But I was not seeing anything. I was too scared about hurting my hip to see anything.
Bruce walked up the steps and joined me. “Watch me.” He faced the handrail, held it as if it were a ballet barre, placed his left foot on the edge of the step, his left leg straight, while his right foot dangled in space above the step below. He let his foot sway as if it were being blown by a gentle wind and with his soothing, rhythmic voice, I heard him sing, Yaa, yaa, yaa… Bruce asked me to do what he did. I did. I swayed my right leg in the wind. I sang, Yaa, yaa, yaa… I could feel my right hip joint freeing, and a relaxation coming over me.
Bruce then leaned every so slightly over his swaying leg, and fell. He landed quickly but softly onto the step below. He showed this to me a few times. It looked simple enough, but when it came time for me to do it myself I hesitated and pulled back my leg from the step. I was afraid of falling down, afraid of there being too much impact on my artificial right hip. Again, as if Bruce knew exactly what I was thinking and feeling he said, “Keiko you are safe.”
I was scared, but I took the chance. I leaned slightly over my dangling right leg and fell. But I didn’t fall. There I was standing on my right leg. No work for my supporting leg. No impact on my landing. I repeated this several times. All I was feeling was joy.
We then did this with my hands touching the wall on the other side, this time my right leg serving as my supporting leg. Bruce showed me again. Again he assured me it would be fine, and it was. No impact. Just comfortable. Facing sideways, I continued “falling down” the stairs until I was at the very last step when Bruce said, “Keiko, wait there for me.”
“I watched you fall onto that dangling leg ten times and everything was fine. That’s exactly what we are going to do now; the only difference is that instead of facing sideways, we’re going to face forward. Can you put your right leg forward and let it hang and sway, Yaa, yaa, yaa…just like this?” For some reason it was much, much scarier facing forward. But I was on the very last step before the landing. So I did it. I fell onto my right foot. No problem. Then Bruce had me do it again this time landing on my left foot. No problem. It was easy, but…
“But that was easy because it was the last step,” I heard myself say. “Keiko, isn’t each step the same as every other step? If you can do what you just did, both on your right side and left side, easily, then what does that mean?”
I got it. I knew I could do it. I went up to the top of the stairs. I turned around. Suddenly I was afraid, staring into the distance. Below I heard Bruce’s gentle, firm voice, “Keiko, look down at the step just in front of you. You only need to see where you are going next.” I did and, when I did, it was as if everything I had learned from all my Alexander teachers came flooding back to me. My body was organizing itself. There I was at the very top of a flight of stairs, my right foot dangling as if over an abyss. Still I felt fear, the fear of impact, of hurting myself. And just then, “Keiko, you are fine. Really. Just fall. Waaaa…
I did. The steps were coming into my vision, one after the other. Waaaa…and there I was at the bottom of the stairs. I asked Bruce if I could do it again. He nodded and up I went, like a cat, like a victorious hero. Like water cascading over rocks, I almost ran down the steps. Everyone was there waiting for me, happy for me.
*I wrote this piece originally in Japanese, and later in English. I asked Bruce to do what he thought best to make my account read well for English readers.
from Letters To A Young Student…
How do I know when I am moving in the right direction?
It’s simple questions, like this one, that lead us in the right direction. This is what I mean by a heartfelt question. Questions asked from the heart don’t have intellectual answers. Ultimately a question like yours is about how to live one’s life. Living a life is not intellectual, not even for an intellectual!
So I will reflect on this question, not only for you, but for myself as well.
You are asking this question in the context of the work of F.M. Alexander, so let’s begin with a famous quip of Alexander’s. “There is no such thing as a right position, but there is such a think as a right direction.”
Let’s first zoom out and get the big picture and then work our way into the center. Alexander implies here that what you want is not a posture, not a place, nothing fixed. So if we feel held, placed, or fixed in any way then we are off. He seems to be saying that it’s about “the way” rather than “the form.” Taoism immediately comes to mind as it did for Aldous Huxley who referred to Alexander as the first Western Taoist. Lao Tzu’s references to “wu-wei”, translated non-doing, effortless effort, or harmonious activity, his reverence for water, the watercourse, his love of the valley rather than the mountain, of space over substance, his praise of softness over hardness, his desire for less rather than for more.
Ironically the best book on Alexander’s work may have been written 2400 years before Alexander was born, and may still be the best guide for pointing us in the “right direction.” That’s why I’ve spent the last eight years studying and writing my own interpretation of Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching, because my experience tells me this text is the predecessor to Alexander’s work.
I would however go a step further. I would say not only is there no right position, I would say there is also no right direction, no one right direction. Being on “a way” is important. In Japan, where I live half the year, people study such disciplines as Kyudo, the way of the bow, Aikido, the way of harmonizing energy, Sado, the way of tea, Shodo, the way of calligraphy, etc.
But being on a way, doesn’t mean we don’t lose our way because we do. Sometimes we have doubts about the path we are on, whether we are getting anywhere, whether it is the right path for us, whether or not we took a wrong turn somewhere along the way, whether we are ever going to get where we are going.
Perhaps a certain amount of doubt goes with the territory. Alexander asked us not to try to be right, not to try to feel that we are right. Not even to care whether we were right. In fact he’d sometimes begin lessons saying, “Let’s hope something goes wrong.”
When we don’t know for certain where we are, we sometimes begin to see where we are, to experience where we are. We open to what is around us.
Yet still, something in us wants some confirmation that we are moving in a good direction. There must be signs, and if there are, what are they?
Alexander gives us a hint when he says,
“When an investigation comes to be made, it will be found that every single thing that we are doing is exactly what is being done in nature, where the conditions are right, the difference being that we are learning to do it consciously.”
What does Alexander mean by “right conditions?” I’m not sure, but maybe it’s similar to Aldo Leopolds’s definition of right. In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold writes, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Perhaps Alexander is telling us that the way we know we are right, is when we are conducting ourselves in accordance with nature, that is, when we are tending toward the preservation of our integrity, stability, and (inner) beauty. And we are out of balance when we are not.
Let’s zoom into the biotic community within us and return to the question of knowing when we are moving in the right direction.
If we are a fractal of our larger ecosystem, then we too would be moving in a right direction when we are tending toward integration, stability, and beauty. I would add the complimentary opposites to these indicators: integration and differentiation, stability and mobility, and beauty and functionality. Complimentary opposites work with one another. Opposing opposites work against one another. My experience tells me that when we are experiencing an integration of complimentary opposites within us, we are moving in the right direction.
When we are feeling unified and articulate.
When we are feeling stable and mobile.
When we are feeling functional and beautiful.
When we are feeling light and substantial.
When we are feeling still as a mountain and moving as a river.
When we are feeling rest and support.
When we are feeling gathered and expansive.
When we are feeling within and without.
When we are feeling open and focused.
When we are feeling connected and independent.
When we are feeling committed and free.
When we are feeling spontaneous and deliberate.
When we are feeling soft and powerful.
When we are feeling relaxed and ready.
When we are feeling near and far.
When we are feeling time and the timeless.
When we are feeling gravity and grace.
When we are feeling self and others.
When we are feeling self and no self.
When we are doing less and receiving more.
If we decide to use the word direction in the strict Alexander sense of the word, and then ask how do we know when we are moving in the right direction, the answer may be hiding in The Use of the Self, one of Alexander’s books I read some 40 years ago. Somewhere, I believe in a footnote, Alexander mentions that a direction is a message we send to a part of the body. If the message is correct, if it is a right direction or order, it will conduct the energy within that part of the body in a way that will result in a general improvement of one’s overall integration.
The metaphor I use to get a picture of this is that of a lock and key. A joint in your body would be a lock, the key, its direction. It’s necessary to examine the lock to find out its structure. Then you can make a key to fit the lock. When the key fits the lock, the lock opens. This opens a door which allows you to enter into your house, your body, where you reside, your abode, your dwelling place, your refuge, your sanctuary.
Eventually, through study, whether that is on your own, or with the help of a teacher or teachers, you come to discover and learn about many of the doors and their locks, and you construct ever more precise keys to these doors which lead you through the gates into the holy city.
You learn, in Alexander’s enigmatic term, how to free into your primary control, or your true and primary movement, or as I sometimes refer to it as, your primary pattern, which is a fluid, moving, organizing pattern.
You learn how to enter into this fluid organization, into this knowing river within us, and it is the river who knows where to go, knows what a right direction is. Our job is to surrender to the river, to let the river take us to a place known to it, forever unknown to us.
The suit makes the man. And what if the suit becomes too tight? What if the suit begins to wear us; begins to shape us in its own image?
Postural habits are like suits. We become our habits when we identify with them. A habit: a long, loose garment worn by a member of a religious order. Postural habits are made of tension. Tension is frozen movement, frozen feelings, frozen vitality, energy at odds against itself.
If our postural habits, our habitual tensions, could be felt for what they are, superficial, artificial, not us, if we could sense ourselves without them, even for a moment, what would happen?
James Baldwin writes, “Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.”
Through which one’s nakedness can always be felt. Sensing my nakedness, how could I ever fall prey to self-importance? How could I ever lie to someone? How could I ever belittle anyone?
A human being, being human.
(photo of a photo by Robert Hupka.)
Health insurance in Japan actually does a conscientious job of insuring its people’s health. Being a person who now has health insurance in Japan, I decided to go to doctors and actually find out how I am, something I have avoided doing in the United States as my deductible does not cover the first $5000 of my medical expenditures. Yet still the cost of my health insurance in America is double of what I pay for health insurance in Japan. Last week I had a comprehensive physical unlike any I have ever experienced in America. Discovering that, at 61, I am in exceptionally good health, but also finding out what I should keep my eye on, gave me great peace of mind. Strangely, rather than feel happy I felt even sadder than I had been for all of us in America who pay so much for our health care and receive so little health care. And there are the millions of us who cannot afford health care. It’s not easy having a peaceful mind when in the back of that mind we’re worrying about what happens if we or our loved ones get severely sick or injured.
Having been a gymnast, modern dancer, and martial artist, and having survived a couple of car accidents, my body has had a lot of practice at mending injuries and keeping me all of a piece. I’m grateful. I do have a knee that is not like it used to be, and now one hip that is asking for some help. My father had 4 hip replacements over 35 years, and like the rest of us he only had two hips! But now nothing prevents me from going for an MRI which I will do this afternoon. When I had a cold I went to a cold clinic where there were 50 people waiting to be seen, but in one hour I walked out having been thoroughly diagnosed, cared for, and given a prescription for medicine. I walked 50 yards to the pharmacy and in 2 minutes I had my medicine. In one day I felt better. A week earlier, I went to the dentist, which was also covered by my insurance.
If everyone in America could experience what it feels like to receive good health care I have no doubt that we’d have good, comprehensive health care in America. Most Americans don’t know what they are missing. What overwhelmed me was suddenly realizing that I was being treated with respect, that my dignity was being honored, that I was a person of value. I felt a little guilty receiving this kind of care when countless others are not. Knowing more about how I am naturally makes me want to actively take care of myself.
So three times a week I go to a gym, which is a 3 minute walk from my apartment. It costs me $60 a month. I have been swimming, stretching, and using weights, which are helping a lot. The gym is sparkling. You could literally eat off the floor. Really. All the equipment seems brand new. Everything works perfectly. There are daily classes, all free, in Pilates, Tai Chi, Spinning, Dance, Yoga, Swimming, and more. The instructors are very good. And I have super high standards when it comes to movement teachers. These teachers are good. A facility like this in America would be reserved for the wealthy. Here it is available to almost everyone.
Bathing is an art in Japan. Into the steam room, then onto a low stool that sits in front of a mirror, a bucket for water near by and a hand held shower nozzle. Perfect water pressure. Nothing is broken. Everyone takes their time and cleans every pore, shaves, brushes their teeth, only turning on the water when they need it. Your body is warm from having been in the steam room so there’s no need to stay under continuous running water. After this almost ritualistic cleaning, you soak in a communal O furo, a hot tub, really hot. When a family baths at home, the O furo is filled and covered as not to lose heat. One by one, each person takes their time getting cleaner than clean then soaks in the tub. The tub is not as long as an American tub, but it’s higher. In America we lie down in a tub. In Japan we sit in a furo. With less surface water exposed to the cool air, the water stays warmer longer. Once out, the furo is covered, ready for the next person.
In general people in Japan use about a fifth of the energy we use. Yoshiko, my wife, thinks our utilities bills are high. Outside I’m looking concerned. Inside I’m smiling. They don’t, or I should say we don’t heat our homes centrally. We only heat where we are at the moment. This might mean sitting on an electrically heated two foot by two foot piece of carpet. Or it may mean working at a small, low desk, a kotatsu, which is designed such that under the table top surface is a large quilted blanket, and under the blanket is a small heater built into the table. You put your legs under the table and cover your lower body with the blanket, perhaps along with three other people, with their legs under the table, while everyone eats dinner together. Warm, cozy, and fun. Who needs to have all that heat floating up to the ceilings, which also are low, inside of rooms that are small. In Japan we don’t use hot water to clean clothes, nor clothes dryers, nor dishwashers. We use cold water to wash dishes, and we don’t run the water when we soap up the dishes. When I say we I mean 99.9% of Japanese people. It’s taught in school from the get go. Refrigerators are tiny. No huge ovens. No pilot lights for hot water heaters, or stoves. All localized heat. Because of the Fukushima disaster Japanese people decided to use even less energy than they had been using. All but two of their fifty-four nuclear reactors remain shut down, at least for now. A lot of people would like to keep it that way, though given the politics here that is likely not to happen. That is another story. The point is that even in the summer when it is 105 degrees, day in and day out, in super high humidity in steaming cities, no one is using their air conditioners, even old people for whom it is dangerous not to do so. The contrast between Japanese and American culture is enlightening, and challenging.
Then there is simply walking down the street and seeing no overweight people. Maybe one person in every 100 is overweight, and those people are usually under 25 and eating mostly at McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. The streets are buzzing with people walking in every direction while bicycles weave smoothly and effortlessly in and out. It’s a dance. Who needs a car when you have bikes and trains everywhere? Bikes are cheap. Mine cost $50 and I love my bike. I don’t think I’ve waited more than 7 minutes for a train and that’s after I just missed one. Usually there’s no wait. The trains are quiet and clean. No graffiti. No smell of urine here and there. Yes, sometimes the trains are beyond crowded but people have the courtesy to wear white sanitary masks that cover their mouth and nose if they have a cold. That’s thoughtful. People are taught to be aware of other people, and they are.
The trains and the streets are safe at any hour for anyone, kids included. In 2006 there were a grand total of 2 homicides. There are no guns around here. Little kids walk to school by themselves. If you leave your umbrella next to the ticket counter you can be sure it will have been given to the office. When you go to get it, they person will literally run to get it for you, knowing right where it is.
If you get off the train, let’s say at Osaka Station, and decide to buy some Japanese sweets at a department store, the moment you approach the counter, which has five people in uniform standing side by side, one of them will ask you if they can help you. Once you have bought your sweets they will ask you if you would like them wrapped as a gift. If you say yes you will witness hands that work differently than ours. Quickly and precisely. As you are leaving and ask them where the bathroom might be, they will likely take you there, and then bow and thank you. Can you imagine someone at Walmart or Staples bowing to you and thanking you for buying something at their store?
Ironically, living in Japan I feel how much I love America. I just know we could be better than we are. Living in Japan makes me care more about Americans. About everybody. And I realize how lucky I’ve been to be able to live in two cultures, for real.
For one, I’m not going to wait around for American culture to change. What I can do is adopt what I like about Japanese culture and live my life in a way that feels good and right for me. I can model what I care about.
In America I can practice being more aware of the needs of other people. I can use energy more modestly. I can eat less meat and cheese, more fish and vegetables. I can serve people. Thank people. Apologize when it feels right. I can be on time.
In America I will need to make an extra effort to take care of my own health.
And I will walk down the street unafraid. In a country that has grown so fearful, it will be my practice not to perpetuate fear, but to exude trust, and kindness.
The past feels determined because it has already happened. When we’re old life feels as if it unfolded according to plan. When we’re young life feels like an open road.
Can we change the past? Once I looked upon my past as a success. Then I saw it as a failure. Now I see it as neither. Perspective shifts. New memories surface. Old memories recede. The past is like an old book on a shelf that magically rewrites itself when we are not looking.
Free will. Determinism. Chance. Were there chance encounters in my life? Did that car accident happen by chance?
The night before the accident I chose to stay up a bit later than usual and, against my better judgment, drank a second beer. It was winter, and dark, and it was snowing. Factors beyond my control. I was driving up a hill. A car was coming in the opposite direction. I couldn’t see. My body was lilting to the left, which it does when I am tired. Unconsciously I was turning my steering wheel slightly to the left. Do we have less free will when governed by actions that have become unconscious? Do we have more free will the more we are conscious, alert, and acting non-habitually?
Impact. A head on collision. What if the driver of the car had not been thinking about his teenage daughter coming home last night at 3 a.m. smelling of alcohol? How much had she had to drink? Was she getting into drugs like some of her friends at school? What was going on sexually for her? Was she being safe? What if this man was just thinking about his driving? Do we have less free will when we are disturbed, distracted, and more free will when we are experiencing what we are doing?
Perhaps choice, chance, and determinism are like three strands of one braid. We have no direct control over the moving strands of chance and determinism, but we do have some say over the course our one strand of free will takes. And this might influence the overall pattern of the braid. Maybe our destinies are not completely determined. Maybe we are not just dust in the wind.
Some braiders of life may be more skilled than other braiders. How about the relationship between skill and free will? Imagine a great musician. Why are they so good? Genetics? Practice? Both? And what are the odds a child will find a good teacher if she grows up in a poor family who has no extra money to pay for piano lessons, or if she has parents who are well off and sending her to a very fine Quaker school, and who studies piano privately three afternoons a week with Martha Argerich?
Is talent determined genetically, the family we are born into a matter of chance, and the decision to practice what we love a choice?
And what of love? Are marriages made in heaven or are they made here on earth? If marriages are made in heaven then what about divorces? Are they made in heaven too or are they made here on earth? Could I have saved my marriage? Or was divorce inevitable? Or were we just unlucky? Hmm…
Not so simple.
Some things we can do and some things we can’t. I think we can do our best to remain open, free from prejudice, free from dogma, free from grudges. It’s our job to attend to our openness. So when something comes along, good or bad, we are ready to respond, ready to receive, ready to give.
Freely choosing that which is required of us.
Look at the faces of these students. There’s the answer.
Still is not the same as immobile. Stillness is alive. For painters, objects are alive with texture, color, light, shape, dimension, weight, time. And they are always in relation to other objects and to gravity. They always exist in space. Objects sit. They rest.
Not only seeing, but feeling how objects exist in the world can help us. Objects know how to rest fully on the ground. They are not restless. They know how not to effort. They’re not afraid to make contact, to give and receive weight. They don’t try to change themselves, or to be different than they are. They take a kind of pride in their inherent structures, as if saying to us, “I am what I am.”
We could learn a lot about presence and peace from them.
In Gregory Golbert, Ashes and Snow, we get to see, to feel, what the possession of these qualities look like within humans and animals. We get to see that for which we long. We get to see what our modern Western way of life has abandoned, no, has never known. We get to see the unknowable.
And we recognize the unknowable, because we are seeing what exists deep within us.
The question arises, are we courageous enough to become this still, this quiet, this alive?
And if we were courageous enough, and if we did become this still, this restful, what would happen to us?
Can we know the unknowable?
Watch and see.
It’s not what I expected, feels nothing like I thought it would, this release from the need to be anyone, from the need to be of biographical worth, noteworthy. No more life lived as an imaginary filmmaker, producer, director, scriptwriter, cameraman, editor, and leading man, a film, mind made, not for me but for others to see, to admire, to adore, and to endorse.
Now that I have abandoned my magnum opus, some fifty years in the making, what remains? What remains having left the studio, the black box behind? What welcomes and waits for me in the cool, fresh blue light of evening?
What shall I do now that my purpose in life has vanished like some mirage wavering before me, there, so real, then gone?
There must be some hidden purpose to my life, mustn’t there? There must be some imperative, some vision to fulfill, some mission to accomplish. How will I know what to do, which way to go? Can I live a life without a center, without a hub?
A yes arises from exactly where I don’t know. What I do need to know is where I am now, and the ability to see just far enough before me to know there is ground under my feet and space through which to move. If I attend and trust that should do it.
Could I be here for the sake of simple enjoyment? Could my job be to be jobless, to be available, a volunteer ready to go where I can best serve? What about money you ask? How will I survive? It seems I have managed, given I am still alive.
Time is not passing, I am. Can I accept this, embrace this?
Do I really need saving? I mean saving myself like an old, obsolete resume stored inside a little image of an icon of a folder within a folder?
Do I really need those photo albums sitting in a room, in a closet, on a shelf, stored in some dusty box no one has opened for years?
Why keep an accounting of my life? Why keep a record? Why keep track?
Why carve some graven image of myself, no matter how striking the resemblance?
Why continue to produce a film about a life that, when lived, is so much more moving and miraculous than a film could ever be?
Why does now feel like the only thing eternal?
Why do friends, and strangers too, who are no longer strangers, look like stars in the night?
Why does everything I hear sound like music?
I don’t know, and I don’t need to know.