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Posts from the ‘childhood’ Category

In Good Company – The Physiology of Self-Respect

Sensory Receptivity

We are all endowed with senses, though some of us do not have all of them. We see, hear, smell, taste and touch. We also possess less known, often less educated senses that tell us about ourselves, our kinesthetic and proprioceptive senses.

There’s a very simple way to understand what happens to our senses. As our motoric activity increases, often our sensory receptivity decreases. The result is that our actions are not as informed as they could be, which often makes them less accurate, more effortful, less effective, and sometimes inappropriate. By sensory receptivity, I mean the awareness of sensory input. The diminishment of conscious sensory receptivity prevents us from experiencing how we are doing, what we are doing, as we are doing it, reducing our ability to delight in and appreciate life as we are living it.

It is as if, within us, there is a doer and a receiver. For example, there is the you who washes your hair, and the you who senses and enjoys your hair being washed, or the you who does not sense your hair being washed and therefore cannot enjoy it. There is the you who is feeding you a spoonful of soup, perhaps potato leek soup, or miso soup, or lentil soup, or split pea soup, or French onion soup. And then, there is the you who is tasting it, savoring it, feeling thankful for it, or the you who is not tasting it. Reawakening the receiver within us, the one who is not putting out, not on output, but the one receiving, on input, keeps us from becoming depleted, allows us to be replenished.

A receiver differs from a perceiver. A perceiver witnesses, notices, observes and sometimes understands. Perceiving is primarily a mental activity, a mindfulness practice. Receiving is a sensory practice. A receiver senses, feels, experiences, enjoys and appreciates. With receiving we go beyond the perceiving of our actions into the receiving of our actions, beyond the perceiving of the world into the receiving of the world, beyond the use of the mind and into the mysterious workings of the heart.

A Story: Freely Choosing That Which Is Required of Us

It’s Wednesday afternoon. Every Wednesday at 3pm I pick up my son Noah, at his school and as we drive to soccer practice, I try to strike up a conversation with him, which is not easy. I then go to the co-op and pick up some food for dinner. After that I go to the barn and watch my daughter Eva ride. Eva spends most afternoons cleaning out stalls and caring for horses in exchange for riding lessons. She’s what they affectionately call a barn rat. Eva and I then drive to pick up Noah from practice, Eva talking non-stop, my not getting a word in edgewise. Noah and Eva both jump into the back seat and, depending on God knows what, either act as if they love each other or hate each other. We get home. I walk straight into the kitchen and start preparing dinner. That’s how it is every Wednesday afternoon.

It’s 2:55pm. Prying myself away from my computer, I jump into my aging Subaru and as I am pulling up in front of Noah’s school, I remember that this morning, as I was packing lunch for the kids, my wife and I decided that today she would take Noah to soccer practice, get some food for dinner, go watch Eva ride, and then pick up Noah because today I needed to pick up my Dad at 3pm and take him into center city to see his orthopedic surgeon in preparation for his second hip replacement.

There I was driving 180% in the wrong direction, driving to pick up my son when I needed to be driving to pick up my dad! Not only was my car on automatic, I was on automatic, my mind and my body, doing what I always do every Wednesday afternoon. Actually, I was unaware of driving at all. I had, for all practical purposes, become an automaton, a self-driving car.

That’s how it is for so many of us, so much of the time; when making the bed, when taking a shower, brushing our teeth, getting dressed, eating breakfast, driving to work. We do the same things in exactly the same ways, over and over again, not only inside of our everyday activities, but within our relationships as well. The same buttons get pushed; the same reactions triggered. The eternal recurrence of the same. Groundhog Day.

I don’t know for certain, but I would wager that Neitzsche’s Aphorism 341, “The Greatest Weight” in The Gay Science inspired this film. Neitzsche writes:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’

“Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. The question in each and every thing, ‘Do you desire this once more and innumerable times more?’ would lie upon your actions as the greatest weight. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life?”

How well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life? The answer: Very, profoundly well disposed. How, through physical training, can we become well disposed to ourselves and to life, that is, how gracious, keen, eager, appreciatively receptive and respectful can we become to ourselves and to life? No matter how ordinary and repetitive our lives may be, can we arrive at a level of gratitude, alacrity, and contentment where we can say, more often than not, “What I want is exactly what I have, and what I have is exactly what I want?”

Can we develop the sensory receptivity needed to awaken us, to make us realize that without knowing it, we had been sleepwalking through our lives? Can we become wide and awake, well disposed, to ourselves and to life?

My Butler

My goal is to teach you physical practices as thoroughly and clearly as I can. These practices will become so easy and so much fun that practice may not be the right word. The practices I offer are more like inner playing.

To facilitate learning about the physiology of self-respect, we are going to ask someone to help us. That someone is going to be a person to whom I refer to as, The Butler.

Before I tell you about my personal butler, let me tell you that a “butler” is imaginary, a figment of our imagination, an inner figure, but a sane, constructive, and healthy figure. An inner butler is an alter-ego, a different version of us, our complementary opposite, someone who completes us in some way and who is a devoted friend. As a child, after my homework was done and just before dinner, my mom let me watch Superman. Superman was Clark Kent’s alter ego, his complimentary opposite. Clark Kent was meek. Superman was strong. Clark Kent was stuck behind a desk. Superman could fly. Clark Kent couldn’t get Lois Lane. Superman could. But I liked Clark Kent. And I liked Superman. It wasn’t like Clark was all bad and Superman all good. Clark had his quiet strengths and Superman had his hidden weaknesses. The color orange is not bad and the color blue good. One heightens the other.

Think about children who invent imaginary friends. Dr. Laura Markam, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, writes, “Children are naturally imaginative, and exercising their imaginations is good for their emotional and mental health. They enjoy them, so they always have someone to play with if they feel lonely or bored… There is no evidence that they have any issues with mental health. It’s not the same as Dissociative Identity Disorder or having multiple personalities, which is extremely rare in any case. Children who have imaginary friends grow up to be creative, imaginative, social adults.” It has been found that children with imaginary friends get along better with classmates. They also know that their imaginary friend is not real in the same way as they are. But, like any good actor trained in the tradition of Stanislavsky knows, to create a convincing character one must know how to believe that an imaginary situation is true. Children who invent imaginary friends are good at this.

My experience has shown me that imaginary friends are good for adults too, good for our emotional and mental health. The give us someone to play with when we get lonely or bored, make us more imaginative and creative, better able to entertain ourselves and they help us get along with others. They are good company.

Any good actor also knows that to create a character, to internalize a character, to receive a persons’ way of being into us, it helps to know a lot about them; their history, where and when they were born, how they grew up, what their family was like, their education. It is important to know what they looked like, how they thought and felt about everything, how they spoke, how they moved. We need to know about their dreams, their nightmares, their ambitions, their fears, their insecurities, their longings, their hidden strengths, their fatal weaknesses. Everything.

So, to create your inner butler, a person who is going to teach you about the physiology of self-respect, it is important to put in this preliminary imaginative work which will bring your butler to life within you. Allow me to introduce my butler, a person whose company I have had the honor to be in for many years.

As for my butlers’ parents, he has never spoken of them. They remain a mystery to me. I do know he is of English descent, yet there is something Asian about him. Perhaps it is due to his having spent 20 years living in a Tibetan monastery, or there may very well be Asian ancestry in his bloodline. He reminds me a lot of Bruce Wayne’s butler, Michael Caine, in Batman, which is ironic as Alfred was his name as well, and Bruce is my name. Other parts of our stories also coincide which, frankly, feels eerie. Yet, I am nothing like Batman. My butler also reminds me a little of Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day, because my butler is so meticulous. But his body is much more like Michael Caine’s because unlike Anthony Hopkins, whose body is a bit tight and compact, my butler’s body though well-toned, is very soft as is his temperament. He’s like a male mother. He rarely speaks about himself, yet over these many years I have gleaned a good bit about him.

To be honest, I envy his education. It revolved around the opening, cleansing, and refining of all his senses. He learned traditional Tibetan calligraphy, writing out long Buddhist texts by hand while illustrating them in great detail, creating the most beautiful illuminations. The one he has in his bedroom, over his desk, is every bit on par with Blake’s work. At least, I think so. He made elaborate sand paintings with his fellow monks, made from crushed gypsum, yellow ochre, red sandstone, and charcoal, mixing them along with corn meal, flower pollens and powdered roots and barks creating an array of subtle colors, which were then slowly tapped out of long, thin funnels, meticulously laid from the center outwards forming intricate mandalas full of symbolism only to be methodically deconstructed, collected in a jar, wrapped in silk, transported to a moving river where the sand was returned to nature, a reminder of the ephemerality of our lives and this world.

He studied martial arts and was especially adept as a horse archer. This must be why he is so effortlessly upright. He played numerous Tibetan instruments in addition to the cello, which he learned to play as a child, the only thing I really know about his childhood. He speaks Tibetan of course, but is also a Sanskrit scholar, and fluent in Classical Greek and Latin. I can always ask him for the etymology of a word, and he always knows it. He sometimes cooked for his Tibetan community. He grew herbs not just for cooking, but for the making of medicines. When needed, he helped with the community’s bookkeeping. But mainly, he served his elderly master, day and night, keeping his master’s room and office in order. When his master was extremely old, (he lived to be 117), he bathed him and fed him.

When his master died, Alfred decided to return to school. He applied to the University of Pennsylvania and though in his late thirties, was accepted. Both my mother and father were professors of medicine and research scientists at Penn. After studying with them and assisting them for 10 years in their cancer research, my mother tragically died in a plane crash. My father never recovered. A year later he died from the very cancer he was attempting to cure. (For the record, these are my imaginary parents created to fit in with Alfred’s history. My father inherited a laundry business from his father. My mother was a social worker.)

Alfred promised my father he would care for me and raise me, which he did. It was not easy. He was at once my father and my mother. I was hyperactive, an ADHD kid. I had limitless attention for what interested me, and none for what did not. School was a nightmare.

As an adult, remnants still remain. I have no sense of direction. Rather than compute where I am, I get lost in the details of what’s around me, the movement of tree branches blowing in the wind or the shape of a cloud, or the make and model of a beautiful car and then, when I look up, I am lost. I don’t know where I am.

I have trouble keeping my room in order, especially when I am absorbed in some project. I eat too quickly. I move too quickly. I make decisions too quickly. Basically, I am nothing like Alfred. Though he serves me devotedly, there is nothing subservient about him. He is the most dignified person I know. The most patient, the most poised, the most principled. Ever so slowly, through his way of being, through his calm presence, through how he lives his life, I am changing. I am sure my father knew that Alfred was the only person who could raise me and keep me in balance.

At the same time, he gives me space. He watches me from a far. Though, whenever I get frazzled, he is right there next to me. “Here, let me help you with that.” “Let, me do that for you.” “Let me get that for you.” I allow myself to receive his help. I find myself thanking him all day long. There are weeks when Alfred is gone. He returns to his monastery. But he always comes back. Serving me seems to be his spiritual practice.

Alfred has aged quite a bit. I have too. I am in his company now, more than ever. As the years go by, I find myself becoming more and more like him. I am beginning to understand that, though he serves me, he has been the true master all along.

We need an inner teacher, someone who knows much more about this subject than we do. Over the next few days, find some alone time, get quiet, begin creating your butler. Give yourself time. Gradually fill out the life of your imaginary butler more and more, until they begin coming to life within you. Writing can help a great deal in this process.

A note. When I introduce this notion to my students in England, some find it jarring due to an aversion they have of the class system in their country. Many of them had to find a different role for their alter-ego, not that of a servant, but of a friend, or some protective figure, sometimes mythological. It could be your own personal genie, like in Aladdin starring Robin Williams or Will Smith. Remember, it is your imaginary figure. It could be Julia Childs, as it was for Julie Powell in Julie and Julia, or Spock in Star Trek, or Merlin, King Arthur’s trusted advisor. You want to create someone you like being around, who you are comfortable with, who has qualities you admire, who by just being with them, centers you. Someone who is always there to help you out when you are working too hard at something, when you are struggling in some way. Think about the films you have seen, the novels you’ve read, the fairy tales you know. Butlers can of course be of any gender or genderless, any age or ageless, from any place, from any time.

There are three main ways in which butlers serve which directly relate to the cultivation of self-respect. They are what I call, Nesting, Grooming, and Feeding.

Nesting

Nesting is anything humans do that has to do with taking care of their immediate environment, so that it feels safe and homey. When I travel, which I do about 5 months a year, I move from one living space to another. The first thing I do is to try to make my new place feel homey. Putting out my toiletries just so; my electric toothbrush and salt based toothpaste, skin cream from Korea for my worn out skin, medicine for keeping my Barrett’s Syndrome in check, my beard trimmer and old double edged razor that belonged to my dad, my hairbrush for brushing the few remaining hairs upon my head that have not abandoned me, and Clubman styling gel that costs a quarter of the price of other hair gels which for my purposes works just fine. Finally, there’s my favorite shampoo from Lush packaged in cork rather than plastic and, for the same reason, lasts forever.

Then there is hanging up my shirts and pants, putting my socks and underwear and handkerchiefs in a draw, opening the curtains to let in some light, cracking the window open for some fresh air, putting an extra blanket on my bed. If in a hotel, I ask for an additional pillow to put under or between my knees when sleeping or reading, and finally setting up my desk: my books, notebooks, computer, computer glasses, my favorite pen given to me as a gift from my students, my camera, my headphones, some Spruce scented incense from Japan, and, very important, finding a logical place for my keys, wallet, sunglasses and sunblock.

Actually, I am not great at doing these things, but my butler is! Just like Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day, he attends to every detail, he takes his time, he thinks about every choice he makes both in terms of ergonomics and beauty. He is so much more precise than I am. Why not let him do it? Why not receive his help? Whenever I begin to engage in nesting activities, he mysteriously shows up and says to me, “Sir, may I help you with that? Or, “Sir, let me to do that for you.” I make room for Alfred and allow him to do the work for me, from within me.

My butler calls me Sir. This works for me. It won’t for everyone. When Alfred calls me Sir, it reminds me that I am a grown up, a dignified person and that I should conduct myself as such, not like some out of control kid bouncing off the walls. For a person who is very different from me, say someone overly formal, rigid, impeccable, too serious, unable to relax, lighten up and let go, their being called Sir may be just what they do not need. They might need to be called by some endearing or funny nickname.

There is another reason Sir works for me.

At a workshop in Seattle, when I introduced this practice to a group of students, we were searching for alternative titles to Sir, ones that were gender neutral. One of my students suggested the word majesty as in, your Majesty. Though it sounded and still sounds too grand for me to use personally, when I asked Alfred its meaning he said it meant beauty, dignity, awe, power, authority, pride and glory as in, you are my pride and glory, that is, I find you worthy and you make me proud and happy. These are good attributes, present within everyone, though by many not fully recognized or actualized.

When I think of the word Sir, I think of someone like Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi, people who were treated cruelly and judged as inferior and yet, internally were majestic, full of dignity, power, authority and beauty. They are my heroes. So, when Alfred calls me Sir, he’s acknowledging and addressing these attributes within me, he reminds me of them in the way the poem, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley reminded Mandela of his inherent worth and dignity.

“It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

When Alfred calls me Sir, when he kindly offers to do something for me, like folding the bath towels and placing them on the shelf in the closet, and I let him do that for me, an uncanny metamorphosis takes place. Quite suddenly, my body becomes his body, much like Clark Kent transforming into Superman, but without the need for a phone booth. Because of his horsemanship training, Alfred is naturally upright, much more so than I am. His head just rests easily and loosely on top of his spine. Effortless my body changes from the inside. From above my now long and flexible spine, I am seeing everything from a little further away and in greater detail. Alfred’s pace is entirely different from mine. He never seems to hurry; he’s never in a rush. It is as if my hands become his hands. He takes over. I let him. My hands begin feeling everything they touch and are moving much more easily and accurately. This is conscious sensory receptivity. More detailed, accurate, and refined input. I am even thinking more clearly, or perhaps I should say thinking not at all, because my mind has become Alfred’s mind, which simply attends to how he is doing what he is doing as he is doing it. Folding the bath towels and placing them on the shelf in the closet becomes so efficient, quietly enjoyable and calming.

Grooming

A butler does, basically, all the nurturing functions that, hopefully, our parents did for us when we were babies and young children. And even if our parents were not nurturing, were absent, or even abusive, we still can imagine what good and nurturing parents would be like. We only need to be able to create an imaginary person within us who is good and nurturing. We can do that.

Parents create safe nests for their children, a comfortable place to sleep that is warm and dry and clean, and a living space that is safe, where all our basic needs can be met.

Parents also do a lot of grooming. They bath us, and shampoo us, and dry us, dress us, brush our hair, cut our fingernails and toenails. Before going out to play in the snow, they tie our shoes, zip up our jacket, make sure our neck is warm, that we have our gloves and our hat. When we get home our parents help us warm up, wash and dry all of our clothes so they are fresh and clean for tomorrow.

Of course, we grow up and learn, to varying degrees, how to perform all these tasks for ourselves. But, in actuality, they are more than tasks, things that must get done, they are sources of nourishment, sources of affection, kindness, and respect. The question is, are we performing these actions as mere tasks or are we sensorially receiving and feeling these actions, letting these nurturing, kind, and respectful actions into our body and being.

A Story:  One Small Gesture of Kindness

A mother, 70, has a son with cerebral palsy. He is now 45 years old. The mother is small, and the son is not. For years the mother has lifted her son from his wheelchair to the toilet and back again. I ask her to show me how she lifts up her son. The mother moves well. She has to.

‘Chiyo-san, you do that very well. I’m sorry, but I’d like to see you do it one more time.’

‘Hai,’ Chiyo-san says, bowing quickly and sharply.

I notice an almost invisible gesture she makes as she gets ready to pick up her son. She quickly strokes the right side of her head, moving her thick, gray-streaked hair back behind her ear. I ask her to pause for a moment. I ask her if she felt the movement she just made. Chiyo says, ‘No, I didn’t do anything yet.’ I said, ‘Yes, you did.’ I tell Chiyo what she did. I ask her to do it again, very slowly, consciously. She does. I ask her to do it again, and then again. I ask her to continue, but to do it now as if her mother were brushing her hair. She continues. Soon Chiyo begins to cry.

I say, ‘Okay, Chiyo-san, go and lift up your son.’ She doesn’t move, doesn’t speak. I wait. Then Chiyo says, ‘I am too old to do this by myself. I need help.’ She turns to her younger son who is in the room and asks him if he wouldn’t mind helping her. He is happy to do it for his mom, and for his brother.

Chiyo-san stands there watching her two boys.

Feeding

Have you ever fed a person? Many people have, but in my workshops, usually there are some who have not. We feed babies. We feed people who are ill, convalescing or dying. Some people can remember having been fed at least once in their lives. A few cannot.

Before giving you a practice for this, let’s think about the difference between eating and feeding.

Eat.  What does that word mean?

We all know that an increasing and distressing number of us have problems around eating. Most of us live in societies who profit from our eating poorly and having eating obsessions. I don’t have to quote the statistics. They are startling, and sad. All we have to do is look around. For many of us, all we have to do is look in the mirror.

How did something as natural as eating, become so neurotic? Do non-domesticated animals have eating disorders? Do they think about how much they should eat, or what they should eat? Does a baby think about how much they should eat, or what they should eat?

Babies don’t eat. Babies are fed. Now those are two different words. And they are two completely different activities. Linguistically, eating, to my surprise, has a much more aggressive connotation. Feeding has a kinder connotation. Here is what I found when I looked them up in the dictionary, though I could have simply asked Alfred.

To eat: to put food into the mouth, chew it and swallow it. To consume, devour, ingest, to gobble, wolf down…to munch, chomp, guzzle, nosh, snack, put away, chow down, demolish, dispose of, polish off, pig out, scarf down…eat away at…erode, corrode, wear away, wear down, burn through, dissolve, disintegrate, crumble, decay, damage, destroy.

But it gets worse. Here’s what I found under common phrases. I am not making these up.

eat someone alive informal (of insects) bite someone many times: we were eaten alive by mosquitoes. Exploit someone’s weakness and completely dominate them: he expects manufacturers to be eaten alive by lawyers in liability suits.

eat crow – be humiliated by having to admit one’s defeats or mistakes.

eat dirt – suffer insults or humiliation.

eat someone’s dust – fall far behind someone in a competitive situation.

eat one’s heart out suffer from excessive longing, esp. for someone or something unattainable…to encourage feelings of jealousy or regret: eat your heart out, I’m having a ball!

eat humble pie – make a humble apology and accept humiliation.

eat someone out of house and home – eat a lot of someone else’s food.

eat one’s words – retract what one has said, esp. in a humiliated way: they will eat their words when I win.

have someone eating out of one’s hand – have someone completely under one’s control.

I’ll eat my hat – used to indicate that one thinks the specified thing is extremely unlikely to happen: if he comes back, I’ll eat my hat.

eat away at something – erode or destroy something gradually: the sun and wind eat away at the ice. To use up profits, resources, or time, esp. when they are intended for other purposes: inflation can eat away at the annuity’s value over the years.

eat someone up or eaten up – to dominate the thoughts of someone completely or to be dominated by the thoughts of someone: I’m eaten up with guilt.

eat something up – To use resources or time in very large quantities: an operating system that eats up 200MB of disk space. To encroach on something: this is the countryside that villagers fear will be eaten up by concrete.

Personally, reading this list made me smile just thinking about the people who compiled it, how much fun they must have had. But also, I felt a little scared at the amount of aggression hiding in that tiny three letter word, eat.  Now, this is what I found when I looked up the tiny three letter word, fed. To be fed:

The act of giving food, or of having food given to one, receiving food…

To give food to…to supply an adequate amount of food…to derive regular nourishment…to encourage growth…to fuel…to supply power for operating…to supply water to a body of water… to provide…to nurse…to exist on… strengthen, fortify, support, bolster, reinforce, boost, fuel, encourage.

Why are these two little words, eat and feed, which technically, are synonyms, have such a different feel to them?  I have no idea. But I do know, because I have conducted countless workshops on this subject, is that when I teach people how to turn the act of eating into the act of feeding themselves, which only takes a little bit of training, the results are astonishing. In a nutshell, we eat. Our butlers feed us. When our butlers feed us.

Now, let me give you some Nesting, Grooming, Feeding homework, which is really home-play. The difference between work and play is simple. Working in when practicality precedes enjoyment, play is when enjoyment precedes practicality. These practices/studies are fun and practical, hopefully in that order.

Nesting

Think of the nesting activities that you do on a regular basis that either you don’t like doing, hate doing, don’t do because you hate doing them so much, or that are strenuous or sometimes injurious. For example:

  • Making your bed.
  • Vacuuming the carpets and/or mopping the floors.
  • Washing dishes and cleaning up the kitchen.
  • Taking out the trash.
  • Cleaning the bathroom sink, tub, shower, toilet.
  • Straightening up your desk. (Butlers, like my butler can sometimes perform secretarial functions.)
  • Dusting furniture and window shelves.
  • Cleaning windows and mirrors.
  • Cleaning the inside of your car. (Yes, butlers can also serve as chauffeurs.)
  • Attending to the yard, grounds, garden, porch, etc. (Remember, my butler grew herbs.)

When you notice you are really working hard doing one of these activities, or just hating it, or straining too hard, or just want to get it over and done with as quickly as possible, STOP, and by stop I mean a very special kind of stopping which is not a putting on of the brakes, but a taking your foot off the gas pedal, and just letting your car come to a soft and complete stop. Then in that quiet space, listen. Your butler will appear and say, “Sir, let me do that for you,” or “Sir, may I help you with that,” or “No, no, Sir, allow me to take care of that for you.” Allow them to take over, within you, and notice how it feels, physically and emotionally. Choose one nesting activity before going to sleep and commit to only that one for the next day. Letting your butler do one nesting task a day for you, for one week, and see what happens. It’s just a game.

Sometimes your butler won’t show up. Sometimes, they may not show up for a week or more. Like my butler, they travel. But with practice, they are there for you more and more. On a good day, my butler will offer to help me, and I will accept, 20 times or so a day. But if your butler shows up once a day or twice a day, great! It is a beginning.

Grooming

Often, when we are grooming, we are either in a rush or sleepy. We are in a kind of fog. Most often grooming is unconscious and mechanical. How can we fill these potentially very pleasant actions with sensory consciousness so that we can really enjoy them and be nurtured by them?

Here is the exercise that teaches you how to do this. It is so simple. Read through the whole exercise first, and then I will tell you when to do it.

First, close your eyes, but not in any old way, but in a special way, just like in our butler practice we don’t stop in any old way, but in a special way. We can’t really close our eyes. Our eyes are round orbs and they do not close. What actually happens is our eyelids lower over and around our eyeball covering it, like the drawing of a blind. Now, experience that. Sense what it feels like.

Remember to read first through all of the instructions. I will tell you when to proceed. Now, as you lower your eyelids, imagine there’s a flower right under your nose, and its scent, your favorite scent, is rising up your nose. Heavenly. Experience that.

Then, imagine your dominant hand and arm belongs to someone else, someone who likes and cares about you very much, and bring that hand to the center of your chest and let that person stroke your chest. Let it all the way in. Receive it. Notice how you feel, sense what happens, if there is a physical and/or emotional shift. Experience that.

Rest, and enjoy how you feel. Now, imagine that your less dominant hand and arm is the same person, but they are in a different mood, so their hand will feel a little different, and allow them to stroke the center of your chest. Let it all the way in. Receive it. Notice how you feel, what happens, if there is a physical and/or emotional shift. Experience that.

Are they different? What words would you use to describe them? There are no right or wrong answers or experiences. Right now, when I do this exercise, my dominant hand and arm feels stronger and somehow more masculine. My non-dominant hand and arm feel softer and somehow more feminine. My dominant hand and arm feel reassuring, while my non-dominant hand and arm feel healing. That is just me, just now.

Now, after I finish explaining this, see if you can get your right hand to feel more like your left hand, and your left hand to feel more like your right hand. Alternate stroking the center of your chest with the right, then the left, then the right, rather quickly until they almost feel the same. Experience that.

Okay, now we will apply this to a grooming activity. Washing our hair.

Read the instructions until the end. Find a comfortable chair in which you can sit back. Receive support from the chair. I will write much more about how to receive support from a chair, but for now when you sit back, one, make sure your pelvis is all the way back toward the back of the chair so that it is easy for your entire back to rest and receive support from the chair. Imagine that your pelvis is like a big semi-spherical bowl full of fresh fruit, grapefruits and oranges. Sense every part of your body that is in actual contact with the chair or the ground, your feet, the back of your thighs, the bottom of your pelvic bowl, perhaps the bottom of your forearms and elbows on the arms of the chair. (Isn’t it interesting that chairs too have arms and legs and backs?) Receive support from the chair. Let the chair support you. Relax your belly and lower back. No need to hold your breath. Lower your eyelids as if you are smelling a flower. Sense that your hands and arms are not yours but belong to the person who likes you and cares for you very, very much and let them wash your hair as you receive the pleasure of allowing them to do that for you. Experience that.

That is the experience of a self-grooming activity carried out with a high degree of conscious sensory receptivity. That’s your butler washing your hair. You are in good company. Machines do not have the capacity to feel. Human doings have dramatically diminished felt sensory receptivity. Human beings, when in touch with being human sense more, feel more. Human beings and human doings, essentially, live in two different realms, one nurturing, and one not. Did washing your hair with high sensory receptivity feel different? Does your butler wash your hair differently than how you wash your hair? How did your body feel when your butler washed your hair? What was going on mentally and emotionally when your butler washed your hair? Isn’t is exciting that with just a little bit of imagination we can make ourselves feel much better?

Note how this experience is not philosophical, not psychologically not theological, but physical. The physiology of self-respect. Very easy, simple, and fun. All that is required is a little imagination.

What are other common everyday self-grooming activities?

  • Drying our hair
  • Brushing our hair
  • Brushing our teeth
  • Flossing our teeth
  • Washing our hands
  • Washing our face
  • Washing our body
  • Drying our body
  • Creaming our body
  • Shaving or Trimming our beard
  • Cutting our fingernails and toenails
  • Getting dressed and undressed
  • Shining our shoes
  • Putting on makeup
  • Putting in our contact lenses
  • Cleaning our glasses

The magic question is, I wonder what it would it feel like if I asked my butler to do these things for me? Then, because you are wondering about it, go and find out. If you like the result, if it feels pleasant, somehow respectful to yourself, then continue to use your imagination in this way. I wonder what would happen if I groomed myself like this for one year? If you are really curious, well, go find out.

Feeding

Some of my students resist having their butlers help feed them, but those students usually turn out to be the ones needing to be fed the most. So often, what we resist most, is what we most need. Some people don’t like people doing things for them that they can very well do by themselves, thank you. Some people don’t like the feeling of being helpless. It brings up fears of being very sick or dying, and they don’t want to go there. Of course, these are places actors love to go. Many little boys, for some reason, go through a phase where they have to die, over and over again, and they love doing it. I used to have a fake arrow that was cut in half but connected together with a strong curved wire that fit perfectly around the back of my head. When I put it on, it looked like someone had just shot an arrow through my head. I would put it around my head, hold it in place with one hand on either side of my head, run into the kitchen where my mom was cooking and proceed to die a dramatic and gruesome death, not just once but usually two, three or four times in a row, each time totally different than the time before. My mother would remain stone face, carrying on with whatever she was doing, as if she was not even looking, but when my death was exceptionally convincing, she’d day, “That was a good one.”

My point is that to do these practices effectively, we need to find the child within us, the child who loves to use their imagination, who loves to believe that what they are imagining is true, and who has much fun doing it. Then, all these practices in this book will just work, almost like magic. Paradoxically, sometimes, through truly lighthearted practice, we are able to change ourselves on the deepest of levels.

The practice I am about to explain works best if first done with a partner, someone you trust and who has a good sense of play.

Part I. Together, prepare a plate of food. Make sure you have an array of food that you like and that requires the use of different actions and utensils. For example, a cup of soup, a little salad, some pasta, a vegetable that you have to cut like string beans or asparagus, a beverage, and a little desert.

Your friend is there to feed you because you are convalescing and are quite weak, but your appetite has begun to return. Find a comfortable chair, put a little cushion against the back of the chair and lean back. Let your friend bring the food or the beverage all the way up to your mouth. Don’t help them by bringing your head and lips toward the food or the glass. My German students tell me that the word to feed in German means, to pass the food. Let your partner pass you the food. After all, you still are very weak. So, let your friend do all the work.

Your friend also needs to use their imagination too, so it will be necessary to tell them that they are a person who is very experienced when it comes to feeding people. They watch their patient, know how much food to give them, not too big, not too small. They know how long they have to wait for you to have time enough to chew your food and swallow. They will likely chit chat with you a bit, ask you what you want next, and tune into your needs so as to make it enjoyable for you.

Part II. Let your feeder feed you. When you feel about halfway through your meal, tell your feeder.

Part III. If you are not already, and if possible, go to the table where you normally eat and sit down in the chair you usually do. Place your hands on the table, palms relaxed and turned over. Lower your eyelids as if you were smelling a flower and imagine that your hands are your friends’ hands, your arms are their arms. Have your friend bring over the plate of food and place it before you. Continue to imagine that your hands and arms are your friends’ hands and arms, and then begin feeding yourself as if it were your friend feeding you. Let them cut your food for you, let them bring it up to your mouth. Let them do everything for you and you just let them do it. Once in a while, in silence or out loud, thank them. “Thank you. Thanks for feeding me. That is so kind of you.” You may one day end up like me, a person who says thank you all day long.

If you actually do carry out this playful study, you will experience what it feels like to feed yourself. It’s an entirely different activity, a totally different event than eating. I encourage you to do this partner study more than once, assuming both roles, the feeder and the fed.

The next step is to practice feeding yourself when you are having a meal alone, when you are not in a rush. Ask your devoted butler to feed you.

The next step is to begin to practice feeding yourself when you are sharing a meal with someone else. It will feel dramatically different to you, but no one will have the faintest idea that your butler is feeding you.

Play with shifting from eating to feeding when you are snacking on an apple or a carrot, or drinking a cup of coffee, or when drinking a beer, (that is very interesting), or while enjoying popcorn when watching Netflix. Say thank you often. After all, your butler is there helping you once again, making life easier for you and more enjoyable. Keeping you company.

The Butler. Nesting. Grooming. Feeding. Practice only this for one year and I will bet you a dollar, a euro, one hundred yen, one thousand won, that your life will feel different, better, much better, because for one year you will have been physically treating yourself respectfully.

House And Home

handwriting

Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet

Letters To A Young Teacher

Bruce, you write, “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 people in and out of a chair?” My AT teacher at school would probably say: “Chair work will indirectly affect their use in everyday life – let them make the transfer.” So how does that tie in with your take on teaching “activity work”, which to my mind is not indirect, but direct? 

Thank you for your good question. My understanding is that when Alexander spoke of working indirectly he meant that when a person comes to you with a specific problem, let’s say, a frozen shoulder, working directly would be choosing to work immediately to regain range and comfort in the shoulder, through working on the shoulder. A reasonable idea. The approach in Alexander Work, if we are sticking to the principle of working indirectly, is to attend to a person’s overall integration and coordination, and in turn that may, (and may not), resolve the shoulder issue.

It’s a bit like family therapy. Let’s say the whole body is the family, and the hurting child is the frozen shoulder. The parents are fighting, a lot. The kid begins developing asthmatic symptoms. The problem may not lie within the child, but within the family dynamics as a whole. By the parent’s shifting their way of functioning, their child may begin to function differently as well. That, as I understand Mr. Alexander, is what he meant by working indirectly. Indirectly, that is, getting to the part through the whole.

Once you begin to get this idea of working indirectly, you begin to see that Alexander stumbled upon a very big idea, one that, now, everyone understands. If bees are beginning to disappear, or tree frogs, and you start looking for the cause inside the bee world, or the tree frog world instead of backing up and looking at the entire world they inhabit, their larger body, of which bees and tree frogs are an integral part, you won’t see the whole problem, or find the solution.

Alexander discerned an ecology within people, an inner ecology – the study of our inner house and home, in relation to our larger house and home.  (You could say we are the overlap through which our inner and outer environments become one.) Alexander, seen in this light, was a holistic and ecological thinker and practitioner.

As for working through Alexander’s “conventional” procedures, that is, the procedures that have  become the norm within today’s Alexander world, I am not an expert. Yes, I have worked with lots of teachers, including most of the first generation teachers who employed these procedures and, to the best of my limited ability, I have taught through these procedures as well. But I have spent more time learning about Alexander’s work through his less conventional procedures – walking, going up and down steps (lunge work is beautifully woven within this action),  the performing arts, speaking, and everyday activities. These were the procedures that my mentor, Marj Barstow, enjoyed and explored. Consequently, these are the procedures I have taught through most successfully.

Over the years I began to sense that working through Marj’s procedures were, in a way, working too directly, too specifically, but for a very different reason than your teacher might think. I started to see that any activity happened within a larger context, and that I had to zoom both further in, and further out if I was to work holistically or ecologically. That’s why I no longer refer to what I do as “working in activity.” I call it “working situationally.”

For example, a young man is late. He jumps up from his desk, swings on his coat, hops in his car, squeals out his driveway, double parks, runs up three flights of stairs, knocks on his girlfriends apartment door, and waits, standing there, reliving that phone call, the fight they had that morning, feeling like a total jerk, wondering if she will open the door or not, whether she will ever speak to him again, whether she will call off their engagement, and what his parents will say.

Okay. You could work with this poor, distraught young man by taking him in and out of a chair, a la Alexander, or work with him driving his car, walking up steps, and knocking on a door, a la Marj Barstow. Still, are you really going to get to the precise inner and outer stimuli that cause this man to fall apart, to lose his psycho-physical composure, his integrity?

If I am going to work with this man in his entirety, in relation to his inner and outer home, then I may need to address such factors as his relationship to time, how he listens to his girlfriend when she is feeling insecure and starts criticizing him, how he reacts when he starts believing thoughts like his being a total jerk, or what happens to him when he starts caring too much about what other people think about him. But I am going to figure out a way to do this somatically and personally, not psychologically or clinically. I’m going to “stick to principle” and work as the Alexander teacher that I am.

Not our postural habits, nor our movements habits per se, (though they are part of the picture), but our habits of life, these are the habits we are attempting to unearth, and bring into the light of day, to be seen, felt, and known, accepted, and resolved. This is, for me, profoundly humbling work, both personally and as a teacher. Sometimes I wonder if I’m making any progress at all. I wonder if I will ever really be able to live and teach Alexander’s work. Forty years later, I begin to understand Marj when she would say, “I really don’t know how to teach this work.”

I really don’t.

Not knowing has for me become a good thing. It keeps me questioning, as you are questioning. It keeps me experimenting. It keeps the work fresh and alive in my soul, as it is in yours.

Let’s keep going.

Yours,

Bruce

 

 

 

 

 

The Secret That Deserved To Be Kept

Bruce Fertman 1971

Bruce Fertman 1971

My mind rains down memories thought long forgotten.

There was this kid, Fred, in my junior high school. I can’t remember his last name. There was something I liked about him. He was different, that is, from me. He was a twelve-year old chubby catholic boy with thin, straight blond hair, a pug nose, and icy blue eyes.

Fred entered Leeds Junior High School, not in the 7th grade, like everyone else, but in the 8th grade. No one knew why, except me.

Fred got kicked out of St Raymond’s, a catholic school in my neighborhood where the girls wore pleated, navy blue skirts and white pressed, button down shirts and were the prettiest, most off limit, sexiest creatures walking on two feet. At least that was how I felt about them, a brown eyed, wavy haired Jewish boy.

Fred spent only one year at Saint Raymond’s, a year which suddenly ended the day a nun hit him across the knuckles with a ruler, over and over again, for passing a note to one of those particularly cute girls. Without thinking, like lightning, Fred snapped that ruler from the nun’s hand and smacked her across the face with it.

There we were, Fred and me, meeting up in the pitch dark, at 7 AM, on a wet, windy December morning. We had to get to choir practice by 7:30AM – an hour before school started.

We were waiting for “chicken legs” to come in, our choral director. I was amusing myself, and showing off, swinging back and forth between two chairs, as if I were on the parallel bars. The goal was to swing up to a handstand. Fred was sitting on one of the chairs and Glen Fortunato on the other. I remember Glen’s last name because he was the kid that suggested I go out for the gymnastic team. I wish I knew where he was now, so I could thank him for saving my life.

With one free, fateful swing, I swung up to a perfect handstand, and just as I did I caught a glimpse, between my arms, of old chicken legs walking upside down into class. That was it. I was kicked out of the choir, on the spot.

I liked singing. I liked singing a lot. I liked singing so much that when my parents bought their first stereo, a Magnavox, a cheap, essentially empty box housing a record player with an automatic arm, and a “diamond” needle, capable of playing 45’s, 33’s, and 78’s, (the setting that worked for some of my grandfather’s thick, old records), I was ecstatic.

Not only did we get the record player, we got twelve long-playing records, all at once, from the Columbia Record Club. I proceeded to listen to these records, constantly, until they were ingrained in my brain where they remain in tact until this day. My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, Gigi, Chinatown, West Side Story, Showboat, Johnny Mathias, Andy Williams, Judy Garland, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and An American in Paris, Ferrante & Teicher, two guys that played piano back to back, and finally, Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

Around the new stereo, there were four large, square, plastic cushions; two were black and two were powder blue. The cushions had black tassels dangling from the four corners of each pillow, like some Jewish/Japanese tallis. I would place two cushions under my head, position my head precisely in between the two speakers – real stereo sound – and there I would remain for hours, listening and singing, but most importantly, imagining.

Suddenly, something would possess me. I had to move. Reflexively, I’d spring up and start doing handstands against the wall, then handstand pushups, many of them.  When my arms began to shake uncontrollably, I’d spring onto my feet, leap up the steps, three at a time, turn around, lean forward, then execute near flawless falls down the steps. Usually I waited until my mom was about to go upstairs for something. I’d let out a terrifying scream, and down I would roll head first against the right wall, then into the banister on the left, until I landed in some contorted position at the bottom of the steps, moaning in pain, like I had just broken my neck in four places.

Directly I was sent to my room “to settle down.” Head lowered, I would gently close my door, take a deep breath, and proceed to throw all my pillows and stuffed animals up into the air and see how many I could strike, kick, and kill, before they touched the ground, dead.  Twelve causalities was my record.  I had never heard of, or seen a martial artist, but without knowing it, I had begun my training.  After an hour of punching and kicking and sweating I would feel, how should I say, rested.

If I were born in the late eighties, I’d for sure be one of those ADD kids on Ritalin. But as far as my mom was concerned, I was just a normal, fun-loving kid with five times the energy of any child she had had the pleasure, and misfortune, to meet. Sure I stuttered and had reading problems and could not sit still, and sure I had temper tantrums at random, whereupon I would run, approximately at the speed of light, around the dining room table for twenty minutes. But as my mom so calmly explained to Aunt Lee, our next-door neighbor, “Boys will be boys.”

Now that I think about it, Fred and I were not so different. And maybe that explains why we decided one Saturday morning to take a hike together. We put some water in a couple of aluminum canteens covered in green army canvas, with thin straps enabling us to wear them slanted across our hairless chests, making us look like the tough guys we believed we were. We headed off into what was, for us, unknown territory, well beyond the borders of East Mt. Airy, our neighborhood of endless two-story, red brick row houses.

We ventured all the way up to Ivy Hill Road, which was like the northern most edge of the world. I looked up to the top of a big radio tower, and there it was, the red flashing light.

You see, when I was five years old, my mom would come into my room at night, tuck me in, look at me and have me recite with her, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray to God my soul to keep, and if I should die before I wake, (And if I should die! What is she talking about?)  I pray to God my soul to take.”

Then real fast my mom would add, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite, (Beg bugs! What bed bugs!), and when you wake up in the morning everything will be alright.” (But what about the bed bugs!)

“Good night,” she’d sing as she swaggered cheerfully out of my room, feeling like she’d performed a minor miracle, or won a major world war. Bruce was down for the count.

As soon as my mom was gone I’d throw off my covers, kneel Japanese style at the foot of my bed, and gaze out my window over the flat rooftops into the night sky. Living in the city, and unlike the planetarium, there were not many stars to see. The few I could see were white and twinkling except for one, which was red, and flashed on and off, like it was breathing.

God, I thought. That must be God. It didn’t occur to me to wish for anything, or tell anyone. It just felt like a secret that deserved to be kept.

So when I saw that red light flashing on top of the radio station, I felt hurt, and embarrassed. Once I had believed in that red star. I believed I was, in some mysterious way, connected to that red star. Maybe that red star had something to do with my unusual amount of energy?

It was a real disappointment seeing the red light just sitting up there atop some big, metal erector set. But I accepted it as a signal. It was trying to tell me something, in code. But what?

Exactly what it was Fred and I were looking for, we wouldn’t have been able to say back then. But now I know we were out there looking for a world we could live in.

We turned left, and headed down Ivy Hill Road, past a cemetery, ducked under a fence and came upon a huge green pasture. There, standing before us was a big, official looking sign. It read: The U.S. Department of Agriculture.  No Trespassing.

Fred and I looked at each other and thought the same thing at the same time. How can you be on an adventure without trespassing? So we disregarded the warning. We broke the law. We became partners in yet another crime.

I had never seen such green grass, and so much of it, so much green coming into my eyes all at once. We took off our shoes and socks. The grass was thick. I could feel it pushing up between my toes. I gave my shoes, my socks, and my canteen to Fred, then proceeded to execute high, arching dive rolls over and over again, the kind I did in tumbling club, flying over twelve boys, on their hands and knees, lined up in a tight row. As soon as I caught my breath, I proceeded to do a back handspring, then another and another, an endless row of back handsprings, each one faster than the one before, until I was so dizzy I could not tell the difference between the blue grass and the green sky.

Fred attacked me when I was down. We wrestled and rolled until we were dripping with sweat. Out of steam we pulled up some long pieces of grass, leaned our backs against the trunk of an old tree, legs outstretched, ankles crossed, put the grass in our mouths, and chomped on it like two hobos. We sat there, under the tree, by the railroad tracks, waiting to see what would happen.

I had placed three pennies, and one Indian head nickel, on top of the tracks. As if by command, a big, slow moving, mammoth locomotive, with a half dozen or so cars attached to it, appeared, and rolled over our little silver and copper coins.

Totally smashed, hot to the touch, Fred picked up the three pennies. I picked up the Indian head and gave it to Fred, which was not easy. We were true friends, together on a true path.

We came to a particular street. This was no ordinary street. It was Stenton Avenue. Crossing Stenton Avenue meant being out of our neighborhood. We knew this to be an indisputable fact, because we knew if our parents knew we were about to cross Stenton Avenue, they’d be furious, and we’d be in big trouble.

There we stood at the red stoplight, at the intersection of Ivy Hill Road and Stenton Avenue. We knew crossing Stenton Avenue meant, yet again, breaking the rules. The light turned green, and without hesitating, we flung our arms around each other’s necks, defiantly tossed our heads back in delight, and floated across Stenton Ave.

Once on the other side of Stenton, the railroad tracks mysteriously disappeared. We climbed down a steep hill and found ourselves in a forest. A tiny brook trickled by. A fawn stood motionless. Rays of light shone through the trees.

There was no turning back.  We had crossed over. Fred and I followed that brook until it became a stream. We followed that stream until it became a river. We followed that river until it met and flowed into an even larger river!

Then we called my mom. Luckily, Fred had a dime in his pocket and enough sense not to have put it on the railroad track. I told my mom we were in some really big city, maybe downtown Philadelphia.  I told her we had no money, that our socks and sneakers were soaking wet, and that we were starving of hunger.

My mom picked us up. Silently, we drove back up the river, crossed over Stenton Avenue, passed by the flashing red light atop the radio tower, drove by Leeds Junior High School, and Saint Raymonds, and re-entered our old neighborhood. I needed some air. I rolled down my window and stuck my face out into the wind.

The little red row houses looked smaller than ever.