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Fieldnotes – Gleanings from the Life and Work of Tommy Thompson – A Review of Tommy’s New Book – Touching Presence

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Parallel play. That’s when toddler’s play adjacent to one another without trying to influence one another’s behavior. Two kids, playing alone, in the same space with a peripheral interest in what the other is doing.

Tommy and I did not meet until we were quite a bit older, but this is what we did. Every once in a while we would begin to interact. Martha and I invited Tommy down to Philadelphia to teach for us. Tommy invited me up to Boston to teach for him. Together we helped with the conception and founding of ATI. Every few years we’ed bump into one another at International Congresses and talk. Life happened. Twenty years sailed by without much contact at all. Finding out Tommy would be in my neighborhood in Osaka, I make an arrangement for us to meet over dinner at a little French restaurant Tommy liked. There we were, two considerably older men, weather worn but the better for it, and under it all still sparkling, those little kids somewhere alive within us.

Shortly after that meeting, my book comes out, Tommy reads it and is kind enough to write a review. He says to me, “Now I don’t have to write my book. You said what I care most about.” But Tommy did write a book, with the expert help of Rachel Prabhakar and David Gorman, and I am glad he did, because while there indeed exists considerable overlap in what Tommy and I find important in the Work and in how we are as teachers, we are also different.

It is with great pleasure, and with enormous respect, that I offer this review of Touching Presence by Tommy Thompson.

Fieldnotes

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Gleanings from the Life and Work of Tommy Thompson

 

Reading Tommy’s book, Touching Presence, I hear Tommy speaking primarily to trainees and teachers and to advanced students of Alexander’s work. Given that, I will address this same audience.

This book is not so much about the Alexander Technique as it is about how Tommy uses the Alexander Technique as his vehicle through which he guides his students into living more compassionately conscious and self-embodied lives. Use is too narrow an arena for Tommy. He is interested in personal transformation.

In our profession, thankfully, we have many gifted teachers doing research into different aspects of Alexander’s work. Some of us are reductionists. Some of us are more physiologically oriented and want to zero in on the precise physiological mechanisms involved in bringing about improved use. This is exciting. At the same time, some of us, like Tommy, are what I would call expansionists. Tommy wants to expand Alexander’s work beyond the workings of the body into the workings of the heart and soul. That is where Tommy’s work lives. This too is exciting. For Tommy, Alexander’s work is a spiritual path, a way of life. I think this is true for many of us. Tommy is as much a healer and secular rabbi/sheik/priest as he is a teacher.

I am fine with this because when reading, Touching Presence, I feel in the presence of a person who is entirely himself, who teaches through who he is. He’s not imitating anyone. He teaches through his own personal ethical framework, expressing his own truth. He teaches through his own language. He teaches out of his own experience, sometimes painful experience. He’s real. He’s authentic.

Tommy often, like a Hasidic rabbi or Sufi sheik, teaches through story. He’s a good storyteller. He shares deeply moving stories with us of his birth, of growing up in the segregated south, of the love for and death of his wife, Julie. These are not just stories. The key concepts which Tommy holds dear about the Alexander Technique are clearly elucidated within these stories.

What are some of these key concepts? Here, I will not go into detail; for that I suggest reading Touching Presence and if possible, studying with Tommy.

1.) Perhaps the deepest and most far reaching of all of Tommy’s key concepts is that of “withholding definition”. This is his way of talking about Alexandrian Inhibition, of a radical sort, one that allows a persons’ fixed sense of identity to become unfixed, fluid, changeable. Tommy’s work revolves around the issue of identity, how we define ourselves and by doing so, how we limit ourselves from experiencing who we are and what we might become. In the words of James Baldwin, “Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self: in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which one’s nakedness can always be felt, and, sometimes, discerned.”  Tommy’s work seems to be about loosening the garment.

2.) Seeing a students’ beauty. Appreciating a student for how and who they are and letting your lessons unfold from there. Tommy’s work is profoundly non-corrective.

3.) Restoring a supportive sense of being as we do what we are doing. Remaining a human being rather than turning into a human doing. Our culture judgmentally demands: “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Tommy’s advice might be: “Don’t just do something, stand there.” First get a sense of where you are, what you are in relation with, how you are being, what you are experiencing and then let your doing arise out of this fullness of being.

4.) What most influences our students and allows them to change depends not so much on what we do but on who we are when we are with them. Ram Dass says, “The only thing you have to offer another human being, ever, is your own state of being.” Maybe Ram Dass heard that from Tommy! Sounds like Tommy.

Touching Presence does not read like a novel, or a textbook, certainly not a manual. Reading Tommy requires some work and some time. I found myself reading just a paragraph or two and then having to stop, become still, quiet, and just think, reflect, meditate before reading on. Touching Presence reads more like a Buddhist Sutra, or like the Cloud of Unknowing, where something important is said over and over again. Humility…is nothing else but a true knowledge and experience of yourself as you are. (Cloud of Unknowing). Or, The word is not the thing. (The Diamond Sutra). Or, Form is emptiness, and emptiness, form. (The Heart Sutra). Ideas not for thinking once and then forgetting, but rather ideas you sit on, like a mother hen, until one day, CRACK, your mind opens, your heart opens, and new possibilities, ones you never could have imagined, present themselves.

If you are training to become an Alexander teacher, or if you are an Alexander teacher and if you are interested not only in The Use of the Body, but are really interested in The Use of the Whole Self, if you wish to go beyond teaching about the body and about movement, if you are interested in physio-spiritual life, in your physio-spiritual life, then this book may help you along your way.

 

Available Now – Bruce’s Book!

Another book on the Alexander Technique? Not really. Yes, secondarily it is a book about Alexander’s work as interpreted and expressed through me. In Part One I do lead people into Alexander’s work via different doors. We enter Alexander’s world through sport, ecology, anatomy, sensory life, social biology, theology, psychology, metaphysics, mysticism, and art.

But primarily Teaching By Hand/Learning By Heart is a book about people, about liking people, listening to people, seeing people, nurturing people, talking to people and touching people. It’s about teaching without teaching. It’s about how create conducive conditions for learning from the inside out.

Elie Wiesel writes, ‘We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.’

Here I share with you universes and within them secrets, treasures, anguish, and triumphs.

In this book you will find a few of the most popular posts on this blog which, due to publishing rights and regulations, are no longer available on this blog.

For some of you this book will serve as an introduction to Alexander’s work. May it lead you to teachers who will accompany you along your way.

For those of you who have found your teachers, this book may motivate you to take the work ever more to heart, to delve into the depth and breadth of the work.

And for those of you who are Alexander trainees and fellow teachers, may this book embolden you to take the work beyond the body into the realm of being, and beyond movement into the world of meaning.

 

May this book remind you of all that is worth loving inside the work of F. M. Alexander.

I hope you will read this book and then, please, write to me and tell me what it was like to read it, what if anything you learned or understood, how in any way, if in any way it shed light on your understanding of Alexander’s work, on being an Alexander teacher, or most importantly on what it means to be a human being living a life.

A very limited number of hardback editions are available.

For the next two weeks you can buy Teaching By Hand/Learning By Heart at a discounted price at:

www.mouritz.co.uk

or you can get it from

amazon.co.uk

Thanks,

Bruce Fertman

 

 

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.

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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…

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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.

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

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

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

Embroidery

Undivided Attention

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

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

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

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

The Four Questions

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

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

Here are my Alexander questions for the Alexander community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce