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Posts from the ‘Grace’ Category

For The Love Of Peace

 

No words.

Our Essential Task

It should be noted that these are my criteria, my way of articulating what Alexander’s work is about. I do not and never would presume to speak for the Alexander community at large. Obviously, I am not the originator of the Alexander Technique. I am but one interpreter of his work.

Our Essential Task

(From a graduation speech given to the Alexander Alliance graduating class of 1991, written in the long, infamous style of F. Matthias Alexander. Revealing footnotes included.)

Our essential task as teachers and students of Alexander’s work is to bring about a conducive atmosphere for learning and unlearning,*1 thus increasing the opportunities for sensory discernment*2 wherein our habitual patterns of being and doing can become conscious, known, accepted, and experienced as abundant energy,*3 allowed to disintegrate positively,*4 simultaneously re-integrating in such a way*5 that energizes the true and primary movement in each and every activity,*6 thus bringing about a surprising change in proprioception*7 as we proceed to function, to act, to live, now,*8, risking feeling wrong,*9 interacting with deeper contact, responding with greater freedom*10 than we ever imagined possible.

Foot Notes

*1. Compassionate attitudes that allow people to learn and unlearn. They are…

Non-diminishment: It helps no one to diminish either yourself or your students.  “Moses laying his hands on Joshua may be compared to one candle lighting another, no light is lost to the former.” -Rabbinic Midrash on Numbers 27:18.

Non-objectification:  I refuse to work “on the body.”  I choose to work with people, with this particular person, and that particular person. I never touch a person’s body. I only touch a person.

Non-forcing:  I refuse to use force to bring about grace.  I choose to bring kindness, intelligence, and skill to the situation at hand.  “Fluid as melting ice. Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?  Can you remain unmoving until the right action arises by itself?  If you realize that all things change there is nothing you will try to hold onto.  Less and less will you need to force things.” -Lao Tzu/Stephen Mitchell

Non-isolation: I choose to observe and accept the truth: that we live in relation. My wish is to be simultaneously aware of myself in relation to my environment. My wish is to exist within a unified field of attention, a field that includes me without orienting around me. “Within, but not enclosed, Without, but not excluded.”  Abbess Hildegard von Bingen.  “Existence Is Co-existence.” -Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Non-endgaining: How we are doing what we are doing as we are doing it is more important than just getting it done.

Non-correction: Correction is usually too quick, and often founded upon a lot of judgment and too little information. I choose to become curious, ask questions, conduct experiments, and let my students arrive at their own conclusions.

Non-concentration: Rarely is it desirable to give more than 25% of your attention on the figure of an action or event.  Background is beautiful, orienting, restful, meaningful.   Think about the distribution of attention of a driver behind the wheel for the very first time, and that same driver having driven for years, listening to Bach, sensing the road under her hands, enjoying the landscape all around her, while listening to her friend.

Imperfection:  I choose to look for the way, rather than the form, the end, or the ideal. I care not about what a person looks like. I hold no graven images before me. I care less about the acquisition of knowledge and more about the eradication of blocks. I care less about learning and more about nurturance, maturity and growth.  My wish is to deepen the quality of experience, responsiveness, and attention for my students and, of course, for myself.

Unhurried: As Alexander teachers , we give people our time,.  We give time. You can’t change a habit if you are in a hurry.” – Marjorie Barstow.

*2. Sensory discernment – sensory perception, void of judgment, founded upon a wish for understanding and direction.

Sentience – The immediate, accurate, and inclusive perception of reality, received through a harmonious use of the senses, free from the intervention of language, thought, or analysis. Bruce Fertman

*3. “Energy is eternal delight. William Blake

*4.  Alexander’s “inhibition and direction”, Barstow’s “a redirecting of energy,” all expressions implying that the energy of the old and the new are one and the same, and that this energy must relinquish expressing itself one way, before it can do so another way. “Our habitual holding pattern is our true and primary pattern, incognito.” Bruce Fertman

*5. …in such a way, implying that the change to which Alexander Teachers refer is tremendously subtle and delicate, a blending of sensitivity, keenness, kindness, knowledge, wonder – too difficult, or perhaps too simple, to describe.

*6. That energizes the primary control, the head/neck/back pattern, the primary pattern, deep structural integration, the pattern which connects everything to everything, the pattern of reciprocal interactions, of interdependent co-arisings, the life-force within us, our vitality.

*7. Read Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, chapter three, “The Disembodied Lady,”  for a truly moving account of proprioception.

*8.  “Structure is the record of past function.  Function is the source of future structures.”  -Ludwig von Bertalanffy.

*9.  F.M. would sometimes begin a lesson proclaiming to his student, “Let’s hope something goes wrong!”

*10.  From reactivity to responsiveness, from impulsivity to spontaneity. From repression to deliberation. How we respond to the myriad, constantly changing stimuli from within and without.

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The World In A Dewdrop

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

It’s uncanny. You start working with a person doing some simple activity, like eating an apple. You slow it all down. You give someone a chance to sense how they’re doing what they’re doing as they’re doing it. “Well, what do you notice,” you ask. They say, “I’m biting off more than I can chew.” The bell goes off. There’s nothing you have to say. There it is, his whole life in one action. He gets it.

A person walks to the door, opens it, and leaves the room. Simple enough. I invite her to return. “Well, what did you notice,” I say. She says, I don’t know. I saw the door handle, felt the door open, felt myself leaving. My eyes were cast down. Something sad about the whole thing.”

“Very good”, I say. “You’re waking up.” This time see the whole room you’re in before you leave, and everything and everyone in it. Say to yourself, thank you and mean it. Walk to the door, open it, and as you are crossing the threshold, linger there between two worlds. Sense how leaving is entering. Let your eyes take in the space you’re about to enter. Just this time, don’t look down and see what happens.”

As I make this suggestion to my student, the bell goes off, for me. Yes, every lesson is for me. Every life is my life. Everyone in everyone. The whole world in every dewdrop.

Sometimes movement is just movement, and sometimes movement is metaphor. Sometimes movement means something, something important. Something about our lives and how we live them.

This passage from Where This Path Begins is one example of how I have attempted to convey Lao Tzu’s insights through the workings of the body. The goal? Always, always to get to the heart, to the heart of the matter.

Twenty-Four

You’re Too Much

Arms are limbs for your hands.
Arms fold and unfold.  They raise and lower.
They don’t like to be stiffened or over-straightened.
If something is beyond your reach, get closer, or do without it.
Why strain?

Clutching, grabbing, gripping, grasping.
Why hold on to things so tightly?

Legs are limbs for your feet.
Over-stride and your heels will strike against the ground.
Your back will tire. Your feet will ache.
Why get ahead of yourself?

Puff up your chest, and your lower back will tighten.
Your shoulder blades will narrow.
Your nose will stick up in the air.
Look down on others, and they will not look up to you.

Talk too much and you will lose your voice.
Why over explain?

Too much is too much.

Where This Path Begins by Bruce Fertman

Just Between Us

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

It’s crowded. The waitress finds us a corner table. I watch Erika quickly size up the situation. She sees there’s not a lot of room around the table and proceeds straight away to slide through a rather small space into one of the chairs, no small feat given Erika is in her mid-eighties.  I squeeze, not quite as gracefully, into the chair next to Erika. Some pretty big, jovial people live in Australia, and a few of them happen to be sitting at the tables next to us. Still, we’re happy to have gotten what appears to be the last table.

Christine’s looking around too, but it seems she’s looking for where there is the most space. Sure enough she sits down in the one chair that is not butting up either against the wall nor next to a chair occupied by one of our large, husky fellows. Barbara takes the remaining chair.

Christine still feels as if she hasn’t enough space. She moves her chair back, further away from the table and proceeds to sit on the very edge of the chair, legs apart, perfectly upright, as if she’s about to begin meditating. Christine’s an Alexander Technique teacher, and a very skilled one at that. In fact, all of us teach Alexander’s work, Erika having begun studying with Alexander when she was eight years old.

In contrast to Christine, I notice that Erika’s chair is drawn up almost as close to the table as possible. She’s comfortably leaning back into the chair. Rather than taking the most space, Erika created the most space around her as possible.

Four tall glasses of water balance precariously upon a tray which a shy, young boy is carrying over  to our table. He’s not sure how to get around Christine’s chair. He decides to cut left around the table, doesn’t see the leg of Christine’s chair sticking out, trips, miraculously managing to prevent the shaky glasses full of water from toppling. He feels terrible about it. I get this feeling it’s his first day on the job. He apologizes profusely. Erika praises him on his stunning recovery, coaxing a slight smile from his sweet face.

Christine pauses for a split second, perturbed that this boy had interrupted her account of an Alexander lesson she had recently given.

My eye catches Erika’s eye. She smiles at me.  Silently, I thank Erika for her exemplary way of teaching without teaching.  She heard it, I’m sure.

Commentary.

In the Alexander Work we sometimes speak of the relationship between parts of the body, the relation of the head to the neck, or the relation between the ribs and the arm structure, or the relation between the hips joints and the sacrum.

As Alexander teachers we rarely ask a person to notice a part of their body in isolation. We teach our students how to perceive themselves “relationally.” We’re after a harmonious orchestration of parts into a symphonic whole. This “unified sound” is the product of a myriad of instruments all attuned one to the other.

What if our work extended beyond our “little body”, into the world, into our “big body.” What would happen if we perceived our body/self as just one little part of a larger body/self? What would the operational principles be for integrating into the larger body/self? How do we help make our big body/self comfortable, peaceful, and lively? How can we distribute support and freedom equally throughout the entire body/self, so that no one part is given less attention than any other?

It might be worthwhile to extend Alexander’s concept of “use” beyond our individual selves. What if we were attending to our collective use, our immediate social body, as was Erika during our dinner together? Isn’t the waiter as important as anyone else? Wasn’t he part of who we were that evening?

Our souls dwell where our inner world and the outer world meet.  Where they overlap, it is in every point of the overlap.  The soul is found, not within, but between. 

Novalis

Ohanami

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

This life of ours would not cause you sorrow

if you thought of it as like the mountain cherry blossoms

which bloom and fade in a day.

MURASAKI SHIKIBU (974-1031)

 

Every Step You Take

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

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.

Floating Up

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.

Falling Down

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.

Neck And Neck

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

…from A Body Of Knowledge – Letters To A Young Student

If the wrist is the “neck of the hand”, and the ankles the “neck of the feet”, (the literal translations in both Korean and Japanese for wrist and ankle), and if, in principle, the head leads and the body follows, then does it hold true that the hand leads, and the arm follows, and the foot leads and the leg follows?

It’s not quite that simple. Movement can, and is, initiated from many parts of the body, often simultaneously, and then sequences throughout the body in many ways, with an array of qualities. The head can lead the body, the body can lead the head, and one part of the body can lead other parts of the body. Any good dancer or physical therapist knows this to be true. The expression, “head leads, body follows,” a favorite among many who trained with Marj Barstow means, as I understand it, that your head poise “has a governing influence” over the quality of your coordination. You can see this at work in great figure skaters, or Olympic divers. But this is equally true in the simplest of movements that mere mortals make. If your true and primary movement is operating well and you raise your right hand in the air it will be light and easy and powerful, or it will be however you want it to be. Likewise, if your body’s true and primary movement is nowhere to be found, that same motion will be labored and your degree of control over it will be much less.

That said, when I stumbled upon this idea some 25 years ago, in the same way you did, linguistically, I found that applying the same notion of freeing my neck to freeing my wrists, ankles, and lower back as well, (it being the neck of the pelvis), worked. It felt like nothing short of a revelation. It freed the spheres to which these “necks” related, wrists to hands, ankles to feet, lumbar spine to pelvis. This was about when I started to question whether I could still rightfully consider myself an Alexander teacher. (Still haven’t been able to answer this question.)

When you gaze at the body innocently, without fancy words or concepts to get in the way, you see sphere-like shapes with longer narrow shapes in between these spheres. Vertically you see the head sphere, then a neck, then the rib sphere, then a neck, (the lumbar spine), then you see the pelvic sphere, then a neck, (the femur), then you see the knee sphere, then a neck, (the tibia/fibula/ankle), then you see the foot. The toes actually are not part of the sphere-like arch of the foot, but continue on to make further little spheres and necks. All these spheres and necks are not all stacked one upon the other, but flow together in elegant curves which resemble a meandering river. That’s why at times I refer to this as our Lengthening River.

Looking at our Widening River, we find an equally long river also comprised of sphere-like shapes and alternating long, thin areas, which is one definition for the word neck in English, as in, neck of the woods, or the neck of a violin. For me, the scapula and the clavicle, taken together, make up a sphere-like shape, followed by the end of the scapula, which believe it or not is called the neck of the scapula, followed by the ball of the humerus, followed by the humerus, the elbow and its small spherical joints, the long bones of the forearm and the little bones of the wrist, followed by the sphere-like hand which is one reason hands can catch a ball so well, or hold a rice bowl.

Within our various neck regions are large, powerful muscles. These muscles mobilize or immobilize the spheres depending on what they are up to, good or no good. That’s why having some say over these areas, at least having a vote, helps. And that is one good reason people study the Alexander Technique, though we by no means have a patent on this wisdom.

Circling back to your curiosity about hand leading and arm following. Sometimes it helps to think that way. When a baby wants something it’s not supposed to have, it just sees it and makes a beeline straight for it. It looks like the hand wants what it wants and just goes there, pronto, and the arm helps it get there before their parents have a chance to intervene. Same when the baby brings that object back to its mouth and considers eating it.

But when it comes to walking by leading with your foot and letting your leg follow, I don’t think you will get much mileage out of that one. A baby who wants to stick its toes in its mouth will lead with his foot, but once that baby moves on to crawling, and climbing, and walking other dynamics come into play.

However having a free ankle is really important when it comes to walking.

While there are similarities between the head/neck, ankle/foot, wrist/hand, lumbar/pelvis relationships, there are obvious differences as well. Best to look at both the similarities and the differences if we want to get a more complete picture.

Hope this helps. Great question as usual.

Direction Unknown

Photo: B. Fertman, Coyote, New Mexico

Photo: B. Fertman, Coyote, New Mexico

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.

One’s Nakedness

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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.)

Freely Choosing That Which Is Required Of Us

That which is required of us

Photo: B. Fertman

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.