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Posts from the ‘imagination’ 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.

For the Love of Pedagogy

Robyn Avalon and Bruce Fertman

 

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”  – Anonymous

Robyn Avalon and I, being the co-directors of the Alexander Alliance International, and collectively having taught for over a century, are joyfully obsessed with pedagogy, to the point where I think we would proudly pronounce ourselves as pedagogical nerds. We love continually experimenting, figuring out, and endlessly fine tuning how we can help people move toward an embodied understanding of what we now know, while giving them the tools to help others to do the same.  We are hoping some of them become nerdy pedagogues like us. We are true blue educators. We don’t so much train people to become teachers, like people train horses or dogs, as impressive as that skill is. Conditioning and education may overlap, but are not the same. We educe, that is, we draw out the bodily, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual clarity within our students. We inspire them to study together, and most importantly, to study on their own. Out of our love and enthusiasm for the work, we generate love and enthusiasm in our students. It’s contagious. As the years go by, our students train themselves.

Both Robyn and I were trained dancers, Robyn, a former professional tap dancer, and I, a professional modern dancer. We spent lots of time in well structured classes that created beautifully kinetic and kinesthetic educational experiences.

This was invaluable for both of us, as the Alexandrian pedagogues we were to become. I also learned a great deal about beautiful kinetically and kinesthetically structured classes through taking countless classes in Ballet, Tai Chi, Aikido, Chanoyu, Tango, and Kyudo. There are a lot of masterful teachers out there to be found. Robyn too studied modalities, too numerous to mention, within the healing professions.

Take the basic structure of a ballet class. You come early and warm up. My ballet teacher, Stella Applebaum, would lock the door at 8am sharp. Warming up was not a social event. The ballet studio was what I would call a sacred learning space.

Classes began at the barre, with plies, of course, our morning prayers. An organically logical barre sequence unfolded until we were pliant and centered, much like how a potter prepares their clay, by wedging it, putting it on the wheel, and bringing it up and down, until it is in a perfect condition to be thrown. In dance, the dancer is both the clay and the potter, both the dancer and the dance, whirling into existence a piece of non-material, ephemeral art, not for the keeping.

Then, class moved into the center of the space, where we now integrated many of the movements practiced at the barre, using them in combinations, much like how writers integrate their vocabulary into sentences, phrases, and paragraphs.

Then, an adagio sequence followed. Slower is not easier; it is harder, just like all my musician friends tell me when it comes to playing instruments. Balance, line, precision, strength, fluidity is all challenged.

Next, allegro. The body is now finely tuned, strong, centered. Time to work on small, rapid movement, and big movement, movement that gets us high into the air. And finally, these rapid, large, powerful, airborne movements are practiced moving boldly through space.

Finally, there was reverence; bowing, circling back to prayers of gratitude for ballet, for the accompanist, for our teacher. I’ve been in classes where after the group reverence we would get in line and approach our teacher individually, bow, and listen to particular criticism or praise, in preparation for the next class. Usually we’d leave class feeling great physically and emotionally, much better than when we walked in, energized, exhilarated and in love with dance.

Figuring out how, as an Alexander teacher, to structure an individual lesson, a 3-hour class, an 8-hour teaching day, a 9-day, 50-hour retreat, and 100-hour professional development program, a 200-hour post graduate training program, and a 4-year training program, is Robyn’s and my idea of a good time. How do we get our students, in the end, be it after a class, or after a 4-year training program to feel great physically and emotionally, much better than when they first walked in, leaving them feeling energized and exhilarated and in love with Alexander’s work?

It’s important to know of the pitfalls to structuring a good Alexander experience. One can do too much of something, or too little, or leave important things out entirely. One can make things too hard, or too easy, cover too much material, or too little, go too fast, or too slow, etc. What follows are some of the elements I consider important to track as an Alexander teacher when structuring and offering an Alexander experience.

Language

It is fatal to talk too much in a class. At the same time, if you don’t explain what you are doing and why you are doing it, your students walk away mystified as to what is going on, and this too is fatal.

I attempt never to use jargon. I search for simple words, common words, everyday language and expressions, understandable images and metaphors. Simplicity, clarity, succinctness, only speaking about what is pertinent to the subject at hand. Avoiding tangents. (Challenging for me.)  Rarely do they help. Stay on point.

Get your students to write about their experiences. Encourage them to read and search for Alexander’s principles within Alexander’s books, in books written about Alexander’s work, in books written about related somatic fields of study, within science, psychology, theology, literature and poetry.

Invite them to ask questions. Encourage them to express themselves in their own words, so that you can get to know who they are, how they think, how they perceive the work and the world. Include some time for students to talk inside of a large group, in small groups, and in pairs. Alexander teachers must be articulate, not just physically, but linguistically, not just physically fluid, but linguistically fluent.

Well timed humor is also partly a linguistic skill and priceless when it comes to teaching.

Silence

Sound arises out of silence and returns to silence. Alexander work is more about nothing than something. It’s more about what is going on in the background than the foreground. “All I want is to show you a little bit of nothing. You are all doing something, and that something is your habit,” I can hear Marj Barstow saying to us. If the silence within us and around us is deep and beautiful then, when we do speak, we will be heard. Silence before a sentence, and after a sentence. Using commas and periods when we speak. Not rattling on and on.

Allow for times when the whole room is working in silence, or when everyone is alertly resting together in silence. Ideas, sensations, new experiences often settle in at such times. Making time for reflection, contemplation, meditation.

Observation

Years ago, I was too full of myself as a teacher. I liked to talk, to expound, to embellish. I liked demonstrating, showing off a bit. When it was time for my students to do something, I often did it with them, and talked them through it, which meant I was not really seeing my students. But no matter. I would say things like, “Good, very good. That is coming along.” But honestly, I was not watching anywhere nearly close enough.

Fortunately, that changed. At some point, I decided to speak less. Now I demonstrate, making sure everyone is  watching only me, not doing anything with me. Then I sit down, (that is important), and sit back, close my mouth, relax my tongue, and do absolutely nothing but watch my students, each and every one of them. Then, I say the one thing they need to hear next, stay on point, answer a question succinctly if asked. I demonstrate once again, having everyone watch, in silence. I sit back down, lean back, and watch again. And so on.

Observation. Teaching people how to see. Find out what they see. Listen to them. Find out what they are not seeing. Teach them how to see what a moment ago they could not see. I remember Marjorie often saying, “Did you see that?” In the beginning, I didn’t. After some years, I did. It’s important for students to see themselves, for students to watch a teacher, for the teacher to watch the students, for the students to watch one another, and for teachers to watch other teachers. Teachers watching fellow teachers is an important element in Robyn’s and my pedagogy. At least once a year, all the directors of Alexander Alliance trainings will be in the same room together with all the students in the school, and we will watch each other lead the group. In this way, we see and appreciate how each of us is skilled in particular ways. We also see each other’s blind spots and can fill them in for one another. We become stimulated and inspired by watching each other. New ideas bubble up when we are team teaching. We are like a jazz ensemble who have been improving together for decades. We also encourage our students to team teach.

Non-Observation

There’s a time for not observing your students, a time for not looking over their shoulders, as we say. We want our students to become conscious of themselves without becoming self-conscious. In Marj Barstow’s summer retreats, which were large, Marj would sometimes break the participants into smaller groups, assigning each group to one of her apprentices. Then, Marj would casually make the rounds, poking her head in for a minute and then be on her way. Mostly, we were on our own. That was important learning time. It’s like raising kids. Sometimes you have to trust them and let them do things and figure out things on their own. Let them make their own mistakes, let them learn through their own successes and failures. After all, we want them to become self-reliant.

Cheng Man-Ching, my Tai Chi teachers’ teacher, used to tell her, (Maggie Newman), “When you come to my class, no matter how much you know, no matter how long you have studied, come to class like a beginner. And no matter how little a student may know, no matter how briefly they have studied, tell them that when they practice on their own, to practice as if they were a master.”

And, though much of the Alexander world disagrees with me, (That’s okay. I don’t take it personally.), I believe there is a time for us to lower our eyelids, quietly, softly, and drop inwards, which for me is like being part of the night sky, resting within my own inner planetarium. There’s a time to turn out the lights, to learn to see in the dark, to see what cannot be seen, only known. In-sight.

Movement

A class needs to keep moving. It can’t run out of gas. It can be beautiful to slow a class down, to even allow it to come to a stop, but the motor must still be running, the car must still in gear, never in park, alway humming, ready to move.

Too much sitting. Too much standing. Too much lying down. Too much watching. Too much talking. Too much listening. Too much of the same movement, over and over again, too much time in the same gear, going at the same speed, down the same road. Too much is too much.

Movement is how we stir the soup. How we keep a class fluid and flowing, so that stasis does not set in.

Not just mobility of body, but mobility of mind, of which Alexander spoke. Not only the students’ body, but the students’ mind and imagination must remain engaged. The heart also needs to be opened and moved. Tapping into the student’s inner child, into their sense of play, helps a great deal.

Posture is the antithesis of movement. It is frozen movement, movement under a spell.  How to give an Alexander experience that is truly a moving experience and not a postural experience. No small task. It has taken me a lifetime to figure this one out. I have made profound progress, but honestly, I am still not quite there.

Tragedy is when in the pursuit of something, we arrive at its opposite. Oedipus wants not to kill his father and marry his mother. Traveling toward Thebes, he encounters Laius, his father, who provokes Oedipus. Oedipus kills him. Continuing on his way, Oedipus finds Thebes plagued by a Sphinx, who has put a riddle to all passersby, destroying everyone unable to answer correctly. Oedipus alone solves the riddle. The Sphinx kills herself. As a reward, Oedipus receives the throne of Thebes and the hand of the widowed queen, his mother, Jocasta.

We want to free ourselves and our students into their inherent, naturally and fluidly organized coordination and support, and sometimes we end up with just the opposite, feeling bound, unnatural, artificial, and stiff. Just what we don’t want.

It’s not easy being an Alexander teacher. Marj used to say to us, “This work is too simple for you.”  She said simple. She didn’t say easy. True simplicity is more difficult than sophisticated complexity.

Stillness

And, there is a time to stop stirring the soup.

“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?”

Lao Tzu/Stephen Mitchell

 

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,

Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.

And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

The inner freedom from the practical desire,

The release from action and suffering, release from the inner

And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded

By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,

Erhebung without motion, concentration

Without elimination, both a new world

And the old made explicit…”

(Erhebung: rising, uplift, ennoblement, elevation.)

T.S. Eliot: Burnt Norton, Four Quartets

Touch

Within our Alexander community at large, we have teachers who don’t use their hands when they teach. We have teachers who are physically in touch with their students through an entire lesson.

We have teachers that rarely talk, rarely explain, who choose to work in silence and let their hands do the talking.

We have teachers who rely a great deal on observation and language. Teachers who rely a great deal on movement. Teachers who work with people mostly in stillness, for example when giving a table lesson. We have teachers who teach through classical procedures, and others who work through what I would call modern or post-modern procedures. We have teachers who teach through writing about the technique, through just sharing their ideas. We have teachers who incorporate technology into their teaching, videoing and online teaching, and we have teachers who don’t. We have teachers who use mirrors and teachers who never use them. I had a ballet teacher who, four days a week, drew the curtains over the long wall of mirrors, allowing us to use them only on Fridays. He said there were no mirrors on the stage.

Personally, I have come to see this variety of teaching pedagogy within our profession as all good. When I was younger, and more foolish, and arrogant, I was convinced that certain ways of working were right and others wrong, some ways superior and other ways inferior. But now, I see it all as worthy research. After you have been around for a century of teaching, as Robyn and I have, you have seen people do all of the above well, and finally the heart and the mind open up to their being many doors into the holy city.

Our way, our research at the Alexander Alliance, (we consider ourselves, not a conservatory, but a research school), is to see what happens if we work for an integration, a beautiful and effective braiding of language and silence, movement and stillness, observation and non-observation, and tactual and non-tactual teaching. What happens if we work with the entire spectrum, the whole palette?

I see these ways of teaching as different channels through which we can receive and impart information, information absolutely unique to each channel.

What I will say here about touch, is that I am so grateful that Alexander began using his hands to teach, and that Marj too was masterful with her hands. She loved using her hands and did so morning till night for the many years that I studied with her. Yet, ironically, perhaps because she did not spend a lot of time teaching us how to use our hands, and because we spent so much of our study time watching her work, and describing what we saw, we got very good at seeing the work and speaking about the work.

But I was enthralled with Marj’s touch, with what she could bring about through her hands. I vowed to myself to have hands like hers, and to pass on this part of her work. And now, some 43 years later, I can say, this vow, I kept.

We live in a western world that for thousands of years has separated and ranked, from top to bottom, the spirit, mind, heart, and body, in that order. Working with one’s hands, manual work, is somehow beneath mental work. Part of what Alexander began to do was to reintegrate these aspects of ourselves into a non-hierarchical working whole. How apt that he began to touch people, that he developed and elevated touch, a touch that promoted healthy development, a touch full of knowledge and nurturance.

Non-Tactual Teaching

What Robyn and I often do first, is to see how much a person can do on their own. We observe. We then might make verbal suggestions, and then watch some more. Once we are clear on how their “kinesthetic compass” is off, once we can discern how they are kinesthetically a bit flat or sharp, we can help fine tune them, tactually, only as much as is needed. Then, it’s back to watching and seeing how they are doing on their own.

So, there is this weaving back and forth between working tactually and non-tactually. After all, we want people to be able to bring about all of these positive changes, without our help. They must learn how to work from the inside out, how to use their own minds to change their own bodies, they need to find their “inner hands”, their hands that guide them from within.

Sensory Integration

Part of our job, as I understand it, is sensory integration. For me, this means integrating our intra-senses, the senses that grant us awareness and information about ourselves, kinesthesia and proprioception primarily, and our inter-senses, that grant us awareness and information about our world, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching. As intra-senses integrate with inter-senses, we become increasingly able to be simultaneously aware of ourselves in relation to our environment, that is, we learn to appreciate how we are being within ourselves and within the world as we are living our lives. Hildegard von Bingen said it like this. “Within, but not enclosed, Without, but not excluded.”

Tracking this integration of the senses throughout the course of a class, or through the course of a training, is important. We want our students leaving class with an expanded and unified field of attention. We want them not only more aware of themselves and the world; we want them to feel that they are within the world, and that the world is within them. This is what I mean by a unified field of attention. Ramana Maharshi’s deep understanding of this unified field is apparent when he was asked, “How should we treat others.” He replied, “What others.”

My experiences of sensory integration happened most often, and most dramatically, after a three-hour Chanoyu, or Japanese Tea Ceremony class. A tea class is centered around the making and serving of tea. So, scent and taste are part of the experience, the taste of Japanese sweets and matcha tea, and the scent of very faint incense evoking the freshness of pines and the feel of the forest. Movements are very specific; how one walks, bows, how one cleans, carries and uses objects. Great attention is given to moving easily, fluidly and clearly. There is much to see; kimonos, tea bowls, flowers, a hanging scroll, the play of light and shadow, steam rising out from the top of the iron kettle. And, much to hear, feet sliding along tatami mats, doors gliding within their wooden grooves, the whisking of vibrant, green matcha, the sound of hot water boiling reproducing the precise sound of the wind through the pines. Chanoyu is a pre-technological, multi-sensorial experience practiced and enjoyed by millions of people.

As I left that magic tea space and entered back into the world from which I had come, I found the world totally altered as if someone had cleaned it, put it into high resolution, and into finer focus. Also, it was as if the stereo system had been radically upgraded. I could hear omni-directionally and more distinctly. I could hear the different sounds that the wind made through different trees. I could feel the ground rising up under my feet. I could feel the beating of my heart. A harmony of the senses, another element to track in the creation of a good Alexander experience.

Indeed, there is much to track in order to teach a well-balanced Alexander class: the balance between language and silence, observation and non-observation, movement and stillness, tactual and non-tactual teaching, and intra and inter-senses. Still, there is one more element that I think important and would like to mention.

Systems of Support

One of my secrets for avoiding the tragedy of Alexandrian artifice, of postural stiffness, starchiness, crustiness, is to balance what I call, “tensegrity support”, the hallmark support system found within Alexander’s work, with other forms of support, namely, ground, spatial, and organ support. When this balancing of support systems appears, Alexandrian artifice disappears. We’re being supported from the inside out, and from the ground below, and from the world around us, so there is no need for a postural exoskeleton. It falls away. We molt.

I find, if and when I bring into an Alexander experience a balance of these support systems, my students leave the lesson or the class, or the program, or the school un-postured, with an embodied understanding of inherent organizational forces that are “in process and not super-imposed”, to use Alexander’s words.

To be able to do this, of course, you have to know what these systems are, and be able to access them in yourself, and know how to access them in others. That is a subject for another time, and best learned via a teacher well versed in all of them.

Glenna Batson, who graduated from our school, and who taught for our school for many years, once told me that, for her, composing a class was like writing a poem. She felt that the writing of the last line was often so difficult, and so wonderful when you found it.

Bread in the Pockets of the Hungry

“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.”

Mary Oliver

And so should an Alexander experience be, like a poem, not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Stampede

The Red Hats

There’s nothing quite like real life.

Helping people who come to our studio for lessons to become more physically and personally comfortable really does help. Sometimes a lot. It’s a beginning. Helping a person experience this newfound liveliness as they engage in an activity, like playing a violin, or doing the dishes, or working at a computer takes the work beyond the bodyself and into the world of action, and interaction, into life. My teacher, Marjorie Barstow, was masterful when it came to “working in activity” within a group setting. That stands as a major pedagogical contribution. Overtime, for me, “working in activity” evolved, transforming itself into “working situationally.”

It was some years ago, a workshop in Lubeck, Germany, an elementary school teacher wanted to work on teaching. I said, “Sounds good, lets do it. What’s the most stressful moment look like for you when you’re teaching?” She says,” When class is over and the students are running either out the door, or to my desk, while simultaneously, the next class is running through the same door and  into the classroom, or toward my desk.” “How’s that feel,” I ask?  She says, “ I feel bombarded”, and I observe her as she answers my question, her eyes wide open, her lips apart, her body arching back, her hands springing up in front of her like a shield, her breath held high in her chest.

To the fifteen other people in the room I say, “Okay, let’s make a classroom.” I ask the teacher where the door is in relation to her desk and the students proceed to set up the room, happy to be participating. I watch everyone move and interact. My job is to get to know people, so I sit back and watch as much as I can.

The room’s set up. The teacher is standing in front of her desk. Half the students are in their seats, the other half ready to stampede into the room. Everyone understands that they now are 9 or 10 years old. “Okay, go!” I watch the scene as it unfolds. I see what I need to see.

The teacher’s eyes are bugging out of her head, mouth open, body arching back, hands behind her, elbows locked, hands pressing down against the edge of the desk, knuckles white, body rigid. She’s virtually paralyzed, appearing much like she did when responding to my earlier question, though much more pronounced.  I get all the “kids” to pipe down and to prepare for “take two.”

I ask the teacher to sit behind the desk. She wondered why she had not thought of that. Once in her chair, I ask her to pull her chair forward, closer to the desk, and then to sit back, to let herself rest against the back of the chair, to let the chair support her body. I invite her to feel how the chair comes up under her and supports her pelvis and her thighs too. I have her rest her hands in her lap, and her feet on the floor. Gently, I use my hands to help her decompress her spine, I make her aware of her facial tension until she is able to release her jaw, let her tongue rest, which softens her breathing and her ribs. I encourage her to feel the weight of her eyelids until her forehead relaxes. I watch her arms disarm, her legs ungrip.

I tell her, even though a batch of kids may arrive at her desk in the near future, seemingly all at once, that one student will get her attention first. “Turn and look at that student and address only that student as if she were the only person in the room. Give her all the time she needs. When you feel finished, notice the next student who catches your attention and do the same. Just see what happens. You won’t know until you give it a go. Okay?”  She says okay. Getting that commitment is important.

I give a nod, the kids flock toward her desk. The questions are coming from everywhere. Resting in her chair she turns her head toward one student and says, “Hi, what can I do for you?” She listens to the child, thinks for a moment, then replies. The other kids are desperately trying to get her attention while she’s living inside of a private world with this one student.  She smiles, and tells the child she looks forward to seeing her tomorrow. She turns to another student and says hello. Suddenly, a breeze of silence fills the room. The teacher continues to give her undivided attention to the second child. Gradually the students at her desk decide to leave until only two are left. She finishes, turns to the two other students and tells them she really wants to meet with them and that she’d like to do it after class. They sit down.

Working situationally.  If you bring a person’s real life into the classroom, they will more likely be able to bring what they experienced in the classroom into their real life.

That has been my experience.

Perceptions

Photo: B. Fertman

Photo: B. Fertman

Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring dv 1665

Perception

…a way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; intuitive understanding and insight.

How are these two women feeling?

Look closely.

What do you actually see, what specifically tells you  how they may be feeling?

I’d like to know what you see.

If you like, share your perceptions with me.

Thank you.

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.

Studies In Stillness

Still is not the same as immobile. Stillness is alive. For painters, objects are alive with texture, color, light, shape, dimension, weight, time. And they are always in relation to other objects and to gravity. They always exist in space. Objects sit. They rest.

Not only seeing, but feeling how objects exist in the world can help us. Objects know how to rest fully on the ground. They are not restless. They know how not to effort.  They’re not afraid to make contact, to give and receive weight. They don’t try to change themselves, or to be different than they are. They take a kind of pride in their inherent structures, as if saying to us, “I am what I am.”

We could learn a lot about presence and peace from them.

In Gregory Golbert, Ashes and Snow, we get to see, to feel, what the possession of these qualities look like within humans and animals. We get to see that for which we long. We get to see what our modern Western way of life has abandoned, no, has never known. We get to see the unknowable.

And we recognize the unknowable, because we are seeing what exists deep within us.

The question arises, are we courageous enough to become this still, this quiet, this alive?

And if we were courageous enough, and if we did become this still, this restful, what would happen to us?

Can we know the unknowable?

Watch and see.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gSX444hQ5Vo

 

For Yourself

When one writes a book, best to write it for yourself. If another person likes it, that’s great, but not necessary.

To be honest, I like my book. It’s already a success, a best seller, a classic. It’s my map, my guide. I read it when I need to read it. It helps me. It brings me back to myself, to others, to the world.

It is as if I extracted, with the help of Lao Tzu, every ounce of wisdom this one little soul possesses. I’ve got it down on paper.

It sounds dramatic, but it’s true: this book saved my life, because at one time I had seriously contemplated ending it. It’s true I wept over almost every one of the eighty-one passages in this book. Yes, they were tears of sorrow, but they were also tears of relief, and tears of gratitude.

Gratitude for the chance, and the endurance, that came from I know not where, (my children? my parents?), to turn my life around for the better. Not that my life was terrible, and not that I had created some grave crime. No, if I am guilty, I am guilty of being completely and utterly human, of daring and not knowing, guilty of built-in-selfishness longing for release.

I almost called this book, Where This Path Ends, but thanks to a dear friend, Celia Jurdant-Davis, I didn’t.  Celia wrote, “How about Where This Path Begins?

Thank God for my friends, for people who sometimes know me better than I know myself. How often I have things precisely turned around one hundred and eighty degrees! That’s good. Just one flip and there’s the truth, smiling.

My book is about, at 61, where my path begins, from here, always from here.

Where is my book? Like so many books, it’s sitting inside of some laptop, unpublished, unknown, but not forsaken.

It’s as if I’m having labor pains. I have to breathe. I have to push. I have not to give up, no matter how difficult this feels. I have to birth this book.

I’ll send you an announcement, when the baby is born.

Until then,

Bruce

Enthralled

A friend sent this to me.

I know I sound like one of those movie reviewers: riveting, enthralling, transformative, magical.

But it is true.

(Note: When you click on French Street Theatre, this performance piece will download onto your computer. Once it begins it is necessary to hit Return to move the slides forward.)

French Street Theatre